Photojournalist Sami Siva: Ignorance is more shocking than harsh events

Sami Siva has covered post-conflict and social-issue stories on three continents. His work has been published in The New York Times, TIME, The Guardian, CNN, and other media outlets. Now Sami studies at the University of Tartu.

Sami Siva
Sami Siva. Photo from a private collection

In May 2010, Sami Siva arrived in Sopore, a town in Kashmir, India. He was there on a mission: to photograph the ongoing civil unrest. Sami was supposed to meet a contact who would take him different places for interviews and photographs. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by an angry crowd.

It was a collision between the locals and the policemen, and he was in the middle of it. He came from the wrong part of India, as the Kashmiris are wary of people from other parts of the country. Young guys full of anger and holding big stones in their hands stood around Sami. It was the first time he felt scared and in danger. Luckily, Sami was able to speak to one of the guys in front of the mob. Meanwhile, his contact arrived and clarified the situation.

“That’s the nature of the job. If you are a firefighter and you are afraid of fire, then you can’t do this job. It comes down to how you deal with situations and people. It’s a crucial element of being a photographer who works in conflict areas,” admits Sami.

Girls from Sopore (Kashmir, India)
A girl from Sopore complained that the local police had seized her brother. Photo by Sami Siva

Two ways to work in a conflict area

In some cases, the press gets assistance from the stakeholders. For instance, if journalists are going to Iraq or Afghanistan, they get embedded with the American troops. The military gives them the support and protection they need to execute their work, and the journalists always move around with the military.

Another thing is working in unpredictable situations. You are there without any protection. You get caught between the conflicting groups. Things can change from normal to precarious, often and easily. This is how Sami often works. His working conditions are tricky and dangerous. “It is important to take risks that are calculated and assessed properly. Also, you have to be mindful about them,” he says.

Youth protest in Kashmir
Youth protest against the presence of the Indian military in Kashmir. Srinagar, May 2010. Photo by Sami Siva

Saving the world is not the goal

A screenshot of a story
This article featuring Sami Siva’s photos helped the fishing community in Gujarat, India, to win the case against the World Bank. Screenshot from The Nation

Why take all the risks? The ultimate goal of Sami’s work is to create awareness and understanding about what is going on. According to him, making the world a better place is impossible. “Things cannot be changed that easily. It’s much more complicated. What photographers and photojournalists can do is to tell the story the way it is. Perhaps it will change certain people’s perception and ideas,” Sami suggests.

When he takes photos, he feels that he has a point to make. “It is important for me to say what I can express based on my experience, knowledge, and understanding of the situation.”

However, there are cases when Sami’s work has had a real impact beyond raising awareness. For instance, he was a part of an investigative project about the funding of a big hydroelectric plant in Gujarat, India. The World Bank was financing the project. The plant would put the local fishing community at a significant disadvantage. A group of the fishermen took the case to the US Supreme Court. During the hearing, the investigative story that Sami was a part of was used as evidence to argue the fishermen’s case. In the end, the community won the case against the World Bank.

Cooking instead of yoga and meditation

Oftentimes, Sami encounters certain myths about Indian people. These include beliefs that everybody in India is vegetarian and everybody does yoga. He does not do yoga, neither does he meditate.

When Sami comes back from his journeys in conflict areas, what he does instead is to pick up recipes from those places and introduce them to his friends. One of his favourite things is to cook strange recipes from strange places and tell stories to his friends at the dinner table. “Through food, people learn a lot,” Sami affirms.

The stories that Sami carries with himself, are they a treasure or a burden? “It’s an experience. It’s a part of the job. They enrich my perspective on the world,” Sami says. “This is the reality for most people in the world. In today’s context, we are shielded from this harsh reality,” Sami continues. “Photography is like a passport into the unknown world of humanity where you get really close to situations and experience them,” he sums up.

A screenshot of Sami Siva's food-themed Instagram
Sami enjoys cooking meals from the areas of his work for his friends. Screenshot from his dedicated Instagram account

Searching for one’s Indian roots in Canada

Sami was born in Tamil Nadu, the southern part of India. In his ‘previous life’, he studied engineering and got a job offer from Canada. That took him to Toronto. This was a turning point in his life as a photojournalist. In India, he didn’t have the means, knowledge, or opportunities to learn photography. Canada offered all of this. There he could buy a decent camera.

