i to eye workshops aim to use photography as a therapeutic aid. They create a fun and engaging environment in which the participants learn the basics of photography whilst being encouraged to use their cameras as a means of exploring and expressing themselves and the hardships many of them have endured and continue to face on a daily basis. i to eye hopes to redress the balance of photojournalism a little by placing the camera in the hands of those often the subject of photographs and allowing them to tell their own stories for a change and to control the context in which these stories are then seen.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Exhibition Adventures...

Sorry for the long bout of silence. So much has been going on over the last few weeks that I knew I would not be able to keep up with the blog so decided to wait until I had the time to describe everything in detail. That said the workshop progressed quickly into the third week when preparations for the exhibition took over from the emphasis on teaching and the wedding at the guesthouse started its five day marathon (more about that another day!). At this time I did an edit with each girl of the work to date to collect their strongest four images for the show. I was surprised to find that although the girls much preferred the fixed focus plastic cameras I had got them in Jodhpur most of the best images they had taken were with the Olympus Trip cameras at the start of the workshop! It just goes to show that despite some of the girl’s focusing issues the Trip was a good tool for them to use and the addition of a flash, though useful in allowing them to photograph inside their homes, created images with a more uniform uninspiring light. Overall, however, what was most important was that each and every girl had at least four strong images that stood out from the others and some many more than that.

Next came the daunting task of printing the pictures to a high enough quality for the show. Having seen the quality of development to date this was not a task for the faint hearted! With this in mind and the success of the flier that Kerry had had digitally printed I decided that the digital option might prove cheaper and more successful than using the lab. I quickly realised I could not have been more wrong and had at least left a few days grace in which to do a couple of test runs. As poor Kerry, who helped orchestrate the show, came back from the copy shop with increasingly horrendous efforts I soon realised that it was time to abandon ship and to face my fears of Indian development front on.

My earlier attempt at getting an exhibition quality print had resulted in me arriving at the lab to be proudly handed a picture that looked like it had been crumpled up and thrown in the bin prior to being put in my hand. I couldn’t help but laugh and looked at the guy in dismay when I realised this was no joke and was in fact what he considered an exhibition quality print. And so it was with this in mind that I lay in bed dreading the next morning when I knew I had just over a day to be at the lab and somehow through bribery, flattery or force coax out of them forty exhibition quality prints and that from a man who was by this point not my number one fan and who quite frankly seemed to think I was mad.

I arrived there the next morning with the ubiquitous box of sweets in hand and set about the complex first step of explaining which negs I needed printed, what size and what quality I was looking for. I next explained to the guy that I would be staying at the lab until they were done and would look over each print as it was produced to ensure that they were of a high enough quality. At first the guy kept assuring me that if I returned at 6 that evening they would be done and in true Indian style pretended not to understand anything else I said in the hope that I would go away. He obviously had no idea how stubborn I can be though I noticed realisation begin to dawn in his eyes as I settled myself in a corner of the shop with my laptop and started to work. Initially he would occasionally emerge from the back room and either ignore me or, glancing in my direction, he would shake his head on his way back to his inner sanctum. Eventually he caught on and giving up all hope that I would disappear from the face of the earth any time soon I was ushered into the back room where development took place. Here I sat for the next few hours desperately trying to get him to forget the habit of a lifetime and instead take pride in his work by slowing down enough to at least try and get the correct colour balance and contrast for each picture. After a while the prints started to improve though I continued to have to fight him at every turn and when I commented on how good it felt to do a job well all I received unsurprisingly was a grunt in return. I was at this point pushing my luck to expect anything less. I am pleased to say, though perhaps delusional in my belief, that by the end of our time together some kind of mutual respect had emerged even if it was just the recognition of an equally strong and stubborn will!!

Less than three hours later I emerged victoriously into the sunshine with forty respectable quality prints in my arms. The worst I thought was over for if nothing else we now at least had pictures to put on the walls that the girls could be proud of. The next step should be easy. The room in the Mini Auditorium was booked after endless trips between there and the town hall. The room came with the hire of eight boards to put the pictures on and Kerry had been ensured the room would be cleaned that morning (the third morning in a row she had been promised that but always better to remain hopeful!!) Kerry had brilliantly discovered some black material to cover the boards and her and Djamila had worked hard the day before to get the boards covered. It seemed everything was in place.

