Canary in a coal mine

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The international photojournalists of the Bombay Flying Club focus on images of India, says Isha Manchanda

ATORN, DULL flag sways against the dark sky in the multimedia story of the village of Jharia in the coal mines of Jharkhand. Images of men collecting coal and women dousing fire emerge through a grey smokescreen. Then, touchingly, a woman called Gayatri Devi talks about the loss of her granddaughter Jyoti.

The sequence is part of the Bombay Flying Club’s latest project, Wasteland, which chillingly opens with the line: “Are you ready to spend six minutes in hell?” The pitch black screen gets only a few shades lighter as the camera lingers on the landscape and the people inhabiting it — there is no space for white. The story, done in collaboration with freelance photojournalist Line Wolf Nielsen, is the first in a 10-part series on industrialisation, climate change and its repercussions that has found instant acclaim on the New York Times Lens Blog.

BUT WHAT is the Bombay Flying Club? Quite simply, the Club comprises a trio of international photographers brought together by their shared fascination for India. The Club’s story began in 2005 when Danish photographer Poul Madsen, who came to India to intern with The Indian Express, shared a house with four other journalists near the Bombay Flying Club in Juhu, Mumbai. Back in Denmark after the internship, Madsen collaborated with fellow photographer 39-year-old Henrik Kastenskov to start an online portal for multimedia journalism that they named the Bombay Flying Club. Twenty seven-year-old Canadian video journalist Brent Foster, who had just started his freelance stint out of New Delhi, joined in early 2009. The trio believes it is important for ‘visual journalists’ to give voice to people and not be trapped into speaking for them. “As journalists you end up spending a lot of time in people’s personal moments and want to give them their own voice,” says Foster, speaking on his cellphone even as he works his way around a cancer hospital in Hyderabad.

The interest in India runs deep. When Foster returned after spending the summer in his hometown of Wallaceburg, he took a deep breath at the Delhi airport and thought, “I’m home.” In the four years since his first visit, 31-year-old Madsen has returned to his “second home” seven times. Kastenskov’s maiden visit to India this year left him enamoured by the subcontinent’s plurality of religions, thoughts and lives. “Most people are shocked when they visit India. It’s so diverse and hectic. But I was fascinated from the beginning,” says Madsen.

Greyscale Scenes depicting the hard lives and abject poverty of people working and living around Jharia’s coal mines
Photos: Poul Madsen

Members of the Bombay Flying Club are careful to avoid depicting the exotic. “When one travels to a new place, it’s easy to see only the postcard images you’ve seen till then,” says Foster who reveals that the Club’s stories stem from a desire to move people and affect change. Foster, who once worked as a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times, is now driven by a need to chase big international stories. “I used to think my pictures could change the world. Now I hope they can change the way one person perceives things,” he says, adding that he tries to go beyond stereotypical ‘third world’ images that are usually quickly snapped up. “Shooting pretty pictures of the Taj Mahal is not what we want to do. But we have to remember that our primary market is the West where our work has been featured in the Time and has been used by Red Cross, among others,” he says. Incidentally, Foster’s photo essay on the half-widows of Kashmir — women who don’t know the whereabouts of their husbands — has been featured on photojournalism website Burn.

‘I look for contradictions between people and their needs. A picture can change the world,’ says Madsen

Tears for fears Portraits of the half-widows of Kashmir
Photos: Brent Foster

If Foster hopes his pictures change perceptions, Madsen is convinced photographs are transformative. “I’m looking for what all photographers are looking for: A contradiction. Between people, their circumstances and their needs. And I still believe a photograph can change the world,” he says. In an intricately connected world where, conversely, there’s a growing sense of distance, the photographers of the Bombay Flying Club are excited by the stories waiting to be told. How to deal with images of the people they choose to represent is a question they constantly ask themselves. It is this sensitivity that is evident in the startling sequences of Jharia’s coal mines and in the tear-stained frames of the half-widows of Kashmir too. Clearly, the Bombay Flying Club is succeeding in its attempt to go beyond the conventional in its images of India.

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