Thursday, December 31, 2009

Karina, Woman, Mother, Model, Studio, States, December 30, 2009

She sits in front of us, a woman, a mother, a model.

She understands the purpose of the work and gives of herself for the sake of girls in other lands.

For three hours, she allows me to give her instructions, to ask for an expression, all without hesitation. In the end, with her portrait, she joins the countless faces in my portfolio, she becomes their sister, their mother, their daughter in spirit.

For years, the camera has remained hidden in my own home, barely used. With Karina and women like her, this has changed. Now girls from other lands see girls just like them, with similar dreams and hopes, living in the States.

They are mothers, sisters and daughters to them.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Second time with Sabrina, Studio, States, December 27, 2009

This is her second portrait with me. Sabrina has supported the work from the beginning.

She allows her portraits to be shown alongside the ones from overseas, allows her photograph to be sold with the proceeds going to the foundations. She asks for nothing in return.

She lives over one and a half hours away and comes to my studio without making a fuss. She shows up for the benefit in the cold, snowy night and then drives back in time for work all with a smile.

Her portrait was taken with me to the Middle East and Asia this year. The girls loved seeing her portrait, loved seeing an American girl stand out from the rest. They so enjoyed seeing her art, her piercings. They asked many questions, usually in wonder that an American girl can appear like Sabrina, on her own terms and with such strength.

They loved the idea that Sabrina had seen their pictures, that their pictures were seen by people in the States next to her portrait. In Sabrina, they have a sister.

People always ask: How can I make a difference?

I point to Sabrina's portrait. It is that simple.

She is a model and gives of her talent.

There is little need to write more.

Some have much more and give much less.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Girl Student, Near Virat Nagar, Rajasthan, India, November 19, 2009

We work around the clock now, making portraits when last year we would be resting. Instead of working early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the sun is low, now we work in between using a reflector and usually two volunteers.

We make use of existing household items, place them next to a low, wooden chair. The two men with the reflector stand behind me to the right, holding the reflector high and pointing it down to her face. She ignores the bright light and stares into the lens.

Her classmates sit to her left, neatly and watching events unfolding. To her right, a few men gather quietly about four meters away.
We finish with the photography and then move on with the videography. Three meetings occur, the first one of which is a meeting of farmers. They collect themselves once a month, at times twice a month, to discuss issues and to contribute to a fund from which they can make loans to each other.

The next meeting is that of women who talk about issues dealing with health, medicine, education, loans and the like. The last meeting involves the girls and is a way for them to voice their thoughts, their needs and desires. Rarely in this society are such girls given an opportunity to do so in my limited experience. Even though many of them remain silent, this is a beginning and their smiles attest to their joy in having such an audience.

We end by having lunch at the home of the teacher. The meal is prepared and we are given a place to sit. As is the custom, the visitors are given their food first and are expected to finish their meal before anyone else in the household eats. At first, this was most difficult for me to do, coming from a land where the hosts and guests eat at the same time. After four years, it has become a little easier and we finish our meal, wash our hands with water provided and make our way to the next village, hoping that the hosts have their meal after our departure.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Eyes Closed, Kalsada Bagh, Rajasthan, India, November 3, 2009

Sometimes we ask a girl to close her eyes, sometimes to move her hands.

She does both and holds still for a few minutes while chaos ensues around her. The folks in this small cluster of homes are just waking up, getting ready for their day. The surrounding areas are already awake, tending to their crops and livestock.

This community is different; they are known as the Kanjar Community. Presently, they prepare their girls to become either prostitutes or women that tend to the home, the former of which have more esteem and prestige while the latter take care of the home, cook and clean, wash and sweep.

This young girl is a daughter of this community. Her future is decided by others.

For the time being, she is a student and attends a school on this roof sponsored by Nirvanavan Foundation. She learns to read and to write, aspires perhaps to be different. Time will tell.

As she holds her hands up, the sun beams upon her face, beads of sweat form on her face. We walk to her and blot her face dry in between exposures. She and her friends giggle but she remains unbelievably still, maintaining her composure throughout. With her eyes closed, she is able to defy the sun, perhaps even her community.

Hopefully in the future she can do so with her eyes open.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Banjara Girl & Pitcher, Alwar District, Rajasthan, India, November 10, 2009

She sits down low, next to an open fire pit.

At first, she is photographed in the clothes she is wearing. As we make more photographs, she and the others change into their traditional blouses and dresses. All the girls at this home photograph easily, with her leading the way. Once one shows the others how, the photography flows.

She is a natural.

