Dog Days of Kolkata

Since my first visit to India in 2001, I have been fascinated by the feral dogs that run wild in the streets of every city of this country, but each time I visit, I’m so overwhelmed with the richness of the culture and the intensity of the human struggle, that I rarely stopped to record the canine denizens of India with my camera. My most recent visit to Kolkata may have been different because I’d recently acquired my first dog, Huxley, an adorable Boston Terrier puppy, who instantly and effortlessly commanded my obsessive photographic attention, as well as my love and affection. Friends, colleagues, and students quickly began to remark that I’d changed for the better and that my attitude had noticeably softened since the new puppy came into my life.

The only time I had available to make the Kolkata trip to photograph the house where my father grew up in Howrah, was during the record breaking heat wave in the summer of 2015. In the dog days of the brutal heat and subsequent monsoon, I was surprised to find myself missing my puppy so acutely. Everywhere I went, I noticed the quirks of the personalities and behaviors of India’s charismatic stray dogs that reminded me of my own pup. I realized that having a dog really had changed me in some way, making me more attentive and empathetic to the lives of animals that I’d previously not considered important enough to consider as a subject for my art. On this trip, dogs began to populate my photographs with more frequency than people.

The Dogs of Kolkata manifest as much grit and individuality as her human residents in this photographic meditation on the life of the city’s charismatic stray canines as they survive on their wits in a city where benevolence and brutality can be found in equal measure. As a documentary photographer, I’m drawn to notice the small, everyday tragedies that can happen to anyone, but the streets of Kolkata can be so grim that I have often been compelled to turn my lens away from the misery of fellow humans, knowing that my photograph would have no power to alleviate their suffering. Much academic discourse on photography levels the criticism that audiences have become numb to a constant diet of images documenting human disaster, war, and famine, while these often avoidable horrors continue unabated in the world. Like many photographers, I’ve struggled to respond effectively to criticism of this variety, unconsciously preferring to dismiss it with the argument that history must be recorded in order to avoid repeating its mistakes. Unfortunately, as a species, we keep making the same mistakes, regardless of the gaze of our lenses.

By focusing my photographic attention on creatures often seen as insignificant, especially in the context of a society that struggles so much to provide the basic sustenance of human life, I hope in some small way to awaken the empathy in others that I have experienced by opening my heart to the unconditional love of a “dumb” animal. I don’t know whether a tiny net increase in human empathy will help to solve those intractable problems that have left so many jaded and unable to respond, but as many of my students have attempted to tell me over the years, maybe puppies really will make the world a little better.