“A thousand cuts” is not just a series, it is an ongoing effort to hear the unheard. See the unseen.
31st October 2023
Sujata is a London-based, multi-award winning children, newborn, pregnancy/ maternity and family photographer.
Please could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
Hello. My name is Sujata Setia. I am an Indian born – British lens based artist. I am not formally trained in the language of photography. However, for as long as I remember, Art has been my anchor. I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2010, a year following my move to the UK from India.
In late 2013, following the birth of my daughter and the simultaneous deterioration of my mother’s health, the darkness within me became unbearable. I remember we had bought an amateur camera to take photos on our family holidays. I started using it to photograph my newborn child. It was healing… the act of connecting with her in a theatre, where both of us were enacting an equally important part. Where I did not have the burden to wield power over her as her provider.
Photography hence, helped me find my inner balance.
So in that sense, my practice is autobiographical in nature. My relationship with photography has been that of identifying my strongest emotions and then finding a correlation… a representation for them in the world.
The shift from photographing an imaginary utopia for the first eight years of my practice to my focus on reality has been a difficult journey. I started out as a family photographer in 2014. I would say I was primarily making images of my curiosities back then. I was curious about what a perfect childhood devoid of abuse, trauma and coercion would look like. So I made images that were almost tyrannical in their depiction of superbness.
I lost my mother in May of 2019. I think losing the fulcrum of my existence in that sense, forced me to address the truth. First, the series “Changing the Conversation” and now “A Thousand Cuts” are as much a dialogue with myself as they are an acts of listening. I believe that the world will become way more complex before it will start to become simple. And my role, as an artist is to offer counter narratives from the margins, so there is greater debate and possibility for paraphrasing narratives of consciousness.
What and who are your biggest influences?
My greatest influences have always emanated from a personal context. Whether it be my inner urgencies and the need to find lived experiences that are analogous to my own or the hope to re-contextualise existent universal narratives of culture, gender, sociological, economical, political and religious identities.
What inspired you to create your ‘A thousand cuts’ artworks? Can you talk me through the creative and emotional process of creating these and the impact you hope they might have / are having?
I started working on the series a year ago, not knowing how far I will be able to go with it. It was a difficult subject – studying patterns of Domestic Abuse within the South Asian Community. The biggest challenge for me was to be able to find participants who would be willing to talk about their abuse. There was also the fear of whether I would be able to represent their narratives with sensitivity, care and in a way that they choose to share it.
As a South Asian woman myself, I have had a strictly value based upbringing. To endure pain. To decorate my trauma. To consider the needs of others’ before my own. To consider myself complete only once I married. To not focus on being self reliant but to instead spend my entire early life, preparing myself to be dependent on a man whom I shall marry one day… These were only a few of those values instilled in me.
As I embarked on this journey to meet with, engage with and then narrate stories of women who have experienced violence in their lives, I was faced with these value based pillars over and over again.
Recurring in those interactions was “the fear of financial insecurity.” Because our cultural and genetic predisposition never allowed for us to dream of being financially independent, it became the primary barrier when it was time to leave an abusive relationship.
“A thousand Cuts” is the story of that woman’s life. A woman who rose from the ashes, despite enduring a thousand cuts made on her soul and her existence by the bearers of power and control.
And “A Thousand Cuts” is an appeal for a world where survivors of abuse don’t just end up becoming another number on a research paper. A world that truly supports survivors and allows them to talk about their experiences.
The reason for creating this series was to found a safe space for individual narratives and lived experiences of domestic violence survivors to be shared and spoken of freely. Without fear of stigma or judgement. Somewhere within that safe space, I found the road to getting acquainted to my own abuse as well. The abuse that I started witnessing from when I was in my mother’s womb.
From an outsider, I became an insider to this intimate cohort of women.
