Through personal and evocative imagery, Jai Toor hopes to shed light on stories of immigration
The photographer gives us the low-down on his latest series Novellara, and why immigration is a subject matter that tends to get exploited – “it skews the narrative”.
- Ayla Angelos
- 6 July 2022
There are certain conversations that tend to stick in your mind. When speaking with Jai Toor in 2020, he told us about his project Yet Another Day – a documentation of family life lensed through the daily happenings of his grandparents. And, it was this particular phrase that struck a chord: “photography is more than just a picture”. Applying this to his wider work in general, the London-based photographer has a knack for highlighting personal histories and memories from those closest to him, as well as communities from further afield. And his latest series Novellara simply proves this fact.
Novellara was borne after Jai learned that Italy has the second largest population of Sikhs outside of the UK. He became intrigued and wondered why they chose Italy as their destination. “Of Sikh heritage myself,” he tells us, “I wanted to see how the first and second generation communities live in rural pockets of Italy.” As such, he started researching further into the topic and discovered that, since the mid-80s, a large portion of the Sikh Indian immigrants have moved for jobs in farming and the dairy industry, most of which went to work in factories and others in the circus. However, media representation has been warped with negative portrayals of these communities. “Media representation surrounding Sikh and South Asian diaspora within Italy is centred around similar themes,” he adds. "Many stories surround negative news or focus on topics like religion, employment and emigration.”
Meanwhile, after a recent farmers’ protest in India – where many Sikhs were uprising against new agriculture laws set by the Indian government – this provoked Jai to go a little further. “I wanted to see if this was the case or if the narrative has changed over the years, and how it correlates to the mass wave of immigration to the UK which my grandparents were part of.”
Throughout Novellara, you’ll see his subjects looking directly into the lens, adopting a gaze so deep that their lives are somewhat revealed through the powerful act of eye contact. The landscape shots are dominated by architectural structures, often drenched in the tonal, warm light of the evening’s sun. The work is celebratory, personal and immensely intimate – an antithesis to what is commonly represented in the media.
Having visited Bologna and Reggio Emilia in the beginning – the closest town to Novellara – Jai explains how the process behind the project seemed to evolve spontaneously. He’d met a handful of people, like Happy and Gurnoor, but most memorable was his interaction with two local boys, Gurnoor and Harkirat, who he’d met on the train. “They sat right in front of me. They began telling me about the history of the town and even showed me around.” The boys told Jai about their family, and how they’d moved there for work. “The fact that everyone I spoke to did not mention exploitation once, made me question the locals and how they felt living in Italy,” he says. “All responses mentioned how they had been getting treated fairly and that life in Italy was amazing; the ground was exactly like Punjab for farming, quality of life was better and the community was quite tight-kit. The boys also mentioned learning Italian at school and embedding into the school was a wholesome experience.”
From this impactful work, Jai hopes to shed light on immigration stories and the importance of listening to others. Because, things aren’t always what they seem – especially in relation to what’s depicted in the media – and immigration is a subject matter that tends to be exploited greatly. “Yes, we should highlight it, but when that’s the only thing the stories are focused around, it skews the narrative,” he concludes. “I hope to go back and visit this summer and continue the body of work. There are so many follow-up questions I want to ask.”
Jai Toor: Gurinder Sarpanch and Inderveer Singh, Novellara. (Copyright © Jai Toor, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla is currently covering Jenny as It’s Nice That’s online editor. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.