Siddharth Behl’s project Men, Machines and Dust documents a recycling plant in north Delhi’s Burari area. Captured using only black and white photographs, the importance of sustainability and recycling is brought to the forefront. During the project, Behl created a unique bond with the factory workers; the dust and noise restricted verbal communication and so photographer and worker became accustomed simply through physical presence and sharing cups of tea. Kelly Bryan interviewed Behl to explore the project further.
Your project Men, Machines and Dust documents a recycling plant in North Delhi’s Burari area. How and why did you become interested in this narrative?
In 2015, Delhi experienced a severe rise in air pollution and recorded some serious health cases, including chronic lung infections, breathing problems and various allergies. The government issued masks for the first time which gave citizens a glimpse of a masked world before the covid-19 pandemic, and the sale of air purifiers was booming in the Indian market. Those of us living in the city suddenly realised that our life spans were being reduced by the air we were breathing, potentially by up to ten years.
As a photographer this was an alarming issue for me and I wanted to capture it. The recycling plant in the northern zone of Delhi seemed like an appropriate place for me to go, this is where Delhi’s concrete waste is treated and I was curious to know the entire process behind such a large waste treatment plant. I hoped that by photographing the plant I could engage with people on wider sustainability issues such as pollution and recycling.
What camera equipment did you use to create such stark black and white images?
Without too much thought I stuck with my favourite canon DSLR to capture the entire project. I preferred using a crop censor camera with lenses like 15-85/3.5 and 18-35/1.8 to avoid unwanted dust and scratches when searching for unique angles and perspectives in the factory premises. I had to make sure that the equipment I was carrying around with me was light and portable enough that I could act quickly when spotting certain moments that I wanted to capture.
In an attempt to add another dimension to the series, I added portraits of some of the workers using a medium format camera Mamiya C220. I felt that adding square portraits made sense when considering that these workers were responsible for building one of the most used and popular paver tiles in the city.
Please can you explain the artistic reasoning behind making the entire series black and white?
I actually started shooting this project in colour but after a few days I realised that using a dual tone was more effective for me to portray the narrative I imagined, as well as giving a natural space to the images. In colour photography, each and every colour has its own characteristic and I feel that this can sometimes distract from the meaning and purpose of a picture.
Seeing gigantic machines run by swarms of workers in their uniforms, safety gears and helmets did not invoke a vibrant colour palette in my head. I was much more excited about the prospect of playing around with the contrasts between dark and light using the black and white medium.
In many of your photographs, the workers are the focal point. I’m curious whether you connected with these people, and whether they shaped the project?
I visualised the factory workers in the form of miniature humans inspired by Gulliver’s Travels. They played a vital role in all my photographs, providing a striking visual contrast to the huge machines around them. Due to different shift times, it took nearly a week before all the workers knew that a photographer was taking pictures of their work. Engulfed in the heavy noise and dust, it was extremely difficult to communicate with the men while they were at work. They themselves rarely spoke as the dust was so pervasive that it would instantly get into their nose and mouth when they did. My connection with these men was therefore mostly through physically being around them, although I did find a few opportunities to talk to workers about their work, shifts, daily chores and their creative methods of re-creating construction materials. I often shared cups of tea with them too. A key part of the project was to study how the men intermingled with their machines so of course the men themselves had a significant role in shaping the project.
In some photographs, the workers can be seen clearly. In others, they are anonymous as they conceal their identity with building materials. Please can you explain why this is the case?
I imagine many photographers would discourage using a different ratio after consistently using a particular ratio throughout a series of images. I wanted to experiment though because I felt I might reveal more about the factory workers and their work capacity with this approach.
The square portraits featuring workers holding different paver blocks gives the men unique identities, as well as hinting at what direction I would take if I were to continue the project or develop a photobook. I felt that capturing the workers in this way also added depth to the overall project.
Men, Machines and Dust provides a behind the scenes view of the recycling process in India. Did you intend for your project to raise awareness of sustainability and if so, how do you hope it will help and how has it already helped?
It was always my intention to raise awareness around sustainability issues, with the construction and demolition waste recycling factory allowing me to do this on a micro level. My aim was to highlight the need for ecological balance, environmental preservation and resource protection. This is a need that continues to grow as climate change impacts the world.
Construction waste is an issue all over the world but it is particularly problematic in India, where urban centres are often filled with construction sites and debris. The waste generated by these sites is enormous and environmental impacts include land space and energy consumption, resource depletion, and air, noise and water pollution. Recycling is therefore extremely important, and I believe that Men, Machines and Dust provides a unique way of bringing viewers closer to this realisation.
Has the development of this project impacted how you view the importance of sustainability?