Through these conversations, each of the participants and myself… we understood our trauma at a deeper level. Between us, we created a vector of faith that helped us locate repeated cultural, social, parental, economic and genetic coercive patterns that gave our individual journeys a certain similitude… a sense of universality, which was both deeply disturbing, yet at the same time liberating in a way for us.
“A Thousand Cuts,” is a collaborative body of work created with the courage and strength of survivors of domestic violence. It is our genuine hope that the world will one day, abandon the conspiracy of silence for a collective future where talking about one’s own abuse is normalised.
This photographic study draws on interviews with 21 South Asian women so far. It is an ongoing project. My intent was to create a metaphorical “waiting room,” where strangers meet and talk to each other without any fear or hierarchies. An imaginary space where conversations around abusive lived experiences continue to happen. Where it is easy to come out. A room where you are heard, seen, understood and where you feel safe to leave your story behind.
We started by creating that room as a real space. A space in a church in Hounslow. Many of us met there, several times over. We held hands and spoke at length. No one interjected the other. No one left the room midway.
From there on, it has been a year almost and the conversations continue. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I get heard… but we promise to “see” each other. The deepest scar is that of being “unseen” for all of one’s life. To be there somewhere, but never seen, never heard. As a result the voices of survivors of abuse have been erased forever.
“A thousand cuts” is not just a series, it is an ongoing effort to hear the unheard. See the unseen.
What role do you think creativity plays in raising awareness of domestic abuse?
This is such an important question. I thank you for asking it. As a survivor who continues to find healing in art, I cannot begin to emphasise the role of artistic and creative interventions. Creativity here is not just understood in its standard meaning of practising an art form as a way to distract oneself, but also in terms of creative problem solving in difficult situations.
Creativity in fact can play so many roles in the life of a DA survivor. It can be a constant companion as the journey of a survivor is a very lonely one. It becomes an alternative language. A way to express one’s feelings while within the perpetrator ecosystem, the survivor’s voice continues to be suppressed, finding recourse to creativity can help them find their safe corner.
Creative thinking and problem solving helps immensely at times of crisis. I have seen that with survivors I have spoken to. Their narratives have showcased a will to and agility to try all possible scenarios that will find a resolution to the situation they faced. Sometimes the expected answers that we think of, owing to our cultural discourses or our upbringing… are indeed not the appropriate solutions.
Yet again, to bring DA narratives into public domain and normalise conversations around the subject of abuse, creativity plays such a pivotal role. Engaging with the larger public in a creative artistic way such as art exhibitions, theatre productions, even video games or VR spaces (I know the council of Redbridge currently is working with a Virtual Reality app) that help the perpetrators visualise themselves, their behaviour and the resultant impact of it, unfold in front of their eyes… it is such a powerful way to communicate DA discourses with impact.
Is there any healing advice you would like to share with SATEDA’s audience?
I have to say SATEDA is doing incredible work already. And from what I understand, SATEDA is also looking at organising art workshops for the survivors. Through experience I know that art workshops help in healing. Survivors can be at different stages of their trauma journey. Some may not even want to engage with the workshops. Sometimes everything is an absolute, dense – darkness. In those times, a little handholding helps. An art workshop facilitated by the artist but lead by the survivors… focusing on their individual stories. Starting by entering the room. That is the first step. Walk into the room without any agenda. Begin with conversations. Let those conversations lead the way for the artistic outcomes. Let the outcomes be purpose driven. Maybe a zine at the end of the workshop that is put together by the survivors. Or an exhibition of what they have created. Maybe a little pop up marketplace showcasing their individual skills. As a survivor myself, having a purpose, became an anchor for me. It was the reason I woke up another day… and another… and I keep waking up.
What 3 things are you grateful for?
I am grateful for being my mother’s daughter.
I am grateful to mother a beautiful, strong and sensitive daughter.
I am grateful for my three cats.
You can follow Sujata’s beautiful work on Instagram, LinkedIn and on her website. And she has an exhibition at the City Hall on 30th November 2023 called ‘A Thousand Cuts’.