“While We Looked Away”: In Conversation with Sami Siva

Sami Siva, a Canadian photographer of Indian origin, has covered post-conflict, geopolitical and social-issue stories in Canada, USA, India, eastern Europe, and the southern Caucasus.

His work has been published in The New York Times, TIME, The Globe and Mail, Report on Business Magazine, The National, Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), among others.

From February 2 to February 11, MSF India is hosting a 10 day photo art exhibition, “While We Looked Away” at the Piramal Art Gallery, National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Nariman Point, Mumbai.

So what is “While We Looked Away” about?

Sami: It is a photo exhibition about the activities of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières in India, and the projects they run in the country. I’ve tried to show the areas and environments that MSF works in, as well as the lives of the people who seek and are given treatment at these projects.

Where did you travel to? Is there any place that deserves special mention?

Sami: I covered MSF’s projects in Mumbai, then travelled to some districts in Bihar where treatment for kala-azar and severe acute malnourishment is provided, also to Andhra Pradesh where MSF offers basic healthcare for the populace. I went to Manipur twice to photograph clinics that run HIV/AIDS treatment and MDR-TB programmes. All of these places are distinct in their own way – they have unique social circumstances, and in terms of healthcare needs you can’t really compare one to the other. They are all remote places though, and access to healthcare there is both limited and problematic.

As a photographer, what was your biggest difficulty working on this project?

Sami: In terms of photographing things, there are never any obstacles, really. Of course it is a huge advantage where you connect to the reality of what you are photographing. MSF is very involved in the situations that they work in, whether social distress or conflict – so you spend a lot of time interacting with patients and locals. When you know what is happening on the ground, there is a greater understanding of what you are capturing.

When I was in Bihar documenting the programme for malnourishment, I remember we followed one little boy and his mother back to their village to treat her youngest son, and it took us two and a half hours to get there by vehicle. Yet this mother had walked five to six hours and taken a ferry across the river to get to the clinic – we realized she had been putting off seeking treatment for the child because of the length and difficulty of the journey. When we finally got to the village, we saw that her child couldn’t even stand, even though he was ten months old. I would never see this on another assignment – it’s shocking and emotionally difficult to deal with, the fact that these things happen in our own backyard. And I consider myself someone who’s travelled around the country quite a bit, and seen it from an insider’s viewpoint.

Is there anything memorable you’d like to share?

Sami: When I was in Manipur, I’d been travelling to MSF projects in remote villages in the state. You come across patients from all walks of life there – elderly patients, young mothers with children – and in one situation, in a village near Churachandpur, I saw this young lady at the clinic who was pregnant and going into labour. I asked if I could photograph the birth, and her husband agreed. So I was standing in a corner of a tiny 6 by 8 shack, and taking photos – it wasn’t a proper delivery ward, but I was amazed at how professional the doctors and nurses in that small room were, providing treatment of a much higher quality than what people in that area could ever expect. If compared to life in cities like Delhi and Bombay, you’d say the circumstances of this baby’s birth were dire. And yet here they were, making things easier.

 Do you have any hopes or expectations from this exhibition?

Sami: I hope that we can show and share the kind of work MSF does in spaces where people will respond to and engage with these issues. I did this project wanting to raise some sort of awareness about the difficulties that people without access to healthcare face, and the role that MSF plays in these communities. Some of the photos are very personal, so it’s important for me to share that with a wider audience. Healthcare in India has always been a bit of a crisis, and for an organization to be providing these high quality treatments free of cost – it’s quite remarkable. I hope these photographs can start a discourse around the larger realities of healthcare in the country.

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