Witnessing the recycling plant’s round the clock efforts at processing Delhi’s 5000 tons of daily waste up close, made the world’s fight for environmental preservation feel more real and visceral to me than ever before. Sustainability is the key to a better future and I feel a heightened sense of responsibility in this area as a result of doing the project.
I noticed that you have worked for numerous humanitarian organisations over the years. Please can you tell us about one of your most important experiences and how photography played a role in it?
After Nepal was struck by a deadly earthquake in 2015, there was a significant level of damage inflicted upon many old schools in different regions of the country. As a result, the government’s immediate priority was to secure the school facilities and repair all the schools which were fully or partially damaged. In 2017, with the support from an organisation named Christian Aid Nepal, I got the opportunity to photograph one of the primary schools in Dhading district of Nepal which had been significantly damaged, leaving the primary children at huge risk.
My experience in documenting the school was very challenging and exciting as I had to document the school in two phases; before and after the retrofitting. The term itself was relatively new for me as I learnt that retrofitting was more about securing the structure seismically without collapsing the building. This was a much more advanced and complex process than re-building.
As the project progressed I realised that my subconscious approach in selecting different frames, angles and even selection of children in the first phase was the same in the second one. This helped me to keep a consistent visual style between the two phases which allowed me to construct an effective comparative narrative.
Did you face any challenges when creating Men, Machines and Dust?
Dust and patience, I had to be very careful with the dust because it had the potential to damage my lens, memory card slot, and flash unit. I also had to deal with long waits for the right moments and it felt like I had to wait an eternity for certain shots. Examples that stick in my mind are: the men washing the moulds with a splash of water in the background, the alignment of birds in the sky while a man climbs a ladder, labourers running down the staircase when changing their shifts, and the Dr. Octopus shot with JCB cranes synced at the right time.
Since the facility was open all day and night, photographing at night was advantageous but challenging, slow shutters with high ISO was the only way I managed to capture good shots in such a low level of light. It was definitely worth the effort though, with many of my late evening shots defining the visual narrative perfectly.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that while on the factory premises I had to be extremely conscious of following the correct safety procedures, such as wearing a whistle and helmet, as well as keeping an eye on other workers in the midst of the machines’ deafening sound. Any SOS shoutouts during accidents were often overpowered by the machines’ noise so there was a need to stay constantly alert, especially for me, considering how easy it was to get engrossed in taking photographs and loose track of my surroundings.
If you had control over the interpretation of the project, how do you hope it would be received? What do you hope your audience will get from looking at your project?
The entire photo project can be seen as an artistically well packaged black and white photo series that deals with never-ending factory life and the life of workers who are at the forefront of running a sustainable business. I hope the series helps to educate people about recycling and gives them an insight into the kind of solutions that currently exist. With a bit of luck, the way in which I have used images to construct a narrative will encourage people to look at the project from a more creative perspective. I also hope the series surprises viewers in terms of factory life and the way that humans and machines intermingle in order to contribute to the sustainability of the planet.
How do you see the project evolving in the future?
The project has a wide scope to evolve and explore the men that I photographed who were unidentifiable, concealed behind construction components. This would allow me to pursue the human element in the project and create more in depth narratives around the factory labourers. I could also take more of a multimedia approach in future to make the project more versatile, perhaps shooting a short film on the lives of the factory men and their connection to such an important process.
Do you have any future photographic plans and are you currently working on any projects?
I intend to continue working on projects that link to the climate crisis, narrating my stories more interactively through the medium of videos, live streaming, short films and video podcasting. This will involve going to impacted geographical landscapes and travelling to remote regions where there has been consistent environmental degradation in recent times.
To start with, I believe that my recent project on river pollution The River Ghosts would be an appropriate storytelling format for a video podcast. The project explores traditional old stories of the eccentric Yamuna river traced by spiritual and religious influences, as well as the river’s more recent history and its representation of the world’s environmental depletion over the last decade.
As a part of my long term climate change project, I’m also very excited about developing my personal project The Silent Disaster. This delves into the lives of the minority Changpa tribal community who have been exposed to and continue to face the brunt of climate change in one of the highest altitude regions in the world: Changthang, Ladakh.
Mountain communities, especially the ones residing in the Himalayan belt, are the primary witnesses to any immediate climate impacts, and the series investigates how these impacts continue to infiltrate the lives of the indigenous mountain communities on a micro level.
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Sustainability permeates every aspect of our lives and is now a necessity, not a choice. Human innovation, determination and persistence is more important than ever and will ultimately decide the fate of our planet. In this issue, through photography and writing we explore insect-based protein, space colonisation, childfree people, the importance of payphones, the world’s largest blanket bog, support for artists, sustainable photobooks and Universal Basic Income.
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