two weeks of teaching photography in rural tamil nadu – part 2

during the second week, i went to salem, about 65 km south of dharmapuri. it is a significantly larger city and district than dharmapuri (3.5 million people vs. 1.5 million), and there was a different feel to this second group of kids. in part, it may have been that, because they come from a more urbanized area, they have different perspectives; or perhaps, because they had further to travel each day, they had less time to search for stories. it also may be that “only” six of them had been rescued from child labor, while the other four instead were members of the children’s parliament, the local children’s advocacy organ. (i don’t mean to be glib – six is still six too many – but i think the mix affected the way some of them approached the assignment.) at any rate, we ended up with more daily life scenes than issue scenes, but they still produced some great photos by the end of the week.

it’s also important for me to mention that one of the girls who was rescued from labor was subsequently mainstreamed back into public school, and she now is a star track athlete who is about to represent tamil nadu in a national competition in mumbai. i’m trying to not sound preachy, but … child labor is a crime against the future of the entire country.

now, the photos:

kannan focused on village life and caught some wonderfully spontaneous shots. lavanya did a mix of photos.  the second photo is of a child laborer.
nathaji photographed garbage in the village and unsanitary conditions around the water tank – two common scenarios. pasupathi executed some textbook close-up shots, and also documented issues of food safety in the markets. (note the flies.)
rathidevi documented workers, including these scenes at a brick kiln. ramya’s work fascinated me because she took a lot of photos of magazine pages and television screens, essentially taking a post-modern approach to photography. but how do you explain jean baudrillard to kids?
santhosh was drawn toward photographing flowers. the second photo subtly reminded me that trash on the street is a human problem; it doesn’t exist by itself. shanti took one of the best street photography shots i’ve seen in a while. the second photo shows workers employed under the national rural employment guarantee act.
tamilselvam also focused on scenes of village life. tamilselvi was concerned about the men and boys climbing coconut trees without any safety devices.


after the first week of teaching photography, i went to yercaud hill station. (hill station is another term for mountain town.) i started from dharmapuri relatively late, so by the time i got to the base of the mountain, the sun was going down, but that was no worry; without pushing my little Ford Figo too much, it’d be a half hour to the top.

or so i thought.

as i went up around a few crazy curves, i was amazed to see how many motorcycles were coming down with their lights off, the rider (or riders) without helmets. there was still light in the sky, but when you’re whipping around blind corners on a two-wheeler, you’d think you’d want people to see the beam of your headlamp in advance. but in india, many motorcyclists believe that using headlights is bad for the battery, so they keep them switched off. this means that the non-motorcyclist driving on said roads with multiple blind corners have to be extra careful.

after reaching an elevation of 800 meters above sea level or so, and after having gone around a lot of blind corners, the hairpin curves began.  it turns out, according to google maps, that the road to yercaud looks like this:

or, to be more precise, like this:

anyway, each turn is helpfully marked with its number: hairpin bend 1/20, hairpin bend 2/20, etc. so up i went, occasionally seeing other vehicles pass me and then catching up to them when they in turn got stuck behind a slow-moving bus. i was part of a convoy, then, when at bend 8/20 i saw the lightning flicker in the distance; and still in the convoy when, at bend 9/20, the wind started rushing through the trees; and still there again at 10/20, when the rain began coming down – gently at first, and then hard – and we started having to swerve to avoid the branches that had fallen into the road.  some of the branches were big enough to do serious damage to the car, and there really was no telling when the next one would come down, so the trip was pretty exhilarating.  there’s something thrilling about knowing that you going to make it to your destination in one piece, but you don’t know what condition that piece will be in by the time it arrives …

the next day was bright and sunny, so i did some exploring. the interior roads to the various tourist sites are wide enough to accommodate two automobiles passing one another with room to spare for a single playing card slipped in between them – when they weren’t under construction (for widening, granted) – and most drivers are not so good at yielding to oncoming traffic – driving on narrow roads in india is sometimes like playing chicken with the kid who was always caught smoking behind the high school during class. still, i made it where i needed to go.

the first stop was the shevaroyan temple, which was one of the most noted tourist attractions – there was even a photo from the hill on which it sits, from 1907, in my hotel.  thus, when i arrived, i was disappointed to see that while, yes, the view from the hill was fine, the temple itself had only been built in 2006, and it looked like someone’s garage. there was an ancient wishing tree outside, but that was about it for visual interest. but as i was leaving, i figured, “i’ve come all this way, i might as well go into this concrete shed and see what everyone’s looking at.” it turns out the shed was just the entry to a tunnel into the hill to where the temple was. the tunnel was a little thing – maybe four feet high and wide, and 15 feet deep – that dead-ended with a stone ledge on which the idols sat in their finery, a priest standing by to bless the worshippers – but it was the last thing i’d expected to find, and i was happy i’d gone in.

