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Worth a Thousand Words and More

By: Parthiv N. Parekh Email By: Parthiv N. Parekh
September 2010
Worth a Thousand Words and More Just a glance at the high number of ads for wedding photographers in this very magazine is a good indication of how much we take wedding photography for granted. Not a wedding goes by any longer without each precious moment of it being captured endlessly on camera. Some of us are even getting used to a coterie of professional photographers and videographers shooting from every angle possible. Someone—even an amateur cousin, if not multiple professionals—is bound to be on camera duty, recording every instant for posterity. An unphotographed wedding is unimaginable in most places in today’s world.

It is therefore fascinating to hear of a place—possibly one of very few such places remaining—where, even today, weddings come and go without a single click of the camera. The Chirang district in the state of Assam in northeast India is one of those remote pockets where photography is practically nonexistent. When momentous occasions such as weddings in this region go without being photographed, where is the question of the everyday photo, the kind we snap the moment we spot a deer in our backyard, and post it on Facebook the next minute for the entire world to see?

It is this contrast that was perhaps uppermost in the mind of D. K. Bhaskar, the prolific photojournalist from Augusta, Georgia, when he conceived the idea of equipping several young high school children in Chirang with digital cameras, in the hope of obtaining some visual documentation of life in the remote region.

The brilliantly out-of-the-box idea of generating documentary photographs through the eyes of children previously unexposed to cameras was introduced and made popular by the Academy-award-winning documentary feature Born Into Brothels, whose directors gave cameras to the children of sex workers in Kolkata and enabled them to create unforgettable portraits. When I asked Bhaskar if the success of this documentary and the media buzz that followed it had inspired him, he replied with an emphatic no. Amidst his constant globetrotting as a photojournalist, he had not been aware of the film. As an avid observer of nature and life, Bhaskar had always believed in the power and potential of a child’s imagination. He admires children’s “creativity, exuberance, unique approach and deep interest.” Plus, he points out, there is an important difference between the kids in the Born project and the Assamese ones of his project—the former, though, poor, were urban kids not cut off from modern amenities including cameras; the latter had literally never seen a camera.

So why arm such unlikely candidates with cameras? And why rural Assam?

The International Photography Partnerships (IPP), USA, of which Bhaskar is president, was conceived with the purpose of using photography to document and preserve the vanishing cultures and changing landscapes of some of the remotest regions of the world that remain largely unhinged from media availability, let alone media coverage.

The district of Chirang is a perfect example of a landscape untouched by the media. Bordering Bhutan, it is a remote region with sixty percent of its inhabitants belonging to the tribal Bodo community. The Bodo insurgent movement had crippled the growth of this region until recent years when some semblance of peace has reigned. Most of the hamlets in the area remain undeveloped, in some places even without such basics as electricity. The very few lights and fans in some villages run on a set of batteries that are recharged by a gas-powered generator. This, their only acquaintance with electricity is, not surprisingly, quite sporadic because of the crudeness of the setup. Other than a cell phone or two, these villages have no communication devices, no television or telephones. And the proud owner of the rare cell phone must travel 30 kms in rural terrain to recharge it.

Having first traveled to this region in 1998 and later again in 2000, Bhaskar had dramatic memories of the place. In 2000, he had even been briefly abducted by Bodo guerrillas. But not one to cower in his quest for stories through photography, Bhaskar saw that the region’s remoteness and lingering shades of danger made it a perfect place to chronicle a corner of the globe that would otherwise never be seen or heard of much.

Once he was sure that it would be a great idea to have teens with no experience of the camera photograph daily life in the region, Bhaskar had the tough task of finding backers. Admittedly, it seemed a farfetched idea, and there was the issue of planning the logistics of the operation and raising funds. Every step of the way seemed formidable—reaching the area, engaging with village folks, selling them on the idea, and ultimately generating photos from tender-aged amateurs who had never seen a camera, let alone touched one.

In Frank Christian, Bhaskar found someone who not only supported the cause of drawing attention to life in remote regions through the eyes of local children, but who also believed in Bhaskar’s ability to pull it off. A cofounder of IPP, Christian is a renowned and influential Augusta-based fourth-generation photographer. He helped to get Nikon to donate 50 point-and-shoot digital cameras for the project. Bhaskar also forged ties with Action Northeast Trust (ANT), an Assamese non-governmental organization, to help with introductions and select the children who would be given the cameras. Forty-four participants between the ages of 14 and 18, from more than 10 villages and diverse communities, were selected through an application process conducted by ANT. The project was billed as an eight-day international photography workshop.

“Delirious” is how Bhaskar describes the mood of the children when he first met them. At that initial interaction, Bhaskar didn’t want to overwhelm the children and simply showed them the basic operation of the camera: on, off, shoot. For the next twenty-four hours the village hummed with the joyous buzz of a bunch of trigger-happy kids who shot at sight. Some of them went overboard and soon wore down the battery, a precious commodity. They photographed their parents, brothers, sisters, friends?everything within sight.

Seeing the children absolutely fascinated with photography—the love of his life—was very fulfilling to Bhaskar; but he knew he faced the tough task of tempering down their initial excitement to get to a meaningful essay that would showcase to the world their life in their remote corner of the world.

Day two involved a crash course on the fundamentals of photography as well as on browsing through photos on the camera screen. “I wasn’t coaching them to become professional photographers,” Bhaskar points out. Rather, his goal was to impart to them a flair for documenting their life, society, and surroundings. To achieve that, Bhaskar directed the creativity of the neophyte photographers to assigned themes: school; children; home and family; bazaars and shops; livelihood; religion and rituals; and nature. Every alternate day he rotated the themes amongst the participants, keeping their interest and enthusiasm fresh.

