I’ll Die For You – an interview with Laura El-Tantawy

I’m not sure what first got me to look at Laura El-Tantawy‘s I’ll Die For You, but I’m glad I did. It’s an ambitious attempt to photograph and tell the story of farmer suicides in India. The situation is staggering. From El-Tantawy’s statement about the project:

Over the past 15 years, more than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. Many had borrowed money through government lending schemes or private lenders to plant more efficient crops, but could not pay off their debts. Because of the extremely fast transition has undergone — from a rural to an industrial, urban economy with an open market — farmers have been confronted by immense social and economic problems.

To tell this story, El-Tantawy uses archival materials, strong portraiture of the women left behind, and a visual examination of the land and place. It’s a refreshing approach to something so difficult to photograph, and it’s a departure from much of her other work (which you should check out while you’re at it). I thought I’d ask her a few questions about the project and her approach. Our conversation is below:

What got you started on the project? What drew you to the issue? How did you begin work for the project (such as identifying potential subjects, approaching subjects for the piece)?

The start of the project coincided with me taking part in the prestigious Reflexions Masterclass. It’s a two-year photography seminar directed by Italian photographer Giorgia Fiorio and French Curator Gabrial Bauret. The workshop is based around developing a photographer’s visual language and story-telling capabilities by assigning a series of themes that participants use as inspiration to build on a new body of work or continue to develop an ongoing series. At the time the theme assigned was “faces”. I really struggled with this because all my immediate ideas were centered around portraiture, which I always considered as an area of weakness for me. I felt a strong portrait should convey an emotion and lend some insight into the subject’s character, frame of mind or emotional state – this I had never accomplished well. Meanwhile, as I am thinking about this, I come across an article about farmers committing suicide in India. Everything seemed to come together at that moment for me, in a way that I can honestly say I never reacted to anything else, subject or story. There was something different about this work from the start. So from the moment of its initiation, this project was very unique for me.

I went to India with nothing but the intention to meet the families and photograph their faces. This was my main motivation. I wanted to understand why they were committing suicide, such a brutal act and one with finite consequences. Having been in India before, I always saw India as a country where people really work hard to live in order to avert death. It was the country of vibrant colors, crowded streets – a country where life is seen at its best and sometimes worst, but life and living dominate. Death was not associated with India in my mind, which is why I believe I reacted so instinctively and vigorously to the suicide of farmers, which ultimately led me to think about my own grandfather, who was a farmer all his life. Perhaps you can see there were just too many elements here that led me to pursue this story as passionately and seriously as I did.

In India I landed with ideas, but I had nothing in hand that could translate my ideas into reality. I wanted to shoot the work on film (which I had never done before). I bought the film from a friend of mine living in India and borrowed his Mamiya. He also offered to send his studio assistant with me to meet the families and she became my team-mate at that stage in the project, doing what I consider half the work: translation.

When we left Mumbai we had nothing but the determination to meet these families and hear their story. Once we arrived in the village we had identified as the starting point, we just asked around and things started to work out.

We approached the families with total honesty explaining I had come from London and wanted to hear their story. At that moment the work as I had visualized it only centered around documenting the female survivors and making an archive of photographs of the men who died. The idea of “Man and Land” came later and after much searching for a visual approach to show the strong bond between the people and the land they inhabit, which I believed was ultimately the cause of these suicides.

What was your strategy for telling this story visually? I imagine it was a difficult piece to develop, photographically–the events happened well in the past and the causes of these suicides are abstract economic and psychological notions that don’t present themselves in a straightforward visual way.

Intimacy – all I could think about was intimacy. Given the sensitivity of the issue in and of itself and the delicate nature of addressing issues related to life and death, I felt that I had to move slowly, but somehow give a sense of intimacy. It was imperative to me to attach a face to the suicides and not follow a conventional approach that would deprive the story of emotion or developing a relationship with the women survivors and the men who died. I wanted to focus on the faces to make the suicides real to myself and to viewers and not just portray this as something abstract that could happen anywhere to anyone. I felt the urge and the responsibility to anchor this in reality, or at least what I perceived as reality (we all have our different realities or interpretations of it). For me a more photojournalistic approach would not have told this story the way I felt it and instinctively reacted to it: the deep emotion, sorrow and absolute sense of anguish and deprivation these men must have felt at the time of the suicides, all feelings that were carried onto the women now surviving them. People died – thousands of them – and I chose to tell this story. I was responsible for what people would think and feel when they see the pictures. This was always at the back of my head.

