Monday, April 18, 2011

Young Girl, Student, Kanjar Community, Prostitution, Nirvanavan Foundation, Rajasthan, India, 2008

A conversation is had in a classroom this past week.

The makers of such portraits as the one above deal in a form of exploitation it seems.

This argument is made in almost every situation during my years as a photographer, from the valley of Lebanon to the villages of India. Regardless of language, the above words are expressed to me without exception.

Even though the experiences have been innumerable, a simple answer has yet to be formulated because each situation is different. Sometimes it is the mother of the child, at times it is a complete stranger from a neighboring village and sometimes it is an art student from a local university. Each suspicion of injustice deserves its own response.

Most of the time, the people closest to the person whose portrait is sought are the most understanding. Much of the time, it is that student in a classroom thousands of miles away whose opinion is most hardened. This seems irrational but has been my experience.

Even though the people in the field have encountered exactly that type of photographer, they continue to give the next photographer the benefit of the doubt. Even though that student has yet to step into the field as an artist, his mind has yet to open to the idea that many people will do for others only for the sake of doing.

This young girl has every reason to walk away from the camera. Her community looks to her for one reason only, to earn money from her future as a prostitute. She walks around the village stepping over used condoms as they lay on the dirt paths, without giving them much thought. She cannot attend school because she is deemed 'below the pollution line' by the rest in her Society, the largest democracy in the world as praised by so many. She wakes up to this reality every morning and goes to sleep in the evening with this thought in mind.

Yet she stands in front of the camera with a hope that every child possesses. She refuses to be denied this one chance to express her joy, to share her story with other children in the world, in a language without need for translation.

She does so and without hesitation, regardless of the photographer. She understands that it is the act of doing so that matters for her, rather than whether the photographer will honor her wish to be seen. The tree falling in that forest does make a sound, regardless of an audience.

Rather than falling however, she rises to a place few have ever reached.

I have witnessed this and will continue to honor her.

So does another student in that classroom, the one that raises her hand and responds to the accusation of exploitation. By doing so, she restores honor to the girl above and to our own community here.

Her name is Margaret, the other student in that classroom with her hand raised high.

She is a sister to the girl from Rajasthan.

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