But why bind them to specific categories? Why not keep it open-ended to see what comes from the creativity of children? “I never wanted to keep it open-ended. If we had done that, we would only have pictures of mom, dad, brother, sister, nephews? The amazing collection that we are seeing now would not have happened without a direction to the children who had enough on their minds just grappling with the camera,” Bhaskar explains.

So began an amazing experiment that now lives on in several media reports as well as in Bhaskar’s talks and exhibitions around Georgia and elsewhere. Barry L. Paschal, publisher of The Columbia County News-Times, gives a glowing testimonial to the children and the project when he writes about them, “I do not exaggerate when I say I could have been viewing a series of photos from the National Geographic.”

The workshop demonstrated, as Bhaskar had anticipated, that given guidance and opportunity, the children could produce an exceedingly effective visual record of their life. “The images were simply brilliant in aesthetics, sensitivity and composition.” There were many firsts, such as the first photographic documentation of a Bodo wedding, and some inadvertent exposés as well—in one instance, a participant had captured a wedding shot in which the bride was clearly underage! “These kinds of photos and the large and diverse set of pictures wouldn’t have been possible by any professional photojournalist in such a short time.”

Talking about the modus, Bhaskar recalls that despite some advice to the contrary, he let the children take the camera home with them each night. “Even though [the participants] were spread out in different villages, I let them carry the cameras home [to] show it to their families and experiment with them. I felt such exposure with the equipment was needed, without which it would have been a bit superficial.”

Without this amazingly transformative project, many of the participants of the workshop would never have known much beyond their severely limited universe. Take, for example, Dwimalu Brahma of Dimapur village. His widowed mother sells local beer for a living. Dwimalu knew nothing beyond working with a plough in the fields—till Bhaskar came along with his magical contraption. Now the young lad has the proud distinction of having photographed a wedding, the first pictorial documentation of any wedding from the region. Sixteen-year-old Sonjoy Daimary of Khamarpara said he had always dreamt of capturing the world through the lens (in spite of never having seen or touched a camera). And now, he is thrilled that his dream can become a reality. These kids with cameras transformed, in a few short days, from nobodies to cultural ambassadors of their communities.

What came about as a result astonished even Bhaskar. Collectively the children had produced striking portraits of village life: children at play, a wedding, home industry, animals at work, even a “mundane drain pipe turned into a work of art,” as described by Paschal, the publisher. Bhaskar feels that the vigor and enthusiasm these children demonstrated to come up with memorable photos would be hard for urban youngsters—for whom the camera is no novelty—to muster.

Overcoming the hurdles: low batteries and accusations of conspiracy

In the department of pesky hurdles what took the cake was the almost ever-present danger of low or dead batteries. The children’s hyper engagement with their newfound gadget, along with an acute non-availability of even the common AA batteries, was a source of nagging worry for Bhaskar: “I would send someone out everyday in search of batteries to towns as far as Guwahati, which is more than three hours by train.” Recalling a now amusing incident from what he refers to as the saga of the batteries, Bhaskar talks about one of his helpers, who was able to get his hands on 30 sets of twin-pack batteries in Guwahati. But while returning to Chirang by train, the man spotted some policemen making their way towards where he sat. In conflict-ridden Assam, the possession of large amounts of batteries—a raw material for a bomb—can always excite the suspicion of a cop. Not wanting to deal with the questions, Bhaskar’s assistant decided to slip away unnoticed, and got off the train before the cops could reach him. The decision was perhaps wise in the situation, but it cost him a long wait, since there was no train to Chirang until the next day!

On the second day of the workshop, a few of the participants took their cameras to school. To their dismay, the cameras were promptly confiscated by the teachers. The principal called for a teachers’ meeting, and the Bodo Students’ Union made it its business to look into the matter as well. Recalls Bhaskar: “Initially, it was hilarious?but as the meeting wore on, it became quite serious. In all there were 28 people attending the meeting, including the principal, teachers, and union members. The agitated teachers were shouting that the whole camera project was a conspiracy to show that they were not teaching! They couldn’t fathom the motive of arming a bunch of students with cameras. They claimed it was against their culture and asked me to end the program and apologize.”

As to the parents, some were curious in the beginning, and some, skeptical. Midway through the project, they were a bit agitated, as the kids started using their cameras late in the evening and just about everywhere. They complained that their children were not doing any work or reading. Some of them were even suspicious and inquired around with the local Bodo administration.

A happy ending: nocturnal slide shows and tearful adieus

Things started to change when Bhaskar began showing, every other night, the results of the project. Entire villages sat, enthralled, in the gathering dusk to watch the slide shows that Bhaskar presented with the help of a battery-powered projector and a white cloth for the screen. By the time the workshop ended, the fame of the nocturnal slide show had spread to neighboring villages, whose residents too began swelling the ranks of the audience. The last day felt like a mela, recalls Bhaskar. He presented each participant with a printed, laminated copy of one of their photos, along with certificates for completing the workshop. This presentation was applauded not just by the families of the participants, but by the villagers at large as well. Many of the participants bade him a tearful farewell while extracting a promise from him to come again.

Thanks to the success of the Chirang experiment, Bhaskar has ambitious plans, through IPP, to duplicate the project in other regions and states of India. He and Christian feel that very little is known about the fascinating practices and cultural exuberance of rural India. In the virtual absence of mass media, the link between the country’s rural populace and their ancient traditions of storytelling, poetry, theater, and dance, is still very strong, but goes largely unnoticed in the rest of the world. Now that Bhaskar is enthused about continuing his work in other obscure regions of rural India, the world is sure to sit up and take notice of those places as well, and receive stunning, world-class visual portraits of life from the most unlikely of artists.

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