Neeta Satam On Photography With A Critical Consciousness
Neeta Satam is exactly the type of photographer friend you want supporting you if you are growing in the field. She sees the potential in your work and kindly suggests paths to take and issues to consider. Paired with Neeta’s compassion is a deep understanding for the role that photography plays in telling the stories of humanity and the precious natural surroundings we live in. Read on to find out more.
Bryn: I want to go back to the last time we talked. You explained why it’s good to study something else besides photography before you become a photographer. So as a way of explaining how you came to photography, do you want to explain what you were thinking then?
Neeta: Sure, I would be happy to. I actually studied geology back in India. In college, I took two semesters of a basic photography course. It was something that got me interested in photography, and it taught me the basic technical skills of handling a camera, practicing black and white film developing, enlarging, and you know, those kinds of things. Which was great, because I ended up pursuing photography as a hobby in the years to come.
I moved to the U.S. in the year 2001 to study environmental policy, and I went to graduate school in Southern Illinois. After graduating, I actually took up a career as an environmental scientist in the environmental consulting industry, and I had about an eight-year career consulting for agencies like U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Department of Energy, and I worked on a lot at Superfund sites, which are considered some of the most contaminated places in the U.S. I was very disillusioned with what I was seeing day to day in terms of environmental degradation, and I kind of felt that there was a need to involve myself in some kind of activism to be able to bring about awareness to these issues. I always felt that a lot of environmental reporting covers certain kinds of topics, and it doesn’t necessarily get into some of the areas that critically need attention.
So, I quit my job in the year 2010, and I spent the next two years traveling across rural America and Southeast Asia, and the only thing I wanted to do in those two years was photograph. I was photographing in all of these places that I was traveling through. And through my journey in the U.S., I ended up on a Native American reservation in Eastern Washington, it’s called Wapato Reservation. I actually lived there with a Native American family for almost six weeks. My time in Wapato changed the way I saw photography. It kind of really drew me towards documentary photography, because I was really shocked at what I was seeing on the reservation in terms of issues with suicide, gun violence, and alcoholism, and it was just a very sorry state of affairs. I wondered “why is no one telling these stories?”
I feel like the Western media is always parachuting into the East and showing what kind of poverty and human rights issues there are out there. I wonder if they conveniently forget what is happening in their own backyard, because it’s probably something that this country doesn’t want to talk about. Certainly that is what influenced me in terms of taking up photojournalism and documentary photography. In the years to come, I went to the Missouri School of Journalism to study photography. Since then, I have been focusing my work on environmental stories, because it’s something that I feel personally connected to and passionate about. As well, I feel that I have the knowledge and the background necessary to research and tell the stories.
When I say that it’s important to study something else before you get into photography, there are couple of intents in saying so. “How do you know what to photograph when you do not know the backstory of the issue?” You will not. For example, when you are photographing climate change, there is not this decisive or defining moment when someone is being shot, or someone is dying, or someone is crying, none of that happens. Climate change is invisible in some ways. So, what do you photograph? In order to know that, you really have to understand the impacts of climate change on a social as well as ecological level. For example, if one is documenting a remote rural community that is impacted by climate change, photograph a lot of agricultural activities, and raising livestock, which would be the primary occupation that sustains the community. One really needs to understand how water scarcity impacts their primary occupation. One needs to understand the social structure of this community to understand how it impacts education and the culture of the community. One really needs to understand the economic, social and cultural implications to be able to give appropriate captions and information to your viewers. So, if you send someone who has no idea what climate change is about and how it impacts people, they would have no idea what to photograph. Say you have studied social work, or pursued gender studies, or political science, you will bring a certain kind of expertise to your passion projects related to the areas you studied. I also feel people that transition from other fields of study into photography are less likely to get indoctrinated. They often bring in diverse perspectives and life experiences which could enable them to challenge the craft in practice or theoretically.
Bryn: I think that you have been working on some really interesting projects, so could you describe briefly the projects that you’ve been working on, and what stories you are telling?
Neeta: I have two long-term projects that I’m working on. One of them is about climate change in the Zanskar region of Kashmir. This is a story on climate refugees in the Indian Himalayas, and specifically about a little village that is at an altitude of 1,300 feet. They are losing their sole source of water, which is a glacier, to climate change. These people have lived in isolation from the rest of the world for centuries, so they do not have any vocational or language skills to adapt into mainstream life. Once the glacier is gone completely, they will be compelled to move into mainstream society.
