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Asmita Parelkar’s documentation of animals in captivity

Photographer Asmita Parelkar takes us into her world of documenting animals in a unique light, seeing them as fellow sentients rather than mere creatures.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 01 May

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From Giraffe Behind The Door

God loved the birds and invented trees.
Man loved the birds and invented cages.
- Jacques Deval

Ever since she was a child and saw her father working with his camera, Asmita Parelkar had been drawn to the world of photography. Being a student at the J.J School of Arts, Mumbai, followed by the International Center of Photography (ICP), New York, helped shape her career, as did her compelling need to understand the relationship between man and nature. Not only did it nurture her style and aesthetic and provide the necessary skills she needed to grow as a photographer, it also led her to the stories that needed telling.

Today, the 35-year-old documentary photographer focuses her gaze on animals - from documenting animals confiscated by the US Fish & Wildlife Service that originated outside the United States for Still Life, which examines the multi-billion-dollar industry of Illegal Wildlife Trade, to understanding animal captivity up close and documenting five zoos in New York in Giraffe Behind the Door. She is currently working on a series documenting the Chabutaras (bird houses) in Kutch, made for feeding birds and providing them shelter.

We spoke to Asmita about her unique tryst with photography, love for animals, and what inspires her work.

Tell me about your foray into photography. What attracted you to it as a medium of storytelling?

My introduction to photography was seeing my father with his camera and going through National Geographic Magazines and other books my parents introduced me to while growing up. I think it was very early on that I realised the connection between travel and photography, both of which were close to my heart. I now see and understand how an image can take us to a different world; it can help you travel into the world and also within, into an emotional space. A photograph transports us to a place that is unfamiliar, or simply gives a new perspective on the familiar. I really like this aspect of the craft, which helps me explore the world and express what I feel and think.

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Asmita's Still Life series documents animal parts confiscated by the US Fish & Wildlife Services

Why is it that animals feature in such a big way in your work?

I have always been interested in animals and felt a natural pull towards them since I was very young. I don't know if there is a reason or logic behind it but it’s just something I can feel. In my early 20s, I was volunteering with Welfare of Stray dogs and a few other organisations that worked with animals doing first aid and wildlife rescue work. Some of the early photography work. This coincided with me learning photography at the BFA program at J.J School of Arts. One of the first assignments I did while still in college was with an NGO in rural Maharashtra that worked with animals.

I was fascinated by the idea of using photography to talk about the condition of animals or the work done by the NGO. I knew very early on that I wanted to explore my curiosity about the natural world further. I believe in working on subjects that are close to one's heart and something we feel deeply about. I was keen to work on stories that explored the connection between humans and animals.

Does documentation come from a sense of responsibility a photographer carries?

I really liked the process of making an image - to go out into the world to photograph what I saw and felt, and bring that to a bigger audience. The documentation aspect just became a part of it. As I was studying and looking at other photographers' works, I started learning about documentary practices and storytelling as an idea.

In your series Still Life, how did you get access to those specimens?

During the making of Still Life, I was in studying at ICP and trying to work on stories about the relationship between animals and humans. During my research, I came across the US Fish & Wildlife Services. I wrote to them and after months of back and forth, I finally got permission to photograph the animal parts confiscated by them at different ports of New York. These were body parts of animals that were probably once wild and roamed free but were now dead and stored in an office in New York in a sterile environment.

Illegal wildlife trade is multi-billion dollar industry. Hundreds of species of animals are poached dead and/or alive for their body parts, which has threatened their population in the wild and has sent many species towards the brink of extinction. It makes the viewer think about the greed and cruelty, which is a part of this trade. So I decided to photograph them against a plain background in such a way that the only thing that remained of the animals were lifeless body parts; where at first glance, one wouldn’t know if the animal is alive or dead even though it was just hollow skin. I can only hope that the feeling with which I made these images comes through.

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Still Life explores the relationship between animals and humans, a recurrent theme in Asmita's work

Zoochosis and the psychology of animals, freedom and captivity are themes that come through in your series Giraffe Behind the Door. What drew you to these themes?

I started working on Giraffe Behind the Door while I was at ICP. It’s a series made across five zoos in New York. I never liked zoos and always found them depressing. But the zoos there were well maintained and the enclosures were created with a lot of care, paying attention to the natural habitats of the animals. The painted dioramas on the walls often showed the savannahs or the landscape the animals belonged to. Despite that, it was obvious that the feeling these animals carried in these enclosures was the same as the animals I had seen in the zoos in India with concrete floors and rusted bars. Being in captivity definitely changes the animals’ behaviour and has an effect on them.

Regarding the title, when I visited the zoo in winter, I realised that most animals have winter enclosures and because they come from different climates, their movements are restricted. I was walking around and opened a door without reading what was inside and was surprised to see giraffes in that room. I wasn’t expecting it and had never even imagined seeing a giraffe in a big room. That’s when I made the giraffe image and thought about this title.

I took photographs inside zoos for five to six months, and would sometimes spend the whole day at the zoo observing animals inside each enclosure. I believe that freedom is a basic right for all humans and animals. Yet we are not free in some way or the other. When it comes to nature and animals, human beings feel a superiority to control them and set boundaries. As cities develop and more urban spaces are created, we are losing forests and many species we share this planet with are losing their habitats. And then we build zoos and keep wild animals in captivity. Hunting animals for trophies and increasing illegal wildlife trade for their body parts has also pushed many species towards extinction. So both these bodies of works are connected. Do we want to see animals thrive in their natural habitats or in glass boxes in zoos or natural history museums is a question we need to ask ourselves.

Asmita's photographs from Giraffe Behind The Door

When you view animals as the subject, are there different rules of photography that apply?

There are no different rules. I think it's just about being patient. I photograph all my subjects with the same empathy. My intention is to convey whatever I am feeling, which will hopefully evoke something in the viewer. Photographing animals requires patience. Though I don't shoot a lot in the wild, it’s all about waiting and observing.

You've explored the world of book design as well, mainly with photography. How did this parallel interest develop, and what have your experiences in this field been?

After graduating from J.J School of Arts, I worked as a graphic designer for a few years. My interest in book design developed there. I worked with Nishant Shukla to design his book Seeking Moksha and realised I love working with different materials and the tactility of books. I like the storytelling aspect of photography in general and while designing photo books, I like seeing how the materials can also become part of the story.

I am still learning about photo book making and understanding this form. I like how one can weave images together in a photo book to tell a story. Also, the intimate experience of going through a book and knowing that it can be carried anywhere and shared is nice.

The book design by Asmita for Seeking Moksha, a book by Nishant Shukla

Apart from photography, what keeps you busy?

My life always revolves around photography. When I am not shooting, I am reading and researching about the subjects I am interested in. I like spending time in nature whenever I can. I am a part of a collective called BIND Collective, a platform for contemporary photography which focuses on photo books. The library is currently at Trilogy bookstore in Lower Parel Mumbai.

Tell me about the new series you’re working on in Kutch.

I am working on a series on the Chabutaras in Kutch, which are bird houses made for feeding and giving them shelter. They are mostly used by pigeons and am travelling to different parts of Kutch photographing them.

In the region, it is believed that after a person dies, their soul becomes an animal. I like the idea of something physical being built for birds, which are believed to be souls of ancestors. Perhaps the Chabutaras become a meeting point for the physical and the spiritual world. I am interested in looking at different architecture for animals.

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Recent works from Asmita's Kutch series

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