Through its Lens: A Journalist's Eulogy for His Shattered Camera

Sukruti Anah Staneley
Sukruti Anah Staneley
11 February, 2016

A camera is a journalist’s best friend. If journalism is the first draft of history, photographs are the footnotes on which the written word stands.

It was with these ideas that I brought my first Digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera with money given to me by my father: a Canon EOS 60D with an 18-55mm lens included. The 600D seemed inadequate for my professional needs, the 70D was expensive, and the 6D, significantly more so.

I was a journalist surrounded by photographers and photographs, but I had never owned a camera. So, in 2014, when my camera, ordered online, found its way to The Caravan office in the Delhi Press building, I could not contain my excitement. I stared at the Snapdeal box that lay unopened on my desk for about a minute—gasping and dreaming of the possibilities that lay ahead.

I gained new confidence to face the world, and capture it. For the first few days, the time I spent inside the office depended on the amount of light available outdoors, and the events happening in the city of Delhi.

On 4 November 2014, I took a day off from work and traveled to Trilokpuri in east Delhi, to shoot people observing Muharram.

I started exploring parts of the city I had never been to before as they looked brilliant through the lens of my new camera. After toying with my camera for over two weeks, an assignment presented itself on 10 November 2014 in Jhandewalan—covering the Kiss of Love protest, a campaign by activists and students to protest moral policing.

My photo editor and I went to shoot the event. This was when my camera received its first threat. After taking several pictures of the protest, as we were walking, an arm crept under my neck, and four men dressed in plainclothes who had mistaken us for protesters, tried to stop us. They let us go after they realised that we were journalists. I wanted to take their picture, and so, I sprang forward a few inches, and turned around with my camera in my hand. They immediately held me. They deleted the pictures of themselves, threatening to break the camera.

From that day onwards I took my camera everywhere. Hanging on to me, it was witness to many things. It saw some of the poorest farmers of Andhra Pradesh take trains to Kerala for work, desperate, and depressed due to looming uncertainty.

It saw the farmers wait for contractors to pick them for work, and when no one chose them, it saw them sleeping on the sideways of the roads or followed them to cluttered houses, where electricity was rationed by the owners, who would not let them sleep unless they paid ten rupees. It hung around my neck, trembling, at the funeral of a young farmer called Ramireddy, an MBA graduate, who had returned to his village to better things.

He killed himself by drinking monocrotophos, an insecticide, because a bank manager refused him a passbook, and the police harassed him. It saw his frail mother and sisters walk in his funeral as the men of his family carried his young body on a cot through the village. It hung on to my side as his brother cried to me and abused the system and let me take pictures, hoping for justice.

My camera saw the wives of several farmers when they came to Delhi to seek justice for their husbands, who had committed suicides. It saw, among these women, Dalit women from Telangana who bristled with confusion, sadness and excitement, all at once—they had never been on a train before they came to Delhi, but on the train, they did not know what to expect or what to eat, and could only curse their husbands for leaving.

It had also seen a marriage bureau owner peddle poetry on a pushcart through the streets of Hyderabad. It saw metro stations being built in cities, abandoned rooms in small towns and policemen hiding behind the authority of their uniforms. It saw Dr Aaraveeti Ramayogiah, a doctor who dedicated his life to bettering the health of deprived people and the medical systems of our country through his letters. It was there a few days before he died, and as he wrote to editors and authorities that never acted on the stories that he wrote to them about.

It stayed with me when I went along with seven young Palestinian actors who had witnessed the horrors of Israeli occupation in refugee camps, but had mustered courage to go on an adventure and put on performances in India. It saw them prepare, fall ill, suffer and cry. It saw the childish glee in their eyes when they met Aamir Khan.

My camera stayed with me when I went to Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore with my parents recently. It captured the world, during work and vacations alike, carefully forcing me to remember everything I had to, in high resolution, constantly producing material for future historians to work with.

And it was with me on 30 January this year when covering a protest by students demanding justice for the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula. This was the last thing my camera bore witness to, before it was seized by the police, who then shattered it in front of me, before assaulting me.