When asked why he prefers black-and-white pictures over colour, American documentary photographer Manuel Rivera-Ortiz takes a pause before responding. “There’s a picture that I took in Varanasi during one of my visits that broke my heart. I was taking a boat ride on the Ganga, and the sun was just coming up. I saw a doll in the water and remarked that it was quite big. The boatman poked at it and said, ‘That’s not a doll, that’s a little girl’,” Rivera-Ortiz says over a phone call from New York. “I exhibited that picture once in the United States, and people gushed over the colours in the picture — but they only saw the colours, not what the picture was telling them.” The story is dismal and is in stark contrast to the title of the photographer’s first solo. India.
A Celebration of Life culminates from the photographer’s many trips to the Indian subcontinent for close to a decade. The 46-year-old believes his need to document “the universality of poverty” stems from his own roots. Growing up poor in Puerto Rico in a family where he was the eldest of 10 children led him to follow the practice of “concerned photography”, which documents people in disadvantaged situations living a life of dignity. “These pictures constantly remind me of my own past. They lend a voice to those to those still living in poverty,” says the founder of The Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for Documentary Photography & Film, a non-profit organisation committed to positive social discourse in under-represented communities. With over 120 pictures and stories, Rivera-Ortiz’s book will be available in India too.