“Photographs bring us closer to one another”: Hark1karan on photographing communities from the inside out

The south London-based photographer sees his work as “an extension of seva, a Sikh practice of selfless service” meaning the process of taking an image is often more important than the final outcome.

26 July 2021


Harkaran Singh, or rather Hark1karan as he’s known in the creative world, is a photographer from Thornton Heath in south London. For him, photographs are more important today than ever before. “The photographs you have up in your home, photo albums, photo books or exhibitions mean more. You spend more time looking at them. They stay with you longer. They inform your life for a longer period,” he remarks. Crucially though, he also believes in the power of a photograph to be part of a shared experience, to represent a community and “as an end result, photographs bring us closer to one another, more than we can even imagine.”

In turn, Hark1karan describes himself as a community photographer, particular for the Punjabi and Sikh communities to which he belongs. “For me, photography is an extension of seva, a Sikh practice of selfless service. Through it, I am able to fulfil my moral duty as a human being,” he explains. This has been the driving force of his practice which is grounded in treating others with respect and holding himself accountable for how he represents others. In this context, the photograph itself often isn’t the most important aspect of Hark1karan’s output but the entire process up until he presses the shutter. What’s produced during his shoots are at times “never made public or seen,” he adds.

Aesthetically, Hark1karan’s images are “raw and honest” (as others have often described them to him), something he attributes to his use of film but also perhaps the people and spaces he captures. When working on a project, he often gets close to a subject, capturing them on an ongoing basis. In fact, he often sees his projects as collaborations with communities, rather than mere documentation of them, so that in the end what the viewer sees is a holistic and authentic narrative; “a unique and inclusive story.”

A project that has cemented Hark1karan’s position as a communities-first practitioner and that demonstrates his tendency for candid imagery is titled Pind: Portrait of a Village in Rural Punjab. It documents life in his ancestral village of Bir Kalan in Punjab, India, over the course of three dedicated trips and focuses on capturing the everyday nuances of village life. “These photographs act as historical documents, giving the people of the village both a voice and face, as they capture a liminal moment in time of the changing landscape and culture of rural Punjab,” Hark1karan explains. “Pind is dedicated to Punjabi’s the world over and tells their human story.” The series was shot entirely on 35mm film, lending the series its intimate feel. This is furthered by Hark1karan’s use of a point and shoot which “gave me greater anonymity when shooting and I could focus on capturing, rather than fiddling around with a massive camera.” However, it would be remiss to ignore that Hark1karan’s connection to those in the photographs also played a role in the series strength. Many photographers travel and document communities but it takes time and effort to form bonds with subjects and produce imagery as personal and exhaustive as that featured in Pind.

GalleryHark1karan: Pind: Portrait of a Village in Rural Punjab Photobook (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2016-2018)

While the camera is Hark1karan’s primary means of creativity nowadays, he tells us that growing up he loved to draw and paint and was afforded the room to express himself in a household adorned with photos and paintings. What finally drew him to the photographic medium, however, was a want to interact with people around the world. “I travel to new places, get invited into people's personal spaces and experience new things. This lays a foundation for me to capture something far more intimate and honest. I am able to show people what I see,” he says. “Telling stories is powerful as it can change people’s outlooks of themselves and what is possible. This way of telling stories from within communities is so important.”

While series like Pind demonstrate Hark1karan’s want to see the world, he spends much of his time focussing his efforts closer to home, collaborating will his local community. In one project title Day Out With the Girls, for example, he explores the notion of living with multiple cultures, in this instance, “the coming together of Western and Punjabi cultures in the context of modern urban Britain.” The images depict a group of young Punjabi women, honing in on their routines, style, friendship and environment. “The series subtly considers a number of questions often explored by a generation who are growing up with multi-layered experiences. Am I British enough? Am I Punjabi enough? Am I an outsider? How can I practice my faith? Do I have to pick one culture over the other?” The photographs present a “new normal” where the Punjabi suit is worn alongside trainers, not as a costume but as an everyday outfit “just as our mothers did when they arrived in this country,” he adds. For Hark1karan, the work embodies a new generation of Punjabi Sikhs in the UK: “Our attitudes are changing towards what was once seen as traditional and ‘backwards’ – there’s less shame and fear of openly embracing our culture. We are now celebrating who we are. We are now challenging the dominant culture, internalised fetishisation and cultural appropriation. We are now asking ourselves questions like, ‘who are we?’ and ‘what can we become?’”

Excitingly, Hark1karan tells us he’s currently working on another project that will take a few more years to finish. In the short term, though, he’s going to be releasing a film building on his project BMWs and Southall, a work that documents young male BMW enthusiasts in Southall. “Theirs is a culture of classic beamers spanning across three generations,” he tells us. “When you go to Southall you’ll see modded German cars and hear dub reggae. This is an intersection that also crosses over with being Punjabi, English and practising Sikhi. A subculture within a subculture. The roots run deep.” What’s more, since he had to originally cancel the physical launch for Pind, an exhibition is hopefully also on the cards alongside myriad other projects, he concludes: “Watch this space.”


Hark1karan: Ek Onkar Tattoo, Southall (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020)


Hark1karan: Farmers Protest, London (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020)


Hark1karan: Parmjeet and Indi, London (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2021)


Hark1karan and Adore By Aman: Jasdeep and Jaskeerat Pre-wedding (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2021)


Hark1karan: Cimmie from the series Day Out With the Girls (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020)


Hark1karan: Farmers Protest, London (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020)


Hark1karan: Indy from the series Southall and BMWs (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020)


Hark1karan: Ravinder from the series Southall and BMWs (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020)


Hark1karan: Taranvir and Vindi from the series Southall and BMWs (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020)


Hark1karan: Day Out With the Girls (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020)

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Hark1karan: Pind: Portrait of a Village in Rural Punjab Photobook (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2016-2018)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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