After a bit, the man of the house signals us to stop, a common practice with this community. Just as the excitement builds, or perhaps because of such, our work comes to an end. Time and time again, it seems to me that when girls perceive an opportunity, men decide to remove it from their view.

This perhaps is the single most frustrating part of my work since it deals almost exclusively with girls and women. The opposition of men and boys is unrelenting, in every single street, neighborhood or town. They always seem to be there, always pretend to be concerned, always do so without gaining an informed perspective, always.

Admittedly, the last sentence above is made without having a complete, informed perspective myself. I am a stranger to them, a man with expensive equipment, walking around with guides, making pictures of their children, more specifically their girls. For me to truly understand, much would need to change in my life, much would have needed to change before my birth.

I make these statements based on certain limitations, certain preconditions.

Can it be otherwise?

Perhaps in the future, my perceptions will change and a fuller understanding of this friction will unveil itself. Until then, my patience will be tested every single time a man comes into a scene and voices his 'concern' regarding the work, even when that man is from another town and is a stranger himself to the girls in front of me.

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.'

Banjara Girl, Alwar District, Rajasthan, India, November 6, 2009

Here she stands, in front of two benches.

Everyone is excited, everyone is running around changing places, looking at the pictures. The other girls are sitting to the right, watching her being photographed. They giggle when she smiles, they laugh when she turns shy.

Here she stands, for at least five minutes while color film is changed for black and white.

The day before, we arrived here and talked to the women, the men were absent. They agreed quickly to being photographed. They still cannot believe even after four years that my work continues to follow them, even when they move. They seem happy.

When we arrived earlier today, the men were present and they quickly disapproved. The women were different this time, reacting surely to the break in momentum. The girls then followed the women, having lost their support. The good people of the foundation lacked a response. Everyone was standing around, lacking an answer.

With some input from me, the team began talking to the people. A little by little, the girls came back, frowns turned to smiles and then smiles turned to laughs.

Here she stands, above it all. She is an example to her people, to my people.

Most recently, the wonderful children of Holy Rosary Montessori School in Cleveland, Ohio raised enough money through Yoga lessons and bake sales to perhaps fund this young girl's school for one year, about $1,200.

As their good and kind teacher Anna put it just tonight in our email conversation:

'I look at your pictures and I think to myself--what do I need? I have so much. My daughters have so much.'

'They will never have to sweep excrement off of the dirt pathways or prostitute themselves because those are the only jobs available to them. How can I look at those Indian twins and not want them to have the same opportunities as my twins? It is a simple act of geography that their circumstances are so different. When I hear the girls saying that they want to be teachers because they are the people that the children look up to, how can I go to the mall and spend money on stuff when their voices are ringing in my ears? A better investment is in their future than in my closet for sure!'

'I have read that India is a country where you think with your heart. I am unable to go there to teach them myself, but I will give them every opportunity I can to be educated. And when my daughters are on their way in the world, then I will be able to go and teach in India or other places where there is a need. I am thinking of the children with my heart.'

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Twins, Med Village, Rajasthan, India, November 20, 2009

They stand in front of the camera to my amazement, allow me to make at least twenty or so exposures with my medium format equipment and a few additional ones with the smaller digital camera. They allow me to go between color and black and white, without moving or being bothered by the sun.

Behind them is their home.

Last year, their grandfather invited me over for a cup of tea and a chat. We had a nice talk and while doing so photographed his granddaughter.

The very first person to greet us this year as we arrive to this village is his granddaughter. In an instant, she recognizes me and my eyes recognize her, a smile reaches her face. The effect of acknowledgment on a child is powerful. This is a most important part of the work, to show them that it means more than a picture, to show them that they are remembered regardless of their portrait.

This afternoon we make portraits of the school and, although she attends a different school, the good people of the foundation extend my invitation to her and she gladly joins us for her portrait as well. We then move on to another school in this village, all the time wishing to return for a more properly lit portrait of her.

Why the desire to photograph her only? Many times this question has come up, in different towns and in different countries. The answer eludes me and so the usual solution is to photograph everyone and to make sure she is one of them.

We get the chance to do such when the next school lacks students to photograph. Because the school has since closed due to lack of funding, the girls are in the hills collecting firewood. We make a few portraits and then decide to call it a day. It is at this time that I make a decision to return to the first location to make her portrait.

This time however, all the other girls have been photographed and I can choose to photograph her only. The joy on her face in knowing that we came back for her is beyond my capacity to color here. It is these memories that keep my work moving forward.

She goes inside to change, proud to do so in front of all of her friends. She is the star of the afternoon.

