K R Sunil is a photographer of people’s lives and a writer. He is based in Kodungallur, in the South Indian State of Kerala, where he grew up surrounded by legends and tales of the historic port city of Muziris.
Though trained in sculpture from the Fine Arts College in Thrissur, it was photography that would shape his world view. Growing up during the late 80s and 90s – in the cusp of two generations – he often became a poignant witness to traditions and ways of life that were disappearing before his very eyes. These early encounters amidst a fast changing world became crucial in inspiring the photographic journeys he would make later.
From his very early forays into photography, inspired by the likes of Sebastião Salgado, Raghu Rai and Steve McCurry, Sunil was always fascinated by the lives of people he saw around him. He sought to capture and preserve the essence of what makes each of them unmistakably human. In their everyday pursuits, he saw epic narratives.
With his unobtrusive camera and trademark little backpack, he sets out almost every day, frequenting markets, tea stalls, seashores and streets – shooting pictures, scribbling notes and making friends as people go about their lives. With no strict deadlines, he gives his unwavering attention to people and the spaces around them, often spending several years on each project. In most cases, the stories and connections happen first – long before they take the perceptible shape of specific projects or themes.
Over the years, his body of work has come to reflect a few inherently recognisable themes that have become the trademark of Sunil’s repertoire.
The sea is one such theme. An unbroken shoreline runs through his work, drenching it with the scent of the sea and making it reverberate with the bustle of seaside towns. He seeks out narrow alley ways, warehouses, harbours, boatyards and quaint shopfronts – finding long lost stories and people within the musty corners of sleepy old port towns. His critically acclaimed work on the seafaring community (Manchukkar | The Seafarers of Malabar) featured – perhaps for the first time ever – the stories of the long forgotten sailors of the northern part of Kerala.
Besides the omnipresent seashore, if one delves deeper into his work there surfaces an intense obsession with seeking out and preserving ways of life on the brink of extinction – and an affinity for people and cultures teetering on the margins of society. Vanishing Life-Worlds (2016) is a captivating journey into the decrepit port town of Ponnani which is rich with images and stories that hark back to a set of values of an earlier age. In his images and stories, he manages to capture an inexplicable part of this life even as it dissipates and disappears around him.
What also fascinates the viewer is that Sunil’s images – in spite of his proximity with the people and their ways of life – often reveal shades of the unexpected, the fantastic and the even the bizarre that lie hidden beneath the familiar.
Above all, Sunil remains effortlessly human at heart. He staunchly refuses to pursue any photographic approach that is ruthless, insensitive or manipulative and is fiercely protective of the places and people he shoots. The lifelong friendships that he has painstakingly cultivated with each one of his photographic subjects are a testament to his way of working and living.
Vanishing Life- Worlds | Kochi Muziris Biennale | 2016 | Curated by Sudarshan Shetty
Chronicle of a Disappearance | India Habitat Center Delhi | 2016 | Curated by AlkaPandey ,
RMIT Gallery Melbourne Australia | 2017 | Curated by Suzanne Davies & Helen Reyment
Mattancherry | Uru Art Harbor, Kochi | 2017 | Curated by RiyasKomu
Manchukkar – The Seafarers of Malabar | Uru Art Harbor, Kochi | 2018 | Curated by RiyasKomu
Home | LokameTharavadu, Alappuzha|2021| curated by Bose Krishnamachari
Manchukkar – The Seafarers of Malabar | Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum, USA | 2021
Awards & Grants
2016- India Habitat Center Photosphere Award
1997- Lalithakala academy special award for fine art students ( For Painting )
2018- Uru Art Harbour’s Travel and Research Grant
2016 – India Habitat Center Delhi – Grant
Manchukkar | The Seafarers of Malabar by KunstdepotGöschenen, Switzerland