“Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
In light of recent events closer home and worldwide, it is pertinent to stop to think where we are heading in terms of freedom of expression. Does our freedom come at the cost of that of someone else? Silence is as much a form of communication as is speech. The right to remain silent is indeed necessary. However, it is also a privilege that not everyone has. If one is silent on something that bothers others, one must ponder if one’s silence means an implicit support for the oppressor.
Earlier this year, Kolkata-based independent artist Sujatro Ghosh started his photo series featuring women wearing cow masks. His work questions why cows have greater safety than women in India. The following is my conversation with Sujatro about this dehumanisation and more.
What propelled you with the idea of your photo project?
This idea came to me from the current socio-political scenario in my country where cattle is more important than women and so this is how I drew a line between both the issues.
What inspired you to choose this kind of work?
This is different from the kind of work I do usually. My previous works are around the LGBTQ movement or environmental issues in India but it’s nothing related to the work I am doing currently. This is one of a kind because I haven’t done anything like this before.
What are the broader challenges and challenges in terms of finding people to pose that you had to face while doing this?
As you know, this is a politically relevant issue which has been talked about a lot. So, approaching XYZ women randomly is not possible. I thus started off the project with the people whom I knew. This is a collaboration between me and the women who wanted to get photographed. Primarily I started off the project with close friends and acquaintances. After it went up on social media, it really went viral since the first day. I started the project on Instagram and from there I took it to the other social media as well. It was received well and yes, from people started recognising it. Within a week, I started getting messages from all over India and all over the world. Since then, it has been a roller coaster ride.
What is the ethnic, class and caste composition of the women involved in your project?
My project somehow in a way doesn’t have any caste, creed, religion or anything else and there is nothing that divides us from us. So I don’t tend to bring out the class or other distinction in the women, but yes, I can tell you that there are women who belong to each and every part of the society and I just want to present them without any caste or religious differences.
Was there any difference in the reception of your project?
The project was interpreted by many people in many ways. Many media houses including the top media of the world made it a political issue. This project is somehow political and there are political problems in this country, but we can’t deny the fact that even before this government was there, this problem already existed. It is not something we are dealing with right now but it is just the outburst we are facing that conflicts with the current social scenario and religious and political beliefs. Moreover, when I started off the project, people were easily approachable the urban areas but the challenge is when you move to places like Varanasi and rural parts of Karnataka. Approachment was a big concern but I tried to make them understand and I was successful and I could make them understand that this is a good thing that I am fighting for. Finally, even though people had different interpretation, my message was clear that this project is about women in general and it isn’t against animal rights but it is about giving importance to the women’s issue first.
As a man, you have crossed the boundary of lived experience during the project. You have shot men without the mask too. What was their reaction at the grassroot level to your idea?
When I approached these men, they agreed to be a part of the frames. It is then that I photographed them. Besides, they believed that what I was doing was for a good reason. To support this cause, it doesn’t matter if I am a man or a woman. That is the only way in which the world can be changed. Issues that empower women must be fought by men as well. That is where we lag behind other countries where women have many more rights. For instance, I was standing in Delhi somewhere in the Qutub Complex. A man encouraged a young woman to pose for a photograph I clicked. This in fact shows that the idea is much appreciated by people who identify with the cause.
Was it difficult to crowdfund for this project?
Absolutely not. My crowdfunding happened like crazy. I secured it almost in a month. I did not opt for a lot of money. I exceeded my target. However, out of 20 contributors, there were only four to five men.
What is the role that the everyday plays in your project and politics?
My observations come mostly from the society and I have seen women around me which made me feel that this is some problem that’s there across the country in all the cities I have visited. That is the way this project came up. Even though I do not have access to the lived experience of a woman, it is from the experiences of the women in my life – whom I have seen around me that this issue comes up from. It was tough to approach people to be a part of my pictures; there was a lot of rejection. From people I know, I went to photographing those who came up to me and said, “I want to get photographed.” Then friends of friends wanted to participate. Sometimes, I used my instincts as in if I saw a woman clicking a selfie, I thought that she might like to get clicked, so why don’t I go and ask her. Then I approached. On one occasion, a woman came up to me and asked what I was doing and as soon as I said it is a photo project, she was said that she doesn’t want to be a part of it. My overall work represents whatever I have visually captured in the everyday.
How do you think Art is going to unite people in the present political scenario?
People might agree or disagree with my political beliefs. It is very important to believe in yourself because obviously there will be haters. Believing in yourself is the primary thing which any artist should look forward to. One cannot change things overnight. It will take time as there are certain steps and processes involved. It is always a collaborative effort. If you think about it, this project wouldn’t have been possible without the women who agreed to be a part of it. If I had thought that this is a project I am going to do all by myself and if I had got only one woman to shoot it, the impact wouldn’t have been the same. As a single person, I could not have reached the level I have reached with this project. If you want to take something a level forward, it needs to be something which is a mass movement like this one is turning into. That’s why I made it into a public project, so that whatever is happening is a public contribution. It is going all over the world and it really speaks volumes that my project is impactful everywhere. It doesn’t only reach out to women in general in India, but it also talks about women all over the world. I call it a movement because there are videos now being made on the issues, there are street plays in Delhi and Calcutta; there are illustrations. People are coming up in different platforms and that’s how you have impact. Probably my biggest achievement besides the publications worldwide has been that I have made people aware and made them think over and over again. I have influenced them to come up with their own ideas.
What are your future plans?
It’s too early to call for it. I don’t have any future plans about my life but regarding this project, what I could have done, I have already done it. Maybe I will make it into a book as a collaboration so that the work exists in another form. I will try to finish this thing as soon as possible and go on with different kinds of collaboration. Other than things that I do for my bread and butter, there are usually things that I feel for. I keep contributing to things like the LGBT movement, environmental issues, etc.
State two fun facts about the artist Sujatro Ghosh.
(chuckles) I love to eat and travel. Wherever I go, the first thing I think about is food. I am a strict non-vegetarian.
Follow Sujatro on Instagram.