While we wait, her uncle asks me to make a few quick pictures of his twins. In the end, going back for her portrait yields the portrait above. In four weeks the negatives from this day will be in my hands and her portrait will be shared.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Caretaker of Trees, Banganga, Rajasthan, India, November 22, 2009

We spend the morning of my last day in Banganga, Rajasthan. This is a tradition that dates back to my first year in India.

The teacher from Humana People to People India and her sister look after me as a brother, serving two cups of tea rather than one and two servings of breakfast rather than one on this and every day. They do so even though they have very little, they do so with smiles reflecting the love they have for our collaboration, a love that is mirrored within me.

We arrive early this morning and it is very cold, forcing us to sit around a small fire for warmth. This small fire is cooking the meal for the buffalo nearby. According to the girls, each buffalo eats five kilograms of food per day, food that is cooked for them by the family with much care.

The sun begins to rise and, instead of walking over to the usual place, we decide to photograph at the teacher's home to show fairness. She smiles broadly and arranges the benches that will be used as backdrops. As it gets warmer, the girls of this school begin to arrive. The sun rises more and so does the temperature. We set up and begin with the photography.

In the middle of the session, two events occur, the result of the first is shown above. While making a portrait of his daughter, the father from the second home calls me to come over in an excited voice. He wants me to photograph a young boy who happens to be located about sixty feet or so up a tree.

We run closer to the tree and make the pictures, with this young boy pausing in the middle of his work to pose for us. It is a wonder that he can do so, for he is without shoes and using only a rope to keep himself from falling. I am told that this is his work, that this is how he supports his family, by going to different homes and asking to trim their trees.

This reminds me of a friend's words earlier this evening. Alyssa wrote these words in response to seeing earlier entries and has allowed me to include them here with all due respect to all parties described. She writes:

'If only each American could live a day in their shoes, away from the luxuries and technology that we are able to enjoy everyday... More of us would appreciate the simple things that we have an abundance of, yet they lack.'

This is the first time that my eyes have ever witnessed someone else doing any of the work in either one of these two homes. Every single time we have visited, the men were guaranteed to be working the fields and the women were guaranteed to be working around the home. We have never visited either one of these homes to see anyone sitting down, never. This is in spite of the fact that these two families have a sizable amount of land and even perhaps the humble means to bring someone to help with the land. I have a deep respect for the families, for their children.

We walk back to the photography and notice that one girl is missing even though we stopped by her parents' home the evening before to ask for their permission. We decide to send for her and she arrives for her portrait, a little sad that she almost missed her portrait. Regardless, her friends make the effort to help her smile and she does so ever so brilliantly. At times my lack of language in this land provides me with so many questions. I hope that the portrait when processed in four weeks time will answer my curiosity.

This day is spent without a translator. All seems clearer somehow.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

On the Roof, Alwar District, Rajasthan, India, November 3, 2009

We arrive at the school and all the children are ready within fifteen minutes. The good people of Nirvanavan Foundation arrange them by gender and height, making it a little easier for the photography.

As always for this school, the sky is cloudy this morning. For some reason, this happens every time we visit. We decide to wait a few minutes, making some informal portraits. Then the sun decides to appear in between clouds and we make portraits, resting when the sun hides again.

The pink wall is still pink, like the most perfect backdrop. In color, it provides a most pleasant backdrop. In black and white, the value of the wall is high enough to provide a washed out background.

Against this background she stands, a student of the school and a member of the Kanjar Community, a community that trades in the world of commercial sex. Their women are sold by the men to local customers as well as faraway nationals. Their woman work locally and also work in the brothels of the larger Indian cities.

As a matter of fact, while her portrait is being made, the women below are making themselves ready for the day's customers. Of course, while we are present those customers are few and far in between.

Nirvanavan Foundation has a successful school in this village, on the roof of this building. It's small but effective, with a teacher that cares.

Can a school change this community? Many of the local villagers will say it's useless.

Then again, these are the same local villagers that treat them as below any caste yet use them for their sexual needs. It seems prudent to think otherwise and hope that education is the first step.

Her portrait as well as the portraits of others like her are for sale through my website, with the proceeds benefiting the school.

Standing Tall Amongst Prostitutes, Rajasthan, India, November 31, 2009

Does it really have to be this way?

Does she only have one choice? Does her community need to turn her into a prostitute?

When you look at her, can you see someone other than a child of a prostitute?

Will the men in this village find work other than selling their girls to foreign nationals?

Will she be sent to the Gulf States to serve the needs of strangers, with 'house servant' written on her papers?

