The Space Without
Through Her Lens was conceptualized just over a year ago, when some of us started conversations on decolonizing research and making accessible ideas, thoughts and movements that emerge from and rightfully belong to indigenous communities in the Northeast. While gender often gets relegated to the sidelines when there are issues
of racism, land rights and resource extraction, settler colonialism and more, we wanted to provide a platform to center these issues through the eyes of women, queer, trans and non binary persons. What was common, and continues to manifest in each edition of the exhibition in different forms, is how the negotiation revolves around the idea/concept of space. Putting a physical exhibition in the central park of Namchi in February 2020, where first time photographers travelled to see their photographs displayed in a public space — pictures which were so personal and often of domestic space, but which also revealed the political undertones of labour, agency, etc. — to documenting the pandemic and the lockdown in Reframing the Domestic (RtD) through the eyes of ASHA (accredited social health activist) workers, has expanded what we imagined in the beginning and has taught us so much along the way. THL was always imagined as an exhibition which will not theorize the lives of women and marginalized genders, which will engage with questions of class, ethnicity, caste and indigenous identities in ways we know best — through storytelling.
This new edition of THL, The Space Without, follows in the footsteps of RtD and delves into a life post-lockdown with a continuing healthcare-labour-ecological crisis. Public spaces have been historically exclusionary to several groups of people—whether it is the way they’ve been built to serve the needs and abilities of a few, or when it comes down to who has unfettered access to them. However, where there is repression, there is resistance, and The Space Without is an archive of this resistance.
Mridu, Bidisha, Karuna, Anushya
On 3 October 2020, several activists in Guwahati came in solidarity for a peaceful protest against the injustice meted out to the Hathras (Uttar Pradesh) rape victim. The placards and banners, in both Assamese and English, questioned the continued violence against girls and women and the inability of the state to protect them and deliver justice. The protestors also stressed the issue of Assam recording the highest crime rate against women in the country. Although the protest was carried out within the ambit of the norms imposed by the lockdown, the state forces barricaded the area to impede people from conducting a peaceful rally. The Northeast region saw multiple protests during this period, as state impunity for caste based crimes and sexual violence resonated with indigenous communities battling against AFSPA and structural impunity.
An independent researcher from Guwahati working on issues of culture, gender and identity. She likes to make images and is still learning the art of photography.
A psychologist and an independent researcher, currently working as a faculty member at the Department of Psychology, Royal Global University, Guwahati. Her photographs have been represented in Through Her Lens: Reframing the Domestic, 0print magazine, Angkor Photo Festival and Long-listed for the Toto Funds the Arts.
These photographs were taken in September 2020 as lockdown restrictions were easing across Assam. We were driving to Mazbat tea estate in our old Maruti ZEN to visit the family of a relative who had passed away from a cardiac arrest. I didn’t stop to take any of the images but let my camera capture whatever it could en route. It was only a few months later, during processing, when I noticed a near absence of women in the frames. These 11 images are originally selected from a collection of 164 images taken on the same day. Less than 10 percent of my photos are of women. My initial reaction was that of doubt. Did I make a latent choice to see and capture only men in the public sphere? Or do these images portray the current reality? I then began to consciously look at the public spaces and now I wonder if years of struggle by women to forgo the boundaries of public and private has dissipated during the pandemic?
A PhD scholar at the Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi. She hails from Assam and is currently juggling between the medium of academic writing, visual art and poetry to portray various gendered realities.
Unchanged Frames depicts some chance encounters during my first bus ride post lockdown between Guwahati and Nagaon in Assam. Rather than focusing on what has altered, I was curious to explore those routine aspects that have remained unchanged for women during the pandemic by observing the inside-outside interface of the bus and as a woman traveler myself. What I realised was that some frames remain unchanged. In a bus dominated by male bodies there’s a constant need to be aware of unsolicited gazes, be vigilant to and avoid unwanted physical contacts and shoulder maternal responsibilities. Shifting my lens out of the moving bus, I saw women carrying on with their activities as earning members of the family and simultaneously fulfilling their roles as mothers and wives as well. Public spaces are not devoid of women, but these spaces are also rife with the anxieties for them.
