Protectors of sight

Chhato Devi, 30, the day after cataract surgery, AJEH, Bihar, India

A desire to inform and a passion for people is what leads many to a career in documentary photography and Sophie Gerrard ticks all the boxes.

Today is World Sight Day so I thought it timely to take a look at her latest project which is on show at the Royal Society of Medicine in London and looks at the work of the Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital (AJEH) in Bihar, India, which currently cures the sight of more than 100 people every day.

The hospital is located in a rural area and has a team of volunteers who seek out those suffering from cataracts and then help to bring them to the hospital for surgery, with the majority of operations being carried out free of charge.

Sophie was initially commissioned by the Savitri Trust, a small charitable organisation based in London which focuses on curable blindness and part funds the AJEH operation. She has made several trips to the region to photograph and indeed recorded interviews with those at the hospital.

Eye chart, Dehri-On-Sone, Bihar

Sophie studied photography at the London College of Communication (LCC) under Paul Lowe and graduated back in 2006. Prior to that she spent a brief time studying photography at Art College in Edinburgh as well as qualifying as an environmental scientist, a job she took up initially.

But it was a desire to be the person out in the field collecting the data, or as she put it, "the person in the waders," that drove her to photography.

It was the late Tim Hetherington, a visiting lecturer at the LCC, who inspired Sophie's visual style, someone she told me who was, "really generous with his advice".

Sophie loved the work of Don McCullin and yet did not want to be a war photographer, but it was Tim who showed her a way through this problem. Sophie said: "He was really influential in my visual style, especially his graffiti photographs from Liberia and the Banda Aceh story published in Foto8."

"I want my pictures to be sumptuous and suck people in. Beauty is not a bad thing, but the work has to have more than two dimensions. If you can make someone walk over to something, or stop on a page and say wow what is that? That's intriguing? And then they read the caption to the photo that says this is poison, or this is killing people, or whatever it is, it informs and tells a story."

"It is a visual language I understand, I like photographs like that and if that is how to tell a story then so be it. I could never tell a story in a single image and think it is very clever, but it is not how I understand documentary photography and not what I was taught."

Women chat in the recovery ward following successful cataract surgery, AJEH, Bihar, India Women chat in the recovery ward following successful cataract surgery, AJEH, Bihar, India

Sophie's work is film based and shot on medium format, "I can see why people are passionate about reportage style," Sophie told me. "But I am terrible at it, what I am passionate about is aesthetics and composition."

Once she'd found her niche she hit the ground running and shot E-wasteland, an exploration of the growing problem of electronic waste which was also shot in India and won the Jerwood Photography Prize.

People are at the heart of all her work and her aim is to give a voice to those she meets and as part of that she has been recording interviews with those she photographs.

Dawn in Mastichak, Bihar, India Dawn in Mastichak, Bihar, India

"It's great to give someone a voice but better to hear them," Sophie said. "It is one thing to tell someone's story, but I think it is a brilliant thing to let someone tell their own story and you put in the visuals."

Yet she is well aware of the dangers of becoming little more than an illustrator of audio. "Each part of the equation, the audio and the photographs should stand alone as well as working in combination," she said.

There are other ways to draw in those looking at the work too. In her E-wasteland project she used elements from the periodic table as part of the caption, something that informs and provides a hook in which to draw the viewer.

"You can't exist in isolation as a photographer, you have to be aware of the trends," she said. "I don't want to scream at people about what is the most important issue, but to say here is the information and I hope you walk away with a view altered, or you question something you have not questioned before."

It's an honourable approach and one that she will no doubt take in to her next project.

Here are a few shots from Sophie's E-Wasteland project.

Acid pollution, Mandoli, Delhi, India Acid pollution, Mandoli, Delhi, India
Women sorting copper, Seelampur, Delhi, India Women sorting copper, Seelampur, Delhi, India
Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) storage, Bangalore, India Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) storage, Bangalore, India
E-waste "cooking" in acid, Seelampur, Delhi, India E-waste "cooking" in acid, Seelampur, Delhi, India

You can see more of Sophie Gerrard's work on her website.

Phil Coomes, Picture editor Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    What a thoroughly disappointing article. From the title it looked as if it was going to be an interesting piece about the work of people fighting to save the sight of the poor in India. Instead what we got was a wishy-washy story about some photographer. Is this the BBC or National Geographic?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Why does it make me think 'God what a horrible place to be' ? I'm sure there is much beauty in India but we seem obsessed only with the filth and squalor. Is that just a stereotype or is all of India really like that? Can someone whose been there please enlighten me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    To tony-tcm. India gets such bad publiity, and indeed there is filth and squalor but we have our different problems and there are plenty of 'no go' areas in the UK. After 22 years of travelling in India, I can assure you that there is also great beauty, varied landscapes, fascinating religions, delicious food, wonderful people, and a welcoming smile wherever you go,and its very safe to visit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Having been inspired by a similar teacher when I studied photography back in the 70's, it's wonderful to see a photographer (especially a woman!) using soft light and sympathetic composition to report such positive and also hostile, jarring images - for me the acid shot resembles oils on a canvas. Photography is an art form few master and Sophie Gerrard is bang on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I have also been through India. I agree that the mega cities can be polluted and filthy, but in fairness, the state of affairs in India is not unique, most countries in the world can say this of their major epicentres. This is swiftly forgotten when you are staring at the Himalayas or the beautiful coastline of the south for instance. Its a brilliant country. Very dull article though.


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