A CONVERSATION WITH HARK1KARAN
In February of 2022, ‘Zimmers of Southall,’ a documentary about the BMW subculture amongst the Asian youth in Southall, was picked up by GQ magazine and caused a stir in the social sphere, especially amongst those residing in the West-London area. The young man responsible was an ambitious South Londoner. Documentary-making was not exactly his forte. A photographer by trade, Hark1Karan’s off the cuff idea had gone viral.
As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Hark1Karan’s photography does slightly more than that. Aside from being able to depict an entire culture within a single still image, his work can sometimes contain endangered native practices, or even decades of struggle and heartache. A self-taught photographer, now with two self-published photography projects, Hark1Karan captures from the Sikh perspective. “I choose to show Sikhs because people leave them out.”
The moniker also comes from his faith. The idea of oneness is central to Sikhism, hence the ‘1’ in the middle of his name. “Growing up, loads of people called me Hark, loads of people called me Karan, loads of people call me Harkaran. So, I just put the 1 in the middle to split it.” It was less about creating an identity. “These days it’s all about the artist and who they are. I’d rather people just look at my work and that’s it.”
Having grown up in Thornton Heath in South London, Hark1Karan would regularly visit a photography forum called Lenses of Croydon. In attendance would be speakers and exhibitors from all walks of life. At one such gathering was Charlie Phillips, known largely for his work showing Notting Hill in the 1960s. Hark1Karan would be inspired and would look for similar art and works about his own community. “There was nothing. Or it’s not by us. It’s never by us.”
This led him to question the source of Sikh Punjabi culture. It was obvious and in plain sight. “The source is the pind (village). That’s why we eat what we eat. The way we think…It all comes from the pind.” And so, his first published project was born, appropriately named ‘Pind.’ “I captured the book that I wanted to buy,” he tells me.
Hark1Karan isn’t here to educate, either. “I’m not here to tell you what a roti is. Go find out.” He goes on. “Our story is for us. [Anyone else] would miss all the things that we know. All the things that we relate to.” But this isn’t to exclude. Put frankly, any attempt to simplify or inform would miss the nuances of Punjabi Sikh culture, such as the manja, a bed made from woven cotton. Or, the chakki, a traditional ancient stone grinder used for grinding grain and extracting wheat flour, a practice that is slowly disappearing from sight and existence in the pind.
Pind was published during the pandemic. It focussed on his own ancestral village of Bir Kalan, in Punjabi. “I was supposed to go back and give them the books,” but of course, worldwide pandemic restrictions scuppered that. So, at the point that travel opened up again, Hark1Karan was finally able to jump on a plane and gift the people of his village something that was rightfully theirs. Their lives depicted and preserved in a self-funded project by one of their own. Little did Hark1Karan know that this trip was to give birth to his next project, ‘Kisaan’ (farmer).
In June 2020, the Prime Minister of India announced drastic changes to the country’s farming and agricultural laws. Narendra Modi’s cabinet issued emergency executive orders to change longstanding rules governing the agriculture sector. He announced three controversial farm laws, which the PM said would improve the lives of farmers. However, in reality, they would do anything but. They would only serve to exacerbate the already dire circumstances and lives of Punjabi farmers, which I spoke about in the opening paragraph of my piece on alcoholism within the Punjabi community. The response was colossal and came to a head a few months later, sparking a yearlong protest. Even the likes of Rihanna and Greta Thunberg would chime in and the event would make history by setting a Guiness World Record.
The protests involved farmers from the breadbasket of India, striking and protesting in their local villages. This eventually led to an organised peaceful march to the capital, Delhi. Protesters were attacked, beaten, kidnapped, tortured, teargassed and much more by Indian state police. But they did not waver. This would all result in Modi reluctantly repealing these laws in November 2021, thus demonstrating the power of protest. The Punjabi spirit was once again undefeated.
When Hark1Karan took back copies of Pind to Bir Kalan, he witnessed the beginnings of what was to be this historic movement in the making. “I thought ‘I’m here, I have film with me. It’s my duty to capture this.‘ I went back a week later, spent 2 days there, and took about 300 pictures. I had the pictures in a week and thought ‘that’s it. We’re making a book.’ When I had to do the writing, I realised I was writing history.”
And so ‘Kisaan,’ the second of Hark1Karan’s photography projects, started taking shape. Being independent, he didn’t know where the money to finance the project would come from, nor how long it would take. “It took this long because I had to save. But I just knew I had to do it.”
There is a deep-rooted duty that Hark1Karan carries in his work. That isn’t just a responsibility to represent and preserve. He tells me it’s more than that. “I would say I have a responsibility to tell a story in a responsible way,” he says. “In an aware and as educated a way as possible. [For ‘Kisaan’] it HAD to be women on the cover. I could have shot the book and there could have been no women in it. That would be unforgivable. I am responsible for that.”
For those that have migrated here, having left their homes and families for a better life, these books serve as a little piece of home. For the second, third and even fourth generation diaspora, these projects serve to strengthen and preserve ancestral ties and culture. Either way, they are supremely important pieces of work.
‘KISAAN ‘AND ‘PIND’ ARE BOTH AVAILABLE TO BUY NOW: https://www.hark1karan.com/
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