A Mass Communication and Journalism student at St. Joseph’s College,Darjeeling. She is a Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Photography Grantee 2020-21 and considers herself to be an aspiring photographer.
Paruka Chettri runs an NGO in Darjeeling which rescues and protects stray dogs. Due to the nature of her work, she often has to be out on the streets on her own, at times even at odd hours. When I met her, she was generous enough to share her stories and I was, especially, intrigued by how she said she had crossed the barrier of fear of working alone in public spaces. Her experiences were in stark contrast to mine. And I recollected a recent incident during the lockdown when I was heading to the pharmacy with my sister. It was a foggy day with very few people around. A few moments later we noticed an eccentric-looking man following us. I caught his gaze for a second and it terrified me. But we kept on walking, not knowing what else to do. Thankfully, a neighbour saw us and he warned the stranger, who then turned around and walked away.
On the one hand, incidents like these make me feel helpless and I lose confidence in being alone outside. On the other, I see women like Paruka Chettri who remain undeterred by all the challenges and stay committed to their work. I draw strength from people like her and try to get over my internalised fear.
This series of photo performances was devised and taken by Mwdai, and edited by Yashasv Saluja under the creative direction of Mwdai. This is their first consolidated work and
is a work in progress.
Performing Safety is a work in progress comprising two series of photo performances—‘A Study in Private’ and ‘Close to Open’. The latter constitutes two further episodes, namely ‘Open for Business and ‘Noh’ao Tangnw’. The series starts with the picture titled ‘Act 1: No’ao Tangnw’. The pictures included are part of Ep 2. Noh’ao Tangnw’, loosely translated as ‘I want to go home’, encapsulating the longing as well as the failure to find safety and comfort, physical or otherwise at the onset of the pandemic, thus setting the tone for the series.
Act 1: Longing for Contact
Noh in Bodo translates to home or house. These images were devised to convey the anxiety and anguish around the need and want to feel secure during a global pandemic. As a migrant who left home very early to study in the capital, returning home is something that is considered quite natural and almost inevitable. As the pandemic set in, an urgent desire was felt to go back home, a place where one is at ease with their surroundings and themselves, a place where people can access love, care and safety (from the virus).
Home, then, no longer just means a physical space, or a sense of belonging, but becomes a mode of existing within a temporal site. However, one’s longing and hope for home, a space that once used to be a seemingly safe space, to remain the same can be overridden by fear. This can be the fear of not being accepted/understood by family, and not being able to live one’s life authentically––perhaps the home is no longer a space (both physically and mentally).
These factors can prevent one from returning back home. In the midst of crippling anxiety surrounding one’s healthcare status, this too becomes a source of misery and anguish.
Act 2: Too Close for Comfort
One personally finds it difficult to unpack the experience of being queer and increasingly identifying as a non-binary person, both in physical spaces as well as the digital. Being an indigenous person from the Northeast and quite conspicuously ‘female’ in appearance hasn’t made one’s life very easy as a migrant in the public spaces of the capital. Casual offensive terms are thrown one’s way, and one is subjected to indignities meant to demean one’s personhood.
On a similar note, close-knitted queer spaces, predominantly occupied by cis queer men, are famously rumoured to be casually misogynistic and
toxic. It is extremely taxing to navigate these spaces or search for safer ones.
While the online space has made new, safer, groups more accessible, witnessing people (especially women, trans folks, gender non conforming people and those from minority and marginalised communities) being subjected to abuses online is not only jarring, but instills one with a sense of dread and hopelessness for one’s own future engagements online.
How safe is one in the digital space? Online spaces have increasingly started to mimic offline ones—case in point being a piece of ‘fiction’ a self-proclaimed author posted on Instagram, which grossly sexualised and objectified a Northeastern woman.
In the face of constant harassment, visible violence and the infringement of one’s privacy and freedom, one does wonder if the online space will ever really be safe for marginalised communities or whether it will marginalise them further.
Act 3: Tête-à-tête
One vividly remembers a few incidents during the pandemic when one felt particularly vulnerable and discriminated against.
