Sara Hylton on how a portrait shows “the truth of a character or community”

The photographer tells us about the work she’s been making during the Covid-19 pandemic in India, and traveling across the subcontinent for over a decade.

2 September 2021

Photographer Sara Hylton has been based on and off in India since 2010. Having left her birthplace of Canada the previous year to undertake an MA in International Conflict Studies at King College London, she has spent the past decade or so documenting human rights issues the world over as a freelance photographer, but has found herself drawn back to India time and time again. Today, she’s based between Mumbai and New York and her recent work is an extension of her intimate, considered approach to documenting the world around her.

In previous years, Sara has travelled to India to dig into a particular story, while at other times it’s simply to “reconnect with myself in a place where I feel at home,” she says; “most often, it’s both personal and professional.” When she returned to India last March, she arrived just as “the country was slipping into a devastating second wave, and I felt a responsibility to be there,” she recalls. Familiar with the photojournalistic and documentary photography community in and around Mumbai, Sara knew there were many talented practitioners “doing a powerful job documenting the reality on the ground, working tirelessly, and risking their lives and the safety of their families to show the world what the country was experiencing,” so instead, she looked for something a little quieter. “I had something to do that wasn’t necessarily about the country being ravaged by the virus,” she explains, and went onto create a large ongoing body of work throughout India.

Initially, however, Sara was unsure what that story could or would be. But she allowed her camera to figure it out for her. “I looked for threads that could reveal something about the deeper fabrics of urban survival during this moment in our collective history,” she says. “I didn’t know what I would find, but I began just going out each day to document quiet scenes on the streets, and eventually found myself working on a project about female domestic workers and their experiences during the pandemic.” This involved but was not limited to, shadowing the Londhe family over several months as they navigated life in Mumbai, in a densely populated settlement that made social distancing or staying home near impossible. “It was a gift to witness their resilience in the face of such a traumatic time in the country’s history,” she adds.


Sara Hylton (Copyright © Sara Hylton, 2021)

Sara tells us more about the context of this body of work: “The majority of India’s 50 million domestic workers have little job security, and when Covid-19 swept across the country, many endured losses of income and were forced to migrate back to their villages. Everyone knew it – but the pandemic exposed the economic insecurity of India’s informal economy in a way that could not be ignored.”

Zooming in on intimate stories in order to reveal a larger problem is a recurring theme in Sara’s portfolio. Often focussing on the environment and marginalised communities, she tells human stories of resilience and humanity rather than sorrow. Portraiture, in particular, is the foundation for this. Describing the medium as the “root and basis” for all of her work, Sara explains “it’s about showing the truth of a character or community in the way they want to present it. To me, that’s the most equitable exchange that can be made in photography.” When taking someone’s photograph, Sara, therefore, asks people where they want to be seen – “is there a location they feel connected to or a place that reveals a truth about them?” Once her subjects are sitting on their own terms, and at ease, Sara is free to photograph them without much direction. “I do the dancing and moving and let people feel what they need to feel,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll ask people to take a deep breath, to relax, or ask them to think about the theme we are documenting – usually that takes them where they need to go emotionally and gives them permission to release any performance.”

Reflecting on her career to date, Sara shares how she’s learned that the purpose of her work is different to what she first believed: “I began making work with humanitarian aspirations, thinking that I could help to reveal truths and injustices that the world would rather ignore. I no longer make pictures for that reason because I realise that it’s mostly in vain and completely misplaced. Who am I to make change? Now, I make pictures for the people I’m photographing, not for the viewers.” She says all this with the understanding that many people scroll past photos and are unaffected by the stories in them. “I can’t change that,” she remarks. “But what I can do with the tools I have is listen and support a person or group of people in sharing their personal narrative, and sometimes that’s the most healing, change-making thing.” On the horizon then, Sara aims to make more “meaningful work” in this vein; an important project “related to mass grave sites and missing Indigenous children linked to former residential schools in Canada,” is due to be released soon. Plus, Sara was recently awarded a few environmental grants that will facilitate her continuing to make work in both North America and India.

GallerySara Hylton (Copyright © Sara Hylton, 2021)

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Sara Hylton (Copyright © Sara Hylton, 2021)

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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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