‘Suddenly, the Sparks’

Photographer Seema Krishnakumar on one of her favorite pictures from northwestern India.

By / May 2012

In the middle of a field outside Jalandhar, a haveli sits empty. We are told its Hindu resident, who used to be the village head, had been forced to leave with his family years ago as Punjab strained under the militancy of the Khalistan movement.

The expanse of bricks lift skyward more than 40 feet like a dense, aged forest and as we stand in the shadow of these walls, our noses filled with the smells of moist grain and cow dung, I try to imagine the quotidian movements of life and commerce that used to spill out.

Most of all, I marvel at the two large wooden doors as formidable as a bank vault. It is a grand structure, with just the sort of age and character we need for our reality television show, an Indian version of Amazing Race.

While we wait for local residents to open the doors, I pull out my camera, eager to try to capture the immensity of the place. It’s not long after I frame my shot that a boy, caught up in the excitement of the moment, runs into the scene and toward the threshold. The result, instead of static image of a bricks and mortar stacked as solid as a mountain, is a wonderfully dynamic photo that expresses the emerging hope that is now surging in this region.

Seema Krishnakumar, a designer and photographer, lives in Kerala with her husband.

India is an interesting place with so many unexplored places and stories. That’s why I love chasing social documentary projects across the country. I’ve moved in and out of dark rooms in Aligarh as men, women, and children make locks and keys. I’ve witnessed one of the largest cooperative societies north of Kerala produce beedi, otherwise known as “poor man’s smoke.” I’ve listened to the grief and anger of farmers in Kuttanad, one of the few places in world where farming is carried out below sea level.

Still my journey hasn’t been without challenges. Not many women pursue social documentary photography in India, which means I’ve have no role models to follow. It wasn’t until I joined Flickr in 2006, that I found women who had navigated out of the male-dominated crowd to make exceptional contributions.

As a graduate student living New York City, my liberties expanded further. I didn’t worry about anything there. I just did my thing, whether that meant jumping over fences or climbing trees to take a shot. When I returned to India in February this approach got squelched. Our society is not used to seeing a woman in the street with a camera.

To walk around taking pictures feels a little like walking onto stage and dancing for an audience. It’s hard. You spend a good amount of emotional energy to work in front of all those eyes.

There are some great women photographers working here, but few are natives. Most are from the West. They come with money, get all kinds of access and then go back, their computers bursting with JPEG files that they print and sell for a profit. This niche doesn’t exist for many local photographers in India because social documentary is not as valued.

Change is slow. But I suppose even a small amount of momentum is better than none. I know it’s often the little things that keep me floating. One idea, one moment, one picture and, suddenly, the sparks flicker into something no number of hindrances could extinguish.


— as told to Brandon Hoops