In-Between Development – Freezing Time in a Changing Village

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In March 2019, I found myself in a quaint little village called Galgibag, resting at the edge of the Karnataka-Goa border.

The Silent Shore 

Goa’s ever-growing tourism industry has resulted in a massive influx of travellers, tourists, and employment seekers. Naturally, hotels, shacks, and parties were soon to follow. The beaches of Goa are now crowded, heavily littered and poorly managed. Although the shores of South Goa remain relatively unknown and clean, the ecological damages of unchecked tourism has resulted in an immense reduction of nesting sites for Olive Ridley turtles. I visited the beach of Galgibag on an assignment to document the ecosystems and social systems of the region along with a team from Dakshin Foundation. 

Galgibag beach was not like any other beach that I had seen in my life. It was one of the few beaches in Goa that managed to remain silent and clean. Visitors to this beach were mostly foreigners, who had been escaping to this slice of paradise annually – some for as long as 20 years. In the evenings, children from the village would gather on the shore and play football. As the sun set, the sounds of the gushing waves grew increasingly louder. A few meters from the shore, a long stretch of trees loomed over everything else. As a seasonal treat, the waves would light up with bioluminescence at night. Bright blue hues appeared and disappeared in the ebb and flow of the ocean. The beach was not allowed to have any permanent structures within a specified distance, and all the lights on the beach would be switched off after a certain time; all as a measure to shield the Olive Ridley turtles from noise and light pollution and encourage them to swim ashore. 

The forest department of Goa was planning to demarcate this beach as a conservation reserve to protect the Olive Ridley turtles. My goal was to document the socio-economic and cultural practices of the village and its people; how their lives affected the beach and vice versa. I spent over two weeks in that little village, exploring their culture, understanding their livelihoods, and their relationship to this beautiful beach. To this day it remains one of the most satisfying projects I have worked on but for a rather unusual reason – I was given time to photograph and document. 

Galgibag beach is silent, clean, and almost ethereal in the setting sun.

Locals from Galgibag walk to Mashem on a make-shift footbridge. Earlier, they had to use a small boat to cross the estuary. The steel footbridge was made for the construction workers.

Amidst Two Eras

When I went to Galgibag initially, I was an outsider. I didn’t speak the language and I found it difficult to blend in. The process of documenting the community, therefore, was gradual – going from one person to another, talking about their experiences with genuine curiosity, learning their names and where they lived, and eventually their problems. The people also had their fair share of internal conflicts and biases, which took time to work around and understand. However, they all agreed on one particular issue. 

Less than 300 meters from the proposed conservation reserve, a massive highway was being built. The NH66 bypass road was an attempt to improve the connectivity within the state and a part of the state’s larger industrial corridor. Many, whose homes lay on the path of this site, were asked to turn their land over and were in-turn compensated poorly. The construction process was bearing a negative impact on everyone’s livelihood as the incessant dumping of cement into their estuary reduced their catch of fish day by day. The noise of the construction turned their quiet and peaceful village into a cacophony of whirring machines and screaming workers. Tourists were repelled by the noise and the locals lost valuable income that was earned as rent. For years, requests from villagers for a small footbridge connecting the two sides of the estuary fell on deaf years, but the construction of the highway was carried out promptly. It flew over Galgibag with authority, as if the land on which it was being built belonged to no one else. The greater irony was that the construction directly contradicted the efforts to make Galgibag a safer nesting site for the Olive Ridley turtles. 

The highway appears otherworldly amongst the traditional Goan houses, like a storm destroying everything in its path.

A young construction worker from Karwar rests on a beam beneath the highway.

In the afternoons, when not much was happening, I would walk under the highway and photograph the construction. It was because of a thought that kept recurring when I stayed there – “How did the place look without this concrete object dominating everything? Will Galgibag be the same when it is complete?” I struggled to imagine the silent lives of the people before this pledge for development had altered it. As much as I tried, I could imagine  no scenario in which the highway helped the people of Galgibag. 

Just like the highway imposed itself into the lives of the people living in Galgibag, it found its way into a lot of my photographs. The images that I produced during my time there were connected to each other through this ominous object in the background. I realised how the highway was an entity of its own. It woke me up in the morning and kept me up at night. It felt alive. And the more I looked at it, the more I could see how the lives of the people there were slowly being shaped by something that they had no control over. As with most cases of development projects, the people in peri-urban and rural areas are forced to adjust. I knew that eventually, the metallic inner beams of the highway that protruded as I walked underneath it, the bundles of large steel rods that made people stray from their regular paths, the cement charring the shallow waters of the estuary and making it look like crude oil – these would all be covered up, cleaned out, beautified. The people of Galgibag will learn to adjust, so much that in a few years, one would assume that it was the people who settled around the immortal highway. 

Construction workers arriving at the site early in the morning.

Two locals from Galgibag use the steel bridge to do some afternoon fishing.

As Active and Passive Witnesses

Over the years, I feel like photography has lost its sense of narrative in the mainstream and is used solely in accentuating the text that it is printed with. It is rarely interpreted in the opposite manner. While economic reasons are a major factor influencing this decision, there is more than what meets the eye. The time that photographers get to cover a story greatly impacts the quality and narrative of the images produced. I have been in situations where I have had to simply go to a place, get photographs of what was happening, and leave. This usually leads to images that cannot capture a compelling narrative. More importantly, normalisation of such practices shifts the focus from photos as a story-telling medium to an accessory that can be easily ignored, or even removed. It also greatly impacts the visual literacy of the viewer, who looks at the photograph as a kind of proof for the text as opposed to interpreting it actively. In contrast to such practices, it helps to look at social and non-profit organisations, who produce significant documentary and photography works. The work is at a grass-root level with local communities, it is accessible, and the photographers commissioned have enough time to use the medium effectively. This is especially true for organisations that work with conservation and sustainability. The visual medium has proven to be increasingly helpful in conservation efforts. With its ability to move people and connect them to a reality that they are shielded from, it is capable of conveying more than words. I believe that this practice of providing sufficient time to photographers needs to extend to mainstream photojournalism, at least whenever the project permits. 

By spending time in a place and with its people, I find that my photographs tend to stitch themselves together in strange and beautiful ways, as opposed to hinting at a story or merely gliding past it. With more time spent being on site, I am able to understand the complexities of the subject covered and successfully incorporate it into my work. Had I been given a day or two to photograph the people of Galgibag, the resulting images would not have featured the highway. Even if the photographs did feature the highway, they would not convey the same meaning that they eventually did due my experience of briefly living there. 

The locals gather for the annual Shigmo festival at the village temple.

The new tar road specifically built for the construction process, is used in the evenings as a cricket pitch.

My time in Galgibag opened my eyes to the kind of documentary photography I always aspired to practice. The project allowed me to take a long, hard look at what I was photographing, and focus on content and narrative in a way I had never done before. Over the course of two weeks, the village became my home and the people a surrogate family. The end result was a narrative that distinguished itself because of trust. People allowed me into their lives, revealing slices of vulnerability, and passion. I didn’t have to be a fly on the wall – hopping from one place to another, clicking my images and leaving unnoticed. 

“Where are you going?” the village’s priest questioned when he saw my packed bags two weeks later. “It’s Shigmo, you’re having lunch at my house!”

Bharadwaj Kamesh is a documentary photographer and film-maker based in Bangalore. 

This story was covered as a part of Dakshin Foundation’s project in Galgibag, Goa.

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