Photo Stories

The Body On The Road

Sondeep Shankar

CAN USE 1984 riots pic Sondeep Shankar.jpg



One of India’s finest photo-journalists, Sondeep Shankar has authored nearly a dozen books and been there, done that in his nearly four decade career, including a few near death experiences in the course of his work.  He was one of the first to cover the rise of militancy amongst Sikhs in Punjab in the 1980s under Bhindranwale. Here, he  talks about what you see and what you leave out when confronted with extreme violence like he was in the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. He spoke with Revati Laul who compiled the excerpts here.


I took this picture during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi. I was coming back from Nand Nagari in East Delhi, where a major killing took place. On the highway, I saw this body burning and people driving past. It was the middle of the afternoon. I stopped and took some pictures.

You have to be sensitive of course in taking a picture like this.  This picture for instance, really doesn’t show any gore. At the same time, you can make out there’s a human being burning and there’s a way in which people passing by are looking at it. That is the story being told here. I would never have taken a picture of just the body. That would just be ugly. You don’t have to shock people with your picture. I don’t think that’s ethical either.

There is an un-written code embedded in your psyche when you are faced with a situation of violence. Don’t be gruesome and don’t play with blood. I remember some pictures of the Bombay train blasts. Some photographers prided themselves in shooting gory pictures. Red blood against a blue wall. It’s senseless and you’re actually getting carried away by the colour and not the human dilemma or  suffering. At the end of the day, photography is an art. So you have to use your sensibilities.

1984 is still ever-present in my head because it was so dangerous to be shooting pictures then. In fact that is the one and only time when I had to shave my beard for fear of being mistaken for a Sikh.

The kind of violence in that time was basically lumpen elements spilling out in the street with no one to control them. On the whole, I think people are civilized to a certain extent. But the kind of violence I saw in South Delhi in places like Vasant Vihar makes it very hard to tell just who is civilized and who isn’t. And it’s not a class thing. Of course, it’s the deprived who eventually take over. But it starts out with the neighbour fighting the neighbour because they know who’s who.

Today, when people talk of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in the same breath as the 2002 anti-Muslim violence, I would say there is one difference between the two. The violence in 1984 went on for four or five days. And then it was controlled. Whereas in 2002, it carried on for months and months. I went to Ahmedabad in Gujarat in 2002, on the very first day of those riots. And I came back because I nearly got lynched in the Naroda Patiya area of Ahmedabad. All my equipment was gone. It happened because I think I got carried away. I didn’t use my judgement fully. There was a group of people who took me in. They led me in and then they turned on me and attacked me. These were Hindus from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the World Hindu Organization) whom I had met two days ago in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. They saw me in Gujarat and they recognized me and I trusted them for exactly that reason. So I didn’t realize what they were trying to do. That’s the thing about these situations. You can’t trust anybody. You just have to take the necessary precautions and shoot. I lost that there.

Of the scariest moments I’ve encountered in taking pictures of extreme violence, there are two instances from Punjab. One was in a place called Kandukheda on the border between Punjab and Haryana. This was after 1984. It was I think in the year 1985. I had just got married. The Akali Dal was in power in Punjab and this area was to vote on whether it wanted to stay in Punjab or be part of the state of Haryana. It was situated at that time in Punjab, so the Punjab police was out in full force. And they didn’t want me and the reporter to go into the village. We insisted on going in, so the police bashed the hell out of us. Then they took us about thirty or forty kilometres away in their police van. And all along the way they kept saying – “Inke tangein tod do inko canal me phenk do”  – “we’ll break their legs and throw them into the canal.” So we were really scared. But then we got dropped off some place and we went to a police station. In those days there were of course no mobile phones and our taxis were stuck elsewhere and they didn’t know where we were. But luckily what happened was that Amarinder Singh (a very prominent Congress leader in Punjab at the time who since then became Chief Minister) had reached that spot and he had heard about what had happened to us. When he heard our names, he came there himself and got us out of there because he knew us.