Once again how wrong one can be!! Despite the fact that the men at the Auditorium had had a fit when they saw Kerry and Djamila lifting the boards into the room the day before no one seemed willing to actually help. Whilst it was unacceptable for women such as ourselves to do any work it seemed equally unacceptable for anyone there to think of lifting a finger or get dirty themselves. As many of you probably know I am not the most hygienic person in the world but even by my standards the room we had hired was filthy, the floor was covered with a thick carpet of dust and the stairs leading to it awash with pigeon shit. When I went down to ask the men on duty why the room was yet to be cleaned I was proudly informed that the cleaners were booked to come at one o’ clock the next day which was, as I tried unsuccessfully to point out, not very useful as this would be right in the middle of the exhibition itself and possibly not the best time to get out the mops and shine everyone’s shoes! Once again I was faced with that now familiar determination to pretend I neither existed nor could be understood despite the fact that both the men I was talking to had conversed in English perfectly well only a second earlier. I can only describe the sensation as like trying to communicate with someone who is deaf, dumb and blind and I soon realised any protestation on my part would be in vein. The only thing to do was to get on and clean the place ourselves. After much shuffling and baffled exchanges I was handed a battered bucket and a mop that took the form of the dirtiest rag I have ever seen tied to an old broom handle merrily oozing a black liquid onto the floor in front of my feet. Shaking my head and looking in despair at the blank faces in front of me I returned to the room and Kerry, Djamila, Nina and I started the impossible task of cleaning a filthy floor with an even filthier rag. We soon abandoned the rag and resorted to buckets of water hoping that a tidal wave might shift the grim at least a little. Even now I am not sure our heroic efforts made any noticeable difference but at least it felt better to act and feel as if we were solving the problem rather than to stand around listening to people who didn’t want us to do it ourselves but equally didn’t want to help.

Having finished with the floor I soon discovered that no one had thought to check the stands the boards were meant to sit on and having found them lying in an overlooked corner I soon established that most of them were missing the feet necessary for them to stand and the screws that were necessary to attach the boards to them. All in all not a great help! Once again the men at the Auditorium seemed as uninterested as ever so we resorted to phoning the man in charge in the hope that we might find someone who could help or at least offer a practical solution. When he eventually arrived I pointed out the problem and the fact that we had paid good money for the use of the boards and had at least expected them to be in working order. I pointed out to him that the predicament we found ourselves in seemed a little unfair as there did not seem to be any problem with the boards downstairs that they had used the day before to put up their own exhibition and it was interesting that while we were paying a lot more money no one had bothered to tell us that the boards they had rented us were to all intense purposes unusable. I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I was when he actually seemed to understand where I was coming from (not mars for a change) and even assured me he wanted to help.

Ten minutes later I could have cried as he showed me his solution in the form of a board that was precariously balanced between two broken stands with the help of a piece of string that wouldn’t last five minutes let alone the six hours of the exhibition. Swallowing my frustration I tried to politely point out that his solution would inevitably lead to all the boards collapsing and no doubt maiming any visitors to the exhibition we might have. I once again showed him an example of the type of screws we needed and asked him to buy twenty of them to which he immediately informed me that though he of course wanted to help what I asked was impossible as no one made those screws any longer. He couldn’t quite meet my eye as I questioned him as to whether there was really no where in the whole city where these screws were to be found and he assured me it was impossible though we both knew that to be untrue and he was just unwilling to take the time or energy to help. Once again I realised there was no point standing around arguing with him and that our time would be better spent searching for the missing screws ourselves.

We set off brandishing the single screw we had in hand and engaged the first tuk tuk driver that came along to help us in our mission to scour the city of Jodhpur for more. As we were rushed across the city I realised what a goose chase we might be on as we knew neither where we were going nor what we would find at the other end. My fears were alleviated a little when we pulled up at a hardware store though I became a bit disheartened when two hardware stores later we were still no closer to achieving our goal. Surely in India, the land where anything can be found or made in a heartbeat, we could muster twenty relatively simple screws. After the third attempt we were about to surrender and settle for having the boards on the floor at perfect Indian squatting height when our driver came up trumps in the form of a blacksmith who inspected the screws and assured us it would be no problem to make twenty in an hour for a minimal cost. I know it is small minded of me but at that moment I wanted to make sure that when we left the Auditorium after the show we took the twenty screws away with us having received so little help from them and having been treated with such disregard. You will be glad to hear that when the time came I triumphantly rose above such petty mindedness and left the screws in place so that the next person who has an exhibition there will have at least one less thing to worry about.

