When we first met in December last year, photographer Sudharak Olwe was busy with the technical rehearsals at the TedxGateway. It was past 9pm when we reached the venue. Even though he was visibly tired, after having spent the day rehearsing, he agreed to do the interview, even insisting we have dinner while he answered the questions.
Olwe’s body of work is as inspiring as his persona. After studying photography at the Sir JJ School of Art, he has been working as a photojournalist with various newspapers for over 27 years; presently, he is the photo editor at Lokmat, a Marathi daily. Simultaneously, he pursued his own projects which led to photo series highlighting the plight of sweepers of Mumbai, the day-to-day life of prostitutes in Kamathipura, and the issue of malnutrition in rural India. Apart from photographs, Olwe has also shot documentaries on maternal and child mortality, and the farmers in Vidarbha. To celebrate his achievements, he was bestowed the Padma Shri this Republic Day.
While he is currently travelling across Germany, Olwe told us that the award came as a pleasant surprise. “It’s an honour to be considered for the award and I feel humbled that I’ve received it. But I’ll only be content when manual scavenging, as a job, is abolished, modern methods are brought into place and safety is enforced. That was the reason I shot these photographs — to draw attention to the plight of fellow human beings,” he says.
In his quest to become a photographer, Olwe faced a lot of hardships and those incidents shaped his view of the world. “I had a tough childhood. I dropped out of engineering (in the third semester) and fine arts (in the second year). For fine arts, you require materials like pencil and paper; for engineering, you need tuitions. And if you come from a vernacular medium like I did, it’s even more difficult to adjust,” he says.
It was one of his professors who noticed Olwe’s struggles and advised him to study photography: “The Sir JJ School of Art was like Shantiniketan, a place that makes sure you have the required skills to eke out a living,” he says.
Olwe recounts the trouble his family went through to procure a camera, with his mother and neighbour pooling in their savings. “After that, I never looked back. I knew that this was my only chance to overcome poverty, caste, class… everything was hidden in that camera,” he says, adding, “When you go through so much pain and misery, you tend to look at people differently. I realised that if I was armed with a camera, no one would stop me. It was the only power I had.”
In 1999, he shot his first photo series on the sweepers of Mumbai. Shot over free weekends and after long workdays, the poignant images show the workers caked in grime and toiling without equipment. In the photos of Kamathipura, the focus is again on the homes from where the women work, and their daily routine. “Why do we view the women in Kamathipura only as prostitutes? Why can’t we view them from another angle, as someone’s mother or sister?” he asks.
Olwe’s ultimate aim is to get people to notice what’s happening around them: “Change is dead slow; it’s not an easy task. The first step is to acknowledge the problem…it will automatically lead to change.”
Across the spectrum
While he has shot a wide range of people, from workers to acid attack/rape victims, Olwe makes it a point to empathise with the people he photographs: “I explain that there will be no exploitative images, just the black and white truth. A lot depends on how you enter someone’s house: in the act of removing my shoes and entering humbly, they know what kind of person I am. That is my introduction.”
He also believes in lending a hand to those who are in need, and has conducted workshops for the children of sweepers over the last 15 years. In December last year, Olwe also collaborated with the Xavier’s Institute of Communications to help 20 underprivileged children learn photography over the weekends for a year. “It’s a matter of chance. I got a chance and, now, I want to give others a chance as well,” he says.
The photographer is now busy working on a coffee table book on mental health, which will be released later this year. For this, he has visited mental health centres across Kolkata, Chennai, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. “I have seen heartbreaking and heartwarming stories of patients, and how NGOs are helping them get jobs and lead normal lives. It’s a challenging subject; there is too much prejudice, in small towns and even in metros,” he says.
To view Sudharak Olwe’s images, visit sudharakolwe.com