“What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying” this quote from Albert Camus’s ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ was one of the last words of a well-known photographer Marcus Leatherdale. He wrote it on Facebook on April 22 2022.

Marcus Leatherdale in his early years.

Soon news came that a dead body was lying in a morgue a few kilometres away from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. The staff and doctors of the mortuary didn’t know that the body was of the 69-year-old award winning photographer.

Marcus Leatherdale died by suicide on the night of April 22 2022, at his place in Jharkhand’s McCluskieganj. His acquaintances claim that he has been melancholy for some months, with the cause being the loss of three of his closest ones.

Jorge Serio, his partner of two decades, died in July 2021. Leatherdale suffered a stroke shortly after. He was also devastated by the deaths of his mother, and Russian Wolfhound dog Sascha in late 2021. His social media (Instagram & Facebook) posts also show that he frequently missed his Jorge, his mother, and his dog.

Left- Marcus Leatherdale with his Partner Jorge Serio, Centre- with his Mother, Right- with his Russian Wolfhound dog Sascha.

Leatherdale is recognised for his artistic contributions to photography. He is most known for the work he did on the indigenous people of Jharkhand. His work on the tribal issue is noteworthy because it draws attention to the indigenous peoples' distinct cultures and traditions.

He was born in 1958 in Montreal, Canada. His father was a veterinary doctor. Marcus Leatherdale studied photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and began his career living in New York City. In the 1970s, he began his career as a fashion model.

He eventually worked as a fashion photographer for prominent fashion magazines such as ‘Vogue’ and ‘Harper's Bazaar’. In the 1980s, however, he turned his attention to documentary photography. This transition prompted him to travel to India, where he was attracted by the distinct culture of the tribal communities of Jharkhand. In his late 20s and early 30s, Leatherdale gained a lot of fame in national and international exhibitions through his photographs, as well as many international tours.

Marcus Leatherdale's book ‘Adivasi - Portraits of Tribal India’ is a noteworthy work on the tribes of Jharkhand. The book is a compilation of images depicting the life of Jharkhand's tribal children. These photos depict the children's innocence and beauty, as well as the hard reality of their existence.

The book also features Jharkhand tribals’ traditional attire, jewellery, and body art. The body art is especially remarkable, with elaborate patterns and designs painted on the indigenous people's different parts of the body. The book also showcases the tribes' traditional dances and rites, which are an important aspect of their culture.

Leatherdale’s work on the Jharkhand tribes has been instrumental in drawing attention to the situation of these indigenous people. The pictures he created depict the poverty, injustice, and marginalisation that tribals experience. However, the pictures also reveal the perseverance and fortitude of these people, who have managed to keep their traditions alive in the face of adversity.

His work on the Jharkhand tribes is especially important in the contemporary context of globalisation and modernity; which are threatening the culture and customs of Jharkhand's tribes. The people's traditional way of life is eroding, and their distinct identity is in jeopardy.

Leatherdale first visited India in 1972. Describing his first trip to India, Leatherdale said in a 2016 interview that “I first travelled to India in 1972 arriving cross-country in a Dutch hippy van. We drove from Istanbul through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India. I was seeing the world before college and wandered about the country for several months before returning the same route to Europe.”

When he came to India for the second time for a month-long vacation in the late 1980s, he decided that he would document India, as a professional photographer. Instead of travelling to India alone for the third time, he brought his team. Later on, he also established his own studio here.

He travelled to Banaras to document temples, priests, Maharajas, pilgrims, and labourers etc. He mentored a young man named Kailash Yadav, who ultimately became his manager and carer.

Answering a question in the same interview, Leatherdale spoke about his relationship with the tribals “... on my previous expedition, I encountered the Adivasis people. They are the tribal people of India, the so-called “first dwellers.” I promised myself that I would focus on these tribes once I was more settled in India. In 2000 I relocated to the tribal state of Jharkhand. I am still based there and work exclusively with the Adivasis. It’s a good central location to branch out in expeditions to photograph all the tribals in India”

Marcus Leatherdale with the tribals.

His acquaintance Justin Imam, who runs an organisation named Virasat in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, recalled that “In 1995, Marcus decided that he wanted to photograph the tribal life of India. For this, he made McCluskieganj in Jharkhand his residence and started working from here.

“While working in India, he befriended many influential personalities, including Anand Mahindra. When Marcus told Mahindra that he wanted to take photographs of the tribals while living in India and he was planning to get a vehicle for himself, Mr Mahindra gifted him a modified Green Color Marshal Jeep from his company Mahindra Motors. The people of McCluskieganj used to call this Jeep by the name of Hara Hathi (Green Elephant).”

His Jeep, named Hara Hathi.

People of McCluskieganj often said that Marcus Leatherdale believed in archiving the tribal life and society of India instead of using their photographs commercially. Leatherdale had also said, “I want to preserve the tradition of these proud people as best I can, somewhat like Edward Curtis did with the American Indians,”

Kitty Texeira, a resident of McCluskieganj who was Leatherdale’s friend, said that “he not only used to take pictures of the people here but he also used to help them in every effort, that is why along with the Anglo-Indian community of McCluskieganj, the tribals also loved him very much. After taking photographs of the tribals, he often used to give them a few rupees as remuneration.”

Sharing a story related to her and Leatherdale, Kitty recalled, “Once, I was roaming around Marcus' place to sell vegetables, when suddenly he came out of his bungalow and called me inside. When I went inside, Marcus gave me a bunch of guavas. These guavas were from the trees grown in his compound. Marcus told me ‘Take these guavas and sell them in the market, whatever money you get, keep it with you, And whenever needed, pluck more guavas from my trees and take them away’”.

Marcus Leatherdale’s home in McCluskieganj.

Marcus Leatherdale has departed from the world, but his works are still highlighting the significance of maintaining indigenous peoples' traditional legacy. They demonstrate the beauty and depth of a lifestyle that is completely different from our own. They also serve as a reminder of the significance of recognising and valuing variety in all of its manifestations.

His work on the Jharkhand tribes demonstrated his creative skill as well as his devotion to social justice. His images depict the spirit of a distinct culture as well as the challenges of Jharkhand's indigenous people.

Leatherdale’s work emphasises the necessity of cultural heritage preservation and variety. His photos are an important contribution to the field of photography and a powerful reminder of the need for social justice.

Vikram Rajis an independent writer. All photographs arranged with the help of Marcus Leatherdale’s friends.