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24 February 2021

The Intertwined Fate of Farmers and their Land

24 February 2021 - Written by Laurence Cornet

The vulnerability of living as a farmer today and the intrinsic link between man and nature are the themes Laura El-Tantawy meditates on in her series I’ll Die for You, the winner of the PHmuseum 2020 Women Photographers Grant.

© Laura El-Tantawy, from the series I'll Die for You

“I’ve taken pesticide. I’m going to die”, 35-year-old cotton farmer, Sanjay Sarate, told his wife one day, before hugging his son goodbye. Like nearly 300,000 farmers in India in the past 20 years, Sarate committed suicide, unable to pay off his debts.

British-Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy went to India after hearing about this plague, in 2008, with no plan other than meeting with the families of farmers who took their own life. Her own grandfather was a farmer who had to give up some of his fields under Nasser’s land reform and El-Tantawy had his story in the back of her mind when she started her investigation. “India never struck me as a place where people took their own life, very much like Egypt where people work really, really hard to survive. I went to India with a curiosity of understanding why people were committing suicide”, she explains.

© Laura El-Tantawy, from the series I'll Die for You
© Laura El-Tantawy, from the series I'll Die for You

While speaking to the families and looking at them, she noticed that some details of their skin were very similar to that of the land they were taking care of. “The two are so dependent on each other for survival, that they start to look the same”, she says. In a series of close-ups that juxtapose the farmers’ rough skin and the local landscapes, she reveals the mutual dependence between humanity and the earth by blurring the distinction between the two.

Through the lens of macrophotography, traditionally linked to nature, skin patterns hardly differ from the lines of tree bark. “It is a metaphor for the fact that both farmers and the land can’t survive without each other. I’ve tried to show this intimate relationship symbolically”, she explains.

© Laura El-Tantawy, from the series I'll Die for You
© Laura El-Tantawy, from the series I'll Die for You

El-Tantawy also picked up a film camera, whose grain emphasises the textures and calls to mind the dust of the soil. From India to Palestine and Peru, where she later went, she shot grainy portraits of farmers and adjusted her process to their struggles. In India, she re-photographed archive portraits of farmers who had taken their own life; in Palestine, she played on double exposure to accentuate the connection between the man and the land in a place where it’s often colonised.

“In every country, the struggles are quite individual, but the common denominator is the changing weather patterns and the sense of shame that comes from failing to provide for your family.” Putting a face on the issue by portraying both the land and the farmers with her signature poetry, she reminds us that when one of them dies, so does the other.

© Laura El-Tantawy, from the series I'll Die for You
© Laura El-Tantawy, from the series I'll Die for You

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Laura El-Tantawy is a documentary photographer, artful bookmaker, and mentor. She prides herself on her independent identity as a visual creative. Her goal as an artist is to produce socially engaged, unique, and thought-provoking work. Follow her on Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.

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This article is part of our feature series Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

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