WHEN a sleepless photographer looked around while covering the earthquake in Nepal last year, he found the rest of the country wide awake as well. “The streets filled up after sundown but sleep evaded them. Fear had made a home in the hearts of so many people that they began anticipating what may happen to them in an unconscious state. Nepal stayed awake night after night as trauma centres in hospitals ran out of beds,” says Sharbendu De, who spent a month in Nepal after the April earthquake.
The Delhi-based photographer’s works explore the impact of a disaster on the mind, rather than the body or property, of victims. A few images from the series, “Between Grief and Nothing”, which convey the anxiety disorders and emotional disturbance that prevailed after the earthquake, are part of an exhibition, called “The Nepal Issue”, in Delhi.
The works are exhibited in an atmospheric tent-like room in the gallery, mocking the open spaces where the victims slept. A boy in a Superman T-shirt lies semi-foetal in an overgrown park. “Why is he sleeping in such a place? Because, in reality, he cannot sleep. There has been a violent intrusion into his mind and physical space,” says De. Here, as in many of his works, anomalous elements converge in a single frame to provoke viewers into active participation.
Nepali people believe that a mythological figure visits towns and cities during a calamity. It is called Lakhey, a demon god, which is feared even today. De had an artiste model as the Lakhey and shot it loitering around sleeping figures of a girl in a hospital, a man on a car roof and a woman on the ground — expressing the vulnerable dreams of the victims. “Nepal is deeply rooted in mythology. I interviewed people about their dreams and found that they had begun to sub-consciously associate their trauma with mythological figures, such as the carnivorous Lakhey,” says De.
Gurgaon-based Nepali artist Pratap SJB Rana, who visited the show, says the image that captured the earthquake for him was of the Lakhey dancing on top of a mountain of rubble in Kathmandu. “At first glance, we see the Lakhey in red and the destruction in grey. I went on looking because of the levels of sentiment the photograph conveys in terms of composition and symbolism,” he says.
De’s photographs are creative interpretations or fictional documentaries — the opposite of a photojournalist’s descriptive shots. “I try to show not what things look like but what people feel. I want to take my viewer into the head space and make them experience, even for a second, what people felt when they lost their families, homes, everything,” he says.
In person, De is slight and boyish for his 37 years. It is difficult to imagine him lugging around “****loads of equipment, batteries, energy bars and water capsules” to last out a disaster. He began shooting in childhood with a Russian-made Zenith camera and has been published in several travel magazines. His first exposure to disaster was when the tsunami hit the Andamans, where De had grown up and his parents still lived. He was more an Action Aid worker at the time but his work in the social sector had begun and runs parallel to his photography.
A critical shift in De’s work took place at Westminster University in London, where he studied photography in 2009-10. The emphasis was on reading essays, researching on images and studying art history. De’s home in south Delhi has no photographs on the walls — unusual for an artist — but his study is packed with critical writings on subjects, such as Julian Stallabrass’s “Rearranging Corpses Curatorially,” on images of death. On shoots, he spends long hours writing and analysing his impressions and ideas.
By the time he was sent to shoot the Uttarakhand flash floods in 2013-14 for an aid organisation, De’s visual landscape had shifted significantly from descriptive to interpretive and is captured evocatively in a portrait of a farmer. “This man’s village had been sliding down. The land had belonged to his ancestors, the house had been built by his forefathers. What is the one thing he would take when the government moved him? ‘I’ll take this orange sapling and plant it in the next place. The tree will remind me of who I was,’ he said,” says De. The image, of the man cradling an orange sapling as if it were a baby, seeks to evoke a multiplicity of emotions.
During the Kashmir floods, the worst in the century, De was in Palhalan, which is most in the news for militant activity, for another organisation. Among the people he spoke to was a family “who conveyed to me that, emotionally, they are in a very transitory mode, waiting for the government to settle them somewhere else”. His image is of the family on a boat on a flooded lake. The daughters sit on two sides while the father and mother stand at the back, offering namaz. “I decided to situate things in odd settings to show the family as starting off on an uncertain journey. Who prays when they are on a boat?” says De. His images don’t provide the answers, he adds. “But, it can raise questions in a viewer’s eye,” he says.