Anyway I have strayed wildly from the story in hand, the exhibition. All in all I would call it a great success if for no other reason than the fact that the girls seemed to have a good time and many of the pictures were bought by other volunteers and those staying at the Guesthouse. The drama demonstration was wonderful and it was amazing for me to see how much confidence the girls had developed since the first afternoon I had sat in on the theatre workshop. Though I am obviously biased the girls’ pictures looked great and I was proud to see their work hanging on the walls. Only one of the girl’s mothers came which I was sad about as I would have loved to have seen more of their families there and to breach the gap that seems to exist between the Trust and the girl’s families but it was still wonderful that Sapna’s mum came and it reaffirmed for me where Sapna gets her incredible strength from. The day was perhaps a little long and I was frustrated to discover that no on had thought to tell us that the girls had not been expected to stay so long and as a result might get in trouble for not being home earlier. An annoying oversight as the last thing I wanted was for the girls to return from a fun day to problems at home that might also result in someone dropping out and Tamanah having to work hard again to reassure the girls’ families and persuade them to come back to Sambhali. I found oversights like this quite difficult to deal with but overall it really was a great day and everyone involved had a lot of fun.

The official part of the day can’t really be considered a success as, regardless of all Kerry’s efforts and the numerous official letters we were instructed to write and despite their assurances to the contrary, the District Collector did not make an appearance and nor did anyone from the press. It is the complexities and difficulties of bureaucracy here that make this unsurprising though interesting to see how much stock people put on these things. It was however exciting for the girls that Govind was there to look at the exhibition and to watch the girl’s performance and though I was unsure about prize giving I was relieved to see how genuinely happy the girls were for Bhavna, Radha and Sapna when the results were announced. It was a shame that Priyanka, whose work was so strong was not there to receive a prize and due to the mixed messages concerning her lack of attendance it is hard for me to really understand why she did not make an appearance and has not come back to Sambhali since.

For me the highlight of the day was when no one official was there and we all danced together and created an inpromptude talent show that had us all laughing for a long time after. The girls were happy and carefree and it is that I realise more than anything that is what Sambhali gives them, the freedom to make friends and be young and playful away from homes where many of them have no time to play and have responsibilities within their families that stretch way beyond their age. There is so much for me still to process about the workshop and about the way we really help these girls that it is hard to write about cohesively yet. Sometimes whilst teaching the girls I wondered whether the things I was teaching them could ever truly relate to their world or add anything of value to their lives. I don’t think photography will play a role in any of their futures and it is hard to know whether encouraging them to know and to speak their own minds is helpful for them or not. The society they live in is based on totally different values than our own. Values of family and community are still held in higher esteem than those of the individual and when this works and people come from good homes I see more genuine worth, generosity and happiness in this way of live than in much of our own. It is only when something goes wrong or someone abuses this sense of community that I see what a trap for people, especially women, these close family units and communities can become. For this reason alone it is vital for women to have access to education and external influences.

I had a long chat with Sunyana where I am staying in Dundlod about how education can really help and the false expectations access to education can create. The question is what happens to these children after they are educated? What do they do with what they have learnt? How can they really benefit from the knowledge they have gained? She told an interesting story about a local school that opened here with the help of an NGO and about the difficulty of the director to explain to the children’s mothers and grandparents why they should send their children to school (something that seemed a continuous problem at Sambhali amongst the dalit girls). Sunyana said that after he had spoken she asked the women whether they understood what he had said and many of them looked on blankly. She then spoke to them about their own lives and the lives of their daughters explaining that if nothing else access to education might enable their daughters to write to them once they are married and have left the family home. Until this point many women could only send letters with the help of the postman who wrote those letters for them and then circulated their news as gossip throughout the community. If the girls learnt to write for themselves they could communicate freely with each other and express what was in their hearts without a man to act as a go between. If they were in trouble or unhappy in their new homes they could communicate this to their families privately. It is in simple terms such as these that education can help and, like at Sambhali, in offering a refuge where the girls are free to be carefree for a short time. The girls at Sambhali seem totally aware that this is a brief refuge for them from their chores at home or their impending marriages and they are grateful for that but they don’t seem to expect or ask for anything more.