Will she then be sent back to Rajasthan, pregnant and without the support of the father?

Does she really have one purpose in life? Maybe two?

Do her people remember a past when they used to live another life, when their woman danced on ropes and their men played instruments, when people used to cheer and her people earned a living by entertaining common folks and royalty in such a way?

She stands tall amongst prostitutes, she is our hope for the future, one without the need for such, one that separates us from such a world of hopelessness, of such oppression.

This is her stand, you are her witness.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Man and Woman, Pipli Village, Rajasthan, India, November 4, 2009

In this small collection of homes, some of the girls have been released from a future of prostitution for the time being. They attend government schools and have displayed promise over the past four years. Unlike the other villages of prostitution, some of the families in Pipli seem to have adopted a different life.

Time will tell. As these girls turn sixteen, our hope is that the pressure to join the older women in the flesh trade is limited, giving way to a different path. This is made even more difficult in light of the fact that the esteem of the sex workers is higher than that of the housewives, the latter given the responsibilities of cleaning, cooking and so forth for all of the members of the family, including the women forced to work as prostitutes.

While surely nobody will argue that the life of a sex worker is desirable, to some of these girls, seeing the sex workers walking around dressed beautifully, gaining the attention of strangers, has an effect on their youthful eyes, especially when they see their aunts or mothers toiling away making bread or cleaning excrement, both human and animal.

We cannot assume to place ourselves in their sandals. We can only hope that those sandals are at least given a choice, a real choice.

The man and woman above are from Pipli, where the majority of men and women are pimps and prostitutes respectively. Leaving their identities and work descriptions a mystery, let us hope that they are wonderful examples for their youth, in charge of families that have chosen otherwise for their children.

To learn more about this important work, one may visit the following websites, where the prints are also for sale to benefit the various foundations.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Young Girl, Student, Alwar Slum, Rajasthan, India, October 31, 2009

Today we arrive at an Alwar slum, our fourth visit since 2006. The school holds classes in an open temple, without such luxuries as chairs or libraries or privacy. The children stand to greet us and then take their place on the floor.

We look around and decide on the steps of the temple as the studio. The equipment is arranged, chairs are placed and a reflector is given to two volunteers to experiment with until the children are ready. Our friends from the States have given us presents for the children, so we arrange a chair to the left for the disbursement of the gifts.

One by one, the children sit on the steps and have their portraits made. There are perhaps sixty people in this small space, forty of them children and the rest adults from the slum as well as people from the foundation. A friend from Thailand named Anna sits down in a chair and finds her rhythm in handing out the gifts.

These gifts were made by the students of Holy Rosary Montessori School located in Cleveland, Ohio. A couple of months ago, after seeing and hearing of the children from Nirvanavan Foundation, the students from Holy Rosary along with their teacher Anna decided to make gifts for every girl associated with the foundation, about 350 girls in all. The students looked at some of my photographs and realized that some of the girls had safety pins attached to either their dresses or bracelets. On their own they came up with the idea of placing beads in safety pins as gifts, along with bracelets and necklaces.

The expressions on the girls' faces in the temple as they collect these safety pins today is proof in itself of the intuition of children from across borders and cultures. One after one, they almost jump off of the steps and run to Anna for their gifts; now my photography has competition and nothing could make me happier. To see their faces as they turn to their right and start walking with a smile gives me a perspective never experienced before, absolutely perfect.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Farmer, Former Humana School, Rajasthan, India, November 15, 2009

Last year a Humana People to People India School operated in this village. All was calm and we had the cooperation and guidance of the teacher in making exquisite portraits of the girls. We made portraits on the roof of their home and then moved to the field to continue the work, all without a single problem.

We were served lunch on a wonderful day later in the week when the foundation had organized a 'Culture Day' for all of the schools. That lunch was served in the same home and all of us ate together on carpets laid out on the floor.

With these memories in mind I arrive at their village this year, dropped off by the driver and alone. The volunteers from Humana People to People have been left behind at the last village to have their lunch and then head back to the main town. The driver will return in three hours to collect me and my equipment. I am alone and with about a dozen Hindi words to my credit.

In my mind, this is an easy village, one full of friends from last year. While this may be correct, a certain sense of trouble is in the air when the first response from a few people is to tell me to leave. Pretending to lack an understanding of their words, I decide to sit down and wait it out, more so since it's a bit early for photography. With me sitting there, about a dozen boys, older and younger, decided to sit down with me. This is usually trouble since they lack a sense of discipline and respect without an older presence. This proves to be correct. The boys decide to poke at the equipment, demand to see the albums, mock the lack of language and the usual. I am pretty used to all of this but unused to it being all alone.

