Exploring one’s hometown is guaranteed to bring genuine interest and authenticity in every photographer’s work. That’s why many of us find ourselves drawn to exploring and chronicling our roots.
This is definitely the case for Shawn Jacob Stephen, who has been drawing inspiration from his hometown of Nilgiris district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Apart from his ventures into different genres and styles of photography, he has also done documentary portraits as part of dedicating his craft to the place where his creative journey began.
“I’ve spent nearly all of my life in the Nilgiris, a beautiful hill station in the South of India. With an inherent appreciation for landscapes owing to where I’ve grown up, I found myself best able to express this appreciation through photography. Which essentially is where my journey began,” Stephen said of the inspiration behind his documentary portraits that feature some of the oldest tribes in his hometown.
Capturing appreciation for one’s roots
Stephen describes “The Nilgiris Portrait Project” as “an ode to a people who have called these mountains home for centuries.” To establish this premise, it wasn’t enough for him to take straightforward photos. He had to set his documentary portraits to showcase both the Nilgiri mountain landscape and the tribes who have been living on the breathtaking peaks.
The first group he featured for this ongoing project is the Toda Tribe, one of the oldest settlers of the Nilgiris. It was this collection of portraits that set him on the quest to photograph all the tribes in the area as a way to celebrate their culture and identity.
For the second leg of the project, he placed the spotlight on the Irula people, again setting them in the beautiful vistas of the Nilgiri mountains. However, this installment is shorter, giving us the impression that he most likely wasn’t able to stay as long in the area.
Powerful atmosphere, epic landscapes
I especially love the atmosphere and energy in these documentary portraits. I think Stephen was able to bring these qualities out through a variety of angles, as well as in both color and black and white. It’s also interesting how both installments were able to show the subtle differences between the two tribes, mainly in the traditional garbs they were wearing.
As I look forward to the next Nilgiris tribe that Stephen will feature for this project, I also hope that the rest of us can find a way to explore our roots through documentary portraits as well. It always makes for an interesting personal and creative journey to look inward for ideas and inspiration, whatever the genre or medium.
All photos by Shawn Jacob Stephen. Used with Creative Commons permission.