This photo was taken on the first day of the Vision for Empowerment workshop. Above is Debjani, the amazing translator I hired for 4 weeks and the 9 students enrolled in the class. There were 6 students that ended up completing the workshop, one dropped due to disinterest and two were hospitalized with dengue fever and missed two weeks of class. An unfortunate but common experience in Kolkata, especially during monsoon season, which had just ended 2 weeks before my arrival.
The six women I spent over a month learning and exploring Kolkata with have different backgrounds but all are from humble beginnings—the majority residing in Kolkata’s slums and red-light areas. Women’s Interlink Foundation, one of the nonprofits I collaborated with, has community centers throughout the city. These centers provide many programs for at-risk youth and families; a few offer tutoring and English lessons to street kids, whom have little guidance and supervision, especially in the evenings when their parents are working. Kids living on Kolkata’s busy streets are highly at risk for drug abuse, sexual explotation and being trafficked. One of my elder students, Alpana, has been a teacher at one of the centers in Maniktala (working with street kids) for 20 years. She took the VFE workshop to learn about street photography and hopes to teach similar lessons at the Maniktala center in the future. Two other students, Saba and Zainab, reside in Tangra, in one of the largest Muslim slums in Kolkata. They went to one of the centers as children. Saba and Zainab are a double minority (being Muslim women) and getting out of the slums where they live is extremely difficult. However, all of the girls in the workshop were educated up to grade 10 and many have dreams of pursuing college and becoming professionals—not just wives and mothers. I can only hope that this is true. Both Piyali and Shampa are to be married this year and as a good friend of mine explained to me (while sitting in traffic for 1.5 hours—typical day in Kolkata), “a wife is better known as a servant here”. I can only hope that this workshop and my presence as a female business owner showed the girls that there are other options. It is possible.
The class met Monday-Friday from 11am-3pm (depending on our photo excursion plans), starting at a childcare home (CCH) in the northeast part of the city. The childcare home is run by Women’s Interlink Foundation and offered a great workspace for the class, fixed with a large conference room, open rooftop and enclosed garden area in the front of the gated building. This childcare home houses many at-risk children, orphans and women who have been trafficked. There is also a jewelry center run by Made By Survivors* on the premises and I’d often hang out with the designers before the photography class began.
Vision for Empowerment’s curriculum is broken down into four weeks and the daily lessons contained worksheets (with some translations in Bengali), slideshows, printing and discussion/critique. Every week there were 2-3 photo excursions planned to practice the lessons. This is India, however, and due to extreme heat and torrential downpours (even though I arrived post-monsoon season) our excursions were often rescheduled and we had to use the available space in and around the childcare home. This was an important lesson not only for the girls, but for myself—to use the resources available, learn to take good images at high noon (because we never met during the “golden hour” to photograph) and how to create interesting composition anywhere.
Photo excursions: Kolkata’s Botanical Gardens, North Kolkata, Kumortuli, Old China Town, ECO Park, Ballygunge, Princep Ghat
VISION FOR EMPOWERMENT COURSE BREAKDOWN
- Week One: Collaging, Scavenger Hunt, types of photography, camera basics/functions (shutter, lens, sensor, pixels), Composition
- Week Two: Composition cont. & Introduction to Exposure (Aperture, shutterspeed, ISO)
- Week Three: Composition continued & portraits
- Week Four: Exhibition planning, finding themes in a body of work, artist bios and statements
Week one was spent getting to know each other and for them, getting to know photography. Many of them had taken photos on various cellphones and perhaps had an uncle with a point and shoot camera, but few had ever taken an art class, or more specifically a photography class. India’s education system—especially for women that are placed in government run schools—is rigid and without any dedication to the arts. I noticed two things immediately: they did not know how to respond to praise (they’d smile and drop their heads embarrassed if I complimented a photo they had taken) and were not used to critiquing another students work.
Week two I introduced composition and exposure. Composition was the most understood concept of the entire course. The girls loved looking at various magazines and choosing images that followed the “rule of thirds”, following the slides I presented to them (with help from this awesome post highlighting Steve McCurry’s work in India). The next two photo walks we explored Kolkata with the rules of composition in mind. After only two weeks, I saw their work improve. They were understanding the most basic concepts of design and form; what attracts the eye to certain images and what doesn’t. It was easy finding composition in Kolkata—it’s one of the most fascinating places in the world for street photography. They class was so excited to walk the bylanes and explore; even in the heat. With a camera, they had a purpose. I can hear their voices, “lines, ma’am!” “patterns, ma’am!” they exclaimed, while showing me an image on the back of their camera.
Exposure was a bit more difficult. I introduced aperture, shutter speed and ISO by using the exposure triangle. With various slides showing my own work, I had the girls choose what f/stop the image had, whether the shutter was slow or fast and what ISO it was. Saba understood the concepts immediately and was able to recite the entire lesson to students that had missed the class that day. I was so proud of her.