One sees a lot of influential people, sometimes politicians, wilfully calling COVID-19 the ’China Virus’. People have been spewing hate against China, and there were reported incidents of racial violence against ‘Asian’ people worldwide. The frequent occurrence of these incidents formed a pandemic of their own.
From a scooter zooming past with masked youths shouting ‘China Virus’, a grocery vendor being visibly reluctant to entertain one after registering one’s appearance, and to people subtly moving to the other compartment in an empty metro the second they perceive one’s features, all these events have made for an exhausting pandemic experience. One just wants to leave everything and go home to sleep!
Act 4: Do Gaj ki Duri Hai Zaruri
While on grocery runs during the early phases of the lockdown, one noticed that public spaces were often occupied by men, lightly peppered by one or two women here and there.
It made one wonder if this mimicked the workforce somehow, and if a grocery run had somehow turned on its head to become a gendered act with men actively engaging in fetching and providing food for the table, or if their public presence was because they were the ones that had the privilege to step out.
One still remembers the vulnerability felt in the presence of a considerable number of men in a long queue of a grocery store, being the only visibly female Northeastern person in the same shared space. The anxiety that one would be discriminated against and subjected to racial microaggressions made one chant Noh’ao Tangnw silently under one’s breath.
A PhD scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is originally from Imphal West, Manipur. She is interested in looking at cultural and folk objects, aesthetics and ideas of beauty through a gendered lens.
Most of the photographs in the series were taken during the unlock phase of the pandemic in Manipur. These are vignettes of everyday struggles, liberation, agency, identity and celebration. One of the significant things I noticed whilst narrating the stories of these women from diverse backgrounds through my camera was both the assertion of their collective presence in public spaces but also the need to uphold individuality. I have tried to visibilise intersectional identities and create inclusiveness through images, but there were also instances where people freely voiced their opinions but refused to be photographed. In a way, maybe this was also a way of advocating their personal agency within the public space.
The sign “LADIES SIDE” in this public toilet makes me wonder if the category “ladies” is inclusive of all intersections of women?
A popular beauty parlour in Imphal run by Nupi Manbis. Nupi Manbis are individuals who choose to live as women.
A group of friends from the Nupa Shabi community celebrating a birthday picnic. Nupa Shabis are individuals who choose to live as men.
Imas (mothers) at Khwairamband Keithel after the shutdown of Ima Keithel (Ima market). I found out that the police force them to evacuate at least twice or thrice in a day. Sometimes they also have to forfeit their goods to the authorities who claim the Imas are illegally occupying the space.
Soon after I was enlightened about the daily tales of confrontation between the Imas and the police, I witnessed a similar account nearby. This moment also made me realise how street photography can be a powerful tool in narrating social realities.
An Ine (aunt) selling singju—fresh vegetables and herbs mixed with fermented fish. In Meitei society, one never sees a man selling singju. I wonder why this dish has been feminised?.
I met this Iche (sister) in a soft toy factory that she runs with another woman. Both the Iches confessed that they saw their income plummet during the pandemic. Before this, they earned substantial profits during annual fairs.
An Ine selling momo (dumplings). At this outlet, customers were also seen defying the mandatory protocols of wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
In Meitei ceremonial rites, apart from the two ritual singers in the centre, the first rows on all three sides are reserved for elderly male invitees. Women’s positions are always in the rear seats.
Dusk has arrived, so has the hope for the end of the pandemic. Women are seen selling vegetables on the streets of their leikai (locality).
A final year undergraduate student of Communication and Media, English and Psychology at CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore. She is originally from Darjeeling. Prajakta believes that images help her perceive the world a little better, whenever words fall short.
Perhaps, the only brief respite from domesticity these days are social spaces that are, of course, accessible only to a privileged few. Even then, I find the desired social connections to be missing. I have been home for nine months now and I feel like I have travelled back in time to my school days because I sense a loss of independence in a way. I have realised that I have lost touch with friends in my hometown and the few people that I get along with are “restricted” because they seem to require permission from their families to go out. Although the lockdown is easing and things look like they’re going back to “normal”, I still see images of locks and closed shutters in my head.