Hark1karan’s documentation of the Indian Farmers’ Protest shows the multifaceted nature of activism
The photobook documents 24hrs at the protest, focusing less on key “moments” and more on an honest portrayal of an extended period of demonstration.
- Olivia Hingley
- 2 November 2022
When we last spoke to the photographer Hark1karan, he told us how much of his practice is centred around documenting the Punjabi and Sikh community to which he belongs. His first book Pind: Portrait of a Village in Rural Punjab, is a meditative and human portrayal of life in his ancestral village Bir Kalan in Punjab. For his most recent publication, Kisaan, the photographer has once more returned to India, this time to document the Farmer’s protests that took place over 2020 and 2021.
The protests began after the Indian government passed three laws in the summer of 2020 that would result in weakened rules around sales and pricing, leaving farmers in a much more unstable financial position with little security. Like many of his fellow diaspora community, Hark1karan had spent much time watching from the outside and keeping up to date with the protest. It was then in November that the photographer travelled back to India with his mother to see family. At this point, however, Hark1karan had no plans to make a second book. It was only upon arriving in India and seeing the true extent of on-the-ground activism taking place that he knew he had to document it. “Obviously I’d seen it online, but when you’re there, you feel something else, you see how big it is,” the photographer explains.
When first immersing himself in the action, Hark1karan was struck by how positive the atmosphere was. “The people were really upbeat,” he details. “They were so optimistic, and everyone was helping everyone out. They were really there together, and it was so powerful.” What’s more, while Hark1karan is aware of how cautious and considered one has to be when documenting a protest, he also tells us of how eager individuals were to be pictured. “Everyone was very keen to be photographed, you could tell they really wanted people to know what’s going on,” he adds.
At even a quick first glance it’s instantly apparent how much diversity in composition and focus there is throughout the series. Some shots show protesters assembled proudly with flags and banners, some show daily life in motion – someone lying reading a newspaper, a group of individuals collecting water – and others are close up portraits, centring powerfully on one individual. Hark1karan explains that he chose to include the portraits as a means of both to “break up the story and give the audience some time to breathe” but also to show the “human side” to the protest.
Largely, in the collective imagination, a ‘protest’ is a stand alone event of a day – at a push a few days – and exists much like a rapid burst of energy filled with signs and marching. But the farmers’ protest didn’t quite pan out like this. While there were events much like the one described, they took place over many days and weeks, with many individuals travelling to and camping in Dehli. And so, as Hark1karan explains, the collective action turned into an extended, over year-long protest.
The photographer highlights one image in particular as demonstrating this multi-layered nature of protest: an image that also happens to be one that’s lingered with him since the experience. In the intimate image, a woman is shown from behind, facing a wooded area, her hands clasped around her head; Hark1karan explains her to be in the process of washing and combing her hair. “It’s something you don’t expect to see in a protest, an older person taking time to groom themselves, taking pride in who they are.” It was this sentiment of personal pride that Hark1karan saw reflected in the protest; peoples’ desire to “stand up for what they believe in”.
It’s the series’ ability to represent the many layers and complex sides to protest that the photographer has seen in people’s responses to the book. Moreover, viewing the series as one that specifically taps into the cultural perspective of Punjabis and Sikh’s, Hark1karan ends our conversation by highlighting how important the mechanism of photography can be when trying to raise awareness to a broad audience. “Obviously, when there are cultural and language barriers you can visually show things through photography – it’s one of the few things people can relate to universally. I think that’s really important.”
GalleryHark1karan: Kisaan (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2021)
Hark1karan: Kisaan (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2021)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.