laura el-tantawy – i’ll die for you

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Laura El-Tantawy

I’ll Die for You

play this essay


“I’ll Die For You” is a project that will combine still photographs and video. The work explores the epidemic of farmer suicides in rural India where over the past decade more than 200,000 farmers have committed suicide. Many had borrowed money to plant more efficient crops, but could not pay off their debts. Because of the extremely fast transition India has undergone – from a rural to an industrial, urban society with an open market – farmers have been confronted by immense social and economic disparities where the stress ultimately culminated into suicide. This has particularly affected cotton farmers in the state of Maharashtra in western India.

Since I started “I’ll Die For You” my concept has been focused on highlighting the peculiar bond between man and land. I found this relationship unique to farmers given their dependence on the land for livelihood and the equal reliance of the land on the farmers for survival. It is a relationship built on trust and nurturing, one that goes far beyond the customary attachment one has with his/her workplace or source of earning an income. For me, this bond is at the heart of the whole story. It’s a connection I have chosen to symbolically reflect in close up pictures showing the texture of farmer’s skin juxtaposed against details from the landscape. They are shot in a way that attempts to blur the distinction between man and land to show in this environment the land and its inhabitants are one and the same: when the one dies, so does the other. The work also focuses on showing emotional loss through a series of portraits and interviews focusing on the women left behind, from the widowed wives to mothers who outlived their children.

My photographic interest in a project typically stems from having some personal connection with the subject matter. When I first read farmers were committing suicide in India, I immediately thought of my grandfather who was a farmer his whole life. I wondered what circumstances could possibly drive a typically humble community into seeking such definitive measures? What would my grandfather have done? It was at that point I realized this is a story I had to tell and in December 2009 I traveled to India and started working on this project.

My goal is to ultimately highlight the plight of Indian farmers and present a story that emotionally connects people to the deep struggle this community is dealing with and show how desperation has resulted in a huge human toll. The story is about dependence of man on land and economic disparity as a catalyst for what is ultimately a human tragedy.

In 2010, “I’ll Die For You” was selected as a finalist for the Photocrati Fund for humanitarian and environmental photography and the Visura Spotlight Grant. It was selected in the main exhibition of the Noorderlicht Festival in The Netherlands (Land: Country Life in the Urban Age). The work is currently on exhibition at The Power House Arena in New York (December 17-January 20, 2011) as part of the New York Photo Festival’s juried-invitational, “Humankind”.

To support this project, please visit our Kickstarter page:



Laura El-Tantawy is an Egyptian photojournalist and artist based in London, UK. She studied journalism & political science at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia (USA) & started her career as a newspaper photographer with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Sarasota Herald-Tribune (USA). She became a freelance in 2006 and has since exclusively worked on self-initiated projects. Her work has been been published & exhibited in the US, Europe, Asia & the Middle East. Laura lives between the UK, her country of birth, and Egypt, where she associates most of her childhood memories.


Related links

Laura El-Tantawy

I’ll Die For You

Interview at Noorderlicht


Since the advent of the Kickstarter program , I have found it to be an interesting way to gain public funding for all kinds of projects including worthy photography efforts. So interesting in fact, that one of the things Anton and I are discussing for 2011 is our own homegrown version of  a Kickstarter style program for BURN. We cannot initiate this right now because we must study the workload and how we would actually get it done with the volunteers who work so hard for us, but our own endorsement of just a few projects a year under the umbrella of BONFIRE could again set BURN publishing efforts  out ahead.

Perhaps we would endorse up to 6 projects per year under the BONFIRE banner which would supplement our current $15,000. Emerging Photographer Fund grant for 2011 and the payments we now make to some photographers with completed essays . All we can really do here on BURN is to set a good example. We cannot fund the whole world of photography. But we can recognize unofficially  folks who do have their heart in the right place like Sara Terry and the Aftermath Project, Anthropographia, and some Kickstarter efforts by young photographers like Laura (please remember her Stay Another Day essay here on Burn). Icons like Larry Towell and others are using Kickstarter to fund worthy projects as his Afghanistan work. With BONFIRE we can lend deeply researched support to some of our BURN photographers. In any case, we will see.

The readership of Burn has been most generous. We survive literally here because of your donations. This has kept us ad free. For this I am constantly grateful. Nobody tells us what we should or should not do here on Burn. We listen to all of you of course, but we make independent decisions quite simply based on what we feel is right. While BURN 01 was an incredible publishing success, we did that book not to make money but just for our sense of pride at being associated with this remarkable audience participation effort. The small profit we did make from BURN 01 is quite literally going to be used to bring Anton, Diego, Anna and I together to meet for three days to figure out how to make BURN better for all of you. We never literally see each other. We have no office. My laptop on my mother’s dining room table right now is my office. Perfect actually. Life could not get better than this. So we just want to keep BURN as clear and as clean as is possible.