Anyway like I say there is a lot swirling around my mind as a result of my time at Sambhali and a lot I have yet to understand. One thing is certain is that I have learnt more than I ever imagined and that, cliché though it is, I will never forget my time with Tamanah and the girls and I will always remember each and every one of them and the inspiring photographs they took. I would like to thank them all and once I am no longer on the move and have made it back to the UK I will post more of the pictures the girls took and those that made it onto the walls of the Mini Auditorium. No doubt their images can tell you more about the reality of their lives than I ever can.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Half Way...

The end of last week was definitely my toughest time here so far and I feel as if my blinkers have been firmly removed. On going to class one morning I was disappointed to discover that Priyanka, one of my most creative students, had been banned from coming to Sambhali by her Uncle. Tamana and I decided to take action by going to visit her family the next day to find out why and to reassure them and try to persuade them to let Priyanka return. Though I was disappointed that Priyanka could not participate the class continued as normal. The next day however I arrived to more bad news as Radha, a very special shy girl, had been banned from coming to Sambhali and Sapna’s parents had tried to get her to stay at home as well this time for a much worse reason. The story came out that an eight year old girl in their community had been raped the day before by her 22 year old teacher at a local school run by an NGO. The fact that the man was her teacher let alone working for an NGO only makes it all worse. I have never felt so angry and disgusted as I heard more of the story. It appears the parents of the girl only discovered the truth that morning when they found the girl’s bed covered in blood. She was taken to hospital but has been very badly damaged and will never be able to have children. When I asked about the man responsible no one seemed sure but it appears he was arrested but then released when he offered to pay the girl’s family some money and has since returned to the village where he is from. Everything about this story breaks my heart and the fact that this man can buy his freedom and alleviate his guilt through a financial transaction alone makes me sick. It is hard to believe that nothing more will happen to him and hard not to judge the girl’s family for taking the money but in truth I try to understand that they have nothing and no doubt do not know what else to do. This has certainly opened my eyes to the harder side of Indian life and the lack of justice that can be found here on a day to day basis. I know this is true the world over but it sometimes seems more apparent here.

In the afternoon Tamana, Annie and I set out on a mission. Firstly to book the Town Hall for the exhibition (something which may seem like a simple task to those of you who have never dealt with Indian bureaucracy but for those of you who have I am sure I need say no more!!) and secondly to visit the families of Priyanka and Radha to try to reassure their families and persuade them to let the girls return to Sambhali. We started with a visit to Priyanka’s house where we were immediately ushered in and offered drinks while Tamana talked to Priyanka’s mother and grand mother to establish what the problem was. She was soon able to reassure them that she would be responsible for their daughter’s welfare whilst at Sambhali and that there was nothing for them to fear. We left triumphant in the fact that Priyanka might come back the next day though these things are never certain. Whilst we were there another older Sambhali student turned up and asked us to come and talk to her husband who had banned her from coming to Sambhali saying she was a grandmother and she had too many duties to continue her studies. It was a very comical sight watching us all trapse to the poor man’s house with a number of the girl’s in tow. Talk about female empowerment, the poor man didn’t stand a chance!! He turned out to be lovely and we were once again seated and forced to take the obligatory bottle of pop (about our fourth by now but there was no way we could refuse!). Tamana told the husband that she had given so much of her life to her family, that she had cooked and cleaned and raised her children and continued to help raise her grandchildren and keep the house but that it was time she was allowed to do something for herself. He seemed very amicable and proud to have us there and assured us he was in agreement with everything Tamana said while his wife stood to one side beaming but I have been sad to note that though I don’t teach her I don’t think she has yet made an appearance back at Sambhali. Sometimes I think it must be hard to know why and this is half the battle Tamana and Simmi face when their student’s drop out, some due to family pressure, some due to marriage etc etc One thing is clear is that whether the girls come or not is ultimately in the hands of their fathers, their uncles, their brothers or their husbands. It seems men inevitably always have the final word.

Quite tired by now we went round the corner to Tamana’s mother’s house who sweetly cooked us Chapattis which I was desperately in need of by this point. Next we headed out to a much poorer district where Sapna and Radha both come from and I immediately understood the difference between these girl’s lives and the others. From the moment we stepped out of the tuk tuk we were bombarded by children who were a lot more aggressive than the children I had previously come across. It was obvious that seeing a westerner there was rare and our appearance caused a considerable stir. I was shocked when the boys threw things at us or pulled at my camera in their desperation to have their picture taken. I now totally understand where Sapna’s strength comes from. She immediately shouted at the boys and was quick to protect us, even going so far as to pick up a stick to brandish at the boys. I was impressed to hear that though her mother had wanted her to stay at home that morning as the community had understandably lost all faith in NGOs Sapna explained that she knew Sambhali was a good place and she trusted the teachers there. She explained to her mother that if she felt she had raised her daughter well then she must trust her opinion and let her continue her education. It is wonderful to see this strength, intelligence and independence in her because having seen where she comes from she will need these qualities to have some control over her own life.

