Behind every successful structure stand the men who got their hands dirty building it. These are the men photographer Samar Singh Jodha is interested in.
Jodha, who splits his time between New Delhi and Dubai, has been documenting the lives and labour of migrant workers for several years, and he did the same during the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi last year.
The Games were built on a stack of controversies and ended in a blaze of glory, but Jodha was more interested in the migrant workers who came in the thousands to build the city’s stadiums and infrastructure in time for the Games to be held.
Jodha wanted the photographs to be exhibited in Delhi at the start of the Games but was hard-pressed to find a gallery space. His photographs are now part of a show called Staging Selves: Power, Performativity and Portraiture, which opens on 2 September at Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery. Jodha will share the space with eight other artists from India, Iran and China, including Ravi Agarwal, Sheba Chhachhi, Gauri Gill, Han Bing, Malekeh Nayiny, Tejal Shah, Waswo X. Waswo, and O. Zhang.
Jodha’s initial attempt was to shoot the workers at the Commonwealth Games construction sites, but he later took the photographs at the location where the workers stayed—in temporary sheds built on a garbage dump. He shot several portraits of people he deliberately does not identify, who worked for undisclosed wages in unfriendly conditions.
“It’s not just about the Commonwealth Games or child labour or house help,” says Jodha. “There are many messages which, as an artist, you have the platform to showcase. From social scientists to the media, everyone talks about these issues, so it’s no secret. But often, it becomes so set or slotted that it fails to trickle down to the public. I hope I can bring out that message.”
Jodha worked alone and shot with a regular digital camera so as not to attract attention. He says the layman is usually camera-friendly but “you want to shoot them the way they are without making them too conscious”. The project took him about six months to complete.
His exhibits, titled Whose Commons Whose Wealth, will include five light boxes, 12 digital portrait prints on concrete and one larger image on canvas. The images are on concrete blocks because that’s what the men worked with. The images in light boxes, Jodha says, hint at the “glitz of the Games in a temporarily spruced up city, with disparities and civic ugliness being masked by neon signage”.
Jodha has been working on conflict issues and the subject of migrant workers since the early 1990s, with specific interests in marginalization and the effects of urban development. He says the story remains the same, whether it is workers in California, US, or Nepalese labourers in West Asia.
“Major sporting events affect the largest numbers of people, more than any other political issue,” says Jodha. “I have just tried to identify how some people contributed to the show.”
Samar Singh Jodha’s pictures will be on exhibit as part of Staging Selves: Power, Performativity and Portraiture at Sakshi Gallery, Colaba, Mumbai, from 2-25 September
Photographs by Samar Singh Jodha