As a creative medium, the possibilities for photography are endless. Artists around the world spend each day piecing together innovative visuals grounded in portraiture, documentary and photojournalistic styles, as well as conceptual and chemical experimentation played out in the darkroom. Across all these genres, the timeless power of photography lies in its ability to tell complex, rich stories about phenomena in all corners of the globe. Photographs are universally readable, and in our era of increasing mobility and cross-continental communication, they introduce us to the people and places we aren’t always able to see with our own eyes, and connect us in ways that feel immediate and personal, despite our distance.
In the mountainous regions of Burma, southwest China, Thailand, and Arunachal Pradesh, India, the Lisu people reside in largely unadministered terrain, without roads, electricity, schools, doctors, hospitals, phone networks or most modern amenities. Instead, they coexist with nature and its powerful forces, remaining self-sufficient within their preserved community. Inspired by the lives of the Lisu people, photographer Sharbendu De set out to tell their story through the lens of his camera, with the hopes of subverting the colonial documentary gaze that many photographers have resorted to in past documentation of the Lisu population.
De wanted to visually document the community in a way that shows their magical strength and sense of community, rather than their difference and marginalization. To do so, he employed a cinematic aesthetic that elevates his subjects into a visual realm, mirroring the emotions of their daily life. “I opted for poetic aesthetics to find a vocabulary that communicates feelings over facts, instead of resorting to the idea of a ‘spectacle,’” he explains. “I attempt to evoke the aura of their mystical world, referencing archetypal interconnections between man, animal and nature, and borrowing from romanticism and dream symbolism. This approach helps to counter the colonial-anthropological exoticization of societies – a trend that dominates visual practice even today.”
With the lush, waxy-green forest as his backdrop, De photographs the Lisu people in symbolic settings. A family gazing into the glowing screen of an impossibly-powered television set highlights the peculiarity of our own daily rituals dominated by electricity. This artificial, man-made glow appears throughout other images as well, alluding to our unnatural reliance on technology, and the tension that arises in the clash between a community trying to preserve itself while also being modern.
Ducks appear as symbols throughout the photographs as well – another way that De merges myth and modernization. “In popular culture, ducks are believed to bear mythical qualities that connect Heaven and Earth,” he explains. “I noticed flocks of waddling ducks swimming in streams, and at times taking short flights, but always returning home by sunset, symbolizing the Lisus’ desire to find a place where myth and modern can coexist without forsaking their home. The forest, horses, television, winter fog, darkness, etc., all serve as potent metaphors for evoking feelings of waiting, love, loss and magic.”
Shortly after he began making his photographs, De found himself contemplating the relationship between man and nature, asking questions like: How does cohabiting with nature influence us? What lessons does this way of life offer mankind far removed from nature? If the colonial-anthropological documentary approach has divided us instead of bridging society, then what alternatives do we have today? “I search for the answers to these questions by exploring the relationship between humans and nature, using intersections between symbolism and mythology. The Lisu people want to find a place where myth and the modern can come together without forsaking their home.”
De hopes his work will not only shed light on the lives of the Lisu people, but also evoke a sense of nostalgia and understanding in his viewers. Often times, the way to bridge gaps in our understanding of each other is to find points of commonality and interest, revealing our similarities rather than emphasizing our differences. “The polysemic images allude to the loss and ethereal qualities of the Lisus, which I refer to as magic,” he reflects. “They also unlock our childhood memories – a time when we once believed in that magic too. It exemplifies that lasting happiness may be found if we return to nature as a community, rather than live fragmentarily in the urban mirage.”
Editor’s Note: We discovered Sharbendu De’s incredible work in 2019, through the LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards. Check out 35 other remarkable visual storytellers selected for the awards here. Imagined Homeland is supported by an Art Research Grant made by the India Foundation for the Arts & Titan Company Limited, and Lucie Foundation.