Documentary, Projects

CK Vijayakumar – New Marshfield, Ohio

A Tamil-Indian photographed one of the poorest townships in Ohio

“I don’t consider myself a storyteller,” says the Tamil-Indian photographer CK Vijayakumar. “I photograph primarily because it helps me deal with reality; it helps me to understand how life can be perceived through a camera.”

Unlike many photojournalists, Vijayakumar never experienced that moment – a calling – when he suddenly felt moved to document the lives of others. He is not, in the tradition of many photographers, driven to affect a change; rather, photography is a means with which to process a reality, to deconstruct it. And it’s very personal to him.

A software engineer from Chennai in India, Vijayakumar was seconded to a software developer in Houston some six years ago, and in that time moved from his job in the most populous city in Texas to a job in the most populous city in California. “I bought a car about a month after I arrived in the US and started driving around by myself, looking out the window and watching the country roll by,” he says. “I think the US does that to you – it’s so vast it makes you want to explore.”

Vijayakumar bought a second-hand camera to accompany him on his roadtrips and started taking pictures. “At the time, I had no real reason for doing that; I just enjoyed it. My software engineering job was extremely abstracted from reality: sat at a desk, in front of a computer, for 10 hours a day, I didn’t meet many people, I didn’t see much of the world. It was a sterile, predictable environment with no sensory stimulus at all. So driving and photographing helped me experience a different version of reality.”

But it was the French documentary, An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’, that suddenly changed his perception of photography. He saw parallels – he and Frank, both displaced from their native lands, exploring their adopted homes, camera in hand: “It felt like my photos were similar to his, and so was my process, so I started shooting more and trying to understand photography.”

By the time he was 26, the camera had become increasingly important to him. “Issues such as loneliness and sexuality have always fascinated me,” he says, “and I started to feel more and more disillusioned with the world. I now know that photography is a tool to help me understand these concepts.”

He decided to pursue documentary photography and started saving up. In 2012 he applied to Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication. On receiving a letter of acceptance, he mustered up enough courage to give up his job, his work visa and his green card, and in the fall of 2013 drove some 2,300 miles from Los Angeles to Athens, Ohio, with all his belongings in the back of a car.

He took up residence near the university campus and immersed himself in the landscape of the surrounding Appalachian Country, a large geographical region in the Midwestern state that follows the Ohio River from the very southwest corner to the very northeast corner.

Picturesque and steeped in heritage, Appalachia’s winding roads, lush valleys and creeks mask the region’s disproportionately high levels of poverty. And so began Vijayakumar’s New Marshfield, Ohio, a project he eventually started to help him understand what it means to live in an impoverished post-industrial landscape.

New Marshfield is one of the poorest towns in the state. With a population of only several hundred, close to 50 percent of them live below the poverty line. It’s an ‘unincorporated’ area that doesn’t have its own municipality, although it does have its own post office and a designated post code. “The area is part of Appalachian Ohio, where coal mining and logging were once huge industries. So, in my series, I deal with concepts such as internal colonialism and exploitation, because poverty is a symptom of a larger problem – a game of power and wealth, played by the political and economic elite.”

Vijayakumar wanted to know what it was like living in a once thriving rural town that’s had the very life choked out of it by poverty, and was interested in understanding how this interacts with the residents’ American identity – patriotic and poor, living in the heartland of the richest country in the world. “Appalachia has almost become synonymous with poverty, but the poor have no means of sharing their discourse because the rich seem to have very tight control over the means of spreading discourses, and therefore the means of production.

“But on a personal level, I was interested in it because as a child I was constantly reminded by my father that if I did not work hard I would end up like that beggar on the street. I used to have nightmares that I was one of those kids, begging on the trains in India.

“Impoverished people are not abstracted from other strata of society in India, like they are in the US, so my father’s warnings really affected me viscerally. My family was not poor – we are lower middle-class Tamil – but I was surrounded by poverty. It wasn’t the loss of lifestyle that scared me; I was terrified of the loss of dignity – and it was debilitating. But as I grew older, I realised it was only a narrative constructed inside my head from various external sources, so I wanted to challenge this internal discourse.”

Vijayakumar remains in awe of the medium of photography, and says that “it is an anti-narrative form: it has no beginning and no end”.

“Narratives are things people create when they look at a photo,” he says. “What we perceive as reality is nothing but a theatre of competing narratives – just like history.”

It sounds a little like a committed relationship for CK. “I always joke with my friends that I will stop photographing when I find true love,” he says. “I think romanticism was ingrained in me as a child. But, as I grew up, my romanticised view of life started to disintegrate before my very eyes. The world can be a pretty crazy place. Photography helps me to deal with life. It’s an existential solution to a very romantic problem.”

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 Now 31, CK Vijayakumar will complete his MA in documentary photography in May. He has recently won Ohio University’s Student Enhancement Award – a grant that will enable him to spend this summer documenting the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey. “The refugee crisis is a symptom of larger power games being played out in different corridors of the world. However, the cost of this conflict is mostly borne by the poor and powerless. I’ll be working with a Syrian political science graduate student, and we hope to collaborate on a photobook that will incorporate interviews and political analysis.”

For more on CK Vijayakumar’s work, visit his website