In this spirit, I wish for all of you  a holiday  that transcends boundaries  and  wish you a creatively prosperous 2011.

David Alan Harvey    December 25, 2010

28 Responses to “laura el-tantawy – i’ll die for you”

    music is PERFECT……

  • This makes me so angry.. one of the reasons I’ve never gotten along well with Christmas, since I was a teenager and old enough to understand the huge, immense injustice humankind lives in and not being able to change it..

    .. and the editor’s note is one reason I keep hanging out here.. no idea if a change can be made, but at least there’s the willingness to try to actually DO something.. it’s not only words, but actions… thanks..

  • All we can really do here on BURN is to set a good example.

    yes, yes and yes!

  • (dealing with death and pain)

    “..It was the dancing… When my little boy Dimitri died…and everybody was crying…
    Me, I got up and I danced.
    They said, “Zorba is mad.” But it was the dancing — only the dancing that stopped the pain.”

    –Zorba, in Zorba the Greek

  • Laura…
    Your portraits have captured the pain and desperation that these women must endure being left behind… Yours is a work of love and every image is just so, so emotionally charged.

  • I am sorry to say I have not been able to view this essay. It gets stuck and just spins. Rarely happens.

  • Lee,
    I had the same problem. I bailed and went directly to kickstarter, entered “I’ll Die For You” in the search field and was able to view it. It’s worth the extra step.

    I’ve been poking around Burn for days, both as a source of inspiration and as a form of procrastination. Trying to shake off the winter sloth and write, surrounded by snoring dogs. I bought a one-way ticket to Mexico City. Leaving in two weeks. Plan on making my way to the U.S. border with my Bronica and about 80 rolls of Ilford. Eating a lot of comfort food in the meantime (especially a Trix – Lucky Charms combo).

    Happy Holidays everybody!

  • Lee…
    I had the same problem, found my antivirus was updating…something is probably using up all your bandwidth. If you still can´t see it, try downloading it with Realplayer plugin.

  • I’m immediately distracted by the moving text, reel soundtrack and dirty film filter, which all strikes me as a first try at FCP. I would have been much more invested if it started at the 2nd round of title cards, from there this essay is wonderful.

  • Michelle! Stay safe! Looking forward to see that Ilford developped.. yours is one of the books I want to get when it’s ready!

  • This is the dark side of the new agricultural revolution. Since more productive GM-crops (cause that is what’s causing the harm) are patented, farmers are not allowed to store some of their produce for next years sead as farmers have done for thousands of years, this combined with the need for more and more pesticides and artificial fertilizer in order to grow these crops, pays a heavy toll on the income of third world farmers everywhere. If everything goes to plan good harvest are guaranteed, but an Indian rice or cotton field is not a labaratory and what works well in a controlled environment, does not work as well in the poverty stricken backwaters of the Indian subcontinent were the rise in living standards of the rest of India have not trickeled through (the boats in the harbour parrable of the neocons as shouted out by Milton Freidmann does not work if youre boat happens to be leaking) . A nice book about this is Raj Patel’s, Stuffed and Starved, Markets, Powers and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System (Portobello book Ltd, London 2007). A good, sobering read, just after Xmas as these picture are a good, sobering view, brutal pain turned into beauty as only true art can do, shame I didn’t go to Noorderlicht this year, a good reason for a 400 km round trip to Groningen.

    Greetings, Ed Kuipers

  • I like this, I would like to hear audio of peoples voices as well as the captions but that’s really a small point.

    That the land is reliant on the farmers is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.

    David should there also be a link to a charity focused on helping farmers in India?

  • HARRY…

    i think the reason Laura is trying to use funds from Kickstarter is to do audio/video/stills examining the entire problem in depth…she acknowledges that this is merely a beginning and therefore seeking support….yes, of course there should be a link to a charity focused on helping farmers in India…i will look into this and see what i can find…or, perhaps Laura can make a suggestion for us….thanks for thinking…

    cheers, david

  • Thanks for everyone’s responses to this and I am glad the work has somehow touched you.

    Ed (Artisan S) – thanks for your reading references. I have been doing a lot of research on this but did not come across the books you suggested. Thank you for leading me in their direction. You’re definitely correct about the Genetically Modified (GM) crops being a critical factor. Although their role is contested, they certainly do contribute to the factors that push farmers towards suicide.

