Gallery/Interview: Photographer Documents 'Raw Nature of Things' in Northeast India

Avid Indian travel photographer Sai Abishek enjoys capturing people's daily lives. In his most recent trip to northeastern India, he turned his camera towards the lush, rainy and breathtaking neighboring states of Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.

An executive producer for Indian channel History TV18, Abishek is a multi-faceted storyteller. His news documentary On Thin Ice, which focused on acidification experiments in Arctic waters, won the Best English News Documentary Award at the Indian News Broadcasting Awards in 2010.

Abishek, whose work has appeared in Better Photography, shared his photographs and discussed his trip to India with us via email.

What inspired you to photograph India's northeast region, and why did you decide to focus your attention on everyday life?

I have never traveled to that region. This was my first time. Pictures of people, portraits, daily life and trying to see stories in ordinary things is what inspires me to take pictures. That’s what brings out the raw nature of things. It is more honest in that sense. With regards to the northeast, I decided from the start that I would not try to portray a picture guidebook for travelers or showcase the best features of the region. It was always daily life for me. That’s what interested me.

What were some of the interesting things you noticed about people's daily lives in this region?

There are small things you pick up on when you are on the road for nine days across the northeast. It is almost customary for passengers and drivers to take a few swigs of whisky on the way in small shops. They said the roads made them drink. At one such stop, an old woman behind a counter lovingly poured drinks for travelers and drivers. They adored her and she loved to hear their stories of the road. The drivers drank and narrated their adventures and she nodded reassuringly. They drank it straight with just hot water from the kettle. They told stories of bravado. While one spoke of breakdowns, another spoke of landslides and skidding. Yet another would try to top them with a tale of an engine blast. It was driver parlance, I suppose.

The young boys under their tutelage were always imitating them. All of them loved to spit, every few seconds in a sentence. They aimed and spat to "trajectorial" perfection. I believe this comes from chewing betel nut in these areas. These kids intersperse them like forced punctuations in their sentences, with or without betel nut. It was manly to do it. The adults did it too, but less frequently.

The road to Tawang was filled with blind curves, rain, fog, slush, breakdowns, pits, boulders, land slides, blasting, darkness and spit.

Do you have any anecdotal stories of the people or places you photographed?

There were some interesting people who come immediately to my mind.

There was Mohan, a teenage school dropout who takes care of a snooker parlor in Tawang. He dresses like a hip hop star — pants dropping to the floor, chains, tattoos, bald head. It is easy to dismiss him. But he is harboring dreams of someday showcasing his breakdancing skills on Dance India Dance — one of India’s biggest reality dance shows.

There was a young betel nut farm worker. His English was probably the most fluent I heard in all of Meghalaya. How he ended up on a betel nut farm is anyone's guess.

Nima, a recovering alcoholic, had three ulcers and one divorce. He hoped to quit smoking too, [but] soon after he stubbed out the one he was smoking while showing me pictures of his kid and the sights nearby. He wants to save enough money to take his parents on a holiday. He is a taxi driver.

Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh cover a significant portion of India. For people who've never visited, name three things you would recommend them seeing or doing.

Even though a lot of people will tell you against it, go to the northeast during Monsoon. Especially Arunachal Pradesh. It is dangerous and beautiful.

Everything you have on the road must be red, be it tea (lal chai), rice (red rice) and, if you can — red meat.

Drive to the Bangladesh border in Tamabil through Dawki in Meghalaya. Run towards the zero point like you are going to run across to Bangladesh, then stop suddenly and put your foot on the border like you didn't know a thing. This should be enough to unsettle a few old stuck-up border security officers sitting in a corner having their tea.

Your photographs have an old-time, vintage quality to them. What camera and/or treatment do you use?

I use a Canon EOS 50D. The edit and black-and-white conversion is done in Photoshop. I keep it pretty simple.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Tahiat Mahboob
Tahiat Mahboob is Asia Society's Senior Multimedia Producer. She grew up in Bangladesh, worked at New York Fashion Week and taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.