I am very interested in seeing what happens to the people, because there are 1.8 billion people that get their water from Himalayan glaciers. These people mostly live in small villages and towns across the various watersheds in the Himalayas spread over seven countries. Sooner or later, scientists believe that many major Himalayan glaciers will disappear, so there is going to be a massive refugee crisis in the decades to come. My story is a cautionary tale of the disaster that awaits around the corner should we choose not to do anything about climate change.
Bryn: You said you are working on two large long-term projects, so what is the other story you are working on?
Neeta: Yeah, my other story is about the Loktak wetland in the northeastern part of India, which is over 300 square kilometers, and is a one of a kind ecosystem. It’s a wetland of international importance and it’s likely to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The wetland is threatened by development, climate change and an armed insurgency. The wetlands drain off a river tributary, and some government officials along the line decided that this tributary needed to be dammed, and that the wetlands need to be converted into a reservoir so that they can generate power. The wetland is unique, because it has a green biomass that floats on the surface of water that changes in shape and size, and it moves around throughout the year depending on the season. The wetland is also home to hundreds of species of animals and editable vegetables including the endangered Sangai deer. The Indigenous Methei families actually live on these floating islands. They depend of the wetland as their source of food and livelihood.
In addition, over 100,000 people spread through 40 communities along the periphery of the lake depend on the wetland for food and/or their livelihood. What the government realized was in order to improve the power generation, they needed to start dredging the biomasse. So, they started bringing in these massive machines and redged the hell out of the wetland, converting it into a reservoir. When the Itahi dam was built in 1983, over 84,000 hectares of farm and pasture land were submerged under water. The indigenous communities around the wetland were not compensated or involved in the due diligence process. Several Methei families along the periphery of the wetland, and those living on the wetland, have been evicted from their homes for infrastructure and tourism projects in the past few years. The ongoing development activities and increase in population are stressing the wetland. An ongoing armed insurgency is also resulting in militarization of the region, which brings its own implications to the wetland and the surrounding indigenous communities. Poor resource management policies implemented by the government such as building the Ithai Dam, dredging the biomass, and introduction of non-native fish species, have devastated the ecosystem. Heavy rainfall due to change in climate is causing recurrent floods in the communities around the wetland. It’s a pretty bad situation. It’s an ecological disaster.
Bryn: I’m really interested in what you are doing, because I think that is how we as a society can really learn more about what is going on so we can understand more about our world beyond the small bubble that we live in. I think that when I last messaged you, you were going to be giving a lecture to an online class along with several other photographers who were Pulitzer grantees. Do you want to talk about that?
Neeta: Sure. I am collaborating with a Kashmiri photographer named Showkat Nanda, who has received a grant from Magnum for reporting in Kashmir. As you know, Kashmir has gone through decades of conflict, which has mostly been covered by international photojournalists. There’s never been much of an insider’s perspective on the conflict in Kashmir. Showkat is a Kashmiri but has been working for international outlets. He’s been on the forefront on trying to educate the emerging photographers breaking into the international scene, because he believes that not all work done by the international photographers is nuanced in terms of telling the story, and that there needs to be an insider’s perspective. He believes there is more to Kashmir than just conflict.
I collaborated with Showkat along with three other photographers who are Pulitzer Center grantees and National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale to teach the online course. It was mainly focused on documentary photography and the ethics of the craft. In Kashmir there is some incredible local talent, but most people don’t have access to learning what is happening on the international scene and what documentary photography is about. A lot of them focus on covering daily conflict news while many other stories related to education, gender inequity, health, and environmental issues remain untold. So, the goal of the workshop was to help photographers learn how to tell in-depth nuanced stories as opposed to purely focusing on covering breaking news on conflict.
Bryn: Okay, awesome! And do you want to talk about the Pulitzer Center grant that you got? I think that is something that a lot of people will recognize, and I’m very excited to chat with you about the process and what you have been able to do with that.
Neeta: Sure! The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is an internationally renowned journalism foundation based in D.C., and they have an endowment fund that allows them to fund stories on international under-reported issue. They give grants for various types of reporting projects for which they put out calls throughout the year. Documentary photographers, investigative journalists, and reporters working in different areas keep their eyes out for the calls. In 2017, they put out a call for a Science Reporting Grant that was available for a health, science or environmental reporting. I had already researched my story on the Lokat wetland and was getting ready to shoot it when I saw the call. I had my preliminary interviews done, I had probably read through, I don’t know, 600 or 700 pages of content which included environmental reports related to the issue and news pieces reported in the local media there. I was going to work on the project irrespective of someone funding it or not. I was determined to do the story, so when I saw that call, I thought my project fit into exactly with what they were looking for.
