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Changpa Shepherds

photography by Rahul Dhankani & words by Kimberley Low

creative dialogue/

Legacy | 2015

“We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.” 

― David Brower

Any photographer can make beautiful work, but it takes a certain level of zen and dedication to devote oneself to a long-term project over the course of several years. As a photographer myself, when it comes to looking at other young photographers’ images, the bodies of work that make a lasting impression are not only visually rich, but more importantly authentic and purposeful. And 27-year-old Indian photographer Rahul Dhankani’s work is just that.

Having just returned from shooting in Ladakh, Dhankani has been going back every summer for the last four years to photograph the Changpa, a slowly disappearing group of nomadic shepherds. The result has been stunningly arresting images that are not only informative and intimate, but also display a sensitive appreciation for both the Changpa way of life, and the subtle nuances of the Himalayan aesthetic that only a photographer keenly attuned to this world can achieve.

As a documentary photographer in the world’s second most populous country, Dhankani is also astutely aware of India’s past and present relationship with photography and the need to grow a nurturing and supportive photographic community. Earlier this year, Dhankani founded the Lighthouse, a space dedicated to the growth of photography with fellow photographer Arko Datto and it is through the Lighthouse that I first came across his work.

In October 2015 I stopped by India en route back to Sydney from Europe. Here, I caught up with Dhankani one typically warm Chennai morning to discuss his work and thoughts on photography.

Kimberley: So tell us what you’ve been working on in the mountains.

Rahul: I’ve been working with nomadic shepherds called the Changpa, spread out across the Indo-Tibetan plateau. They migrate along an established route and stay in the same settlements year after year, moving according to the seasons. A few years ago, I was up in the mountains working on another project. A friend told me about the shepherds and it sounded interesting, so I drove out with him to one of the settlements and stayed for a few days. That’s when I felt that this was a subject that I needed to keep working on. It’s been four years since, and every summer I keep going back and try to go a little deeper into their lives. As I’ve been working I’ve been noticing how their lives are slowly changing, and modern social conveniences are influencing them.

K: For example?

R: The way they dress, the kind of food they eat, they’re changing over from using traditional tents made out of yak hair to using synthetic tents. The young adults are moving to cities and not wanting to come back, so it’s mostly old people and very young children left. So it feels like their traditional way of life is dying; even the way they move around on foot and live in tents is disappearing slowly. It’ll be interesting to see how the next five years pans out, it’s only been a decade since Ladakh has has opened up to the outside world and change has started to come in.

K: What is it about this project that makes you come back every year?

R: I think, A, the fact that traditional life is disappearing and won’t be around in five or maybe ten years, and the rate of change is interesting. Every year when I go back there’s change that’s significant enough to see visually. So for me it feels like a project that will never end and something that I can keep going back to.

K: Have there been any external influences on your work?

R: I think all photographers are constantly influenced by other work that they see and what’s happening in the industry around them, so they keep changing. But in general my work is, not influenced, but I have great admiration for the work of Koudelka, he’s probably one of the photographers whose work I can really respect and look up to. Recently I’ve been looking at the work of James Whitlow Delano in Japan and Mongolia. So I think I try not to let it influence my own work, but subconsciously it happens.

K: That’s true. Yesterday I was reading Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’, and she talks about photographers like Diane Arbus photographing people who are on the fringes of society. She was saying how it’s a bourgeois indulgence; the photographer is a visual tourist who is never really part of that world…

R: I guess in some ways that always holds true, but on the other hand to make a good picture and to really be within the moment you have to connect as much as you can. There’s a certain limit because you’re not from there and you don’t speak that language and haven’t lived that life, but you have to try as much as you can to avoid that exoticism. There was a point in photographic history where it was prevalent and accepted, but I think where photography is now it’s important to not do that and be one with your subject. When I shoot, I usually go with a local translator and not just go in there and start making pictures, I try to talk to people and sit down have a meal with them or have some tea with them…I stay in the tent with them and maybe on the second or third day I start shooting once they’ve become familiar with me.

K: Do you think there are still photographers who just go in and make pictures?

I’m sure there are. Since you mentioned Susan’s book, there’s this one line she mentions earlier on where she says that photography is like sex, a lot of people are doing it but very few are doing it right.

K: Hah that’s so true. Let’s talk about photography in India. Is there a certain stage that Indian photography is at now?

R: I think it’s difficult to say. I think you can’t just look at India, you have to look at the whole subcontinent, like Bangladesh has a huge photography scene and a lot of that does influence us so you need to look at this region as a whole. Also different parts, like Bangladesh and Bengal has a certain style in which they’ve become renowned for. There are people breaking away and doing new things, but in the past there’s been a very concrete visual style.

K: Give me an example?

R: The most well known are from east Bengal, Bangladesh, people like Muneem Wasif, and then there’s Sarker Protick who’s moving away from the traditional Bangladeshi visual style and doing some great work.

K: And the Lighthouse. What was the vision there?

R: The idea was to create a space where artists can come together to share and collaborate, work together, grow together so we thought we’d have interesting workshops, screenings, gatherings to kind of propagate the idea of collaboration because I feel that collaboration is a very important tool for artists and to be able to do it efficiently is not something that comes naturally to photographers. We’re very individualistic and egoistic people. So to create a space where everyone feels comfortable in and safe in, to be able to talk about photography with people who you trust, that’s the idea we set out with. Only time will tell if we have been able to achieve some of that or not. The level of trust you create when you’re in the same physical space as someone is vastly different from interacting with someone over the Internet. So there is a need for these kinds of spaces especially in India where the photographic community is kind of like …there are pockets of solidarity but it’s kind of spread out. Like the rest of India, we’re scattered around, both physically and mentally.

K: Are there any Indian photographers whose work you like?

R: I really like Pablo Bartholomew’s early work, I like Sunil Janah’s early work too on Indian tribes…and then obviously the great masters like Raghubir Singh. I don’t want to say Raghu Rai, but I think at least to some extent every photographer in India when they just pick up a camera is at least to some extent influenced by Raghu and his work. What’s amazing about him is that at the age he is, he still wakes up every morning and goes out and takes pictures. That in itself, that he’s been doing it for so many years and to reach where he’s reached and still have that drive and energy motivation to keep doing it and take it a step further, I think that’s inspirational more than anything else.

K: Finally, as visual storytellers we like to think we can leave a legacy, or our mark with our images. What do you hope to achieve?

R: I don’t think I’m concerned with leaving a legacy…I think for sure if you think about how my work is going to impact my subject, audience and me, but when it comes to leaving a legacy I don’t think it’s within the control of the individual. There are so many factors that control how well your work does. The best you can do is work hard and be true to your subject, and the rest depends on where your work goes, who likes it…a lot of that is not part of what you do as a photographer but about being in the right place and right time. I don’t think that concerns me so much. I try to put my work out there and get people to see it, but their reaction is not something I can control. I think where I am as a photographer right now, creation is more important especially when we’re talking about the nomads project in particular; I don’t think the time is right to focus on dissemination. It’s still in its creation phase.

To learn more about the Lighthouse Calcutta visit: http://lighthousecalcutta.com/