V

isitors and natives agree: With its exotic beaches, tropical forests and spectacular mountain ranges, the natural beauty of the Caribbean island of Trinidad is breathtaking.

But the picturesque scene belies the ugly reality: In Trinidad, the way you look still determines the way you are treated. Immigrants from India first arrived in Trinidad in 1845 as indentured servants, and little has changed since then. More than 100 years later, Trinidadian Indians still endure endless discrimination and poverty.

Yet their story, along with those of millions of poor Indian immigrants around the world, is rarely heard. It’s the affluent Indian immigrants and their overwhelming successes that often graces the pages of major magazines and newspapers.

Veteran photographer and author Steve Raymer hopes to correct that imbalance by uncovering the untold stories of Indians in the diaspora with his upcoming book, Images of a Journey: India in Diaspora, due out this fall. In an attempt to document the struggles of Indian immigrants to survive and succeed, Raymer’s camera lens captures the larger picture—one that illustrates both the successes and short-comings of the Indian diaspora today.

“Twenty-five million Indians dispersed throughout 100-some countries. I just got to thinking, this is really one heck of a story that nobody had really told yet—at least not through a photo book,” says Raymer, who teaches media ethics and photojournalism at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Some of Raymer’s subjects, such as veteran New Yorker writer Ved Mehta, have made bold statements: “It is a myth that Indians are very spiritual people. The irony is that they are very materialistic.”

Raymer was led to the story of Indians around the world back when he was just starting his career. “I tell students to be careful of the things that happen to you during your 20s, because [that time period] will shape the rest of your life. Southeast Asia was the first place National Geographic magazine sent me to, and it sort of changed me … I fell in love with it, got attached.”

Now, Raymer pegs himself as the “outsider honkey” who was looking in as he embarked on his journey to document Indian immigrants in more than 15 countries around the world. “I don’t feel like it’s my place to be a social critic on this subject, so I’d rather put forth the facts and let other people’s voices speak for themselves.”

Raymer’s photos—and the voices behind them—do just that. Some of his subjects, such as veteran New Yorker writer Ved Mehta, have made bold statements: “It is a myth that Indians are very spiritual people,” says Mehta. “The irony is that they are very materialistic.”

Raymer’s work also dispels the notion that Indians in the diaspora are only affluent and ultra-successful. He highlights the middle-tier, blue-collar laborer class that is so often overlooked.

One such photo depicts a blue-collar Indian worker in the urban oasis of Dubai. The man, whose eyes are visibly red from working 10 hours of intense manual labor in the scorching desert heat, stares straight into Raymer’s lens. Raymer writes, “Stripped of their passports, often unpaid for months on end, and preyed upon by loan sharks, many live four to a room in a rundown industrial section of Dubai called al Quoz. Like this worker from Kerala state, most earn around $300 a month—about the same as the cost of staying one night in one of the luxury hotels they help build.”

Send Your Support

Indian hospitality was instrumental to Raymer’s access, but finding grants and funding to publish his photo book has been an arduous process. Raymer has had to finance much of his own travel. To donate funds to support Raymer’s book, send a check payable to the Indiana University Foundation (write “Raymer, Images of a Journey” on the memo line) to:

Janet Rabinowitch, Director
Indiana University Press
601 North Morton St.
Bloomington, IN 47404
812.855.4773

Raymer is proud of the inclusion of such images. “Everyone goes to Dubai and falls in love with the fact that they have a ski resort in the middle of the desert, five-, six-, seven-star hotels and great shopping. But they forget that these Indian guys—I call them the ‘foot soldiers of globalization’—have built the entire thing. I feel kind of a private victory that at least in my book, you will see the Indian guys in their blue coveralls when everyone else doesn’t bother to picture them.”

Yet while the ill treatment of immigrant workers in Dubai is finally getting some overdue attention, the stories of many other marginalized Indians still haven’t been heard. Raymer traveled to countries like Fiji, Burma and Malaysia, where thousands of Indians have been stripped of their jobs and identity. “Some of the worst slums I have ever seen were completely filled with Indians right outside of Kuala Lumpur,” says Raymer.

Indians migrated to Malaysia as rubber-plantation workers, but now shopping malls and bustling city life have wiped out most of the rural plantations. “Now Malay Indians don’t know where to go. They don’t have access to education; they don’t have jobs or even the identity cards to prove they’re legal. The government is cursed with this affirmative action policy that caters only to the Muslim population. If you want to see a country where Indians really got the bottom end of the rung, go to Malaysia.”

Indians in Malaysia do have some hope, however, says Raymer, thanks to a large presence of high-ranking Indian Malay lawyers who have been called the “social consciousness of the country.” These upper-class Indians are active in fighting for improved treatment for their lower-class counterparts.