The suicides are continuing to happen, so this is not an old story, but very much an ongoing one. In the past 15 years, more than 250 thousand farmers have committed suicide and the numbers are still rising.

How did you get the women to be part of the project? In parts of India I’ve visited, women tend to be hidden from the public and I imagine they initially did not want to be photographed. What about the issue of suicide? In some societies, suicide is a very shameful act. Was there a societal or cultural stigma that you had to overcome in order to get people to even talk about the suicides? How did you approach that issue with your subjects?

A few things could account for me being able to gain access to the families. Perhaps the fact that I was a woman myself allowed the women to gain some sense of comfort around me, but I think ultimately the main reason I was able to talk to them is because they wanted someone to talk to – they wanted to be heard and in all cases helped (which I shamefully explained I was not in a position to do). They wanted their struggle to be acknowledged and the fact I had come from an entirely different country to meet them and understand their plight probably made them feel some sort of respect and seriousness towards me.

Yes, there is a huge stigma attached to suicide. You must remember India is a predominantly Hindu country and suicide is not accepted within the Hindu belief. Surprisingly, this was not an issue that took much of the conversation I had with any of the families I met. It was about survival and for the men who had committed suicide, living had become an impossibility. Tradition among the conservative and modest farming communities dictates men are the main providers. Girls get married because their fathers can pay their dowry and are of a good reputation in the village, so once a man starts to sink below the expected status in the community, he starts to be overcome by shame. Status and community standing play a big role in the decision to commit suicide in these villages and I think they would in any village in the world. Farmers are a unique breed and their work and lifestyle are about modesty, pride and survival under the harshest of conditions. But I think if any of these elements start to shake, their whole existence comes into question.

This project feels like a departure from much of your other work. It’s heavily driven by portraiture. The Man & Land section is abstract details that might feel more at home in a gallery than in the pages of a news magazine. What drove this approach? What was your motivation in the Man & Land section, specifically?

Yes, the work is a departure from anything else I have ever done. Hopefully I can continue to expand on my work and explore new concepts and ideas as long as I feel they are best to approach a particular issue.

The “Man and Land” section stemmed from my desire to visually translate the strong bond between the farmers and the land. I felt that the suicides hinged on this relationship and the interdependency of both on one another: farmers rely on the land for economic survival and also for food and the land stays alive because it is taken care of by the farmers. One would not survive without the other and if one dies, the other will ultimately follow. One of the most common criticisms of this work is that I ‘romanticize’ suicide, but if anything I am romanticizing the relationship between man and land. I think it’s an extremely beautiful and intimate bond and I personally find it rather humbling and a welcome departure from the complications of modern life, dominated by habits of material consumption and lack of a connection to anything else that is living besides other humans.

This series of close-ups is intended to draw a parallel between the farmers and the land they are so closely intertwined with by juxtaposing images from farmers’ skin against details from the land that make the viewer wonder which is which and so hopefully lead the viewer to see/feel how they are both so connected and end up looking like one another.

I’m very curious about the idea of romanticizing suicide (I’m reminded of the Life photo often titled “The Most Beautiful Suicide“), or any other subject of a photo essay. I suppose these are the some of the same criticisms leveled at people who take very beautiful photography of tragic situations. What is the role of aesthetics in your project? In photography, generally? Can a photo of a tragedy be “too beautiful”?

These are really hard questions for me to answer. To start, I did not go into I’ll Die For You saying I want to photograph death beautifully or such. I have a major fear of death, I suppose like most people, and I hate goodbyes. There is nothing about this story that spoke beauty to me. The way I arrived at the final pictures was by following a concept, an idea. I think death is very ugly and the ugliness of it is reflected upon the people left behind who suffer the immense loss and complications of living without a partner, son, father or brother.

