Rekha Mundah has swaddled her tiny two-month-old baby Bhoni so much that all you can see at first are a pair of extra-bright eyes. The hard-of-hearing mother from Khumtai village in Assam’s Dibrugarh district is understandably protective of her prematurely born daughter who weighed just one and a half kilos at birth and hasn’t gained much since. Bhoni’s medical reports echo what the naked eye can already tell – that she has Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM).To encounter a child like this and not only maintain one’s composure but also win the mother’s trust to take her pictures is really difficult. But photojournalist Sudharak Olwe does the difficult with consummate ease. He says a few reassuring words, but his empathic eyes say more, putting his subjects at ease. “I feel I belong to the people whose lives I’m capturing. I don’t go into their lives as an outsider. I understand and I empathise,” he says.

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A toddler leans against a mud hut in Munjal village, in the Manpur area of Chhattisgarh. Making some gentle enquiries, Olwe finds out that Rakesh is less than a year old and is looked after by his weary grandmother, who feeds him milk powder when she can afford it. Little Rakesh was born under the ‘paithu’ tradition followed by the Gond tribals, which is essentially a non-binding live-in relationship. His mother went back to her maternal home soon after his birth, so without her care and her breastmilk, Rakesh displays all the classic symptoms of SAM – swelling on the feet, distended tummy, wheezing from pneumonia. At once, Olwe understands the social constructs of the community; he is visibly moved by the suffering of the child, but respects the quiet dignity of the grandmother. He takes off his shoes before entering the humble hut, is tender with Rakesh even as he is playful with the other children gathered around, and presents a picture of non-judgemental wisdom.

Being there is one thing, absorbing the atmosphere another, but Olwe manages to capture and convey the many layers through his pictures, as anyone who has attended his eye-opening photo exhibition titled ‘Endangered Species: Malnutrition Stalks India’s Children’ in Delhi, can tell you.

The good fight

Armed with his trusty Nikon D810, this deep sense of empathy and an earthy sense of humour that breaks the ice wherever he goes, Olwe boldly tramps into territory others would be terrified to tread. Olwe’s newest work documents the abiding hunger and acute malnutrition that haunts the children of several regions across the country. Identifying areas in Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Odisha where abject poverty and backwardness have led to deprivation on an unprecedented scale, Olwe visited village homes, community centres and medical facilities to report on the problems in these regions. What he encountered was shocking, although it’s backed up by the statistics that put India among the top countries when it comes to malnutrition and its related issues.

For Olwe, images have to be simple and uncluttered

For Olwe, images have to be simple and uncluttered
(
Sudharak Olwe
)

“We live in a world of malls and mobiles. We hardly know the reality of what is happening in the countryside and villages. An entire generation is at risk of growing up stunted, suffering wasting and some even dying of SAM,” emphasises Olwe, who has a clear objective: “Only once people see these hard-hitting images will policy makers realise just how bad the situation is. That’s when change will happen.When we look the other way, we let them die.”

On the frontlines

This passion for inspiring change is not new to him. In fact, his career spans more than three decades of reporting from the frontlines of social injustice across India. Even as a fledgling photographer atThe Free Press Journal newspaper in Mumbai, the Akola-born boy with a basic Nikon FM 2 had his heart in the right place. He went on to shoot stark images of fires, floods, riots for a host of dailies – Indian Express, Afternoon, The Pioneer, Bombay Times, Sunday Times, DNA and Lokmat under the watchful eyes of seniors such as Pradeep Chandra, Mukesh Parpiani and Jagdish Agarwal – but through it all, he always focused on the human story, the one he deeply connected with.

Olwe has always focused on the human story

Olwe has always focused on the human story
(
Sudharak Olwe
)

As an independent photojournalist, he shot in Mumbai’s red-light area of Kamathipura for years, and followed the sordid lives of sex workers around other parts of Maharashtra as well; followed stories on violence against women in the form of victims of acid attack and rape; travelled across seven or eight notorious states of India to piece together the atrocities against the girl child; and documented the inhumane work and living conditions of the conservancy workers and manual scavengers in an award-winning series titled ‘In Search of Dignity and Justice’.

According to Olwe, colour takes your eyes in different directions, whereas B&W takes you straight to the point

According to Olwe, colour takes your eyes in different directions, whereas B&W takes you straight to the point
(
Sudharak Olwe
)

For his stellar work highlighting the plight of the marginalised in all these spheres, he was conferred India’s fourth highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, in 2016. Now he’s in a position to give back to society and help others find their own power through his brainchild, the Photography Promotion Trust (PPT), by way of which he conducts free workshops for marginalised youth all over India, teaching them the tricks of the trade and giving them a platform for their creativity. “The aim was to give marginalised people a voice through the camera and offer them a livelihood.” Many of his protégés have found employment in media houses.

Shoot at site

The eldest of three siblings born to a homemaker mother and a father who was a government servant and poet in Akola, Maharashtra, Olwe was studying fine art at Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art when his professor saw him struggling with painting and directed him towards photography. “He knew I was a small-town boy who was suddenly in the big city as my father had died early. He wanted to help me make a comfortable living doing wedding pictures someday. I’ve never done wedding photography, but I did learn how powerful the camera is, that it could change my life. It’s a weapon that can take me anywhere, from the Ambani home to the Dharavi slum.”

A dear friend gifted him a Leica Q2 camera to commemorate his 30 years in photojournalism

A dear friend gifted him a Leica Q2 camera to commemorate his 30 years in photojournalism
(
Sudharak Olwe
)

Apart from the opportunity to help others and several awards and exhibitions in many countries abroad, Olwe’s impressive body of work has brought him other benefits too. A dear friend gifted him a Leica Q2 camera to commemorate his 30 years in photojournalism, something he had always dreamed of but had never been able to afford. It has also brought him close to famous photojournalists. Raghu Rai, Pablo Bartholomew, Shahidul Alam from Bangladesh and Iranian-French Reza Deghati, who works in Afghanistan, who have all influenced his work and thought process.

Armed with his trusty Nikon D810, his deep sense of empathy breaks the ice wherever he goes

Armed with his trusty Nikon D810, his deep sense of empathy breaks the ice wherever he goes

When asked about his photographic philosophy, he muses, “For me, images have to be simple and uncluttered. I chose black and white photography as I always wanted to play with impurity and purity and because it allows you to use more light, convey multiple dimensions and emotions. I feel that colour takes your eyes in different directions, whereas B&W takes you straight to the point.”

And he certainly makes a point with his impactful photographs.

From HT Brunch, December 29, 2019

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