An amber-eyed dog is looking into the camera; behind him, you can see silhouettes of people, a blurry brightly-coloured boat, a sliver of the sea and stormy grey skies. This is a photograph taken by Mohammad Adhil, a 14-year-old from the industrial belt of North Chennai. Other photographs, by him and five other young people from the area, cover a range of lived experiences—lines of silvery fish, the endless ocean, a child’s sudden smile, fishermen at sea, smokestacks looming over a playground, a fruit vendor wading through flooded roads, trees framing a setting sun.
It’s very different from the usual portrayal of the area, home to ports, an oil refinery and power plants, as crime-ridden and underdeveloped. The media has generally painted it as a hotbed of crime, an area noted for its poor infrastructure, drugs, gang warfare and police encounters. Tamil films such as Vada Chennai and Polladhavan, too, often depict North Chennai this way.
Adhil and five others —Hairu Nisha, P.T. Karthickeyan, G. Logeshwaran, Noor Nisha and Shafeeq Ahamed—aged 14-22, hope to change this perception of the area they call home. In July 2021, they began learning photography from Palani Kumar, the cameraman of Kakoos, a film on manual scavenging, who is with the People’s Archive of Rural India. “These kids are very political; they know about air pollution and climate change,” says Kumar, who provided the DSLR cameras for the photography. “I have learnt so much from them.”
The collection is being showcased at a two-day exhibition, North Chennai REFRAMED, between 4 and 5th February, at The Folly, Amethyst, Chennai. One hopes it will help people see past the dust-laden landscape and towering smokestacks to the dreams, nature and life North Chennai nurtures. It is, after all, also the birthplace of the rap-like music genre Gaana, a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, and home to Chennai’s best athletes, including footballer Nandhakumar Sekar, who grew up in Vyasarpadi, and boxing champion Kitheri Muthu, who is from Royapuram.
“This exhibition allows these children to tell stories about their neighbourhood unmediated by outside voices—the Tamil film industry or people like myself,” says writer and activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who advises the Coastal Resource Centre, an advocacy group and one of the organisers of the initiative. The others are the Zenith Learning Centre, which offers free tuitions, and the Chennai Climate Action Group, a voluntary youth group.
The exhibition showcases their pride in their neighbourhood—and their dreams. It tells you that Adhil, a class IX student who helps his father, a butcher, over the weekends, dreams of becoming a wildlife photographer. Among those of his images on the show is a close-up of a crab with a cracked shell and another that depicts the shattered endoskeleton of a starfish. “My favourite photograph is of a bird trying to sit on a log in the mangrove forest,” he says, adding that only one of its wings is open in the photograph. “I took it in a single shot,” he says, palpable pride in his voice.
For 22-year old Logeshwaran, an MSc clinical research student and the eldest in the group, the images are also about capturing the quotidian. His favourite photo, one taken along the beach road, portrays fishers cleaning their nets on the roadside as vehicles rumble behind. “They are doing it on the roadside because they have lost their beach shore to soil erosion,” he explains.
North Chennai, which encompasses areas like Red Hills, Royapuram, George Town and Thiruvottiyur, lies at the very fulcrum of the city’s history. Colonial underpinnings notwithstanding, historians often claim the modern city began around here, when the British started construction of Fort St George in 1639. As settlers began building their homes north and south of the fort, a wall came up around it, wrote the late S. Muthiah, Chennai’s chronicler, in his book Madras Rediscovered (1981). The area cocooned by these walls was called White Town. Outside these walls sprung “an Indian settlement called Black Town”, wrote Muthiah. “In time, it grew into the George Town we know today.”
A note on the exhibition says that North Chennai, the Black Town of yore, “remains a site of discrimination, with its disproportionately high concentration of dirty, toxic industries located amidst historically marginalised and predominantly working-class communities”. Jayaraman adds that North Chennai is the hub of climate-changing activity in south India: It has a 10 million tonne per annum oil refinery and more than 3,300 MW of coal-fired generation capacity is clustered here. It also has three major ports and extremely high traffic density, with heavy vehicles travelling to and from ports, he says. “People are fighting for breath here on a daily basis.”
He first came in contact with the students of Zenith Learning Centre two-and-a-half years ago—all six photographers are part of the centre. “When I went to North Chennai and interacted with these children, they took me on a tour of North Chennai; they showed it from their point of view,” he recalls. “So yes, there is pollution, but there is a life aspect to it as well,” he says, adding that it made him think about having these children tell their stories.
“Everyone has a skewed impression of North Chennai. They say everyone here is rowdy; that we are talentless and illiterate,” says Hairu Nisha, a class XII student. But, she says, they too play sports, study, create art. She hopes the world will see this too, one image at a time.
Also read: On Chennai walls, art for all