Ironically, this bridge between the rich and poor Indians in Malaysia doesn’t seem to exist in their homeland India, where an increasing number of wealthy Indian immigrants have returned home as executives of high-tech companies.

“They are plenty of returned Indians immigrants who want to spin you and talk about how wonderful it is for their kids to be back in India … to be able to be learning all about Indian culture,” says Raymer. “But I think you just have to be honest about the fact that they’re not exactly living the lives of ordinary Indians.”

Raymer is quick to acknowledge that these high-powered executives are “making a positive contribution to India by moving it forward very quickly,” but his sharp, journalistically-trained eye can’t ignore the entire picture. “I see these kids living in these gated communities, playing with their iPods and attending international private schools. They are living a life that parallels that of California, while India alone exists in parallel,” observes Raymer.

“They are plenty of returned Indians immigrants who want to spin you and talk about how wonderful it is for their kids to be back in India. But you have to be honest about the fact that they’re not exactly living the lives of ordinary Indians.”

These are just a few of the compelling stories Raymer tells in his book. He followed many roads to discover where Indians have dispersed around the world. In South Africa, Raymer learned from one of Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughters about the continuing discrimination that South African Indians endure. In the English Midlands, Dr. Ramesh Mehta, a physician who doubles as a priest and leader of the Jain Center in Leicester, taught Raymer about how Jainism encourages respect, compassion and conserving the world’s scarce resources. In Trinidad, retired Ramlakan Ramroop discussed his health adversities with Raymer. In India, Raymer toured the lavish pool and clubhouse of software company president Ajay Kela and his family’s Western-style Bangalore suburb. And making a full circle back to the United States, Raymer captured the fast-paced, widespread success of Indian professionals through action shots of serial entrepreneur Prem Uppaluru and medical sensation Sanjay Gupta on the job.

“I’ve been to India 20 times and even most of the doctors I see here in the U.S. are of Indian origin,” explains Raymer. “I was very familiar with India before making this book, but I didn’t know that one in every 20 doctors in the United States is Indian, or that Sikh farmers have been nurturing blistering hot almond fields for five generations now. Five generations? I mean, who knew?”n

Rupa Dev is pondering the diasporic reach of her half-Gujarati, one-fourth Bengali and one-fourth Malayalee heritage.
Published on April 16, 2007.
Photography: Courtesy of Steve Raymer.

More Information

Steve Raymer Official Web Site
Images of a Journey: India in Diaspora, $44.95
(September 2007, Indiana University Press)

Comments are closed.
  1. April 16, 2007, 12:11 pm surya

    i’m so glad you ladies are updating so often : )

    keep up the great work!

  2. April 18, 2007, 12:12 pm Tamil

    I hope someone does an anthropological study of the influence of Indian immigrants on the gene pool of the middle east.I have had the opportunity of meeting some arab youth who claimed to be citizens of Dubai and Saudi Arabia while waiting at airports in the Middle East, and I was really surprised that most of them had strong facial similarities to malayalees or [deleted] Indians without any of the typical semitic features. My speculation is that while the Arab Sheiks are chasing the blondes in Monaco or Monte Carlo the drivers,cooks,gardners from Kerala and Tamil Nadu ‘make hay while the sun shines’.

    Comment edited by Nirali due to offensive language.

  3. April 19, 2007, 12:10 pm gurbani

    I think it is excellent that these kind of things are being uncovered in India. I know we as wealthier in contrast South Asians often pride ourselves on our foreign prosperity, but we forget where the majority of Indians fall. It’s a beautiful picture, one hundreth of it is, but the rest is full of things we don’t like to be exposed to. Ignorance is the key to the bliss that some of us exist in, and this book attemps to uncover the ignorance.
    Rupa, I love this line”aymer is quick to acknowledge that these high-powered executives are “making a positive contribution to India by moving it forward very quickly,” but his sharp, journalistically-trained eye can’t ignore the entire picture.” where you even catch the author trying to be slightly less harsh ! Good work:)

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  5. April 10, 2008, 11:05 pm Vijay

    I am glad that finally some attention has been thrown to the immigrant workers who are exploited in such harsh conditions in Dubai. Although it is mentioned in the article that the Indians in Dubai are getting much overdue attention for all this harshness subjected to them, it is not enough, not one bit. And this problem affects not just Indians, but Bangladeshi’s, Pakistani’s, Afghanis and Filipinos.

    I am an Indian who was brought up in Dubai my entire life, but I despise what they are doing to the very core. I am currently in the USA, pursuing a degree in art and it pains everytime I go back to that country to visit my family. I try and inform my American and international friends as much as possible about what Dubai actually is, because they have an image of Dubai being this desert wonderland where everybody is wealthy and well-treated.

    I cannot thank you enough for posting this article as this is a subject that is very dear to me, and hope something will be done about this soon. The Human rights organization has made some headway into the matter, but more has to be done.