“I’ll die for you”: The story of farmers’ suicide in rural India by Laura El-TantawySunday, April 3rd, 2011 | Author: Sojournposse Editor
By Zarina Holmes
“The majority of suicides occur by consuming pesticide – the very ingredient they use to cultivate their land ends up killing them.” Around 200,000 suicides had occurred among rural farmers in India during the last 10 years. Photographer Laura El-Tantawy talks to Sojournposse about her project “I’ll die for you”.
Q. “I’ll die for you” is a sad subject, but it is a brave work. What motivates you to initiate a project on rural farmers’ suicide in India?
I first read about the suicides in an article and was really taken back by the story. When I researched it more deeply, I realised it was an epidemic that claimed the lives of thousands over the last 10 years – 200,000 farmers to be exact. I immediately thought of my own grandfather, who was a farmer, his whole life. The distant became personal and I decided this is a story I had to tell.
Q. Farmers’ suicide is described as an ‘epidemic’ in rural India. Is this mainly due to poverty and the burden of debts, or is it cultural mindset that needs to be addressed?
I don’t think it’s a cultural mindset at all. I think there are many things going on here, but ultimately it comes down to be the lack of basic necessities of life that cause these families to face a desperate situation for which they see no solution but suicide.
Some of it has to do with social pressure, as the bulk of the suicides are by men, who, in a male-dominated society such as India are traditionally the breadwinners. Surely, their inability to provide for their family psychologically impacts their impression of themselves, which they may project onto other people’s impression of them.
There is a lot of pressure on these communities, particularly in a world that is increasingly relying on machines, whereas farming is traditionally about the human touch and the people’s nurturing relationship with the land.
Q. Self-immolation is a worrying form of protest, lately much highlighted within the conflict zones. Yet historically, it had been tolerated in Hinduism and Buddhism cultures. Does it make this subject too sensitive and difficult to approach?
I have found the subject too sensitive to approach from the start, especially given the visual treatment I chose to execute the work. I didn’t want the treatment to overshadow the subject matter because the core of the story for me is the people and their relationship to the land. But I do think the subject of self-immolation in this context was perhaps a driving force for me to pursue this subject even more persistently.
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to meet the families and hear their story. I wanted to understand how this modest community chose such brutal measures.
Among the families I met, many men had set themselves on fire, a few threw themselves down dry wells and two men had hung themselves in their home. The majority of suicides occur by consuming pesticide – the very ingredient they use to cultivate their land ends up killing them.
Q. Which part of India did you document? Do suicides tend to occur within specific farming community, for example, cotton farmers, or overall?
Q. India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Did the victims struggle to cope with the demand of robust industrialisation?
Yes, for sure. They try to play catch up, but they end up chasing a void. They are competing with a globalised economy where goods flow freely and compete on the local market to sell their goods, when foreign produce imported into India is often sold cheaper than theirs. There is also the fact that seasonal changes heavily impact their lifestyle: so too much or too little rain is a death call for their crops.
Q. You work has a distinct visual style. I like the way you present the subjects in intimate close-ups and painterly manner. They are elegant. Why didn’t you document the farmers’ widows using the usual ‘realistic’ photojournalism narrative? How do you ensure that your artistic style still delivers a serious message?
I didn’t want to approach this in a conventional way because I didn’t feel that would tell the story. From the very beginning, when I came upon this story, I felt the need to be close to the people. I think this instinct was channeled psychologically through the work. I didn’t want to be far away looking in – I wanted to be close because for the story was intimate and sensitive and extremely emotional.
I do have a concern about the artistic approach overshadowing the message; in fact, I am so scared of this. I am genuinely touched by these families, and by their story, and I am simply trying to document this issue in the way I emotionally and visually react to it.
I have been told by someone that I am romanticising suicide and I am sure this will come up again as this work grows. I don’t feel that I am romanticising suicide. If anything, I am romanticising the relationship between the people and the land. I respect these families and I want the work to be respectful to them and the tragedy they suffered. I don’t want to take that away from them and I hope the work does not devalue their story.
Q. What is your future plan with “I’ll die for you” project? What other projects are you developing at the moment?
I am now in the process of planning the final stages of the next leg of this work. In April I will be returning to India to continue this work. I will be adding more pictures to the portraits of the women and the details.
I will also be working on a short docudrama, which I am really excited to do. It’s my first experience working with moving images. Otherwise, I have three other projects that I work on intermittently: The Veil, a project about London nightlife, and my ongoing long-term project on Egypt.
From Myriam Lengliné on Facebook (3 April 2011):
“Lots of farmers had committed suicide in France too… hard life, financial problems due to, among other things, supermarkets and companies buying their stocks for too little money.”Categories: Anthropology, Photographers Spotlight, Photography, Photojournalism, Storytelling, The Review | Tags: agriculture, debt, depression, farmers' suicide, India, Laura El-Tantawy, NGO, poverty