The second close brush with death I had was in the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This is before its desecration in 1984, but at the height of the Sikh militancy. So it was infested with people with guns. But there was this guy who was sitting very peacefully in the midst of all of this and reading his copy of the Sikh holy book – the Guru Granth Sahib. He was a very good looking Sikh. I took two or three pictures of him using a wide angle lens with the Golden Temple in the background. When he saw that and he got up and caught hold of me. He was actually a dreaded terrorist. So he caught hold of me and said, “That’s it. You’ve taken my picture, now you have to be killed. You cannot go anywhere with this picture.” By now his people had gathered around as well. So I said to him – “Listen. You can do whatever you want to but first let’s go and meet Sant Bhindranwale.” They took me to Bhindranwale, their leader, thinking he’d be on their side. But Bhindranwale was on my side because he knew me. It’s a quick calculation I had to make at the time. He’d known me for a long time. I was one of the first to be covering him. So he told his men – “Inhe chadd do,”  – “let him go.” So you never know in some of these situations, where the help comes from!

Newsrooms in those days were much more liberal than they are today. If you took a good picture, it would get a good display. That was assured. In those days I was working for the Anand Bazar Patrika group and we had great editors like M J Akbar and Aveek Sarkar who liked to give pictures a good display.

The difference between those days and now is  – for one, the styles have changed. Today people tend to think before they shoot. In those days we shot before thinking. You just don’t do that kind of journalism now.


The Man With No Family

Hans Aanki

CAN USE Tilo's story pic

Hans Aanki is an award winning journalist and documentary film maker who describes the trauma and necessity of filming victims of mass violence and his own predicament in these situations. He spoke with Revati Laul and the best excerpts of that conversation are strung together here.

The man in this photo – Abdul Majid is one of the surviving members of a family that was almost entirely wiped out in the anti-Muslim riots of Gujarat, 2002. Whilst his wife and most of his children were killed, one son who stayed with him survived, as did a daughter was married elsewhere. So when the mob attacked their house, Abdul and his son witnessed everything. They saw their family members, including several small children – one of whom was four years old; raped publicly in broad daylight and then burned. He was also attacked with a sabre. But he lay low because he thought he was going to die. His son was also knocked unconscious and set ablaze but he survived.

When I went in to shoot this documentary, from which this still image is extracted; it was a normal town for me. Quite clean in fact, compared with other shanties I’ve been to. Abdul Majid was running a business there and looked pretty upbeat. But as soon as we put to him questions, his eyes would glaze over  and he was looking at nothing. I felt that with every question we asked him, he was re-living his trauma.

His public persona was that of the strong man who survived. We met him during the Eid festival. It was a time of celebration. So he made a huge effort to have the biggest goat and go from house to house, sharing the meat with the community. He really went all out to prove that he was a strong member of the community. For his surviving children he needed to display that he was a strong father. And then, there was the complete opposite part of his identity that was revealed to us when we separated him from the others and sat him down to talk. And he could really reflect on his emotional state. Here he became a completely different person. He shrunk. He had become smaller. Every part of his body communicated to us the fact that he didn’t want to talk about his predicament. But he went ahead with the interview because we spent a lot of time with him, building a relationship of trust. We told him that he was completely in charge. That we would not show anything that he didn’t want. We made him view some of the footage and asked him if it was okay.

Sure, there are moments when you tell yourself that you don’t want to continue this interview. I have a fantastic imagination and that went awry when he just touched upon a couple of subjects. It was the way he spoke. He just about hinted at things and then let the sentence peter out. He spoke in half sentences. The rest was upto us and the translator to fill with our own imagination. Cruel images of how a child gets raped or somebody gets set ablaze who is still alive. In these instances, you realize very quickly that it doesn’t really matter where on the planet you are. When the person has reached his limit, you just do not push further. But equally, when you’re filming someone’s narrative of pain as we were doing, the stronger camera in this case is the camera that stays. Not the camera that further intrudes or the camera that artificially takes itself back. Zooming in is like jumping in the person’s face and zooming out is like leaving a crying child alone in a park.

Of course, you’re constantly asking yourself  – am I overstepping the bounds. There is always this dilemma in such a shoot but then you also ask yourself  what the higher good is here. If the messaging is coming out and if it can be delivered to more people than would normally be reached. And we all want a strong film because a strong film will have strong reactions. Every film ahs an informational aim and an emotional aim. And if both of them meet and interlock, then you are succeeding with telling your story.

When we speak of mass violence, it springs in different places from many different and varied experiences. I’m from a European background with a very violent history. But when it comes to comparisons that are often made between Nazi Germany and the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, structurally, I see huge parallels between what happened in India and the Nazi mobs that attacked Jews. In both cases, the pogroms were politically motivated and the police was withdrawn. In Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels said very clearly – ‘Let the anger of the German people vent.’ And I think that was repeated here. So this is a parallel that I would draw.

