Love, Honour & Disobey

Text by Colin Pantall
First published in the British Journal of Photography magazine, UK, October 2013

Given an open commission to return to India to shoot a new body of work, Max Pinckers approached the Love Commandos in New Delhi, an organisation that helps couples who have fallen in love escape the threat of honour violence from their disapproving families. But, finds Colin Pantall, the result is a world away from a traditional documentary record, instead developing the approach of his previous work, using staged scenarios influenced by Bollywood cinema 

Life is good for 25-year-old Belgian photographer Max Pinckers, who was singled out as one of ‘The Ones To Watch' in our January edition [#7808]. His first book, The Fourth Wall, sold out its first edition of 1000 self-published copies, won the City of Levallois Photography Award and was nominated for the Photobook of the Year Award by Martin Parr at the Kassel Fotobookfestival. With its take on Mumbai and the influence of Bollywood, the work also led directly to a commission for the Europalia International Arts Festival. Now in its 24th biennial, the Brussels-based festival highlights the artistic and cultural output of one country. In 2011, the featured country was Brazil; this year it’s India. 

Initially, Pinckers was reluctant to commit to another project about the subcontinent, concerned he would be typecast as “the guy who does India”. But the opportunity presented by the commission and the openness of the brief convinced him this was a chance to develop the approach he had taken in The Fourth Wall, where the documentary and the fictional mix in a way that references both the retro look of 1970s Hindi cinema and the visual landscape of contemporary Mumbai. 

But Pinckers didn’t have a subject in mind. “The brief was open; I could choose whatever I wanted to work on, for however long, but it was difficult to find a subject. The Fourth Wall had no specific focus; it had a Bollywood theme, but it was very general. So I started thinking about things that had caught my eye while making it – things with a focus.”

Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty is the project that developed out of these initial thoughts. It focuses on honour-based violence in India; in particular, the attacks on women and men who fall in love, or have a relationship against their family’s will. Honour-based violence used to be limited to rural areas, but it is expanding into large cities due to the rise in extreme religious and political groups. One organisation fighting this violence is the Love Commandos, a voluntary group that originally formed to protect couples who celebrate Valentine’s Day from attack by extremists. 

“I had heard of the Love Commandos and approached them to make a story. They are a small team of five guys based in Delhi that provide assistance to couples who are in love but face family opposition – mainly due to caste or religion. In India most people still have arranged marriages, but young people do fall in love and run away together. The main function of the Love Commandos is to allow people to do this in safety and in accordance with Indian law. Part of their mission is to prevent honour killings from happening. They take in young couples and provide protection, and sometimes they send in people to rescue couples who are at risk. There are eight shelters in New Delhi and one in Mumbai, and they have 50,000 volunteers, many of whom have been helped by the Love Commandos themselves.”

It is a real story featuring people who are in danger of violence or murder. There are an estimated 1000 honour killings in India every year, but it’s also a problem that extends across Asia, Africa and into Europe and the UK. “A couple came in once who were extremely scared – they were shaking and sweating,” says Pinckers. “They had escaped from their village after being chased by the girl’s family with machetes. They had secretly got married but were afraid of being caught.”

Pinckers could have taken a straightforward editorial strategy, photographing the Love Commandos and the people they have helped. But instead of emphasising the record element of the story, Pinckers pulled in a fictional direction using a visual language that borrows from Hindi cinema (Bollywood) and its depiction of relationships and love. An example is his image of a young boy and girl holding hands in an urban alleyway. The future of these childhood sweethearts is already written out for them. The cage the boy is touching contains two green parakeets; they are like lovebirds imprisoned by society. Lit like a Bollywood movie from the 1970s, the image mixes the real and the fictional in a carefully staged manner. “I’m always looking for something that is slightly clichéd because that interests me very much, but I’m also looking for something that is fictional or pulls away from reality. Love is so abstract that it gives me the chance to experiment with the subjective in a metaphorical way.”

For all its economic progress over the years, India remains a deeply conservative and contradictory country, where sex and love are rarely discussed openly. Instead, the convoluted plotlines and high drama of 100 years of Hindi cinema serve as a proxy form of education about the highs and lows of falling in love. “The choice of using Bollywood aesthetics is a reference to cinema and the idea of how couples should act,” says Pinckers. “It is also a reference to how actual couples act because they learn how to act from the movies. Bollywood is the main form of sex education in India.”

Art imitating life
The staged shots are mixed with photographs of moments restaged from real life. We see an image of a man and woman standing on corrugated iron rooftops on a Mumbai beach. She is throwing a paper aeroplane to him, a message of her forbidden love. The lighting is garish, the location opportunistic and anonymous. It seems as though we are in the 1970s again. But the picture is a recreation of the courtship of Sanjay and Aarti, the most celebrated of the couples rescued by the Love Commandos. After Aarti’s parents found out about her relationship with Sanjay, they beat her and tried to sell her three times. Once she was sold to a couple for £140 as ‘a slave for extramarital relations’. Aarti complained so much that she was returned to her parents from whom, with help from the Love Commandos, she eventually escaped. Reaching out into a fictional world, Pinckers shows us Sanjay and Aarti in their new home. Aarti is holding a baby, Sanjay is switching on the television and the walls are covered in peeling blue paint and irregular brickwork. The struggle for love is over; now the struggle of life begins.

This ambiguity in the message is deliberate and something Pinckers has developed through his use of colour and still lifes. “It’s difficult on a visual level to know what is actual documentary and what is created or staged by me. So I chose the shots of the Love Commandos to be in the blue-painted space of the Delhi headquarters. On top of that there’s the religious, the romantic and the escaping aspect of the story. But it’s important that the viewer is able to see what is actually the Love Commandos and what is not.”

To this end, Pinckers has added more abstract images – a picture of spilt milk references how Bollywood symbolises sexual climax, in the same way that Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr frolicking in the waves in 1953’s From Here To Eternity suggests similar. “Including abstract images as a suggestion of a spicy scene gives the viewer space to see that there is a lot more than just a depiction of facts,” says Pinckers. “It’s good to leave room for interpretation and for the viewer to know that the story is going somewhere.”

Pinckers explains he still has a lot of material to go through, including interviews with couples who have escaped. “There was a guy who had escaped on his motorbike with the girl on the back; they were chased out of the village by family and villagers wielding knives. It was something they had been planning, but the chance didn’t come easily. When suddenly there was a small window they took their chance. And that sense of drama is something that is also very cinematic, very Bollywood. But it is also a very serious problem – the moment they run, they break off all communication with family and friends out of fear they might be found and killed.”

For the Europalia exhibition, Pinckers has decided to keep things simple. “There will be three light boxes – all abstract images. One of the pictures is of a cave with light shining through. It’s a hiding place where people go for protection – a place for love to happen. The decision to stick with abstract images was to keep things open,” he adds, “but when you learn what the images are about you start making connections.”