Ishan Tankha: Storing collective memory from conflict zones

Who documents the lands that are unchartered and inhabitants who haven't as yet fallen under the census grid? I refer to the heavily forested areas of central India comprising a demographic that is a mix of rural and tribal, and remains one of the centres of the Naxal-Maoist ideology in India. Delhi-based photojournalist Ishan Tankha has been photographing these regions since 2008 on assignments for publications such as India Today and Open. His decision to continue his association with the people and the land as a freelance photographer since 2012 reflects a relationship of deeper understanding and a consequential need to draw a similar cognizance from others.

Tankha's first trip to the region was rather dramatic; he ended up falling ill with the potentially fatal falciparum malaria combined with debilitating jaundice and typhoid. He made it back to the city in time and into a hospital, but another photojournalist on assignment did not and neither do most of the villagers living there. As I look through the black-and-white unedited images from his most recent trip made possible by the Danielou grant he won from the Europe Foundation for New Dialogue in 2013 (FIND), Tankha's images appear more as a narration of his experiences of engagement with the people than their cause per se. He enjoys taking portraits and informs me that for "these people" it is a matter of survival, a simple lack of choice. More people die of disease than of bullets.

Photojournalism is a unique hybrid of spot photography and improvised storytelling. It requires both research and the experience to "make" a telling photograph. Photojournalists ostensibly help expand our "vision" of the world. Its origin as a discipline can be traced to the late 1920s, with the advent of smaller, more portable cameras that used the enlargeable film negative to record images. The introduction of the 35 mm Leica camera made it possible for photographers to move with the action, taking shots of events as they unfolded. Multiple frames presented as a narrative created a photo story, a departure from the illustrative manner in which photographs were earlier used with news reportage.

Tankha confesses to liking the quieter, more unexpected moments. Quite often, it's not the gun in the frame of the picture that tells the story but the absence of it. My curiosity gets the better of me and I ask how much of the photojournalist's work is staged and how much does the image feed the context of the predefined story. It's a matter of ethics, both personal and professional. And at the end of the day, are some things not in need of a hint of fiction to have a greater impact?

As I flip through images, I ask him how important titles are in helping understand the context of the photograph. Tankha picks out a picture of a man lying in the grass — drunk? Asleep? Dead? There's no way to tell. And perhaps that's where the photographer's instinct comes into play. What would he want you to believe? And how much does the context of being a "conflict zone" impact our understanding of the frame itself? It is a rather mischievous proposition that quietly and elegantly upsets the already precarious connections between what we presume to know and what is right in front of us.

Tankha picks out a picture of a man lying in the grass — Drunk? Asleep? Dead? There’s no way to tell. And perhaps that’s where the photographer’s instinct comes into play. What would he want you to believe? And how much does the context of being a ‘conflict zone’ impact our understanding of the frame itself? 

But what prescriptions differentiate news from art? With an over-supply of images today, there is a parallel overlap in modes of representation and display. News images are making their way to gallery walls accenting an appeal of being truly contemporary — they represent a dimension of reality that is current and ongoing, and the photograph's placement ensures its longevity relative to when it was only an image in the news.

I question the photograph's potential as a document of history, a way to record the collective memory of the landscape, and ask Tankha, what of the images I was looking at? He says he'd like to compile them as an economically made photo-book to be distributed amongst the people of the region, for them to have an album, a tangible document to share beyond the contrived history of conflict and stories they narrate to journalists and inquisitive others.