Things I am noticing:
- They’re following rule of thirds and thinking a lot about framing
- Lines and shapes in their photographs are often too literal—need to remind them this is art and it can be up to interpretation…they can’t be wrong
- They do not take hundreds of photos like I expected and may even take too little. They’re worried about messing up so they take their time.
- I said in beginning not to take too many photos (oops) but they’re listening too well…
- They love printing
- They’re so nervous about critiques until I start. Telling their peers how they’d shoot something differently is very important*
-Class Notes, Thursday, September 10, 2015
Week three we continued working on composition and exposure and had two lessons on portraiture. They were all using their cameras in manual (for the most part) and I explained the importance of using a small f/stop when shooting portraits in order to isolate the subject. I introduced the work of Vivian Maier and they were fascinated by her street photography and self portraits. Later that day, in Vivian’s honor, a few students tried taking photos of themselves in reflective glass and windows.
Week three also involved a lot of printing and critique. With only one week left in the class, we had to start brainstorming themes for the exhibition.
Printing was a favorite part of the workshop and I couldn’t have done it without the Canon Selphy —it prints awesome borderless postcard size images. It weights under 2lbs, uses WIFI and has an SD card reader. It is the perfect travel printer. Following every photo excursion, we’d print for a couple of hours. The girls never got bored. They watched the images slide in and out of the printer, as all of the colors mixed and patiently waited their turns.
Words cannot describe how fast the time has gone. We are in the end of the third week. It’s Friday and Eid (a Muslim holiday celebrating the end of fasting) so I gave the students the day off. I came during the season of Puja’s and festivals. A lot has gotten in the way of class but it is okay…yesterday we went to Princep Ghat on the Hoogley River and stayed through the sunset. We laughed, took silhouettes, and double exposures with my camera. Everyone had a blast. It was the first time I saw the class as a true team—which is amazing. Some students have stopped coming due to illness, but perhaps this is how it is supposed to be. Everyone is friends now and fully interested in showing each other (and me) their work the entire time they’re shooting.
-Class notes, Friday, September 25, 2015
Week Four was spent organizing photos and finding themes for the exhibition that was held at 8th Day Cafe. I had. I introduced artist bios and had the girls each write one (a brief description of where they’re from, education and what interests them). I also showed examples of art shows and how to write an artist statement. They found it difficult to explain a body of work using creative terminology. Keep in mind, they had never been to an art exhibit in their lives.
We barely touched the surface when it comes to organizing an exhibition but I had to keep this in mind: The goal is getting their work out there and to pull this off in only 5 weeks is amazing in itself. We spent two days on the artists statements and they each chose 5 photos for the exhibition.
We spent our last day of “official class” (we met the following week to sign the prints for the exhibition) exploring Park Street, eating pastries at the famous Flurry’s and browsing Oxford Bookstore. This was the first time the girls had been to Oxford and we spent an hour browsing the Humans of New York photo book.
Debjani and I had a crazy week ahead of us preparing for the exhibition. We had exactly 7 days to organize, print and mount 30, 15×18 images, along with artist biographies and statements. We pulled it all off and the exhibition was extremely successful. See photos of the exhibition here.
This project allowed me to see Kolkata for the first time, through my own lens but also through the lens of 7 incredible women (including in this number, my amazing translator Debjani). I have never felt comfort being a tourist, on the outskirts of an unfamiliar society and through them; I felt I was part of it all. Although I may never understand the harsh realities of being born a woman in a culture that accepts violence from men, excludes education as a priority and asserts motherhood as the end-all—I could understand a certain feeling of helplessness, of being born in a male’s world, no matter where I am on the map.
I want to thank all of the exceptional people who made this possible and supported us in Kolkata: Sarah Symons (founder of Made by Survivors), Paul Suit, Soma Seal, Nafiza Khatun, Aloka Mitra (founder of Women’s Interlink), Debjani Mukherjee, Andrew Shaughnessy, Varina Hart and Maura Hurley.
*Note: This is a brief overview of the Vision for Empowerment workshop that ran September 1, 2015- October 9, 2015. Unfortunately, I was not able to blog and upload multiple images (WIFI connection is poor throughout Kolkata) and had to update on my return. Check out my Instagram, where I did update often on the class and our weekly wanderings.
*Through its various projects, Women’s Interlink Foundation aims to bring about mainstreaming and self reliance among vulnerable women and children who are under-privileged and are victims of social injustice and sexual exploitation.
*Made By Survivors, a partner of WIF, trains survivors and creates jobs in highly respected professions, with high wages that develop business and entrepreneurial skills. One of their most successful programs is our Jewelry Program. In India, metalsmithing is traditionally a male-only profession. The survivor-metalsmiths are breaking gender barriers, earning a middle class wage, rescuing others, and uplifting their families and communities.