I went to Delhi in October 1986, to meet senior photojournalists, show my them my work and ask their opinion about becoming a professional. I was still in college. The train trudged down to Palghat from Mangalore, turned around at the Palghat gap and started went northwards. On the second evening it reached Nagpur. A woman boarded the reserved compartment with her baby. It was full and she just had a general ticket. People objected. She begged people let her in and that her father was very ill in Bhopal and she had to go take care of him. People took pity on her and let her in. She occupies the ticket collector’s seat. As the train moved on, I began munching on a packet of biscuits, her baby was hungry and looked at the biscuit packet greedily. I shared some of it with the child. The woman started talking to me. She said that she had lost her mother during the gas leak and though the father surived he was in bad health. She got a telegram that afternoon that he was seriously ill and she was rushing off it take care of him. I asked her if she got any compensation. She said that the government had sanctioned Rs.10000/- but the disbursing officer had taken Rs.5000/- out of it. “Dus hazar tho mila, magar panch hazar woh log kha gayen” were her words. I was truly upset at this injustice and it left a deep mark in my conscious. In more ways than one this incident shaped the kind of work I have done as a photographer and the idea of doing the book UNSUNG, about people who have contributed to society against great personal odds was born then, in my unconscious mind.
Later in the mid 90s, as I was watching my nieces growing up, I realised that we hardly had any role models, other than the celebrities. However, in the course of my work, I was meeting seemingly ordinary people who were making extraordinary contributions to society against great personal odds. I wanted to tell their stories. The UNSUNG project was born.
The first volume of Unsung was published in 2007 as a response to our celebrity lead hero culture. Four years in coursework help the making, essay it assumed the mantle of a catalyst for change when it helped raise over Rs. 9 million to the causes of the heroes we featured. Unsung was used as a case study and as a lecture series at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.
Readers wrote to tell me how it inspired them:
- “Unsung almost added a new meaning to my life because it made me question the purpose of everything I was doing, of what I do for a profession (photography, design, illustration). UNSUNG felt like the most meaningful outcome.”
- “It added so much beauty to ourghostwriting lives.”
- “I almost couldn’t believe the love and intention, not to mention the aesthetics, which went into this book.”
- “Every time I think about it, it makes me forget my cynicism. It makes me believe how the conviction of one person can use photography so beautifully.”
What can we imbibe from the heroes of UNSUNG? All of them have one thing in common – that their thoughts, words and deeds are always aligned. They say what they think and do what they say. Secondly, the measure of success is their own. Without exception, each of these heroes share these qualities, and I think that has a big role to play in the things they have achieved. There is something heroic about their convictions and their strength to stand by it.
By this definition, anyone can be a hero. One doesn’t need to be doing something that creates ripples in the world or for humanity. Often times, our heroes come in the form of friends and acquaintances who enter our lives, create a profound impact and transform us. They bring about this change by being themselves or by being a mirror to our thoughts and ideas. They become our heroes.
- The second volume of UNSUNG is dedicated to these heroes – friends, relatives, acquaintances who have transformed our lives. Their role is not to take us out of our depths of misery or offer us an escape route. Perhaps, it’s as American author Bernard Malamud puts it so succinctly, “Without heroes we are all plain people and don’t know how far we can go.”
- The third volume of the project was commissioned by the Serendipity Arts Festival, 2017. Five women photographers/artists explored the idea of ‘Celebrating the Extraordinary Grandeur of Smallness’
Our immediate goals is to raise funds for the heroes (who are in need) featured in all the three volumes and to set up a grant for photography.