One of the pioneers of photojournalism in Assam, Utpal Baruah is a trendsetter. He could break the stereotype that photojournalism was all about conventional pictures in the state. The media was at a nascent stage when he began his career 22 years ago when the newspapers took regular photos on expected lines - of ministers inaugurating functions and giving speeches. In those days, he used to double up as a reporter as well as a photographer as he was interested in both.
It was sometime in 1994 when he managed to take a sensational photograph of four ULFA cadres being cremated together in one funeral pyre by the police in Nogaon, Assam. The photo clearly showed that the dead ULFA cadres were being burnt by a policeman who had his face covered. Instead of wood, used tyres were thrown on top of the bodies, and burnt.
Baruah happened to be at the crematorium at that time. The policemen saw him clicking away, but did not realize that his actions could assume dangerous proportions. 'They thought I was just a photographer. What harm could I do?' But when, the next day, the photograph was published in Aajir Batori, it took the state by a storm. His editors had a debate the previous night about whether or not to publish the photograph. The response to the shocking photographs was unprecedented, and there was a huge public outcry which even led to the downfall of the Hiteswar Saikia led Congress government, and the AGP romped back to power. And that particular photograph was also the major issue in the assembly elections in 1995.
As for Baruah, he had to go into hiding for the next few months. He got threat calls from the surrendered ULFA cadres who were involved with the police in killing the ULFA cadres. 'I did not go to my hometown Nogaon for one whole year,' he recalls. That photograph changed the face of photojournalism in Assam. Coming from a middle-class background, Baruah tried to understand modern photography by scanning national newspapers and international magazines. 'I tried to make even sports photography interesting. There were many photographers, but they lacked confidence or innovation,' he says.
Photojournalists generally feel that they are treated as mere technicians although it is they who have to be in ground zero whenever there is a major incident of violence. The photojournalists of Assam got together to form the Assam Photojournalists Association to talk about their problems. They even put together a group insurance scheme for all photojournalists. The Secretary of the Association, Anupam Nath -- who works for the Associated Press -- feels that photojournalists in a conflict zone have to work in harsh conditions, and are always vulnerable.
Nath says, 'Reporters can get their details over the telephone. But we have to be on the spot always. Once, when I had gone to cover the ethnic strife in Assam's Darrang district, a few youths caught hold of me and placed a machete on my neck and said that they would kill me if I took photographs.'
Nath is known for his legendary photograph of the remains of a human leg near Palashbari, some 30 km from Guwahati in 1999. This photograph, which was published in The Telegraph, opened a can of worms about the numerous secret killings that were going on in the state. Prior to the publication of the photo, there was much speculation that secret killings were going on in the spot as people used to hear cries of pain and the sound of gunshots. Nath went all alone to inspect the spot, went into the small stream full of water hyacinth, and pulled out the remnants of the human leg.
Of late, photojournalists have been the target of public ire. Incidents of photojournalists being beaten up and cameras being snatched are on the rise. Senior photojournalist Rituraj Konwar feels that, somehow, the uncensored television coverage of events angers the public, and thus the photo or video journalists who have to be on the spot are easy targets. He says, 'Almost every month we have to cover an incident of violence or ethnic strife. A lot depends on the management of the media houses as to how sensitively they deal with a set of photographs. It is also disappointing that most often, especially in vernacular dailies, the photojournalist does not get any credit.'
Photojournalist Subhamoy Bhattacharjee rues that photojournalists are treated as second category professionals -- which is quite derogatory. 'For any evidential proof, visual documentation is vital. However, in most cases, the person behind the visual documentation is marginalized,' he adds. He points out that a photographer will miss everything if he or she is not on the spot. But a reporter might be able get more information if he or she does not go to the spot. And readers think that he is much closer to the reality.
It is ironical that, in spite of the media boom in the state, none of the local dailies have chalked out a position of a photo editor. In spite of the age-old dictum that 'a photograph can speak a thousand words,' a photograph is used merely as a page-filler. There is not a single digital archive in any local newspaper. Photojournalism as an academic subject is also yet to emerge in the state.
The Assam Photojournalists Association has been voicing their concerns time and again, but they been able to evolve a movement as such. Bhattacharjee says, 'There are limited newspapers in Assam in which a story is planned, and a reporter and a photographer are assigned to work together. Bhattacharjee, who did a special diploma in Photojournalism at Jadavpur University at West Bengal, was even trained by experts from Hollywood. 'After coming back to Assam, I feel that there is nothing much that I can do practically. Here the notion is that publishing one photograph in a newspaper is all that photojournalism is all about,' he says.
Some senior photojournalists also lament the corruption that has crept into the profession by some unscrupulous elements. A veteran in the field, Chinmoy Roy -- who is also the president of the Assam Photojournalist Association -- feels that in spite of constraints, photojournalists are doing well.
'There are senior photojournalists who struggle to eke out a living, and even today come to office on a bicycle and live in rented houses. But they have been doing fantastic work,' he says. He narrates an incident when he was even arrested on the charges of being a militant while doing his job. At that time, his employer bailed him out. He recalls several incidents when he was humiliated and his rolls snatched from him.
One of the few women photojournalists, Monmoromi Mahanta, feels that she gets courage when she has her camera on her shoulders. Initially when she started in 1996, it was difficult to wriggle her way out in a male-dominated profession. She remembers one incident -- when she was working for The Northeast Times -- in which she was sent on an assignment to shoot a photo of the railway counter where a time bomb was supposedly planted. The security personnel asked her if she was scared. She responded, 'Not with my camera with me.' However, she laments that she did not get credit for the exclusive photo she had clicked.
Monmoromi can also recall the stench of the post-mortem room she once had to enter to click photos of the dead bodies of the victims of an ethnic strife. However, she is proud of her profession, and feels that the camera has given her the courage to walk with her head held high.
The Association now plans to organize a workshop on 'The Past and Present of Photojournalism' in which they can unveil the journey of all the turbulent times and the untold stories that photojournalism in Assam has seen.