The Photographer Capturing Vanishing Tribes Before They Disappear

Narratively contributor Abhijit Alka Anil has spent seven years documenting one of the smallest Indigenous tribes in the world as they try to survive—without compromising their ideals.

The Photographer Capturing Vanishing Tribes Before They Disappear

One scroll down his Instagram account and you see Abhijit Alka Anil’s vision emerging. His work is a cultural cargo of raw and unfiltered stories from overlooked corners of the world—ranging from asylum seekers in Greece to locals in the remote Andaman Islands. For the past seven years, Abhijit has documented the endangered Toto tribe in India, which readers may recall he wrote about for a 2017 Narratively story (a collaboration with writer Gurvinder Singh). 

Abhijit’s latest photo book, Totos Of Totopara- An Indigenous Tribe In A Globalised World, lifts the veil on the life, culture and traditions of the community. Interspersed with QR codes that guide readers to videos, the book shares how the Totos hold tight to their ideals and way of life—even if it means the death of their tribe. Narratively spoke with Abhijit about his photographic procedure, takeaways and more. 

Abhijit Alka Anil.

How did you first become interested in the Totos? What inspired you to document them?

I read an article about Rita Toto in 2013; she is the first female college graduate from the Toto tribe. I continued to research further—any articles, journals, books I could get my hands on—and was fascinated by how unknown they are—there are only 1,600 Totos remaining. In May 2014, after finally meeting the Totos, I realized I needed to make this a long-term project. Residing in a tiny jungle in West Bengal, others in their own state often don’t know of their existence, much less those in the rest of the country. With this intention to put them on the world map, I undertook the challenge of documenting the Totos. 

Now you’ve spent over seven years working on this. Artistically, what was your goal initially and how did it evolve over time? Did you go in with a specific plan or work more spontaneously?

Sanchita and Asali Toto.

The jump was entirely spontaneous. I left my job at an NGO in rural Karnataka thanks to my wife’s encouragement. Beyond this first bit, the rest was a mix of planned and improvized. 

I have a master’s in sociology and have worked with several NGOs across India so a topic like this is both close to my heart and understanding. Having, what I wouldn’t term artistic but rather documentary-like vision, made me realize that a four-day trip wasn’t enough. The very first thing I did was break the ice with the Totos: I explained the intent behind my visit and what I was going to do with the pictures. By my next visit in 2015, I had a clear picture of what I wanted to achieve artistically, documentarily, sociologically, and anthropologically. This book is a blend of all four lenses. 

How did you overcome cultural and linguistic barriers? How did you win their trust?

To start off with, I learned Bangla—a language I’ve had a keen interest in since childhood. I’m from Maharashtra [a state in India] and Marathi [the language spoken there] is similar to Bangla. More important than anything, however, was my clarity of intent to communicate with the Totos so they were on board with the project. I also picked up bits of their mother tongue. 

How has the Toto culture evolved since you first started this project? 

A traditional Toto house.

The very first visit showed me that their daily life is shifting from traditional to modern. From 2014 to 2018 I could see that change and wanted to visually document it. They have laptops and phones, several of them are on Facebook and Twitter. Yet, they are trying to strike a balance [between technology and tradition]. This served as the basis of the book. For example, some young Totos are using YouTube to vlog their lives. She told me she calls herself “a modern tribe girl.” I’ve photographed everythingwatching it go by without commenting. 

Being impartial is a tough thing to do when you’re trying to tell a story. How have you tried to maintain neutrality?

My background in sociology, previous role as a photojournalist with the Times of India, and time with the Red Cross really helped. I have trained myself to be neutral. You can’t be biased in the field; that defies all ethics. Similarly, when it came to actually curating the pictures for the book, my only goal was to show everything

Several times over the years, different members of the Toto community would ask me my caste. I would always respond “humanity”—you can’t allow these factors to come into play. My caste, religion, and value system were thrown into the gutter as soon as I held my camera. 

Australian linguist Toby Anderson develops the Toto script.

You’ve self-published this book. What was navigating that process like?

Difficult. So, so difficult. I moved from Mumbai to Oslo in the midst of this project. After being attuned to India, the Scandinavian book market was a change. Norway is quite conservative which made it difficult to pitch the book. I was eventually referred to someone who guided me through the process. The book is also self-designed in order to cut costs. 

Being ethical throughout and not taking any shortcuts was very important to me. When we tried to print the cover, it wasn’t coming out well, and they recommended I edit the images to smoothen them out. I flat out refused; I didn’t care if it didn’t look perfect, I wouldn’t do it. 

What’s next for you?

I want to continue documenting Indigenous tribes across the globe, working with universities and humanitarian NGOs. I always say, once lost is lost forever. 

Modi-pae-powa: the naming ceremony for a Toto child.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Totos Of Totopara is now available to purchase.