Once again Tamana assured the women she would be the one responsible for their daughter’s safety whilst at Sambhali and tried to persuade them to allow their daughters to come back. Inevitably everyone seemed hesitant and scared after what had happened to the little girl who lived there and as none of the men were there it was hard to know what the outcome would be. What seemed apparent in all this was the fact that many of the parents had never been to Sambhali and so had no idea where their daughters went once they were picked up by tuktuk each day. It seems that this had come up in the annual Sambhali meeting a few days before and the idea of a parents day had been raised which seems like an excellent and essential idea to reassure the girls parents and hopefully ensure less of a drop out rate. Whilst sitting in Sapna’s yard we were surrounded by half the neighbourhood and when we left we were once again followed by most of the community, certainly all the children. It made both Annie and I feel like the pied piper though perhaps not quite so jovial as we were aware that the crowd, especially the boys, might become aggressive at any moment. I think we were both a little relieved when we reached the main road and the tuk tuk again and were on our way back to Sambhali once again.

But it was all worth it as I am delighted to say that the next day both Radha and Priyanka were back in class. Though it might prove short lived at least our previous day’s adventure has paid off for the time being.

Anyway back to the workshop itself. The girls’ work continues to improve day by day though focus still seems to be a problem for a number of them to grasp. At the end of last week we went through the two assignments I had set for them, the first focussing on the idea of portraits and the second introducing the idea of emotions. I quickly realised that the girls had struggled to understand some of what had been asked of them but all in all they had done well. We went through the idea of a formal and informal portrait before moving on to the idea of a portrait not of the subject’s face and a portrait without the subject in it at all. What proved fascinating to me and at the same time heartbreaking in some ways was the pictures the girls had taken for the portrait without the subject in it. As an example I had said that I might want to tell the story of a gardener so I might take a picture of the garden he works in with his rake leaning against the wall as if he had just left the scene. When I asked them to put these pictures down on the table they all produced a picture of a broom. It was this that symbolised their mothers and in many ways the role and lives of many Indian women.

Next we went through their pictures of their favourite person, place, object and the pictures of something that made them happy and sad. They had grasped these concepts well though it was very hard to get the girls to talk about their thoughts or feelings. This is something I struggle with a lot. Whilst many of them are very extravert when I ask them why their father is their favourite person they say because he is my father and when I ask them what it is exactly about him that they love they find it hard to answer or to go beyond what is generic to explain the unique bond that exists between them. They all did really well in photographing their favourite things and places or people that make them feel happy or sad though these emotions were not often reflected in the pictures themselves. What made them happy were most often their family members who they love and all were united in the fact that India’s numerous beggers make them sad. Radha had photographed her Uncle who is mentally disabled and who makes her sad because he sits all day in a corner of the yard tied to a post. It is hard to comprehend something like this but then I wonder whether our approach to things like this would prove any better here. Should this man be taken from his family and community and in all likelihood tied up in the corner of the room in an Indian mental institution somewhere? I may be wrong but I find it hard to imagine he would be any better off in an Indian mental institution. Anyway it is fascinating to me how much I am learning about Indian life through the images the girls take. What is rewarding to hear is the change in the way the girl’s talk about their pictures now. The way they are able to pick out pictures that are stronger based on composition and viewpoint rather than just the fact that they are pictures of their best friends.

Today we went through the pictures from our day together at the market next to the Clock Tower. I wanted to edit the girls’ work according to which images would give a stranger who had never been to the Clock Tower the greatest sensation of being there. I was a little disappointed once again with the lack of focus in many of the images especially because a lot of these images would have made great pictures had they been in focus but overall everyone did really well with this assignment. It’s not easy for these girls to photograph in such a public place and unsurprisingly many of their first images were very tentative and were taken from far away. I was surprised though how quickly a few of the girls adapted and how soon they were in amongst the action cameras in hand. Tomorrow I look forward to looking through the rolls of film that they shot illustrating a story of the girls’ choosing and introducing the concept of narrative and sequencing. I realise already that there is not long to go before the exhibition and Holi, which is not far off, will disturb the workshop for a good few days along with Shakti’s impending wedding. I will try and write again before the celebrations commence.

