Alexander Walker interviewed by Samantha Manchee
Alexander Walker is a London based freelance photojournalist. His work focuses on inequality amongst many different societies. His need to use photography as a tool came from a young age, growing up with parents who themselves enjoyed the photojournalist greats. Even though his career has only just begun after graduating with First Class honours degree in photojournalism from Falmouth University he has touched many communities with his photographic gaze.
What drew you to become a photojournalist?
I think when I was growing up my parents were always really keen on photography. I was always playing around with a camera no matter what kind of camera they had. Whether it was my first jungle themed camera when I was five, to when the first digital cameras’ first came out. I’d always be snapping away trying to find things to photograph on holidays.
My parents were always really keen on photojournalism so we had Larry Burrows and Don McCullin books, the real legacy photojournalist’s books around the house or on the coffee table. I’d always been looking at those and always fascinated by the dynamic and the connection you can make through photographs.
In one of the books I remember, ‘century’ which had pictures from the whole of the last century, everything you could possibly imagine. If I had to think of something that would have been a reason to be a photojournalist that would have been the instigator for it.
I think now I just like the ability to tell someone’s story that doesn’t have the voice to tell it themselves and raise awareness for issues that I think are of merit or aren’t getting enough attention in the world’s stage. I’d like to think in doing the work that I do it’s making a difference somewhere or someone’s listening or reading it.
Can you tell me the process you had to take with the project from start to finish? From the idea to end product.
The reason I did the project was my grandparents had loads of old slides from India, there was one summer I was sorting through all of the pictures and I saw a lot of pictures of tea estates and general India.
That kind of sparked the thought of doing more research, I think it started as general curiosity as to how the tea industry worked and then I stumbled across the story I wanted to do and the particular area I wanted to go to.
I think once I’d done that I started putting feelers out to who would be ok with me visiting an estate. I set out what I wanted to achieve, it was a game of bouncing emails off people for a couple of months.
When things were looking good I booked flights and arranged some local fixers to help me get from A to B and translations.
I was in India for just under a month in the smallest village I think I have ever been in. I made a point not to leave this village pretty much for the whole month because I wanted to become part of the furniture.
In the second or third week I could blend in to the background, having the time to do that really helps. You can have the time to really get to know your subjects.
Did you become quiet close with the subjects?
I did, there were a few key people I focused on. The women I followed most as a case study was a lady called Bavani.
It was quite difficult because the local language MaliAllen, doesn’t have letters like we have here, it’s a completely different alphabet. It wasn’t something I could learn before I went because I didn’t know how anything sounded.
So talking was quiet difficult, a lot of it was through hand signals or laughing at funny things that were going on. When I had the translator I could catch up on everything I wanted to ask them. But I did build a great bond with the people I was photographing.
It’s on my agenda to go back at some point soon, I’d love to go back and see if things got better or worse.
What message did you want to get across to people through this series?
I think the thing that drew me to it, its quiet a large company who is so vested in their work force.
The thing I found most fascinating for business sense they are doing is absolutely brilliant. They are promoting education within their workforce’s children, they are subsidising education giving huge welfare benefits.
Their business model for the last however long is basically relying on labor and local workforce, the women and the men specifically the women are becoming more educated. They are losing their workforce. They are having to switch to migrant labor and invest in more mechanised processes.
I think the overall message is looking at an ethical side, not just financial side. Again it’s the juxtaposition a lot of the time when you think of woman’s rights in India, especially in the tea industry you’d think they are pretty appalling because in the northern regions they’re not great.
I think the message I was hoping to show the juxtaposition, these women are cared for brilliantly. They have equal pay with their male counterparts, the literacy rate with the new generation is 93% as apposed to 30% in the 1950’s.
The human development index in terms of education and life expectancy is more then some developing countries.
People reading this and seeing this story going into it with the idea that it’s going to be about really crappy conditions, reading that this is a company and area that really care for their workers.
It will hopefully draw peoples’ attention to the areas that are less fortunate.
What projects do you have coming up?
I’m just searching now for my next documentary project that I want to do. Something that is drawing my attention at the moment is gender equality in the military.
A lot of the work I have been doing recently is women rights and gender equality. With military in Britain this year they have opened up all its positions to women in the military, which is really interesting.
The area I’m hoping to look at is the Israeli military, they take a lot of flack for potentially other things they do. I guess a spearhead movement in equality. They have mixed gender battalions of men and women fighting a long side each other, it’s not even a thought that it wouldn’t be the case.