Discovering The Undiscovered: A Glimpse Into The Lost Communities Of The Earth

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INTERVIEWS | 11 minute read | 167 Likes
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In our busy humdrum life we are so obsessed with making ends meet and achieving targets that we often forget the simple blisses life bestows upon us. We overlook the beauty sprawled around us and ignore making meaningful connections.

In my search for something inspiring, I stumbled upon Trupal Pandya, a humble traveller who uses photography to travel to the ends of the earth to capture stories of hidden communities of the world.

Trupal Pandya

I fell into a near obsession and great fascination with the people and culture I was looking at and the idea that I needed to see these people first-hand sprung up from a well of determined curiosity.

Trupal, you’ve travelled to different parts of the world, including some remote areas - tell us what inspires you to tell a visual story?

Early in life I realised the importance of giving voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t have one. The more I became acquainted with the vanishing tribes of the Omo Valley and subsequently the Huaorani of Ecuador and the Konyak of Nagaland, I realised the dire need to give voice to these communities and document this important phase of transition. The rate at which the influence of the outside world is coming in and the increase in frequency that the youth are being lured away, struck urgency in me that demanded to be acted upon.  Time can be such a precious thing and I felt that the essence and beauty of these unique people needed to be captured and shared before it was too late.

Talk us through the experience of interning for the iconic photographer of the ‘Afghan Girl’ Steve McCurry and how that’s influenced you?

My first assignment from Steve McCurry was to handle the processing and cataloguing of the proofs from his most recent trip to the Omo Valley in Ethiopia. While working with the images, the great pause they were meant to induce was achieved in me. I fell into a near obsession and great fascination with the people and culture I was looking at and the idea that I needed to see these people first-hand sprung up from a well of determined curiosity.

tribe woman

When you took your first assignment for the United Nations and travelled to Iraq, what thoughts crossed your mind and how did you mentally prepare for this journey?

As a part of the United Nations’ Development Program, I had to go to Iraq and take portraits of refugees. I knew it would be somewhat heavy considering the emotional weight behind the purpose of the shoot. 

While there, I witnessed first-hand the undying spirit in people who have been plagued with torment. From all the people I photographed, some were captive, some had lost their loved ones, some had travelled hundreds of miles from their homes, and some were there just to help.  What I used to think were noble motivations for being a photographer, now seem petty. This trip was only a small effort to shed light on these amazing human beings and their enduring faith in humanity. And my hope is that the photos I took were able to speak the volumes of courage, strength and resilience I encountered.

Time can be such a precious thing and I felt that the essence and beauty of these unique people needed to be captured and shared before it was too late.

You have captured stunning images of indigenous tribes. How do you build a relationship and a sense of trust that allows them to let you in their community?

When I am traveling, I make an effort to be accepted and assimilate to their ways of life. The first few days that I spend with them I do not photograph them, but wait until they accept me and understand why I am there. This means that I live in their houses with them, sleep where they sleep, and eat what they eat. It’s a part of being accepted and making a connection, I want them to feel comfortable and let their guards down before I start photographing them.

omo valley tribes

Through your photographs you have told stories of undiscovered communities and their rituals? Tell us about an experience that has acquired a particular fondness in your heart?

We were on our way to see the Hamar and it was a nine-hour drive between villages. We were at a slow crawl along the rocky road and had come to a stop when a bushman jumped out from the scrub to inspect the car. Having been enveloped in such warmth and enthusiasm around my purpose to photograph the people, I casually took out my camera and began to take pictures of the bushman. He came over to us, friendly. I showed him the view screen and his own image. I was expecting the same kind of excitement that had been shown by all previous happenings with the tribal people. But this man, upon seeing his picture, having possibly never before seen himself this way, grew quite concerned. He was soon very distressed, then angry. Taking a stick he began to shout at me. He thrust the stick at me and tried to take the camera. The fierceness and violence raging in his eyes had me frozen. Alex, Emany and the driver had come around the van. The bushman continued to shout and hail the stick at me, grabbing at the camera I was clutching tightly. Emany tried to talk to him. The speed of their foreign words with the weight of rage shot through me cold. He was trying to take from me the most important item I’d ever owned! Just then, the driver returned from the van carrying a pistol that had been stashed under the seat. He pointed it at the bushman who reluctantly surrendered the stick and his attempt to take my camera. Shaken up, we got back into the van and went on our way. I sat tensely in the seat trying to shake off my distress.