Friday, 11 March 2011

first pictures...

Of course I realise I am biassed but I think the girls first pictures are incredible! Please let me know what you all think. I have selected two pictures from each girl from the first few rolls of film they shot in the first week. There have inevitably been a few problems with focus but I think these are a wonderful selection of images and better than anything I had thought the workshop would produce. There is a lot to write about but even more to plan for tomorrow's lesson so I will leave the next update to another day.

Monday, 7 March 2011

The second half of the week...

It has been a long few days. Yesterday I was amazed to hear that despite the fact that it was Shiva’s birthday and a day of festivities and fasting all the girls chose to come to the workshop. I was very moved by this and by their dedication and excitement. In the morning of the second day we started by rewinding their films and sent them off to be developed. After this we started a photographic treasure hunt which had the girls running all over the place. They seemed to love this but I quickly realised that due to the festival they were fasting and were quickly starting to get tired so I decided to shorten the exercise to ensure no one fainted! Whilst they all took to the treasure hunt well a few of the girls did not quite understand why I wanted them to photograph something round or rough or small or bright. Some of these seemed hard concepts for them to grasp but they remained enthusiastic which was wonderful to see.

I am quickly realising that while teaching is great it is exhausting! A lot of things take much longer to get through than I thought and it is surprisingly always the simplest organisational tasks in class that take the most time, like sorting the girls pictures and putting them on the wall. However I am learning a lot in a very short space of time and hopefully quickly correcting any exercises that are not working quite as planned.

It was wonderful to see that the girls turned up with stories, poems and drawings in their journals. They are so dedicated and often when I turn around or they are waiting for a few moments I find them busy creatively filling their journals. I am surprised how well they write though a lot of it is in Hindi. I took copies of their journals today so that Simi can translate them for me and I can ensure that I can keep up to date with what the girls are thinking and feeling.

One of the girls turned up in tears yesterday as she had opened the back of the camera when she was at home but her father had gone and bought her another film to replace it and she had shot with that. It was lovely to hear that her father supported her and the workshop in that way. You hear so many bad stories here about Indian men it is great to see a father so supportive of his daughter. During the day however she looked a little lost again and I soon discovered that her camera was not working properly. I managed to find a way around it and luckily today with a new film it seems to be ok though I will know when I see her next pictures developed. She is so desperate to get it right and to please me that it breaks my heart she has had these difficulties. She seems very creative and has done a beautiful job of decorating her journal so far putting more time, care and effort into it than anyone else. It is still hard to get the girls not to take the same pictures and to do things independently. I forget sometimes that they have never been encouraged to use their own minds or to express their own taste. So many of them seem at a loss and often look to me to say whether a picture they want to take is ok or not. I keep trying to encourage them to express their own vision and reiterate the fact that there is no right or wrong answer.

Today we looked through the girls work and I talked a lot about focus. Although the girls all say they understand and they are using the focusing dials when questioned further I don’t really think any of them have been in their excitement to take the shot. I showed them again so I hope things will be a little sharper next time. When it came to putting their pictures up I realised there was a lot to be positive about and a lot to talk about and for the girls to learn from. It is less exciting for them than actually photographing but it is important to try and teach them about technique and to encourage them to talk about their work. We discussed concepts of colour, composition and viewpoint and some of these concepts were clearly displayed in the girls images so I can see that some things are being taken in. I realise that I should adapt my timetable and simplify the exercises and the lessons a lot. It is also very important I realise for me to start the lesson very clear about what I hope to achieve in those few hours. It is surprisingly easy to get distracted and forget things. What took the most time today was just collecting the different images from the girls and sticking them on the board in order. I started by talking about each concept but realised that by the tenth photograph I was just repeating myself and the girls attention was drifting so I switched to discussing each girls work separately which went much faster and was much more successful. From now on I will make sure I put the pictures up in the morning whenever possible so they are ready for the afternoon lesson.

