The loner & his camera
Born to a sex-worker, Shankar Sarkar captures the world as he sees it—at times starkly realistic, at times poignantly nostalgic, but all his images are captivating because of the story they tell. Relive his rough, yet inspiring journey through these page
Shankar Sarkar is a loner who found companionship in his camera—the alliance which allows him to capture his darling subjects: nature, in all its hues, scenes from rural life and struggling children. His inclinations are defined by his own yearning, for his memories of his unhappy childhood in the village, which lead him to focus his camera on children living in difficult situations.
His latest series Living on the Edge is based on his trips to the Sunderbans, where he was touched by the extreme difficulties of its residents, perennially battling natural calamities. “What struck me most is the unending human endeavour to cling on to something that is inevitably condemned to destruction, just because it is where they belong and where they have their roots. The embankments get eroded and sometimes crash down like a pack of cards, swallowed by the river.”
Needless to say, Shankar was moved by these people’s daily fight with nature, their struggle to keep their roots intact. So, he decided to capture their daily struggle for existence and dedicated Living on the Edge to the indomitable spirit of these fighters, undaunted by all adversities.
Shankar was just 11, when he was given a camera (from a UNICEFsupported project for children of sex workers— Empowering Sex Workers’ Children through Photography) to explore the world around him. Now in his mid 20s, Shankar treats photography as his passion, his language of communication, not just a profession. For him it’s all about expressing his emotions. For instance, his photo series titled Facing One’s Own is dedicated to his mother, Kavita. He created black and white frames of her, shot over 12 years and won rave reviews in India and abroad. The series enabled him to be the only Indian representative at the Guardian Gallery,
London, that featured the works of photographers from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Moreover, he also earned the praise of critics at the Chobi Mela in Dhaka, the Delhi Photo Festival and at Vermont, USA. For Shankar, this exercise was a personal journey, a journey which helped him see his mother, a former sex worker, in a more sympathetic light.
As he learnt the ropes in photography, his frame continued to capture his mother in varied moods—waiting in a lane for a client wearing a skirt, dressed in a sari lighting diyas on Diwali, sleeping with her partner, cooking in the little room, talking to neighbours. As he struggled to come to terms with his mother’s profession and life, the camera, helped him resolve his angst. Gradually, the process helped him become less judgmental of his mother.
Since Kavita was engrossed in her profession, Shankar spent his infancy and early childhood with his grandmother in Malkangiri, Orissa. He was five when he met his mother for the first time. He did not feel any kind of emotional pull. “I considered my grandmother to be my mother. I called her Ma throughout, till her recent death. When I first saw my mother, I felt that she was like any other woman. I turned away from her. My mother tried to bring me close by giving me sweets and toys, but I simply could not accept her.”
Though he was too young to understand the implications of sexwork, he just could not fit into the claustrophobic environment of the dingy red-light area. “I never had an emotional bonding with my mother. There were so many times when I reached home simply famished and found my mother’s room locked from inside. She was inside, entertaining some customer. I knocked on the door many times, but in vain. Lonely and hungry, I stood outside helplessly, with nobody to care for my dejected soul.” Also, his mother by that time started living with a steady partner, with whom she lives even today. “He at times used to hit me when I refused to run errands for him. I think my mother loves him. Now that I have grown up, he doesn’t dare to raise hands on me.”
His resentment of his mother grew as he grew up and started realising the nature of her trade. It was heightened by the fact that he faced humiliation and ostracisation. “I was once flying a kite which fell inside the premises of a house. They wouldn’t allow me in as if their house would be tainted if I went in.” The teachers and fellow students misbehaved with him for no fault of his. They abused him, calling his mother a ‘ bad woman’. “I hated going to school. Teachers looked down on me and classmates insulted me. Teachers made me do their chores, as they felt that was what I was fit for.” Things became so unbearable for the boy that he dropped out of school when he was in Class V. He started doing odd jobs, earning a pittance doing menial work in sweat shops.
The frustration cultivated and he finally goaded his mother to give up her profession. Shankar’s facilitator Suvendu Chatterjee, the director of the Dhaka-headquartered Drik India, is proud of his protégé for his role in his mother’s change of profession. Suvendu points out, “Shankar has motivated her to a large extent in coming out of it.” Shankar explains, “I would stay put in her room, and refuse to budge. I would remain in the room for days, and she thus could not entertain any client.”
Gradually, Kavita realised how intensely her son hated the sex-work, and she began to look for other ways of earning. It’s been five years since Kavita began working in an NGO, which makes bags, garments and other accessories. This UK-based NGO, Freeset helps in rehabilitating prostitutes, by giving them employment in their workshop, and the products are exported to Europe. She, however, continues to live with her partner in the same grimy room in the red-light area of Seth Bagan where she has lived for years. Shankar spends most of his time drowned in work and still hates living there. He still craves a breath of fresh air amidst the openness of nature and pines for the days in his village, where he lived with his grandmother. Thus his lens naturally zooms in on pastoral scenes, capturing their beauty and ruggedness and at times his lens searches for his lost childhood in the faces of children. But, with or without photography, he still holds on to his dream to have a little house in his village, and take his mother far away from her past.
Facing One’s Own
Facing One’s Own
Facing One’s Own
Facing One’s Own