“What was that guy so mad about?”

“He wanted his soul back,” Emany answered.

“What?” I was jolted from my jitters.

“The man wanted the camera, because he thought you had captured his soul that his soul was now inside of it. He does not understand that it is just a photograph.”

The man who was trying to take from me the most important thing I’ve ever owned, though I had taken from him the only thing in life that has ever mattered. I felt terrible and vowed that from then on, I would ask before I took anyone’s photo. When the shock began to wear off the realisation about the gun came to the forefront of my mind, the comprehension that I’d been riding around for six days with a man I didn’t know, who’d had with him a loaded weapon, mere inches from my seat, the whole time.

naked tribe

The man wanted the camera, because he thought you had captured his soul that his soul was now inside of it. He does not understand that it is just a photograph.

Walk us through your thought process when you travelled across India, captured stories of the aghoris and the different sub cultures you’ve witnessed in the country?

I have always been a traveller, but photography came to me a little later in life. Once I realised my passion for photographing, there was no looking back, it gave me a reason to travel and became a way that I could answer my own questions. I had always heard about Aghoris from elders and my parents, they were very respected, but also feared people. The purpose of me traveling to them was to see why people were afraid of them, and to overcome that fear. The same thing happened with the Eunuchs and transvestites in India who are normally not accepted in society and are known to intimidate people, so I had to photograph them and travelled to a festival where you meet thousands of them. I think it’s safe to say that my curiosity and the urge to answer my own questions has kept me going all these years.

This June you will be making your third trip to share stories of the tribes of Omo Valley in Ethiopia. Can you tell us why this place is so close to your heart.

They were the most beautiful people I have laid eyes on, some of them were bare naked, some had adorned themselves with beads, some had painted themselves with ash, yet they all had a sense of regality to them. And that raw beauty in its most natural form is what I want to show the world through my photographs. The people of Omo Valley compelled me to reassess the way I looked at life, rather retold me of what is important. We get too caught up in the rat race called life, Ethiopia reminded me that money is not important to be happy, what matters is the hunt for our own happy place where we see beauty in all things.

The first time that I went to Ethiopia and was connected to my guide and translator Emany, I was very skeptical. I was unsure if he was going to cheat me or how I was going to handle being in Ethiopia. However, it was the opposite, as time went on Emany and I grew a very strong bond. We always kept in touch and I had promised him that I would go back to give the prints back to the rightful owners in the tribes and meet him. Meanwhile, back in the US, I created him a website which helped Emany with his touring business. We kept in touch and I went back the next year, but this time it felt like home. This time I am going back to teach a workshop which will eventually raise money to help Emany get a car to help him grow.

tribal woman

We get too caught up in the rat race called life, Ethiopia reminded me that money is not important to be happy, what matters is the hunt for our own happy place where we see beauty in all things.

Kevin Carter’s famous photo ‘Struggling girl’ went through harsh criticism in the media. As a documentary photographer what are your views on ethical limits in photography and how do you stand by it?

In my life I have made it a priority that I maintain a level of dignity and respect for the people I photograph. My photographic process starts long before I actually take a picture. Once I have chosen a project, I take a lot of time to learn and understand the people and culture that I am going to photograph. For me it is not only a photograph but a story of someone’s life that I am sharing to the world. This cannot be done without thinking about the lasting impacts that my images will have with its viewers. I also believe these responsibilities do not leave once I have taken a photograph. Where the photograph is represented, how it is displayed, and what I choose to say with the images are equally as important.  

For me it’s also about the human connection and these amazing relationships that I form with people from different parts of the world.

 

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