I have been very fortunate that both my Loktak Wetland and Climate Change in Zanskar projects have been funded fully. That sure sounds like music to ears, but there is a lot of work necessary in terms of research, planning logistics, and implementing the work. It took me several weeks of work in terms of reading through all the materials, and understanding what the story was about, who my sources were going to be, who I was going to photograph, and why. So, that’s a very important aspect of writing a grant.
Bryn: I think you raise a good point. My experience was that a lot of times you had very short deadlines to apply, and it was oftentimes setting you up for a situation where you would not be able to get enough sleep. There was just not physically enough hours in the day to do everything that you would need to do. So, there’s a lot of sacrifice to get these grants.
Neeta: Yeah, but you learn so many things in the process. You learn to prioritize and think critically. It takes a lot of work as well as critical thinking when you are drafting up your proposal. You could easily say, well, it’s a wetland that’s endangered, and I want to go photograph it. That’s not how it works. You really have to break it down to things like why the story needs to be told and why now. You have to convince your panel why you are uniquely qualified to do the project, that you have access to shooting the project and you have a project plan to be able to pull off the logistics once you receive the grant.
In my case, both Kashmir and Manipur have been facing decades of armed insurgency. So there were personal safety and trauma issues to be considered as well both in terms of writing the proposal, and pulling off the project in the field without endangering myself. I needed to have a plan to address those concerns. In Zanskar, I was working at a high altitude in an unforgiving terrain. Since the village is facing a drought, there was no way I could shower for days or weeks. There was no access to cell phone service or any modern amenities. Working there put me through weeks of psychological isolation. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but very lonely. In winter, the temperatures in Zanskar dropped down to 30 below zero and there were no space heaters. The only way to get to the village was trekking a frozen river for five days in Arctic like temperatures without a cell phone or a satellite phone. If you get hypothermia or AMS, there are no rescue helicopters.
Working in both places also meant coming under the scrutiny of the law enforcement who are often suspicious of your presence in a conflict zone or border region. In India, journalists often face harassment and threats from parties that have vested interests in the issues you are reporting on. These challenges worsen when you are a woman and working in places with political turmoil. To be honest, I found it wasn't easy and I realized it took a psychological toll while I was in the field and afterwards. So the hard part of the process to me was not just coming up with the perfect 250 words of project summary and a stellar project plan. It was a lot more work after that. That’s summarizes my experience so far with both my funded projects.
Bryn: My next question is who would you say has been influential in your photography?
Neeta: I started my journey learning about documentary photography by taking a workshop with Ed Kashi. I admire him a lot both as a person and a photographer. But in terms of past work that’s been done, I really admire the work of photographer Robert Frank. I think anybody who has studied documentary photography, or photojournalism would not walk away without knowing his book The Americans. Robert Frank was not an American photographer, he moved to the U.S. from Switzerland, and he spent several years traveling across America, and documenting the U.S. As an outsider he showed what America is like. It’s a very interesting perspective and shakes the viewers perception of the American Dream. I also love the work of Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, and Deborah Willis. Stanley Green was an amazing photojournalist and documentary photographer as well. Amongst the contemporary photographers, I like the work of Nina Berman, Daniella Zalcman, Maggie Steber, and Magnum Photographer Newsha Tavakolian. Especially Zalcman is a firebrand, I would recommend people follow her on social media.
Bryn: Okay, I’ll have to check them out. Thanks for giving me so many names! What advice would you give a photographer who is looking into getting into photojournalism?
Neeta: Pursuing photojournalism or documentary photography is somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, you have an opportunity to experience humanity, and on the other hand you don't make a whole lot of money. Media organizations are shrinking, so there are lesser jobs than there have been historically. A lot of photographers mostly freelance and stay in the business, or do well by doing commercial work, because that’s where the money comes from. They work on their documentary passion projects, or cover breaking news, or shoot editorial assignments as and when opportunities arise. While on the surface there is a lot of glamour associated with the profession, there is a stressful dynamic happening behind the scenes, and it’s important that aspiring photojournalists are aware of that. The competition for every editorial assignments and grants is fierce.
Based on my conversations with aspiring photographers, it seems like they want to be a photojournalist, because they want to travel the world to be able to photograph other places. That desire is problematic, because it’s somewhat driven by a hunting instinct or some type of self gratification that follows an image capture. It's obvious that their quest is driven by the pursuit of exotic places. I often hear people say they would love to photograph markets in Morocco, or the ghats of the River Ganges in India, or Tibetan people. I wonder, what if one of the people you want to photograph tells you that they want to show up at your doorstep to photograph you, because you look exotic to them. What if they do so, and post your pictures on their social media channels?