Speaking of Germany, the small town where I’m from had a concentration camp. Buchenwald. Geographically it was situated right at the top of a hill. So you could see it from the valley of the town. Which meant that nobody could say – we don’t know what happened there. Since that time in the 1930s, so many interesting changes have happened to my home town. When I was 12, the Berlin Wall came down. East and West Germany became one. So I had history lessons in an Eastern bloc country first – the socialist version of events. After the wall came down, I also got the western democratic version of that topic. In the East, survivors of the Holocaust took a solemn oath – there should never be a war that is born of the German soil ever again. So the last school trip that every child from schools in the area took before graduating was based on this concept. They did not go to the beach. They did not go to the mountains. They went to the Buchenwald concentration camp. To see a horror show of a museum including a lampshade made out of tattooed human skin. The intention was to shock. So the message was hammered in hard to these young people, now going out into the world – `this is your guilt.’  Every single time I am there my heart rate just goes down. The last time I was there it had snowed. So there was no sound at all. The only thing you could hear was your inner voice and your own heart beat.

What makes me very happy is that we now have youth that is the third generation from that time and they can integrate this experience with their world. They are so far away from what happened that they can now say to people that visit – `okay, we come from this town that has these beautiful elements, but it also has THAT. And if you come to this town, you should see both.’

There is good and evil fighting in all of us, constantly.

Abdul’s Story


By Yashas Chandra

Yashas Chandra is a documentary photographer based in New Delhi. His work, focusing on human rights, has allowed him to travel across the country documenting stories of conflict, displacement, development and resistance. With a stunning and varied portfolio, he takes pictures that capture the essential human predicament. Here he recounts what it takes to witness and capture ethnic violence and hate crimes on camera. 

On 25th August, 2012, six young men were travelling in two cars from Amguri Bazar to the nearest town to gather supplies. Against advice, they were travelling without an escort. Their cars were ambushed less than ten minutes after they set off leaving five of the men dead and one missing, presumed dead. Their bodies were either hidden in the surrounding undergrowth or burnt in the cars in which they were travelling. 

A month later, I’m sitting in the admin room at the Amguri Bazar School with five post-mortem reports strewn across the table in front of me. A crowd has gathered, but no one is speaking.

Ethnic clashes had erupted in the west of Assam in July that year. What seemed to be a random act of violence sparked waves of unprecedented violence between the indigenous Bodo tribals and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Dozens of people were hacked to death out on the streets, families were locked in their homes as they burned to the ground, farms were set on fire, women were raped and livestock stolen or killed. More than a hundred people lost their lives in the riots and almost half a million were rendered homeless.

As we went over the details of what happened to those six boys that day, Abdul sat in the corner of the room and never looked up once. Both his sons were in the cars when they were attacked. It’s only after we leave the room that he asks if I want to see pictures of his sons.

I travelled to western Assam, to the epicentre of these clashes in September 2012, shortly after the first wave of violence had abated. The scale of destruction was indescribable. Village after village reduced to ash, burnt cars strewn on the side of the road, but none of this prepared me for the plight of the people in the refugee camps. Their homes were now schools and warehouses, and for some, vast stretches of wasteland. They were living in squalid, severely over-crowded conditions, and surviving on paltry rations, with little or no healthcare. As is fairly typical with the north east of India, it wasn’t long before the mainstream media lost it’s immediate interest in the atrocities committed in this far-flung region. By the time I returned to Delhi at the end of September, it was ‘yesterday’s news’. Without much support of the press, hundreds of thousands of people were relegated to the shadows, without much – if any – assistance from the centre.

I follow Abdul through the crowded school that had now become one of the most populated refugee camps in the district. He leads me into a dark classroom, home now to no less than thirteen families. He goes to his corner and rummages through his belongings, finally pulling out a small plastic bag containing some photographs. I expected to see some bad passport-size photos, but instead I find myself looking at two clumsily composed pictures of the bodies of two young boys, certainly no older than twenty, lying awkwardly on straw mats outside the police station. These are the only photographic records that remain of them. In a world where images have become so ubiquitious, this was particularly jarring.

Stories like Abdul’s echoed through all the camps I visited. Stories of desperation and hopelessness, in each person, permeating into my own transitory experience. Of a cycle of violence and of life under a cloud of fear. His words rang through my body as I left, “Twenty years ago, our idea of home was stripped away from us. We had only just got back on our feet. Now, the same thing has happened. And maybe it will happen again in another twenty years.”