Ronny Sen (b. 1986)
A photographer, filmmaker and writer, Ronny Sen is best known for his photographic work on the Jharia coal mine fire and his debut film chronicling drug addiction in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta).
Sen was born in Silchar, Assam, before his family migrated to the capital city of Kolkata, West Bengal, in the early 1990s, where he later studied journalism. Photography for him started out as a hobby, but quickly turned into his preferred mode of communication, and eventually, the starting point of his multidisciplinary career. Sen has worked with the BBC and National Geographic, among others, on photographic and film-documentary projects and has also filmed advertising campaigns. As his sensibilities were influenced, at least partly, by the political activism of his family, his works therefore reflect a concern with sociopolitical issues and a conscious engagement with environment and circumstance.
Some of Sen’s earliest photographic works were made in black and white, and his treatment of space and people, photographed in high contrast and bustling with energy, has a distinctly cinematic quality. The heightened sense of effect that characterises some of these works is exemplified in Don’t Breathe (2009–10), which presents the chaos and overcrowding in the unreserved compartment of Indian Railways — an inherent part of the Indian urban experience. In 2013, Sen published his first photobook Khmer Din, which consisted of an unorganised medley of black-and-white photographs taken during his bicycle trip through Siem Reap, Cambodia. The following year, Sen photographed the charged atmosphere of the student-led Hok Kolorob (Bengali for “let there be clamour”) protest, capturing the roused sentiments of over one lakh protesters from Jadavpur University.
In the winter of 2013, Sen visited the coal-mining town of Jharia, Jharkhand, where he photographed its scorched and barren landscape and its enigmatic and capricious underground fires, a hundred years old. In the dusk light, he captured the fires, as they spewed flames into the air, at various locations and during the bleak and harsh daylight, he photographed the frequent explosions in the strip mines. These images, constituting the series Fire Continuum (2014) are rendered with little definition or contrast and paint an apocalyptic picture dominated by dust, heat and fire. In 2016, Sen compiled these images in an Instagram account @whatdoestheendoftimelooklike in 2016, after winning the Getty Images Instagram Grant. The series was later published as a photobook titled End of Time (2017), as part of a series of monographs by Nazar Foundation.
In 2013, as part of the Jenesys Creator’s Programme for creative exchange by The Japan Foundation, Tokyo, Sen travelled to Japan as an artist-in-residence. His work there resulted in a black-and-white series called Japan Where the Streets Have No Name (2013). In this series he re-envisions and reframes familiar sights, giving them an edginess and subtle abstraction, by rendering them in a saturated monochrome that emphasises detail and form.The following year he was invited by The Polish Institute for an art residency in the port city of Gdansk, Poland, where he found echoes of a communist past that resonated with that of his homeland in West Bengal. The resulting work, titled New World Chronicles of an Old World Colour (2015), consists of vivid images of the polish landscape, urban scenes and people tinged with a romantic melancholia.
Sen wrote and directed his debut Cat Sticks (2019), a ninety-four-minute film that takes place over the course of one rainy night in Kolkata in the 1990s and follows a disparate group of heroin addicts. Shot in black and white to heighten the seeminess and otherness of the world inhabited by the film’s characters’, the film is dedicated to friends lost to substance abuse and encapsulates the collective experience of a generation that grew up with drugs on the streets in the city. Premiering at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2019, it won an honourable mention in the competition section.
In May of 2020, following the Cyclone Amphan off the coast of northeast India and Bangladesh, Sen undertook an assignment for National Geographic magazine to document its impact on the Sunderbans of West Bengal.
Sen’s work has been a part of various solo and group exhibitions in India and abroad, though much of it has been spotlighted in venues and events in the capital New Delhi: In Secrecy (2011) at Art Heritage gallery, Delhi Photo Festival (2013), Photo-Poetry: Nicanor Parra, 100 years anti-poet (2014) at Instituto Cervantes, Abandon (2015) by the Gujral Foundation and India Art Fair (2015). They have also featured in the Angkor Photo Festival and Shillong International Photo Festival (2012), as well as the Le Photobook Fest, Paris, and the National Museum of Singapore in 2013. In 2012, Sen represented India at the World Young Artists Event and was also nominated for the Magnum Emergency Fund by Magnum Photos. In 2014, Sen won the MFI National Press Photo Contest Award in the general news category. His work is carried by the permanent collections of the Alkazi Foundation, New Delhi
As of writing, Ronny Sen lives and works in Kolkata.
AD Staff. 2016. “Ronny Sen photographs a beautiful Polish winter.” Architectural Digest, July 6, 2016. https://www.tarq.in/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/2016_07_6-Architectural-Digest.pdf
Art Heritage. n.d. “Ronny Sen.” Accessed April 27, 2021. https://www.artheritagegallery.com/artist/ronny-sen/
Das, Shreya.2016. “India’s development models have been flawed, says Ronny Sen who won Getty Images Instagram Grant.”The Indian Express, September 23, 2016. https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/art-and-culture/getty-images-instagram-grant-2016-winner-indian-photographer-ronny-sen-jharia-coal-mine-project-3045666/
Parakala, Vangmayi. 2017. “A Jharkhand town, as a post-apocalyptic world.” Mint Lounge, April 7, 2017. https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/gXWposEc9kE9dp6gy9DNmN/A-Jharkhand-town-as-a-postapocalyptic-world.html
Paul, Ushnota. 2019. “The moment you strip the layers of colour, it allows you to say a lot more: Ronny Sen.” The Telegraph, April 22, 2019. https://www.telegraphindia.com/entertainment/the-moment-you-strip-the-layers-of-colour-it-allows-you-to-say-a-lot-more-ronny-sen/cid/1689235
Pinney, Christopher. 2018. “A Way into the Future: Optics of Cruelty.” Domus 7(11):38–47
Sen, Ronny. 2011 “Don’t Breathe.” PIX. Issue 1 (Suburbia). http://www.enterpix.in/feature/suburbia/dont-breathe/
Sen, Ronny. 2014 “Poignant photos capture the desolation of the last Ambassador factory.” Scroll.in. June 13, 2014. https://scroll.in/roving/667047/poignant-photos-capture-the-desolation-of-the-last-ambassador-factory
TARQ. n.d. “Ronny Sen.” Accessed APril 27, 2021.
The Polis Project. 2017. “ Conversation with Ronny Sen.” https://www.thepolisproject.com/conversation-with-ronny-sen/#.YIuwS7UzbIU
Thomas, Skye Arundhati. 2014. “Ronny Sen — interview: ‘The work is about the apocalypse in a certain way, where everything will go to the fire and the dust.” studio international, April 9, 2014. https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/ronny-sen-interview-the-work-is-about-the-apocalypse-fire-and-dust-jharia
Utkarsh. 2020. “Rethinking political structures and image-making with Ronny Sen.” Stir World, June 19, 2020. https://www.stirworld.com/see-features-rethinking-political-structures-and-image-making-with-ronny-sen