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.

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.