It is important for every photojournalist and documentary photographer to know and understand that photography is a privilege, it’s not your right. You don’t have the right to pull out your camera and stick it in someone’s face and photograph. It’s important to understand the history of photography and to contextualize your images. The act of photographing and the history of the purpose of photography has colonial roots. It’s been about conquering someone’s space. There’s a certain kind of power dynamic that is involved in photographing, because the photographer has the power to show how a person or a scene looks. And photographers could use it to their whim, based on their personal biases. I think photographers should never overlook that power dynamic.
If you spend time studying the history and philosophy of photography, you will realize that a lot of photography is very problematic, because it’s orientalist, eurocentric, colonial making, and racist. It has often been used for pointing out a flaw of the “other.” I would imagine many of your readers must already be aware of the Race Issue that National Geographic put out this month. It points out to the issues I just talked about. I think that emerging photojournalists and documentary photographers should think through these issues and try to change that imbalance and the traditional narrative.
And one more thing that I would like to recommend for any aspiring photographer, is reading books on photography. The most amazing literature on photography has been produced by Susan Sontag, Roland Barth, John Berger, Stephen Shore, these are like fundamental reading.
Bryn: Is there any one book that really stands out in your mind?
Neeta: Susan Sontag’s book titled On Photography. It’s a must read for anyone who is considering getting into photography.
Bryn: What would you recommend that a documentary photographer do to make sure that they are not giving a voice to the people they are photographing, but that they incorporate the voice of the people that they are photographing?
Neeta: I think the word that I would like to use is to amplify their voice, or amplify what they are wanting to tell the general audience. The photographer’s job is to listen and understand their story beforehand. Do the research to ask the right questions. Empathize with the people they photograph. Not be entitled, and not go in thinking you have the right to photograph people. I often see people post photographs they have taken without names in the captions. If you didn’t bother to ask the person you photographed their names, how can you claim to tell their stories?
Bryn: Would you recommend that someone first ask for permission to take photos?
Neeta: I actually don’t photograph people without permission. There are different ways I go about it. Sometimes I do some formal interviews before I show up to photograph. I tell people why I want to photograph them. But, in some situations, it doesn't work out that way. Say, I do not know the person, and there is a moment happening which I want to capture. I kind of wait to read the body language, or wait for some eye contact where someone acknowledges my presence. If it feels like they are fine with me having the camera, then I begin clicking. There is this unspoken language between you and the person, where you know it’s fine or not. As you spend time photographing, you know those cues. You don’t have to walk up to people and specifically ask permission every single time. But I do think that it is just wrong to sneak up on people and photograph them when they are not watching.
Bryn: In speaking to you previously, you have recommended great resources for learning more about documentary photography. I know that you had told me about the workshop in Cuba, Missouri. Do you want to talk about that?
Neeta: One of the finest workshops for documentary photography, and the oldest, is the Missouri Photo Workshop, conducted by the Missouri School of Journalism. It happens sometime in fall. They have 45 participants who are grouped, and each group has two mentors. You go and scout out stories in a small Missouri town, and then you pitch your story to your mentors. The workshop mentors are published editors or established photographers in the industry. You convince them why your story needs to be told, like you would if you worked in a newsroom. Once your pitch is accepted, you go out and shoot the story. You just have 400 frames over a period of one week to shoot. You cannot cheat, and there is no way to cheat, because the workshop staff keeps a count on your frames. That forces you to think through every time you push the button. You have photo critique sessions with your group and mentor each day. Throughout the week, you learn about the progress on stories that other workshop participants are working on as well. There are lectures from mentors in the evening. You work your butt off, and there is no time to sleep. By the end of the week, along with your team and mentors, you edit your work to about a 12-image story with captions, which eventually is published as a book a few months down the line. The photos are also exhibited in the town the last day of the workshop. The exhibition is amazing, because the people you have photographed, as well as those your fellow shooters have photographed throughout the week, actually attend the show. It’s pretty emotional watching them react to the images.
Bryn: That’s awesome!
Neeta: Yeah, so that’s the workshop that I would highly recommend any aspiring documentary photographer to go attend. The workshop instructors are not paid. They are there to give back to the photojournalism community by helping emerging photographers. Your instructor is not going to say you are an amazing photographer, they are going to kick your butt so that you become an awesome storyteller.
Bryn: Well, this has been such an amazing conversation, I really enjoyed it.