    Harry – curious why you think it’s silly to say the land is reliant on the farmers? I assume you are looking at this from the pure sense, where the land thrives on the elements of nature in which it survives. But “I’ll Die For You” is about the bond between the farmers and the land – growing crops which the farmers sell for money and the constant cycle of harvesting, ploughing and picking the land undergoes, which is not something the land does on it’s own. In order for the land to survive and produce adequately in this scenario, it needs the touch of a farmer. Of course it still needs the natural elements of water, sun, etc to survive, but the absence and sometimes overabundance (such as too much rain) of one or the other mean the crops will die.

    I should also mention the short clip you saw is not really intended to show this work in any finished form. “I’ll Die For You” is a work in progress and it will be evolving over the next few months to include a short docudrama and more still pictures. The clip above is intended as a trailer to pitch to potential funders/sponsors to give them an idea about the work. The finished product will include the voices of the people because I think it’s necessary to hear what they have to say. There will also be a few other additions to the content that I am working on.

    There are many charities working on farmer suicides but none are linked here because “I’ll Die For You” has so far been self-funded and I am now seeking sponsorship and funding. I think it would be misleading to link to charities if they are not supporting the work because despite working on the issue of farmer suicides they may not like my particular take on it and so it will just lead to problems all around. Hope this makes sense.

    Belated Merry Christmas to all ==> Laura.

  • There are many charities working on farmer suicides but none are linked here because…

    Wow, that’s taking on some major responsibility, figuring the money is better spent, and presumably more lives will be saved, suffering ameliorated, etc., by your project than by charities working directly with the affected. I hope that proves to be the case. Good work so far.


    i am confused on this issue…i think Harry was wondering about charities for which one could contribute directly to help the farmers potentially affected by large debts…assuming this is the main reason for the high suicide rates…..i do not see what these charities who may (or may not) directly support the farmers would have to do with your photo project Laura…there is some missing element in your statement above i think..or , am i just not understanding what you are saying?

    cheers, david

  • Harry, MW, David – I’m a bit confused myself now.

    I was thinking of Harry’s charities question as a link to my work, but didn’t see it as a way to donate money to help the families. My apologies for misinterpreting – I was on a one track mind. My research has been focused on charities/NGO’s that maybe interested in sponsoring this project or part of, so I responded with that in the back of my head.

    None of the charities I have been in contact with actually pay money towards the debt farmers have accumulated. Their activity generally involves implementing educational programs as most of the villages have no schools and many see the lack of education puts farmers at a disadvantage and makes them vulnerable in loan negotiations. They also provide education outside of schools, such as providing farmers with alternative farming methods and helping families deal with bereavement following suicide. Others are focused on women, such as AMMA, which I recently discovered through Burn contributor Erica McDonald. I have not found any charities that directly raise money to pay-off the debt but I will stand corrected if they do in fact exist, I just haven’t come across them.

    I should also say that I’m trying to be realistic in what to expect taking on such an emotionally loaded story. I think it would be immature on my part to think my work will stop farmers from committing suicide — I would like it to, but I don’t think that’s realistic. There’s no doubt this has been one of the most difficult projects I have personally been involved with and one where the word “responsibility” really haunts me for all the obvious reasons. In taking on this work from the very beginning, I simply wanted to show something I believe deserved to be shown. I am not competing with the NGO’s or charities working on this issue and I believe their work and their resources can do the farmers more help than I ever will. How I can/will help these families is a big question in my head because I do want to do something. I am in the process of establishing a non-profit fund to raise money towards the families, but that’s also a work in progress. Establishing the fund is easy but tracking the money to make sure it lands in the hands of the people who need it is a tricky process and it’s what I am trying to figure out. Any ideas would be appreciated.

    Hope this clarifies and doesn’t increase the confusion ==> Laura.

  • LAURA…

    many thanks for this clarification….what you have just written is of course what i assumed, but pleased you now made it clear to all…

    cheers, david

  • Somehow, I missed this essay until just now. I don’t know if it ever appeared at the top and I was just absent in the time that it stayed there, or if it was placed below Os and I just did not scroll down.

    Maybe it is a good thing that I did not see it until now, as I have been having a difficult time to deal with a suicide in India myself – not a farmer, not a man, but a deeply tragic event for me and many others. Even now, after looking at this and hearing the woman sing, so Indian, so beautifully, so sadly, my eyes moisten.

    Laura, you are trying to understand what is happening to a large group of men of the Indian land and I am trying to understand what happened to a young woman of the Indian city, who no less loved the land and the people and life upon it, a woman filled with so much hope and desire, cherished by so many, not the least of whom was me.

    I must put her life back together as best I can and that means, as painful as it will be, I must soon go back to India and I must bring India to Alaska. Although I lack the means and time, I will find both. It would be good if you and I could meet one day and share our thoughts – and maybe even our tears.

