“It’s just the matter of making them feel you can connect to them,” says Indian photographer Shivam Pandey on how he approached farmers in his village when capturing their daily routines. The pandemic had him move back to his village in Uttar Pradesh, but that didn’t stop him from looking for creative outlets. ‘Farmers of India‘ was a photo series that came to life after he moved back in with his parents.
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There’s been a spotlight on the farmers of India lately. Without putting a political spin on it, I can safely say that the attention they received in recent months has been something they could do without. As the backbone of one of the world’s largest agro-economies, they’ve propped up India for time immemorial. Often silently working behind the scenes, these rural farmers were happy to be photographed by Shivam. In an ongoing series, he was able to photograph them and their daily routines in a relaxed, non-disruptive manner.
The Essential Gear Used by Shivam Pandey
Shivam told us:
I am using Leica Q for the past three years and it’s absolutely a fantastic camera. It gives an edge on the versatility end of photography as I can click portraits in every kind of light and in a wide shot.
The Phoblographer: Hello Shivam. Where did the passion for photography begin? Tell us about yourself.
Shivam Pandey: We all meet people in our life with whom we can naturally connect with, and this happened to me when I met my mentor Mr. Jake at the library while I was preparing for my medical college entrance exams. We later became friends, and as he was a photographer, I got exposed to the art, as I was keen to learn, but somewhere Jake told me I had a good observing skill of photography. He gave me his camera to practice sometimes and was very open to teaching me. The role of Kolkata and its street, its people, and my communication skills which I learned from reading various books and practicing on the streets, made me more passionate about being a photographer.
The Phoblographer: What camera gear do you use for your work?
Shivam Pandey: Since the beginning of my journey, I have always accustomed myself to fixed prime lenses as in the primitive, my focus revolved around portrait street photography only. Later on, I tried my hands on various camera bodies combined with various lenses. I was never a big fan of zoom lenses and avoided using them as they did not fall under the umbrella of my type of photography. Currently, I am using Leica Q for the past three years, and it’s absolutely a fantastic camera.
The Phoblographer: What brought about the idea for this series on Indian farmers? Give us an insight into this.
Shivam Pandey: I moved to Kolkata when I was entering my teens, when I was 14 years old maybe. Before that, I was there only with my parents. My parents never moved to the city and stayed there; I also kept on visiting my village during my summer vacations. So, when Covid hit, I shifted to my native village to spend some valuable time with my parents and once again experience my childhood. And since I was there, my interaction with the farmers kept on increasing on a daily basis; that was the moment I planned this project and covered my village and some of the nearby villages.
The Phoblographer: Regarding the farmers for this project, what attributes helped you decide who gets to be in front of your lenses?
Shivam Pandey: To be honest, it was the best part, as each of them was so unique that I gave them full freedom to express themselves as they wanted. The one thing I focused on was to cover faces from all age ranges and gender. Mostly, the people are very open to getting clicked and offer a friendly gesture, so I did not have to put much effort into eleborating my purpose and reason. If one attribute I would have to tell you, it would be the smile; from behind the camera, I just asked them “to pose as the way you want to pose but just keep the smile the way you always do.”
The Phoblographer: How did the farmers react to the concept and the setup? Were there any memorable interactions with them that you can tell us about?
Shivam Pandey: I have a lot of stories to tell about the whole project, but the one which I remember the most was about a couple who came and asked me to shoot them together as initially, I was clicking them separately. When I asked them why they were so happy about it, they told me they didn’t have a single picture together as they came from a very poor background. He had heard somewhere that I distribute the hard copies (printed version) of the photos that I click to the ones I click, which I had done a few times in my village and some nearby villages, which I previously covered on my vacations. About the first part of your question, I prefer mostly clicking in natural light with very little setup most of the time. So, the farmers easily adapted to my setup as they found it to be necessary for my shots.
The Phoblographer: You’ve photographed them at various times of the day. Is this to show that they work dedicatedly around the clock?
Shivam Pandey: Yes absolutely, there is no fixed time when they go to work. Most of them are very punctuate about the time they should take to complete a particular task. For instance, if you had to take the idea about the timing, there are two parts of it, every farmer does a few tasks daily, and another part is that which is based on seasonal farming.
The Phoblographer: High tech camera gear in the middle of a predominantly rural setting: that must have attracted a lot of attention. Was it tough to accomplish this shoot?
Shivam Pandey: Yeah, it was there, but that’s where my learnings over the years about communication came to save me. And to add to this, I kept my interactions as little as possible with respect to a complex approach. I focused on being much more flexible with whom they can easily interact. I carried a backpack, which carried a small amount of gear so that I could be perceived as a normal urban Indian and not a foreigner, which I believe comes as a barrier in communication. For example, during my workshops on the streets with someone from another country, people try to communicate their regards or message through me. They find it difficult to do it directly to ones from another country. It’s just the matter of making them feel you can connect to them. That’s it, once they get it, then they will make work easy, and you can bring out the best work possible.
The Phoblographer: In a country so heavily dependent on the agricultural industry, do you feel farmers are getting enough recognition for feeding the whole nation? Why or why not?
Shivam Pandey: If you look at the stats, India is a leading producer of many things on a global level, so the Indian farmers are getting recognition but for their grievances, not for their achievements. Therefore, if they could be helped with better support from the government in respect to technical support or subsidies, it would be very helpful for them. You know, the beauty of Indian farmers is that they are very down-to-earth people who do not focus on seeking validation rather than fighting against the odds for decades.
The Phoblographer: Did you manage the creative direction of the shoot entirely, or were farmers also keen on displaying certain aspects of their lifestyle and farming methods for the camera?
Shivam Pandey: I did not emphasize very much on giving them direction or creative direction as I tried capturing candid mainly for this project. And the farmers were very keen to express their daily lifestyle and explain things to me. For example, the importance of keeping a position of day to take their domestic animals for grazing, or a walk is necessary for better milk production, building small tube wells near the farms for irrigation monitoring at nights. So, these stories gave me an idea about the creativity I can derive from it to capture the moments.
The Phoblographer: What’s the future like for them? Do you suppose they’ll eventually align with modern ways of farming, or do they prefer to continue traditional ways followed for decades?
Shivam Pandey: While working on this project, my interest in the farming system was really intrigued, and I did my own research on this question. The alignment of external investment, insurance, and technology can disrupt the Indian farming scene. A lot of start-ups are coming up to solve this problem, and the future of Indian farming is very bright; these problems can be solved at a large scale.
The Phoblographer: There’s been a spotlight on them for some months now, although not in the way they would have wanted. Will you continue this series to show them in a more positive light?
Shivam Pandey: For the first part of your question, I will swiftly refrain from answering because my ideology is a little different, and somewhere I felt the farmers also need to adapt to new things and make progress by walking tighter with government policies, but whatever they have done, and they will do must be for their betterment. I will love to do another series, but that would be different from this and will be catered much more specifically over a certain topic, like a series on seasonal cropping, waste management, etc.
All images by Shivam Pandey. Used with permission. Check out his website and Instagram and Behance pages to see more of his work.