I decided to do the one thing that usually anesthetizes their need to dominate, make pictures of them. In my experiences with men and boys from around the world, this has worked well. Since most of my work is with women, the men generally feel slighted and ignored, usually for the first time in their lives. Here is a man that places women and girls first in their midst. The trick is to reverse this conception, make portraits of the men and then diffuse the situation.

Since a digital camera is with me this time around, it's even easier to show them their portraits. We begin by making a few for fun, then some men begin walking over for their formal portraits. The one above is made after a few of the younger boys poke fun, as usual, at some older man walking by. By walking over to the man and showing him some respect, his portrait is made in peace.

At this time, a few of the older boys decide to help. This is a turning point since the girls are just waiting for the atmosphere to change. It has for the moment and we collect a chair and head out to the field. The older girls are too startled to come along and this saddens me, since many of them are past subjects. Nonetheless, enough girls come along initially to attract others once the photography begins.

We head to the field and arrange a space. Four helpful boys come along, between the ages of 14 and twenty perhaps. One stands by my equipment, one makes sure the younger boys limit their silliness and two help with the arrangement of the girls. We ask the girls to stand on the chair, one by one, therefore limiting the amount of interference that the younger boys can produce. We work for about one hour before the man of the land comes by to ask us to leave. He is a young man of about twenty and it is unclear to me if he is really the man of the land. Regardless, after a few Hindi words, he allows us to stay for another half an hour, every five minutes needing a plea from me to continue. I know that if we break this session, it will be hard to continue somewhere else. At that time, the taxi driver comes along. He is a great man and helps with the translation.

We decide to walk up to the street and as we are about to pack everything up, I notice a wonderfully yellow wall lit by the sun. We ask permission to continue and are given that permission. We arrange the equipment and continue with the girls. Now there are many, many more. Most of the girls photographed today are younger than twelve and that makes me happy, they are the future of my work in this village.

We end up by making more pictures of the boys and then head back to town. All in all, a very strenuous but successful day.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Banjara Girl, Alwar District, Rajasthan, India, November 10, 2009

They tell me that a young Banjara man happens to be working in the Sunset Hotel, a remarkable fact since this tribe has caught my attention from the first day in Rajasthan four years ago. We meet him and he offers to take us to his family's community. We accept and meet in the hotel the next morning, before sunrise to make the long trip.

According to many accounts, the Banjara are typical nomads that wander from place to place in search of a living. In my experience, some of these communities have made homes for themselves on government land and have even acquired ration cards as well as participation in the voting process, both of which many in these communities usually lack.

Their manner of dress has influenced my search for them. Their girls and women wear a combination of a skirt (ghaghra) and a blouse (choli), with the skirt being quite long and reaching to the ankles, which are also usually adorned with anklets. Their jewelry is in much demand inside India and outside as well.

Unlike many other communities, they are quite resistant to photography. They have had multiple experiences with people offering schools, financial assistance and the like. They have always been disappointed when those same people disappear shortly thereafter.

As a matter of fact, during our talk with this small community, we are informed that the president of the foundation 'helping' at the moment is in a local jail, serving time for misusing funds. We talk for some time, show them our photographs of other Banjara and they allow us to photograph a few of the younger girls. The excitement builds, the girls change to their more elaborate skirts and we make images for at least one hour, until a relationship is formed for perhaps next year's visit.

Unfortunately, upon our return to the truck, we find two punctured tires and a broken window. Of course anyone walking by is a candidate for this action, but we cannot help feel a sense of sadness in knowing that perhaps our visit to others in the area might have resulted in some ill feeling.

Regardless, this young Banjara girl knows the difference between us and the others from her past and shows us a trust that so few have in their first encounter with us. She is an example for people that have lost these qualities, for those seeking to regain them.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Daughter of a Prostitute, Alwar, Rajasthan, India, October 31, 2009

She stands here like a queen on a throne, with a sense of compassion that few in such high places have. A daughter of a prostitute, surrounded by acts of immeasurable difficulty, she stands proud.

How much more can she take? How many more years can she bear?

She has survived so far and, with the help of Nirvanavan Foundation, will rise above her circumstances to become a different person than her society expects.

On this day, she gives me more than five minutes to make her portrait, first in black and white and then in color, time is absent. She is the person that gives my work its worth, for without her story my work has little meaning.

She is an example for the rest of us.

More portraits can be seen at the above websites and are for sale to benefit the foundations.

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