I do think photos of tragedy can be beautiful and I still don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. In terms of aesthetics, I am generally inclined towards photographs that are beautiful. I like pictures that have depth and meaning through color, emotion and strong composition.

You say that portraits are a weakness of yours, but the portraits here are quite strong. Do you often try to push yourself beyond what you’re comfortable doing photographically?

For sure because I am really scared of becoming repetitive in my work and taking the same picture over and over. I think it’s important to have a style – a visual trademark – and this is something I hope I never stop developing as I go on. I also think the subject matter itself and the natural feelings stemming from issues of life and death, made the portraits come out this way. I was feeling the pictures while taking them.

Are you worried about getting typecast as a certain type of photographer? Why did you want to push yourself in an unfamiliar direction?

Yes, like I said I just don’t want to take the same picture over and over. This is a fear I have across many elements in my life. I just do not like repeating myself, even verbally when I talk to people. I think it’s boring and different situations naturally call for different patterns of behavior. I would like my visual approach to a story to stem out of a particular need or concept that best tells that story. The approach I followed in India really is peculiar to that story and I have tried to follow the same approach in other stories out of curiosity, but it jut does not work – does not feel the same. Every story should stand-alone and be represented in a way that best tells it.

You mentioned that suicide isn’t recognized by these farmers’ religion and culture, and that shame and other factors contribute to the suicides. Even talking about the suicide could have some negative cultural repercussions for the photo subjects or the families of the men. Was there ever a concern that sharing these stories and talking about these suicides on a such a broad level (international publications, etc.) would bring more shame and other problems to these families and communities? I’m having a hard time framing this question, but it relates to what we photographers owe to our subjects, especially on such sensitive issues. I suppose since the women agreed to be photographed, they felt it was more important to get the story out than to bow to cultural pressures and stay silent.

I think you have already answered this question within the question. Life and death are two extremes of this life and I think once people experience either one of these extremes, everything else fades in the background. The families I interviewed were all very welcoming and perhaps even more welcoming given I was coming from abroad and I was interested in hearing their story. There is a feeling among the families that they have been let down by their own, their government and there is a hope that someone can help them. My goal was to bring this story to an international audience (1) to let them know this exists / (2) in the hope through international awareness there could be some pressure on the government to help the farmers.

Has the situation changed since when you photographed the subject? Is anything being done to address the problems? Is there a solution in sight?

No, the situation is still the same and farmers are continuing to kill themselves. The solution has to come from the government, perhaps in the form of subsidies or something else. All the activists I met agreed this is the only solution. The government has so far started a funding scheme that pays families whose relatives are proven to have committed suicide due to unmanageable bank loans. I have my own opinion on this, but I will leave this looming for your readers to think about themselves. To put things in perspective, a farmer is committing suicide as you read this interview, so it’s very much an ongoing epidemic.

Congratulations on the FotoVisura Top Finalist award. Where has the project been published or shown? Do you have any plans to show the project within India? Do you think the project has a chance to make a difference there, perhaps in the communities involved or in state or national levels of government?

Thank you. The work has been published in many publications in Europe and in the US (Eyemazing (digital), Orion, New York Times Lensblog, Rear View Mirror magazine and BURN magazine). It has been exhibited in the Netherlands as part of the Noorderlicht Festival, in New York as part of the New York Photofestival (Humankind Theme), in the Chainstore in London and finally in India as part of the 1st edition of the New Delhi Photofestival. I am so happy the work has been shown in so many places but I am most proud of the New Delhi Photofestival show because it was very important for me to show the work in the country where it was produced and this was a great opportunity to do so.

Yes, I do think the project can make a difference in India, but this will require a full on effort on my part to get things moving. I have been trying to do this but unfortunately with little success. I am now trying to partner with an India-based NGO to continue the work and raise awareness locally on the issue. The change has to come from within India itself, maybe with some outside support, but mostly from inside.

Where people can see or connect with your work?

www.lauraeltantawy.com / www.illdieforyou.com

twitter: @lauraeltantawy / @illdieforyou

One Response to “I’ll Die For You – an interview with Laura El-Tantawy”

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