  • LAURA…

    Congratulations!! i see with 33 minutes to go, you have achieved your goal, raising almost $5,000 in the last few days….fantastic…i would like to think we helped just a bit…i wish even more that we had come into play sooner..but in any case, you will at least have some backing…all that you asked for from Kickstarter…with this funding , you should be able to at least get started in a significant way and will be able to raise even more when your results from this are shown….i think this is a difficult story to photograph…and i also think that if there is anyone who can do it in an artful yet journalistic way, it is you….

    cheers, david

  • Frostfrog (would love to know your real name) – I’m so sorry if this essay aggravated your sorrow as you’re now mourning the death of an obviously important person in your life. I am lucky because I have never personally dealt with suicide and I selfishly wish I never have to. Hope the work touched you somehow. I will be in India some time in the next two months and would gladly meet you. Just give me a shout out. Stay strong ==> Laura.

  • David – thanks for your note and for your enthusiasm towards this work. Yes, “I’ll Die For You” made it. I think now I am more nervous about proceeding than I was before – now there is expectation. I just have to stay focused. I worry about thinking so much about doing the work one way and not seeing other things that could have illustrated the story better. I agree with you 100% that it’s a difficult story and I have known that from the start. Like I said before I am really haunted by the word “responsibility” and I really want to do the families and the men who took their own life justice, somehow. Don’t know if I’m being too vain!

    Thanks again David and a big thank you to everyone in the BURN community for their support ==> Laura.

  • Thank you, Laura. My name is Bill Hess and you can learn all about me just by clicking “Frostfrog.” If you do, just go back to my entry of November 21, then to November 23 and after that if you have the time, will and patience, follow the whole blog forward to the present, even the entries that do not on the surface seem to relate because, in fact, they all do.

    Congratulations on raising the funds to get going. I must find a way to raise funds for my project, too, which is now just beginning to shape up in my head – not only to take myself back to India, but to bring her brother – who has the talent and desire to become a photographer and calls me his guru, and her sister, who has the talent and desire to become a writer, to experience some of the things here that she was going to, but now never will.

    I might as well give you the direct links to November 21 and 23:

    November 21:

    November 23:

    You have nothing to apologize for and yes, your work touched me greatly – otherwise, it would not have made my eyes moisten. I doubt that I can get to India within the next two months, although if I could find the way I would like to be there February 28, as her sister will formally wed that day.

    I also hope that you never have to experience suicide on a personal level – this is not the first for me, not by a long shot – but it has hit the hardest. If you succeed at this project, and I am certain you will, you are going to experience suicide on a personal level. Perhaps after the fact, but you are going to get to know these people and, whatever they say about a journalist staying detached, it will become very personal.

  • Bill (Frostfrog) – really appreciate you sharing the links above with me. Your words moved me as much as my images moved you. I felt such an ease reading your words, which are loaded with tension and emotion, and at times, I felt like I was taking a walk with you along the frozen seashore or even riding with you and Jimmy on the snow machine. Thank you for taking me on this journey, Bill. I will now be a committed reader. Please do contact me when your plans for India materialize – perhaps our paths will cross ==> Laura.

  • I will follow your journey as well, Laura. And I will let you know. As big as this world is, it is tiny and people pursuing a similar bent almost invariably cross paths. I look forward to the day.

  • Great to see more attention brought to this issue via burn – and it is wonderful to hear that Laura has reached her goal so she can carry out her photographic project. Wishing you, Laura, the greatest fulfillment of your vision. Also am excited about the possibility of burn expanding efforts for funding, thank you again and always David (Anton, Anna…) for all the continual efforts for the good of our community. Sorry to be so brief in words – I am with you all in heart.

    Harry, DAH, ALL – As mentioned by Laura, there is a humanitarian effort initiated by Amma to which you can contribute:

    the Farmers’ Empowerment Project aims at helping the poorest farmers (and their families) in India gain economic security through sustainable practices and diversifying their means of support. Specifically, the Farmers’ Empowerment Project seeks to reduce the suicide rate among poor Indian farmers suffering from debt and crop failure in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnatika through providing scholarships for 100,000 children (ages 10 to 15) of farmers living below the poverty line, retraining and start-up capitol to 5,000 groups of women from impoverished agricultural families, insuring one member of each farming family has a trade or profession so that at least one income is independent from the success of the harvest, and helping the farmers make the transition to more sustainable practices/providing education on environmental preservation.

    Details here:

    You can donate directly here: specifying which of the following programs you wish to donate to: Farmer Suicide Prevention (Scholarship Program) or Farmer Suicide Prevention (Women’s Self‐Help Cooperatives). M.A. Center is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization under Section 501©(3).

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