In Toronto, a multicultural melting pot, Sami started looking at this own roots: where he came from, what his identity meant, who he was as a person. These question led him to a project back in India. He grew up with the civil conflict in Sri Lanka, so he embarked on a journey to photograph Sri Lankan refugees coming to his native Tamil Nadu. This work was not commissioned, but eventually it got published in a couple of outlets in Canada. That’s how it started.

“For me, photography is a way of understanding things. I tend to go to places and take photographs to understand the issue or topic,” Sami explains of his itch for photography.

A refugee from Sri Lanka
A photo is taken for the refugee identity card at Mandapam Refugee camp. It is the largest refugee camp in India for Tamil refugees coming from Sri Lanka. Photo by Sami Siva

Nomadic life on three continents

Besides living in India and Canada, Sami has also lived in Europe: Paris, Prague, and the countryside in France. He has travelled to most of the European countries besides the Balkans. Right now, Sami is happy to be in Estonia, especially in Tartu.

Thanks to his experience living on three continents, Sami has gained a lot of cultural and social empathy. There is also a drawback to this: “I don’t get excited when I go to places anymore,” admits Sami. It’s become so usual to him. Going to Venice or a beautiful beach in France seems normal because of all the previous travel and experience.

Sami’s experience in Tartu is controversial

Sami visited Tartu for the first time in 2018. The Town Hall square and the riverside evoked a special feeling. “It felt like an incredible experience, right from the first moment. I said to myself that one day I would come and live in this place,” Sami recalls.

Sami’s idealistic perception of Tartu has somewhat changed. He finds the increasing number of antisemitic, racist, and neo-Nazi graffiti around town disconcerting. Moreover, the neo-Nazi youth hang around and drink in Pirogov park, which is so close to the Town Hall and is surrounded by highly regarded educational institutions. Sami himself had the experience of facing them in recent months.

“What is harsh for me is not to witness the events in conflict areas. What is harsh is to witness a situation when people have all the possibilities and choices, and yet they begin to discriminate and differentiate others,” says Sami.

Neo-nazi graffiti in Tartu

Sami Siva has encountered some neo-Nazi graffiti in Tartu. Also, he has met neo-Nazi-minded youth hanging around in Pirogov park. Photo by Sami Siva

Pursuing EU-Russia Studies at the University of Tartu

After spending all the time in the field working in real situations, it became important to Sami to understand the academic perspective on the conflicts. “I knew about the University of Tartu because I had been to Tartu. Also, I knew that the university’s Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies is well regarded for its research. And I knew it would be ideal for me to be in Estonia,” Sami says.

He would like to work in the Eastern European countries, especially in the Baltic states. Sami is glad to have signed up for his master’s programme, where he can relate his photography experience with the studies. Also, he would like to combine photography and politics in his research, taking it to the next level.

Currently, Sami is busy with academic work rather than photography. In the pandemic, it is challenging to travel to places and meet people. He has some project ideas in Estonia, though.

University of Tartu
The University of Tartu. Photo by Sami Siva

Do things close to your heart

Sami Siva is a self-taught photojournalist. He admits that he still makes mistakes, but is doing better now. He is still in the process of learning. The stories of the people he photographs, the situations and conditions – nothing is scripted. “You cannot read about this in a textbook or a manual. You have a basic understanding of how to operate a camera and communicate with people, and the rest is up in the air,” Sami admits.

One of the most important things Sami learned from his mentors and other photographers is to do something that is very close to your heart. “You have to feel it and live with it to be able to photograph it. It does not mean that if you want to take photos of drug addicts, you should start taking drugs. It’s important to start with something that is very personal and close to you. Then it becomes your signature. It’s your project, it’s your voice. It’s important to work on finding that voice. It could be anything small. It can be something in your surroundings,” Sami advises.

Another advice of his is to dig deep instead of wide. When you start working on a specific area, it makes sense to unpack the nuances and details of the place and the region.

And finally, Sami says that technical skills are not the most crucial ones, though it is important to understand the camera to an extent that it becomes like an extension of your hand. This helps to work fast. “The most crucial thing is to understand people, empathise with people,” he concludes.

You can find more of Sami Siva’s photographic work on his personal website.

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