To casual outsiders, the Caribbean vibe may hum around an assumed trinity of touristic pillars: beach shacks, bright cocktails, bikinis and speedos galore.
But a sea that washes upon the shores of over 7,000 islands can hardly act as an all-encompassing cultural fishing net, pooling together a catch of almost 30 countries. Nevertheless, the cultural and natural diversity of the nations that speckle this 1,000,000 square mile region is often eclipsed by the dominant point of view of tourists, one that can be spotty, like the vision of somebody who’s spent too much time staring at the sun.
Anusha Jiandani—an Indian-origin artist, photographer, and St. Vincent native—however, possesses a replenished eye for her cluster of the Caribbean. Anusha’s photographs are portals of self-discovery, taken as she explores her island home, from Kingstown, the capital, to the heights of St. Vincent’s heartland. She draws our attention to viridian-seaweed tones that etch the raw beauty of the small nation—an impressive bounty of hidden pathways sheltered by palisades of tropical stalks; volcanos jutting out of low-lying limestone islands; and black sand swirling to the ebb and flow of sea foam.
Her images evoke a shared intimacy, like someone passing a well-written poetry journal to a friend. While graphic design is how she makes a living, it feels like Anusha actually lives through her photography, her approach as personal as her penmanship. translating into an unassuming documentation of her homeland. She takes viewers to banana plantations and coconut groves with the ease of a corkscrew sea breeze releasing its pent-up intensity upon hitting the coast.
This ‘at-peace’ atmosphere of her work didn’t come easy. In late 2017, Anusha was living in Miami, riding the downward slope of a creative slump. When she reflects back on that time, she recalls a slurry of negative emotions: “downtrodden, uninspired, and cut off from like-minded people” is how she describes it. Unfortunately, these feelings are all too familiar to so many artists around the world, each day at the drawing board resembling an eight-hour trek through wet cement. Creatively and emotionally depleted, she still put herself out there and signed up for a photography workshop.
At the time she was mainly focused on portraits layered with text. “I don’t know if this is gonna sound depressing at all, but I had a lot of s**t going on within the span of three years before that time, so I think that was just an emotional release (laughter), because everything I was doing was coming out of that, mixing photography with poetry… ” The series she’s referring to is called ‘Catherthis’.
However, Anusha’s creative revitalisation was stunted, as it proved difficult for her to legally continue to live in the U.S.A. “I wasn’t really leaving because I wanted to, I left because I had to. I didn’t want to deal with all the documentation…and whatnot of being able to stay in the states, and I was also just a little of tired of the environment I was in… my student visa was coming to an end, and I just accepted it.”
Coming home wasn’t a picture-perfect return to paradise. “I think between two to three months of coming home, there was an emotional breakdown. I was grieving a lot, and I was not really taking care of myself.” She adds, “At the time, I was also a social drinker, because I had freely associated my life with that type of atmosphere, of going out to bars; and where I live, on the island, there’s just more of that… but at some point I had to press pause.”
Once again, Anusha reached deep into her creative reserves, applying herself to the study of design and later finding her first job in St. Vincent as a graphic designer. “The moment I took this course, I immediately felt this intuitive thing happen to me… since that day something just sort of shifted, like when you just take one small step, and it amplifies all these other things that can happen.”
She continues, “Work just started to snowball from there. You take one leap, and it keeps going, and then you take another leap, and it keeps going. And with it also came this massive spiritual awakening… It was super emotional to feel like I’m doing this, because I’ve always resonated with being financially independent.”
That pursuit was initially a struggle for Anusha, she explains, citing her Indian roots. “In Indian culture, at least, what I’ve experienced, is that parents don’t really push you in the way you need it. They’ll support you as long as you need it, especially women, but their level of support doesn’t come across as, ‘Look, we are not going to be responsible for this, we’re not going to do this for you any more,’ and I needed a push in that direction. I pretty much forced myself to cut myself off.” Other longstanding ties had to be untethered for her mental well-being as well. “I learnt that in the process of a spiritual awakening I had to just step away from some friendships because they were not benefiting or supplying me with any of the support that I really needed, so that was also part of the grieving process, I feel.”
This self-reconciliation helped Anusha to stop focusing on issues that solely affected her or her immediate social circle. It allowed her to become more active in her immediate community, participating in beach clean-ups and working on starting her own non-profit intended to educate people on the islands’ symbiotic relationship of flora and fauna. Bringing attention to the balance of wildlife in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is especially important—a place that has been damaged by the illegal pet trade, with endangered geckos and birds being poached alive, and funnelled off to countries like Japan and the U.S.A. “I was so involved in my own issues, but recognising all these other problems, like maintaining the natural beauty of St. Vincent, distracted me from getting trapped in a cycle of unhealthily focusing on personal matters.”
In a way, she was returning to fertile childhood memories, a time when she scribbled in colouring books and sketched trees. “I feel like everything around me is conscious and has a life. It is so easy for me now to look at a flower (pause) and talk to it. I know that sounds weird. But it’s so meditative. The other day I was hanging up laundry, and a pigeon came by the fence. I literally just started talking to it, and this pigeon started responding back to me… at least, I thought it did. This is just me now (laughter), I will just straight up talk to nature.”
The act of reuniting herself with nature, especially during difficult times, is rather evident in her photos. They offer a perspective that is lost on most tourists, unable to draw themselves away from their daiquiris to experience the hinterland, where the culture that existed before colonisation appears as lush as the islands’ dense swathes of forest.
These photos are of particular significance because when life in St. Vincent isn’t being sensationalised, it is often being treated with an air of inferiority. Anusha remembers being on a date that went completely awry because her companion was certain that she must have commuted to school in St. Vincent by donkey. She also recalls outsiders mistakenly assume that St. Vincent is a part of Jamaica, a separate island nation roughly 1,800 kilometres away.
Ironically enough, there is a strong Rastafari culture present in both countries, but that often goes unnoticed to visitors beyond comments on dreadlocks and Bob Marley posters. Thankfully, Anusha shows us a bowlful of ital in a coconut shell bowl—vegetarian fare made of home-grown produce that Rasta culture believes to be a healthy and spiritually satisfying meal. In a simple shot, Anusha is able to frame the balance and harmony of life in St. Vincent beyond the cellophane-filter of resort bliss.
Her style is a pursuit of this balance, a reconciliation with herself and her home—a hand held out in friendship, not just to herself, but to her surroundings.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.