I am truly blown away by some of the girls work and was especially excited to see their first photographs of home. We will go through these tomorrow and I look forward to starting to hear about the girl’s home lives and to meet their families. I feel so close to them already and it has only been a few days and though a few of the pictures were not sharp many of the girls’ compositions were fantastic. I can’t wait to see more of their work. I will get on top of the lab in the next few days and redo the class timetable over the weekend to simplify it so that everything flows as smoothly as possible. As I said before I am convinced I am learning more than the girls themselves but they seem happy and the images they have produced show real promise which marks a successful end to the first week of the workshop.

The first few days...

Firstly I want to introduce the ten amazing girls I am teaching; Priyanka Ral and Priya, who are sisters, Deepeka and Aarti, also sisters, Bhavna, Priyanka, Sapna, Rajni, Radha, and Sultana. At the bottom of the blog there are photos taken on the first morning of the workshop. I will try and give a brief outline of the first week which may be quite difficult as it feels as if a month has gone by already. I can’t begin to explain how much I feel I have learnt in that time. Probably a lot more than the girls though I feel sure they are at least learning something which is good news! I know it’s predictable for me to say but all the girls I am teaching are fantastic. They are overall overwhelming eager and perceptive and they are picking up the basics of photography very quickly.

A few of them have a tendency to gossip amongst themselves while others speak which is not surprising for teenage girls but I was quite strict with them and tried to explain that they cannot expect others to listen to them or show them respect if they are not willing to do this for others themselves. The most extravert girls seem to be those with sisters as they are used to having someone to talk to and play with. The girls on their own in a family of men seem significantly shyer and uncomfortable with the concept of expressing themselves. These are also the girls who struggle with reading and writing more than the others and it makes me realise just how vital these basic tools are for the girl’s confidence. These girls tend to look to me or the other girls to answer for them.

Community is an omnipotent force in Indian culture and these girls, outside Sambhali, have never really been taught or encouraged to become individuals or to promote their own feelings, thoughts or vision. It is this unique individual vision that I hope this workshop will foster though I am already aware what an alien concept this is for the girls and realise it is something I will have to constantly remind them of and encourage. I made them laugh the other day when I realised that one of their brothers had taken their journal and written all about himself in it. I told the girl concerned to tell her brother that if he kept doing this I would come to his house and tell him off. Though shocked at the thought of this they found it very funny. I tam trying to get them to understand that they must not let their brothers or fathers take the cameras or their journals as I am not interested in what their brothers think or feel but only what they think and feel.

It was a little difficult on the first day of teaching as we did not have the room to ourselves and there was a lot going on to distract the girls and the teachers, Simi and Tamana, who are wonderful and were there to translate. Since then I have ensured we have a room to ourselves so that we can concentrate and yesterday I decorated the room with photographs so that it feels more specific to the workshop. Having joked around learning the girls’ names I started by giving them their diaries and boxes in which to keep their prints which I encouraged them to decorate with pictures, words, crayons etc. They were excited to be given these things and I must make sure we put time aside in class for them to work on them and utilize them as a form of diary for themselves and for the workshop itself. I then handed out a window mount and discussed the concept of framing, asking them to pass it around and look through it to make sure they are aware of everything in the frame when they take a picture and that they take care to see what is happening at the edges and corners of the frame as well as at the centre.

The rest of the lesson was spent handing out the cameras, explaining the various focal distances, and loading their first roll of film. They were very excited about the cameras and just wanted to be off taking pictures straight away which was understandable. It was a hard balance to find between talking them through the process, in the hope they would avoid certain mistakes, and letting them go, knowing that they would learn more from making these mistakes for themselves. I did not want to dim their enthusiasm early on by focusing on too much theory.

After lunch the girls were raring to get going with the cameras so after talking a little about portraits I sent them out to take portraits of themselves in pairs and to find something out about each other that they could then come back and share with the group. As I expected the girls initially tended to take a picture of each other in the same spot holding the camera in exactly the same way and I tried to encourage them to branch out and to think for themselves a little more. It was great to see Depeeka and Priyanka later carefully arranging their portraits of each other and really thinking about the shot they were about to take.

What was less successful was the idea of sharing information. The girls were too excited about taking pictures to remember and were not so interested in asking questions of each other. I could tell they did not ask while taking the portrait and were just making things up when they came back to the class. It also took a long time to go round and answer the questions by which time some of the girls’ attention had started to wander. I tried to explain to them that it might seem boring but that taking a portrait created a dialogue between two people, the photographer and the subject, and that it was important for the photographer to make their subject feel comfortable and to create a rapport. I also tried to encourage them to speed the answers up and got them to repeat the answer out loud together so that no ones attention could wander. Things got better but it was not as successful an exercise as I had hoped. Perhaps it was just too much for the girls to think about and do on the first day. They were too preoccupied with the cameras to really concentrate on anything else.

