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Issue No. 17 - Enigma

BOOK REVIEW: INDIA A CELEBRATION OF LIFE BY MANUEL RIVERA-ORTIZ

BOOK REVIEW: INDIA A CELEBRATION OF LIFE BY MANUEL RIVERA-ORTIZ

Image above: © Manuel Rivera-Ortiz

“This is for India. Most of all, this is for her children”, says the opening line of Rivera-Ortiz’s most recent book, India A Celebration of Life. “From Varanasi to Calcutta, Mumbai to West Bengal, and all the way south, I know well how you suffer, weep, and how you go hungry at night—unloved, abused, forgotten. And still, you smile. This is for you because I was once one of you and will forever be a part of you.” Published by Kehrer, India A Celebration of Life comprises 169 photographs representing the everyday life of the people and places of an incredible nation in its honest reality.

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Image above: © Manuel Rivera-Ortiz

Rivera-Ortiz indeed serves as a testament to the life he himself experienced growing up. Leaving behind the poor corrugated tin shack with dirt floors and no running water in Puerto Rico, Rivera-Ortiz moved with his father and siblings to Massachusetts in 1979 after his parents’s separation. He picked up the camera for the first time in Holyoke, MA while attending summer school for the children of migrant workers. Today Rivera-Ortiz’s work is featured in Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism collection of 50 Great Stories produced by alumni over the past century.

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Image above: © Manuel Rivera-Ortiz

Beginning his introduction to the book with upfront and discerning statements, writer and art critic Christian Caujolle says, “Like Paris and New York, India is laden with photographic stereotypes.” Caujolle elaborates, “The country has become caught between two stereotypes, the easy exoticism that contributes to tourism brochure imagery and the extreme poverty portrayed by humanitarian organizations that desensitize images through overexposure.”

Focusing on social issues and sufferings of everyday life, Rivera-Ortiz creates brutally honest photographic stories by means of social documentary. Filling his inner void by telling the stories of people who have no voice, the photographer guides us through the streets and slums, leaving us with empathy and hope. No flashy saris or colored powders—just beauty of the human spirit surviving in surreal chaos.

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Image above: © Manuel Rivera-Ortiz

Being a social realist, he emphasizes the humanitarian leitmotif going through his entire body of work: all life is sacred and all the poor and suppressed around the world deserve the opportunity to have a healthy and happy existence. “One child is born venerated while another one starves. One child is rebuked under leaky tarps recovered from the city dump, while the other one is showered with trinkets and holy water. One child is born neglected, relegated to a life of servitude on the streets playing accordions for few rupees, while the other teethes on a monogrammed spoon”, says the author.

Rivera-Ortiz understands universality of destitution and dignity of people living in distress. He truly does. After all, he was once one of them and will forever be a part of them.

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Image above: © Manuel Rivera-Ortiz
Text by Kelly Korzun

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