Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Smile from a Frown, Rajasthan, India, November 21, 2009

We arrive this morning at the teacher's home around 7:30 a.m. to her surprise. She greets us in the street and then walks back inside to make tea without our knowledge. We think that she is getting ready, therefore waiting in the van. Then she walks to us with a tray of tea and we accept with some humiliation and a great deal of appreciation, all while about a dozen men are perched on a ledge less than one meter away staring at us without pause.

We then drive to the school perhaps a little over one kilometer away. The girls are nowhere to be found due to the lack of information from the previous day. Regardless, they arrive shortly and the excitement builds. There is however a strange feeling, one that brings itself to the surface when we begin with the photography.

It is the teacher. After a few girls have their portraits made, all with sullen faces, the reason becomes clear. Girl after girl, the teacher pushes them to be photographed, really pushes them and without a single word of encouragement. At times, she removes a scarf or an article of clothing should she feel it is inappropriate. After several attempts to speak to her, a decision is made by me to end the photography and is shared with the rest of the team.

They cannot believe it. They feel that perhaps my mind will change even as my equipment is put away. They feel really bad and plead with me to do otherwise. My answer to them is this: send the teacher home in front of the children and then we can begin once again.

After a few minutes, they do so. Then the mood changes. The sun is higher now and we need to find another place. We do so across the street, find a small bench and arrange a reflector. All of a sudden, the girls begin to smile. The very same girls that wore sullen expressions now are completely different, as in the portrait above.

Such is one day in the process of the photography. When people see a portrait with a smile, they seem to think that the smile is natural. While the smile is natural, at times it is restrained by forces acting externally. The work behind the photography is to allow that child to be themselves by removing the barriers being placed upon them, whether that barrier takes the form of an unhappy teacher or the usual group of boys acting up from a distance.

In response to this story, my dear friend Anna wrote the following:

'It is amazing what happens when someone stands up for those who need a voice. By sending that teacher home and having the children witness it, it allowed them to see that they should be honored rather than silenced. My hope is that they hold that moment in their hearts forever.'

'There have been times when things have come up at school and I have felt frustrated and rushed and grumpy. That is when I have to stop and say, who is this for? Is it for the children? Well then, zip it girl--it isn't about me. ... Once I stand in the moment, it is all good. Many times, that isn't what happens regardless of your profession. The "I" overshadows everything else. It is funny what happens when the "I" is quiet.'