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In July 2012, when news of communal violence in Assam pounded our television screens, Gurgaon-based photographer Vivek Singh looked at the images with no renewed interest. "I've been covering ethnic conflict, displacement and social issues in Assam since 2006 and instances of violence have been common for over two decades now. Yet, the Northeast is hardly in the news," says the 32-year-old. He sounds immune, like a person bleached of anger.
Singh eventually packed his bags and, with all modes of transport blocked (trains were cancelled and taxi owners demanded exorbitant deposits before they rented out their vehicles), he set out for Assam. He took a local train to the New Bongaigaon district of Assam, and local friends helped him navigate his way.
On his route lay one burned-down village after another, with an occasional CRPF personnel telling him, "Yahan kuchh nahi hai (There's nothing here)." He saw razed structures, remnants of what probably had been a place of worship or someone's concrete house, standing out like fresh wounds in the still, tropical weather. "The atmosphere was very tense and there was an uneasy calm," says Singh.
Covering the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District areas of Kokrajhar, Dhubri and Chirang, Singh took on the battered lands with his camera for a month and followed it up with another stint in January this year, at the several relief camps dotting the districts.
As his photographs of these visits, spread across 15 matt prints in black and white, go up on display at Les Rencontres d'Arles — a prominent international photography festival in Arles, Paris — Singh says, almost in frustration, "What's crazy is that people don't know that there's a place called Kokrajhar. That was exactly the reason for the photographs taken."
At the Les Rencontres d'Arles, Singh beat 12 photographers from across the world to win The Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for Documentary Photography & Film grant, selected by a prestigious jury that includes Lucien Clergue, founder of Les Rencontres d'Arles; and Christian Caujolle, founder of Agency and Gallery VU in France and Founder and Arts Director of Photo Phnom Penh festival, among others.