This is part of our photographer profile series. You can read the other entries here.
There was a period of time when every article Saumya Khandelwal shot photos for involved death. Working as a photojournalist in India, she worried that was the only type of story she would ever be assigned.
“I don’t know if other photographers feel pressured to document conflict and tragedy,” she told Rest of World recently from her home in Delhi. She thought it was just what editors wanted — and where they knew she excelled.
India is under siege by Covid. During the course of our conversation, she had to pause twice to take calls. Her friend’s mother was in urgent need of remdesivir injections, which are nearly impossible to find.
An unfortunate reality of journalism is that disaster is good for business. Oftentimes, the most skilled reporters, like Khandelwal, are commissioned for the most desolate projects. That’s not why Khandelwal became a photographer, though. Her shots manipulate light and color to impart improbable levels of empathy, transporting her viewers into worlds they could never otherwise visit.
For Khandelwal, photography is about subjectivity and humanity. It’s something she continues to fight for in her work, despite the warped incentives of international photojournalism. “Photography itself is just a medium, and we need to be saying something through it,” she said. “There needs to be an emotion, there needs to be a slice of life — some nuances and subtleties.”
Khandelwal first became interested in pictures when she was growing up in Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh. By her own admission, Khandelwal had a protected childhood. She was naturally drawn to street photography, using her camera as a means to explore. She went to a university in New Delhi to complete a one-year course in stills and visual communication, graduating in 2012.
Khandelwal spent her free time going around the city, assembling a documentary project on the Yamuna, the second-largest tributary river of the Ganges. It became an escape for her. Photography “served as a means of meditation,” Khandelwal told Rest of World. “I don’t know if I’m being too philosophical, but when I photograph — and especially when I photograph calm places with fewer people — it really calms me down as well.”
Closed spaces suffocated her. She stayed out of studios, spending as much time shooting outside as she could. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to pay the bills through street photography, so she chose the next best option: photojournalism. Khandelwal got an internship with the Hindustan Times, a leading English-language newspaper in India, staying on with the publication for more than three years.
She was never attracted by faster-paced spot news, which all the other staff photographers angled for. Sometimes, she caught flak from her colleagues, who accused her of not living up to her position. She liked the “softer stories,” the ones usually deemed by other reporters “not important enough.” Her boss was supportive, commending the care and deliberation she would put into her work.
In Khandelwal’s view, her three art forms — journalistic, street, and documentary photography — are all interwoven. From photojournalism, she learned how to come away with pictures even when lacking access or under difficult conditions. From street photography, she learned how to look at the intricacies of people’s behavior and body language. And from documentary photography, she learned how to blend into the background.
As she worked for the paper, Khandelwal found herself wanting to break away from the rigid formulas of shorter assignments. “I think all of us joining photojournalism imagine that we could change something about the world,” she said. “It’s only a matter of time until you realize that opportunities like that will be very few.”
She began to use her days off to experiment with longer documentary projects. This was when Khandelwal’s breakthrough came. She came across a report by an NGO about Shravasti, a region just a few hours from her hometown of Lucknow in the state of Uttar Pradesh. One in four girls were getting married before they turned 18.
While she had read stories of child marriage in other states, such as Rajasthan and West Bengal, she had never heard about it in Uttar Pradesh. The next time she went home, she took a detour to Shravasti and realized the extent of the forced tradition. In states where the practice is more common, law enforcement would have cracked down. But because no one had documented the phenomenon, that didn’t happen in Shravasti.
“There was such a lack of awareness that people don’t even see it as a threat, despite the fact that child marriage is illegal in India,” she told Rest of World. “They don’t even make attempts to hide it.”
Because Khandelwal was an outsider, it was difficult at first to gain access to the community. Instead of treating it like a photojournalism assignment, she took a documentary approach. She ended up working for five years on the project. She would spend long periods of time with the women, her camera tucked away in its case. Sometimes, she would just read a book and take a nap at their houses. She became a part of the family.
Khandelwal was struck by the privilege of birth — how random it was that while she had the luxury to view the community as a story, women similar to her in age were trapped in it. She realized the unique vantage point she had as an Indian woman developing the project, as opposed to someone coming from outside the country. In less deft hands, the cultural context would have been lost.
“I don’t believe in going to a place,” she said, “and just labeling people as marginalized or underprivileged because of their practices.” Khandelwal sought to not impose a narrative on the women and instead portray the reality of their lives.
So many skilled photographers come to India and become fascinated by the sheer scale and color, losing the story beneath it. After her stint at the Hindustan Times, Reuters hired Khandelwal as a photographer, and after just ten months she set out as a freelancer. When Khandelwal began getting assignments with international news outlets, she realized that if one of her pictures had a lady in a bright sari in it, many photo editors were guaranteed to select it.
As she has continued to work for outlets including the New York Times, National Geographic, and Caravan, though, she has been able to advocate for her approach — one that focuses on the humanity in her photos, not just the pain and the hues.
Her years working on tragic stories have taken a toll. “I didn’t imagine that it was such a huge emotional burden,” Khandelwal said. She sought counseling for dealing with the grief, which helps. She wants to revisit her roots as a photographer, back when she used the medium as a means of meditation. She plans to resume her project on water to be able to spend more time in wide open spaces, in contrast to the stress of her normal assignments.
These are the stories that matter and too often don’t get told: the slow ones that allow us to pause and understand the nuances. Khandelwal thinks back to her child-marriage story, when she would spend long, leisurely afternoons at the houses of her subjects. “That’s the beauty that I started to cherish,” she said.