Digging Deeper

November 1, 2011

By RF Staff

Inquisitive by nature, Arindam Mukherjee is interested in digging deeper into what’s going on around him and what makes people tick. Over the years, this Kolkata, India-based photojournalist has created striking images of coal miners, sex workers and working women of all types in order to shed light on socioeconomic conditions throughout India.

Mukherjee has been taking pictures since he was 5 years old. His father, a geologist, used a Pentax K1000 camera to shoot rock structures and fossil specimens gathered from his field trips. When there were frames left on the rolls, Mukherjee got to finish them off, under the watchful eye of his father. As a result, he fell in love with photography at a very young age and that passion has stayed with him through the years.

Mukherjee began his career in photojournalism in 1996, after graduating from the University of Calcutta with an economics degree. He is strictly self-taught; when he was growing up there were no photography schools in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

He started as an advertising photographer, working with ad agencies, fashion designers and graphic designers. But even then, he was more interested in street photography than in the more controlled work of advertising. This desire quickly brought him to photojournalism. His first photo job was as a freelancer for the Times of India. However, through the years, he also worked as the chief photographer and assignment director for EyePress, a photo agency based in Hong Kong. Currently, he freelances for several newspapers, magazines and NGOs. His photographs have been featured in Forbes, Le Figaro, The Sunday Telegraph, Traveler Magazine (UK) and many others throughout the world. He is also well known for his award-winning fine art images, with solo exhibitions in New Delhi, India, and Cork City, Ireland.

“Photojournalism tends to satisfy my curiosity by affording me a closer look into issues and the lives of those who will allow me access,” Mukherjee says. Still, being intimate with strangers can be a challenge, he admits. It is easy enough to shoot tourist attractions and other frequently photographed areas, he says, but it is more difficult to convince ordinary people to open up about social issues. “Often, they are too shy or scared because they don’t know how my images may ultimately affect their normal lives, even if the results could help improve their conditions,” he says.

One of Mukherjee’s award-winning photo projects, entitled Indian Coal Miners, documents coal miners and the harsh, unsafe conditions under which they labor. Before he started this project, though, he had no idea about the corruption in the mining industry, nor did he comprehend how dangerous the job is. It was an education for him, he says, as well as a way to highlight the plight of Indian coal miners.

“Like most city-bred men, I had superficial ideas about coal mining,” he says. But he soon found that there are different kinds of mines, each with their own dangers: open cast pits created by explosives; incline mines into which miners can walk; and deep mines, which lie many meters underground and can only be accessed by elevator. On one occasion, he was allowed access into an incline mine. “We walked four kilometers underground just to reach the workers,” he says. “In certain parts of the tunnel it was so hot and humid, it was difficult to continue walking. Breathing was an issue in itself.”

With their suffocating heat and the strong smell of sulfur hanging in the air, the mines, Mukherjee says, were like an inferno. “A thin layer of grayish-black coal dust covered everything in sight,” he explains. “I saw mine fires raging inside the pits that are poorly covered with sand, if covered at all. In some areas, these fires have spread underground—meaning the miners literally living on fire, which could be seen through the cracks in the floors of their homes.”

The mining areas he visited are controlled by a wealthy coal mafia, which determines how the coal reaches the market, he explains. “When I first started documenting the miners, a mafia man pointed a gun to my head.” Though at first it was hard for Mukherjee to explain his presence, the mafia became “less suspicious and more cooperative” as the project continued. In fact, when he was finished photographing the mines, the same gun-toting men came to the railway station to see him off.

Mukherjee uses the Nikon 801 film camera and the Nikon D300, with a variety of lenses, including a Tamron 18–50mm f/2.8 zoom, a 50mm Nikon f/1.8, a Nikon 35mm f/1.8 wide-angle and a Nikon 80–200mm f/2.8 ED telephoto.

As for lighting his images, Mukherjee prefers natural light whenever possible, but when he must add extra light, he uses the Nikon Speedlight SB800. In bright sunlight, he uses a fill-flash.

“I try to make my lighting as dramatic as possible. When I use flash, I like to bounce the light, and not have it directly hitting the subject,” Mukherjee explains. “In a pinch, I sometimes put a few layers of white Scotch tape in front of the flash to act as a diffuser.”

In the future, this busy photojournalist plans to teach workshops around India and eventually own and operate his own photography school. He will also continue working on his personal fine art projects, as well as freelancing for newspapers and magazines worldwide.

“Photography is a fairly young medium in India, so possibilities for exploration are still very high here. I feel that photography is one of the most powerful ways to represent ideas and different realities, as well as to educate and enlighten the masses,” Mukherjee concludes.

Mukherjee’s awards include the 2009 New America Media Award in Photojournalism for his work, titled Empowerment Behind Burqa (first published in Audrey Magazine in California); the 2006 B. Bangoor Endowment Fellowship award for his image series about Indian sex workers; and the 2003 National Media Fellowship from the National Foundation For India, for his Indian Coal Miners series. His work is represented worldwide by Sipa Press and in North America by Landov LLC.
Readers may contact Arindam Mukherjee via e-mail at or view his Web site at

Linda L. May is a freelance writer/photographer based in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and may be contacted via e-mail at: