Saturday, January 18, 2014

Girl + Refugee Camp, Uttar Pradesh, India, December 1, 2013

When we visited the camps this afternoon we were given two choices, the one adjacent to the village and another less than one minute's drive. After seeing both we were forced to choose since only one could have been photographed perfectly. So we chose the one adjacent to the village, hoping that more girls would be present. This turned out to be the case, and more than could be photographed on film showed up immediately.

Once they saw the camera, they ran out of the tents and sat themselves neatly around us. There were perhaps over 120 children now waiting to have their portraits made. It was early and so I decided to begin with the boys, in groups of three to five. Even with this arrangement it took almost one hour to photograph the boys. What was most surprising was the help we received from the men in the village. Rather than sitting and watching, four to five took active part in the process and made sure that all was in order. Once a group of boys was photographed they shuffled them off back to their tents, or at least in the direction of their makeshift homes.

Then it was time for the girls and I was almost unable to control the excitement. Their eyes, attentively fixed on me and the camera, spoke volumes about their curiosity. Here was this man from another country, setting up a studio to make their portraits. The silence was almost unbearable, in the best of ways. My translator, Asrar Ahmad, explained to all of them that the entire group would be photographed this afternoon so nobody needs to worry. He also explained that we'd be choosing those with flatter facial features first, then girls with more pronounced features last to prevent the existence of unwanted shadows in their portraits. He at least told me that he explained this to them in his own way.

So one by one they were chosen, and stepped in front of the lens for their portraits. Amazingly almost all of the boys kept their distance, and the same went with the men except for the ones helping. Girls never photographed before formally now stood in front of their friends and strangers, stood their ground firmly and coaxed the lens to represent them as they wished to be represented. I for one was more than thrilled to do so, and advised those around me to follow the cues given by the girls rather than asking every single girl to smile reflexively.

The realities of their day to day lives hit me immediately, as each girl took her turn. These were girls forced out of their homes months ago and living in a foreign place. None of them attended school now and none had access to medical attention, palliative care just to ease their pain. Each and every single one of these girls more than likely exhibited some form of PTSD, yet will never receive treatment to resolve their pain, their bad dreams.

Yet here this little girl stands for her portrait, stronger than I would be under these circumstances. What has she seen? Does what she has experienced keep her up at night? Does she avoid thinking about her home and her friends lost?

Her portrait means the world to me, it is a record of this little girl as that very moment. Only she knows what was running through her mind when the shutter released, but I do hope that those viewing her portrait can at least feel her experiences through the image.

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