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.


  1. Very interesting! Thank you for sharing. Are the girls using film cameras? Curious.
    Thank you,
    Monica Z.

  2. Dear Monica, Glad you are enjoying the girl's work. They are all shot using an OLympus Trip 35mm film camera though the girls now seem to favour the cheaper fixed focus Kodak EC70 cameras that I got here. Unfortunately the quality of the images are not as good but they have flash which allows the girls to use them inside which is a bonus. Thanks for your interest. Rowan.

  3. I did some documentary work for Sambhali in 2007 so I have some idea of what you are experiencing. This is a beautiful project you are doing. I'm so sorry to hear about the rape, and know that it is all too common over there. My heart hugs to the girls and to you.

  4. Thanks for you wonderful message and support. It's great to hear from someone who knows the girls and has experienced Sambhali. I would love to see the documentary work you did. Heartfelt regards from us all here and happy Holi for tomorrow. Let the mayhem commence!! Ro x