The Ground Beneath Their Feet

A photographer witnesses the transformation of a river island

Photographs by Zishaan A Latif text by Tanvi Mishra
01 March, 2019

A CLIFF TOWERING OVER MUDDY WATERS, bearing a large crack, is photographed multiple times and the images are arranged in a composite grid. The water appears to be placid in the first few frames. At first glance, this sequence in Zishaan A Latif’s work seemed unnecessarily repetitive. As my eye moved from left to right, across the near-identical images in the first row, I found myself questioning the photographer’s intention. As I made my way forward in the sequence, this time from right to left, the images gradually began to reveal the incident that had been captured—the edge of the precipice started to bend, the crack began to widen and the water started to froth. The cliff was collapsing. Moving down the grid, the disfiguration became more and more evident, reaching a crescendo midway, as a large chunk of land fell into the water. By the time I reached the last frame, having moved in alternating directions in every row, the change was evident: a significant portion of the cliff had disappeared. The river carried signs of the disintegration, and I realised that Latif, and now I, had been witness to the landmass coming apart.

Latif’s first visit to Majuli, a river island in Assam, in 2015, was on an assignment for Asian Paints that involved documenting colours on the island to help develop a new palette. During his two days there, he felt that a “physical, social and cultural shift, which had been taking place for a long time, was palpable in the air.” But it was only on his next trip, two years later, and on six subsequent visits, that he was able to connect this to the island’s topography, which was being rapidly altered because of erosion. “The ghats continue to shift overnight, and on every subsequent trip I made following April 2017, I noticed a clear wearing away on the edges of the island,” he told me. “I have seen the ravenous Brahmaputra gobble away parts in a frenzy.”

Assam sees severe annual floods. These affect over thirty thousand families in Majuli; destroy lives, crops and homes; and erode the surface of the island. Although it is the largest river island in the world, parts of Majuli have fallen into the Brahmaputra, and its landmass has reduced by half. Latif attributes the island’s destruction to other causes as well, including badly planned dams and the building of embankments at the wrong places—implementations that fall short of their intended effect, since they do not complement their natural surroundings. “One of the most mature ways to study the natural occurrences of Majuli,” Latif said, “is to think of what Jamini Payang, a weaver from the Mising community, told me during an interview: ‘Nature has its own course. We cannot hamper its progression and regression, as we need to work with nature, not against it.’”

Villagers have put some safeguards in place, such as using bamboo to break the river’s current, but these only help them to an extent. They are still dependent on porcupine screens—concrete structures that are built to protect the river banks from erosion—and geo-bags—gunny bags filled with soil. Despite these measures, recurrent floods have given rise to cyclical phases of damage and repair, Latif said. “As the river breaks, bonds and binds again and again, so do the islanders … people quietly rebuild their lives over and over.” This way of life has ingrained a certain resilience in the residents, he noted. The older generation’s approach, he said, is entwined with faith; they believe that the island’s many satras—Vaishnavite monasteries—protect it and keep it afloat. On the other hand, an “aware, younger generation is demanding answers from the establishment.” Among their demands is a bridge connecting Majuli to the city of Jorhat, so that islanders can access better medical infrastructure, jobs and education.

In “Withering,” his photo project, Latif describes life in Majuli as “a drowning state of existence.” His work is a testimony to the islanders’ vulnerability, as they live under the threat of their island—and, therefore, their homes—being submerged. Although the time he spent making the work would be a speck on the timeline over which the region’s landscape has been morphing, Latif expands his period of reference and plots the evolution of the landmass over three decades. He overlays photographs of Majuli and its people, taken in 2018, over satellite imagery or Google Earth grabs of the landmass showing what the region looked like every year from 1984 to 2018, thereby situating their current reality beyond the present moment. By juxtaposing the island’s inhabitants, who have consistently suffered displacement, alongside historical digital imprints, Latif depicts them bearing the repercussions of climatic changes that started far before their time. He also draws parallels between the physical displacement on the island and his experience with handling the satellite images: “By 2000, even satellite images start getting glitchy, a symbolism that cannot be evaded in times of growing technology, an irony to say the least.”

Elsewhere in his project, too, Latif uses the technique of juxtaposition, this time not with satellite imagery but among photographs themselves. When I first came across his composite of a collapsing cliff, photographed at Misa Mora—a village on the north-western banks of Majuli that is inhabited by the Mising tribe—I assumed that it was taken over several months. The images initially misled me into assuming that such a drastic erosion of the landmass must have been a slow process. Upon closer inspection, the meticulous positioning of the frames, coupled with visual elements such as the identical nature of light in all the photographs, revealed that it was perhaps recorded in one sitting. Latif explained that he captured 66 frames over 66 seconds, and that the impulse to pick up his camera was spurred by the feeling of the ground beneath him giving way. The resulting series of photographs capturing the motion of the collapse present a photographic equivalent of the moving image. The cliff falling apart becomes symbolic of what may be happening across the island and along its boundaries, and the severity of the collapse gestures towards what is yet to come.

Latif said he felt a strong impulse to return to Majuli, but also reconsidered his notions of the region with each trip. On one visit, he said, he arrived with preconceived notions of what the island represented, having hoped for months to film the monsoon there. “In 2018, the monsoon was delayed, and with time I grew disillusioned about not having the ‘perfect monsoon shot.’ But I sat myself down and realised I was trying too hard to emulate something that I was fed for years, an idea of what a ‘flood looks like.’” Along with these shifts in his visual approach came a reassessment of his understanding of the landscape. “Noren Thakuria—a geography professor and former principal of Majuli College—told me, ‘Majuli is not eroding. It’s transforming. What was once land for people to live on has now moved on to become fresh grazing land for cattle … it’s a cycle.’”

The 2018 chapter of this work was produced with the support of the Habitat Photosphere Grant.