Representing the Third World: Social Consciousness in the Photography of Sunil Janah

The first of three articles on photographer Sunil Janah

Guest Author: Sourajit Saha

Very few have photographed the country as Sunil Janah did. He was a mere college student, an active member of the Student Federation, when P.C. Joshi, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), visited Calcutta and offered Janah, ‘Come down with me and take photographs’1. And the rest, as they say, is history. History indeed. Janah captured the famine that was raging in Bengal at that time. Much like Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans who were directed by Roy Stryker of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the US to document the condition of the farm workers across the length and breadth of the country following the Great Depression, Janah along with the artist Chittaprosad was asked by Joshi to travel across the Indian plains to cover the inhuman living conditions of the people in the years leading to the Independence. Quite literally, he became the Walker Evans of our country.

Janah started photographing from an early age.  “My grandmother bought me a camera – a Voigtlander Brilliant 7.7”2 said Janah in an interview with Siddhartha Ghosh, a historian. His uncle was Shambhu Saha, a photographer who would lend him his darkroom to experiment and learn. That was the inception of his photographic journey. Later, when the opportunity came, Janah went along with Chittaprosad, the artist, to document the Bengal famine. His pictures, along with Chittaprosad’s sketches attracted public attention to the inhuman conditions in Bengal.

He photographed people thronging the streets of Calcutta and its outskirts with the plea for rice to eat. As suggested by research on the famine in later years,  acute shortages of food were created by the British colonial masters due to poor distribution policies during the years of the Second World War – a direct result of Winston Churchill’s war policies. Historians Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal estimate that around 4 million people perished in the famine.3 The stark images of the starving people were exclusively published in the People’s War, the journal of the Communist Party of India. P.C. Joshi called this a ‘man-made disaster’4 and wrote a searing account of the famine reporting how mothers were forced to sell off their children for meagre amounts. Janah’s photographs were not the usual photojournalist’s images. His was a humanist approach. In reply to Siddhartha Ghosh’s question on whether working for the Communist Party from an early age had influenced his photography, Janah remarks, ‘We felt that liberal humanism is not enough and if you are a young man, you are concerned about the world you live in…”.5 This concern, he went on to explain, was the reason for many youths like him to be drawn to being a communist and being a communist meant having ‘a kind of social consciousness.6 Photography was thus a way for him to express this social consciousness. Though he left the Communist Party after Joshi stepped down from the General Secretary post, this social consciousness and responsibility towards his subjects became a lifelong philosophy of his photography.

During another important historical event in the Indian subcontinent, the Liberation War of 1971, Janah photographed a mother holding on to her child. It’s a very telling picture of the times. A mother with slightly skewed eyebrows shows, in her gaze, the uncertainty for the times that lie ahead. The child faces away from the intrusive lens of the camera – almost as an act of self-defense – with the mother protecting her only child from a stranger. What is important to note here is the gaze of the woman in this photograph. It is different from that of the woman in the iconic Migrant Mother photo by Dorothea Lange from the Great Depression era. The woman in Janah’s photo has a confrontational gaze. She looks directly at the photographer, as if she’s caught off guard – hence the firm grip around her child. In Lange’s photograph, the woman has a distant look, with her hand placed on her chin which makes it more of a pose. Though both photographs have attained iconic status because of their historical value—moments of two important events, the Liberation War and the Great Depression, having the same subject matter, two mothers with their children looking away from the camera—they differ in this one point which is the gaze of the main subject.

A refugee mother and child from East Bengal were photographed during the Bangladesh war, in 1971. (Sunil Janah /gallery at 678)
Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California 1936 (MoMA collection)

Lange, while writing about this iconic shot later, shared that she had taken five exposures of this lady and her children. Experts have argued, that compared with the four other alternatives, this iconic image appears to be posed.7 The placing of the hand on the chin in the pose of a thinker strengthens that argument. The Americans and the Western media have a tendency to fabricate images and evidence to further their cause and this iconic image of the Migrant Mother might not be an exception. Janah’s image seems to be much more “real” with that inquisitiveness in the eyes of his subject, a slight tilt of the head suggests that the woman is checking out the person who is photographing her in her dismal condition. The difference in the gaze of the two images is a result of the reaction of the subjects to the photographers and that demonstrates the depiction of the survivors of these gruesome events occurring in two different worlds—the Third and First World. The vulnerability in the eyes of a Third World inhabitant and the grit of a stoic face of a First World inhabitant firmly establish how photographers portray their own countrymen and conform to a pre-established visual notion. 

Janah had empathy for his subjects and that led to his lack of interest in photographing these people in distress in his later years. He confessed in his interview with Ghosh, ‘I did not want to be sent by the party to photograph any more famines, because there was a vague discomfort, a genuine distress to come face to face with other people’s sufferings when I am not doing anything to alleviate the sufferings.’8


  1. Siddhartha Ghosh, Chhobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Chorcha (Taking Photographs: A History of Bengali Photographic Practices), p. 346
  2. Siddhartha Ghosh, Chhobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Chorcha (Taking Photographs: A History of Bengali Photographic Practices), p. 346
  3. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, Delhi: OUP, 1997, 157.
  5. Siddhartha Ghosh, Chhobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Chorcha (Taking Photographs: A History of Bengali Photographic Practices), p. 346
  6. Siddhartha Ghosh, Chhobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Chorcha (Taking Photographs: A History of Bengali Photographic Practices), p. 346
  7. Siddhartha Ghosh, Chhobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Chorcha (Taking Photographs: A History of Bengali Photographic Practices), p. 347

Sourajit Saha works as a software engineer by day and lives as a cinephile 24/7. With interests in visual arts and history, he aspires to become a filmmaker one day.

Read more articles by Sourajit here.

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