As we ran out of time I sent them home with the cameras to finish their first roll of film taking pictures of their families. It was interesting to see that a few of the girls had taken less pictures than others. I think this may in part be to do with the fact that if there is not enough light the camera will not fire but the girls are not yet aware that the camera has not actually taken a picture. This is something they will learn and is more something they will learn to sense than something you can easily tell them. Anyway all in all I think it was a good day. I am sure there are many things I could do better but I think the girls had fun and are genuinely excited about the workshop. That is the most important thing and should always be my primary concern rather than specifically what I am teaching or what their pictures look like.

The only problems I have really faced so far have been concerned with the development of the films which I had already anticipated might prove to be a problem. The first time I got the films back two were missing and when I looked at the quality of the development I was not very happy though to be fair many of the girl’s pictures were out of focus which I had expected as I think they were a little too excited by the cameras to take on board the need to focus! Since that first day I am pretty sure I have been to almost every photo lab in Jodhpur and could give someone a very good tour of the city according to their developing needs!! Hopefully things will run a little smoother in this department from now on.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

First Impressions

It is wonderful to be in India once again and though I have only been here for a day I feel at home in Jodhpur already. Durag Niwas is a beautiful home and Govind and a number of volunteers, Annie, Poppy and Jamila, have made me feel exceptionally settled at Sambhali. Today I sat in on a couple of English classes to see the teachers in action and to meet the girls. At Sambhali itself the classes are largely made up of teenage girls from the Dalit community. I was surprised to see how engaged and interactive many of them were and it lessened my fears that I would be left standing lecturing at the front of a retiring and silent group of participants. Although a few are shy many of the girls seem to have a strength of character that reveals their street wise backgrounds and nearly all of them possess a ready smile. Tomorrow I will spend more time with them before meeting Govind and two of the permanent teachers here, Simi and Tamana, to establish which ten girls might benefit most from participating in the workshop. The decision will be based in part on those girls who are able to come on a daily basis and those who have a level of literacy or english that will enable us to understand each other as well as we can. One of the teachers will act as a permanent translator which is essential and I feel it is important to find out from them which girls they think will engage most with this programme and add the most to the group dynamic we are looking to foster. I am impatient to get started and to get to know the girls better but I know this will come in time. I look forward to giving them their cameras and to see the first images they make of their worlds. I think many of the other volunteers and teachers here are as excited about the workshop as myself and the girls!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

i to eye photography workshop jodhpur

Cartier Bresson once wrote 'I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, which can mould us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds-the one inside us and the one outside us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.' It is this world that i to eye encourages the exploration and expression of. As Wendy Ewald said 'like fingerprints or signatures, the way we see is unique...'

There is a week to go until I leave for India and a million and one things to accomplish in that time. The good news is that I have ten Olympus Trip 35mm film cameras ready and waiting to go and hopefully ten teenage Indian girls ready and waiting to use them. This i to eye workshop is due to run throughout the month of March 2011 in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, in association with The Sambhali Trust. I will be teaching ten girls photography for two hours each day in the hope that by placing a camera in their hands and showing them the basics they will have the opportunity to use their own eyes to portray the realities of the world they live in. It will be a refreshing change for the subjects of so many images to tell their own stories and to control the context in which these stories are viewed. I am already excited to meet the girls I will be teaching, Govind the head of The Sambhali Trust and Kritika, a fashion photographer from Mumbai who will be helping me teach. The aim of this blog is to document the progress of the workshop and to showcase the images the girls produce throughout its duration and hopefully long after it is over. i to eye follows in the footsteps of a number of individuals and organisations that have used photography as a therapeutic aid and as a method of furthering visual literacy around the world. I have been greatly inspired by Zana Briski's work in the red light district of Calcutta which resulted in the award winning documentary Born into Brothels and by the international work of Wendy Ewald laid out in a number of her books. I also recently came across the work of PhotoVoice, a participatory photography charity based in London, to whom I am grateful for their fantastic methodology series and to Silvie for supplying me with a number of their old cameras. There is still a lot to prepare before I get there but I am at least armed with the essential cameras and with an overenthusiastic month's worth of lesson plans!