Vijay S. Jodha’s piercing portraits of India’s farmer suicide crisis

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Currently on show in Hong Kong as part of the inaugural Decade of Change exhibition, Jodha’s images explore a tragedy largely overlooked in mainstream conversations about climate change

To many, climate change can seem an abstract concept: colossal in scale; complex in nature. And, for many of us in the West, it has no direct impediment on our daily lives – yet. But as research continues to interrogate the toll of rising temperatures on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities, sobering statistics have come to light: like the fact that climate change may have contributed to the suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers and farm workers over the past three decades. 

As global warming plays havoc with weather patterns, seeing rising sea levels engulf parts of coastal villages, and melting Himalayan glaciers causing flash floods, it has become increasingly harder for India’s rural communities to survive. Farmers borrow money to lease land or buy seeds, but when their crops are unable to mature properly, their farms and livelihoods are rendered unviable, and they are driven into crippling debt. According to a 2017 study from the University of California, Berkeley, an increase of just 1°C on an average day during the growing season was associated with 67 more agricultural suicides in India; an increase of 5°C on any one day saw that number jump to 335. 

Ramanamma with a photo of her husband, A. Lakshmaiah — a farmer who committed suicide over a debt of $18,623. The husbands of the three women behind her also committed suicide © Vijay Jodha.
S. Ramesh with a photo of his deceased brother, S. Kaiyan Sundaram, both farmers from Tamil Nadu. Sundaram died 'due to a heart attack' caused by debt-related stress © Vijay Jodha.
Rajitha with a photo of her deceased husband, P. Ramesh — a tenant farmer in Bhupalpalli village, Telangana. Ramesh committed suicide over an unpaid debt of $3,231 © Vijay Jodha.

One of two series winners of the inaugural Decade of Change award, Vijay S. Jodha’s ongoing portraiture project, First Witnesses, sheds light on the survivors – largely widows – at the epicentre of this crisis. Building village contacts at farmer protests in Delhi, Jodha has been connecting with bereaved family members from rural communities since 2017. To observe the images, currently on show at Hong Kong’s Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change as part of the touring Decade of Change exhibition, is to stare each wife, daughter, brother in the face: sombre, but purposeful; their expressions treading a delicate line between hope and sorrow. Like Latha from Chilpur village, Telengana, whose husband, alongside his brother, committed suicide over an unrepaid loan of $3,500; or 18-year old Vennela, from the village of Thanda, whose father took his life after accumulating $18,263 worth of debt.

“Photographers take great care when they photograph the famous or the powerful,” muses Jodha. “But when it comes to marginalised people, especially in less developed countries, basic personal details such as even names are deemed unnecessary, and minimum courtesies forgotten.” The photographer, who is based in Gurugram, a city southwest of Delhi, cites some of the most resource-rich and revered projects in recent decades. Sebastião Salgado’s series on migration and workers (“the images are stunning, but there’s not a single name of anyone in them”), for example, or Steve McCurry’s famous ‘Afghan Girl’. “Such media images are only an extension of prevailing stereotypes,” he says. “The individual is seen as an unimportant element in a larger mass – be it refugees, farmers, migrants or flood victims.”

“Photographers take great care when they photograph the famous or the powerful… But when it comes to marginalised people, especially in less developed countries, basic personal details such as even names are deemed unnecessary, and minimum courtesies forgotten”

Rajitha with a photo of her deceased husband, P. Ramesh — a tenant farmer in Bhupalpalli village, Telangana. Ramesh committed suicide over a debt of $3,231 © Vijay Jodha.
V. Mary with a photo of her deceased father, Anthony Swamy — a tenant farmer in Tamil Nadu © Vijay Jodha.
Ramanna with a photo of his deceased wife, R. Venkatamma, both farmers from Andhra Pradesh. Venkatamma committed suicide over a debt of $8,428 © Vijay Jodha.

By contrast, quietly imbued in Jodha’s portraits are details that restore a sense of immediacy, individuality and dignity. His subjects are shot with the lens looking up at them, rather than down. The images are accompanied with biographical and anecdotal details – intimate evidence of life lived and lost – in the captions. Presented in an exhibition setting, they are intended to be larger than life, akin to the public billboards in India that are otherwise a monopoly of politicians and film stars. 

“We are long past the time when Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor story for Life Magazine spurred greater investment in rural health infrastructure in 1950s America,” Jodha remarks, pondering his objectives for First Witnesses. He describes garnering support for the project as “an impossible task”, given the subject matter’s detachment from India’s urban-centric and youth-orientated mainstream media – but his ardent hope, in spite of this, is to fuel and facilitate the work of organisations already engaged in the crisis at a grassroots level.

Beyond this, he hopes to drive dialogue with his fellow media professionals, including photographers, photo editors and commissioners internationally. “All of us swear by ideas of equality and unity of humanity, but how much do we practice it even within our limited sphere of influence?” he asks. “Do we accord the same courtesy and decency to every person in front of the camera? Sadly not.”


Decade of Change is currently on show at the Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change, Hong Kong, until 30 September, and will be on show at The Nest Summit for Climate Week NYC in collaboration with the Climate Museum between 21-22 September 2021.

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Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.