The Community Replanting India’s Forests

In a series that blends classic documentary and fine art practices, Neha Hirve turns her camera toward a community in India experimenting with reforestation, using metaphors and symbols to portray the relationship between humans and the land.

© Neha Hirve, from the series Full Shade / Half Sun

A few years ago, while researching the region of Tamil Nadu, in India, photographer Neha Hirve encountered a community living in close relationship to nature in one of the hottest parts of the country. A small group of them, pushed by a mix of environmental responsibility and the need for shade during the burning summer, had started to reforest the area. And step by step for 15 years, they have been replanting the indigenous flora in a place they named Sadhana Forest.

During her first visits to the community, Hirve explored and documented them. She began by focusing on the mythology of the place rather than the daily routine. “I wasn't interested in approaching it as straight-up journalism, I wanted to kind of recreate what I imagined it would have been like in the 1960s and 70s when people first came”, she says. The result blends humour together with poetry.

© Neha Hirve, from the series Full Shade / Half Sun

Her portraits turn contemporary reforesters into quasi-mystical figures; incarnated gods of nature. A woman wears a twisted branch seemingly floating above her head like a crown; another wears a palm as an umbrella. Others are naked, with mud as their only outfit. And while it subtly refers to hippies’ time, it also gives a sense of the inescapable, harsh heat.

More recently, she started to include archival images of the place. In these black and white images, the landscape is barren, with a few rare palm trees providing little shade or food. You can also see farmers with their cows who don’t exactly fit the cliché of a utopian community from the late 60s. "It was almost romanticised and I wanted to get that mindset while also questioning it a little bit”, Hirve notes.

© Neha Hirve, from the series Full Shade / Half Sun

The results are nonetheless inspiring. “The area looks really different to what it was like. The forest is slowly coming back and you can definitely see a huge difference in the groundwater level. They are an experiment in reforestation and earth living.” The founder, Aviram Rozin, is giving activist talks around the world to spread the word about their practice and some similar projects have been implemented in places like Haiti and Kenya.

The technique, which gives its title to Hirve’s series, consists of separating the trees into three different categories – those that grow up in full sun, those that grow up in full shade, and those that grow up in half-shade and half-sun. And to convey that research aspect, she started to collect leaves of local flora and photograph them on a raw background, as if coming straight from a botanic book.

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Neha Hirve is a mixed-genre photographer based in Stockholm. Her work lies in the space between decisive moments, between documentary and fine art, between man and his environment, performance and reality, interpretation and fact, and seeks a kind of truth via metaphors – every microcosm alludes to the larger story of what it means to be human. Follow her on Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

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