Prestigious photo prize honors docu-fiction on India's hidden war

Updated 28th June 2021
Poulomi Basu, From Centralia, 2020
Credit: Poulomi Basu/Courtesy of the artist
Prestigious photo prize honors docu-fiction on India's hidden war
Written by Matthew Ponsford, CNN
Photographer Poulomi Basu hopes that her images of a bloody, under reported war in India won't just raise awareness -- she wants the pictures, which intentionally blur the line between truth and fiction, to push viewers to take action for racial, gender and environmental justice.
"I don't really take pretty pictures," Basu said. "I mean, I'm sure they can be poetic. But ... I like in my work for the lightness to go with the darkness."
Although Basu is based in the UK, her family comes from the Indian state of West Bengal, the birthplace of the communist Naxalite-Maoist guerrilla movement. She's one of four photographers shortlisted for the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, with the finalists' work currently on display at London's Photographers Gallery through September.
Basu's project "Centralia" began when she discovered a box of her late father's photographs and documents detailing his arrest for sympathizing with the Naxalite left-wing guerillas, who India's government consider to be terrorists. Her findings prompted a ten-year journey that took the photographer to conflict zones in central and eastern India to shine a light on the people fighting -- many of them women -- and living amid a half-century-long conflict in which tens of thousands of people have died, according to India's Ministry of Home Affairs.
Basu set out to explore the maxim that "In war, truth is the first casualty" by juxtaposing photojournalistic images revealing violence and death from the heart of the conflict, with staged portraits, cinematic double-exposures, and testimonies from people caught in the fighting that employ novelistic styles. It all comes together to create a work of "docu-fiction," explained Basu, that questions how conflicts like this are portrayed and misrepresented, especially in Western news media.
Poulomi Basu, "Centralia," 2020
Poulomi Basu, "Centralia," 2020 Credit: Poulomi Basu/Courtesy of the artist
This year's Deutsche Börse shortlist and exhibition, which also includes leading artists from China, Algeria and Mexico, reflect four very different approaches. But each entrant sought to mix photography with other art forms, according to curator Anna Dannemann.
"This year, the idea is to have created four completely distinct artist's rooms," she said. "Each of these artists is not just a photographer, they're really multimedia artists. They're using photography but they're using installations, film, objects, documents, in a really particular and really interesting way. And they all create very multi-layered bodies of work that are tackling themes that are so relevant right now."
Chinese artist Cao Fei's room centers on a feature-length fictional film, "Nova," which tells the story of its subject's retreat from a physical city into a digital world -- an idea that feels especially relevant since Covid-19 lockdowns forced many to retreat inside and in front of screens.
Meanwhile, French Algerian artist Zineb Sedira's installation "Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go," presents visitors with a recreation of her living room, and invites them to explore objects, memorabilia and images from her family's cross-cultural history. And finally, Alejandro Cartagena's "A Small Guide to Homeownership" documents the sprawl of US-exported cookie-cutter suburban development across his native Mexico.
The winner of the £30,000 ($42,000) prize, whose past winners include world-renowned photographers including Susan Meiselas and Juergen Teller, will be announced in September.

Complex subjects

Dannemann said Basu's work is emblematic of the layered complexity found in this year's shortlist. Her work spotlights both the people affected by the conflict and the environments -- including scorched forests and burning iron ore mines -- where it has played out. The project addresses themes of natural destruction, gender-based violence and the plight of one of the country's most marginalized communities.
One uncaptioned image (as seen above) shows two women fleeing half-dressed from an unseen threat, which Basu explains was taken as a military truck approached. According to Basu, many of the women guerillas she met joined the fight after witnessing or experienced sexual violence at the hands of security forces.
The Naxalite-Maoist insurgency documented in "Centralia" has been taking place since the 1960s but the conflict was reignited in the early 2000s, following the expansion of mining activities in the resource-rich states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, resulting in farmers and Indian tribes losing land on which they had been living for decades.
Many of the guerrilla fighters Basu met are from the indigenous Adivasi communities, and belong to one of the most marginalized group in the caste system, the Dalits. At the Deutsche Börse exhibition, the photographer included stories of woman fighters killed in the insurgency alongside a science-fiction film tying it to similar environmental conflicts in Brazil, the Philippines and Colombia, as well as protests over racial equality in the US and UK.
Poulomi Basu, "Centralia," 2020
Poulomi Basu, "Centralia," 2020 Credit: Poulomi Basu/Courtesy of the artist
"Indigenous people, and the tribal groups in India are very marginalized communities," said Basu. "The Dalit justice and Adivasi Lives Matter (movements are) very similar to Black racial justice in America."
While Basu says neither she nor the exhibition's visitors are likely to halt the violence in this long-running conflict, she hopes audiences come away understanding the insurgency as being both a feminist conflict against sexual violence and an environmental battle to preserve Indigenous people's connection with the land and nature.
"I want people to understand that this struggle in feminism is still going on, and I want to understand that it is connected to environmental justice," Basu said. "It's a war zone. I can't expect to change laws there overnight. But you can protest more, fight more."
"Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021" is on at the Photographer's Gallery in London, UK, until Sept. 26, 2021.