It looks as old as time itself. Mostly red earth and a clear blue sky with myriad colours and features defining a canvas of a landscape. The visually stunning landscapeits coastal sandplain, desert and the inland uplands dotted with gorgesis perhaps the primary facet of Pilbara that enchants a visitor no end. This dry and thinly populated mineral-rich (iron ore in particular) region in the north of Western Australia has been a mystery of sorts for many, with a vividly unique geography on one hand and the native aboriginal people on the other. It gives a sense that the region, the place, the land, the people are aching to tell storiesof themselves and of time itself. Stories, thats what got photographer Bharat Sikka hooked to Pilbara, rather than the large-scale iron ore mining for which the region is fairly well known. I wasnt really expecting anything in particular. I got an invite from FORM to come and explore Pilbara. I found it an extremely interesting space and it intrigued me to a great extent. It was really beautiful so I said yes, says Sikka.
The ace photographer travelled through the Pilbara with FORM and a couple of other Indian photographers as a part of the Pilbara Project. FORM, Perths creative industries hub, has been documenting the culture and the history of the many communities spread across the Pilbara under this project. An exhibition of the Pilbara Project, including many of Sikkas pictures, was recently put up in Delhi as part of the ongoing Oz Fest and the Delhi International Arts Festival. Sikka explored the region through his lens as a part of the second stage of the project, which seeks to explore Pilbaras human capital, after the first stage of the project largely focused on the unique landscape of the region. And well, the human capital of the region has a mighty long lineage as the first people to inhabit the Pilbara and they were ancestors of today's aboriginal people about 40-50 millenia ago. I was interacting with the aboriginal people and Ive never experienced something of that sort before. When I take pictures I like to tell storiesabout the people, the landscape, about how I juxtapose the landscape with a portrait. So I just followed my style of photography there as well, he adds.
But why didnt he focus on the breathtaking landscape and instead went for a relatively staid subject He believes that, although visually very appealing, landscapes wouldnt have really represented all that Pilbara stands for, the life of the region, its people. I didnt want to reduce the enormity of the region and its varied facets to just a beautiful picture postcard of the landscape. There had to be stories, there had to be people, he says. So he instead chose otherwise regular inhabitants of the region as his prized subjects. His work represents the diversity of the region and its inhabitants, with everyone from the aboriginal natives of the Pilbara to Chinese immigrants and even the white Australians whove made it their home. I like portraiture. I like to build a relationship through the pictures with the people who inhabit that space. Like Marble Bar is a very interesting place where people are still digging for gold and they believe that there is still gold there. There are really small stories of that place that I enjoyed telling the most through the pictures. Be it the motel owners and how their lives are or the gold diggers or the Asian immigrants working in the region or even how Chinese restaurants are popular there. I wanted to make it informative, contemporary and with some kind of fiction and storytelling involved, explains Sikka.
His pictures have the human element of simplicity that makes one comfortable and intimate with the picture and the subject matter, which mostly is a person. Mostly straight, simple and technically sound front-angle shots with minimal or no evident post-production, Sikkas work stays true to his theme, honest to the subjects and focused on his story. In fact, his section in the Pilbara Project is named Looking for Nyamu. The story behind the name is as follows: We were looking for this aboriginal gentleman who was one of the most senior aboriginal people in the region. It was a kind of a search from one aboriginal settlement to the other. So when we got down to deciding the title for these pictures, I decided to call it Looking for Nyamu. It basically means an elderly, grandfatherly figure. It was a search that resulted in these pictures. So that story itself has a rather contemporary meaning. And the title itself has a story.
Sikka also reminisces about the emotive experience of interacting with the aboriginal people of the region. For a society that usually likes to keep to itself, Sikka was surprised that the aboriginal inhabitants of Pilbara were willingly interacting with him. There was some sort of an inexplicable connection that I felt. It was a surreal experience. They were surprised that I had come all the way from India. That was very emotional for them at some level. So breaking the ice wasnt very difficult. Theyre usually not very open to interaction with people from outside but they allowed me to interact as well as take pictures quite comfortably, he says. But didnt he run the risk of falling into the trap of stereotypes that is ever so evident where unique habitats and societies per say are the subjects He gives a measured yet assertive response, stating that he likes to keep things simple without overintellectualising anything. My work generally is not about stereotypes and I try and make it more contemporary. I dont like to preach through my work. Its not about making a statement of any sort. I try to project the way I see things. The way I like to tell stories, he says.
Snapshots and memories of Pilbara are safely resting in Sikkas camera, and they also hold a promise of another sojourn to the fascinating region I would love to go back and make a film there. It probably would be about that space and the place with an alien person in the middle of it all and about his experience there. Its quite an interesting place that way. Lots of interesting characters, lots of stories, he says.