this is close as they would allow me to get with my camera.  right: an image of the sri chakra, taken from wikipedia.

i then followed a sign pointing the way to “the world’s biggest sri chakra maha meru temple.” with a come-on like that, who could pass up the opportunity?  sri chakra is a mandala composed of 43 triangles representing shiva and devi (or shaktri), and thus the unison of the male and female divine. there’s a lot of other stuff going on in it that i haven’t made the time to research yet, but as i stood there, i could hear every jewish comedian who ever lived saying, “and if this is the world’s biggest sri chakra maha meru temple, i’d hate to be inside the world’s smallest one.”

on the way down the hill, i came across a drunk guy lying in the middle of my lane, so i stopped and yelled at him to move, and he rolled himself out of danger, but that pretty much made me decide to finish up for the day. i went to see one last tourist attraction, pagoda point, another scenic overlook. holy crap. the three photos that follow show, first, the parking situation i had to fight through to get in and out of the lot; the pagoda; and the view.

goodbye, yercaud.

two weeks of teaching photography in rural tamil nadu – part 1

during the weeks of may 14 and 21, i am teaching photography skills to village kids in tamil nadu. this project, supported by unicef, gives kids point-and-shoot cameras and asks them to document their lives and the issues that concern them.  none of them have ever held a camera before, but they have experienced their issues – child labor, crumbling school buildings, etc. – first-hand.

the first batch of 10 kids were in dharmapuri, about 300 km southwest of chennai.  aged about 12-18, all of them had been rescued from child labor situations. they now live with their parents and are enrolled in special schools that help them fill in the gaps in their education. the integrated child protection project, a project of unicef that works in coordination with the indian government’s national child labour project (indian spelling of labor this time), facilitated the workshop, and icpp staff visit the children weekly until they turn 18 to make sure that they stay with their studies and don’t return to work.

some kids are not so lucky. a boy working on a road crew in yercaud, a mountain resort town between dharmapuri and salem.

of the various socioeconomic and physical infrastructure problems associated with rural poverty, the two that the icpp staff told me are of the greatest concern are child labor and child marriage.  many families worry daily about having enough food to eat, so if they need the children to help earn money, they send them to work in the cotton fields or brick kilns, or they find a job in a local business. sometimes, the parents pledge the child’s labor to pay off a loan. it is very hard to prove cases of child labor, since the parents may have a certificate forged to show the child is above the legal age of 15 years, or they tell investigators, “he’s just helping his father in the fields because he wants to, he’s not employed, he’s not being forced to work.”

the plight of child brides is more complicated, and as best as i understand it, the problem has both an economic and a social dimension. as a girl gets older, the amount of dowry that her parents are expected to offer increases. this gives the parents the incentive marry their daughters off as early as possible, even though child marriage is illegal. in addition, many of the parents need to migrate for work, so they think that they are providing for the girls’ security by marrying them off early. ironically, this only puts them at greater risk of becoming victims of domestic violence or suffering complications in childbirth. as for the prospective husbands, while some of them are equally young, the older ones see child brides as more likely to be docile and obedient, which is what they want, since the girl moves into the husband’s family’s home and essentially goes to work for him and his mother. one of the students in the group managed to stop two child marriages by reporting the arrangements to the authorities before they could be completed, and another was almost married off at fourteen herself.

this probably has been the most rewarding experience i’ve had in my five years of living overseas. the kids were eager to shoot but attentive to the instructions and in-field mentoring i gave them, and the improvement they showed over the four days (in composition or at least in confidence) was amazing; i’m not embarrassed to say that i wish i had taken some of the photos these kids took. they didn’t address all the issues we were hoping to capture – for example, none of them took photographs of child brides – but they did capture both the positive things in children’s lives as well as the more serious ones; and when they explained the issues to a district official who came to the final day presentation, their passion was intense. i have a hell of a lot of respect for these youngsters; and while i’m not going to go all sally struthers (kids – ask your parents!) about them, if i now hear anyone – including myself – whine about how tough his life is, i’m going to kick him in the ass.

with a little post-production editing, here are the befores and afters:

a first day photo later photos: life scenes and issues/stories
photographer: lakshmi arumugam. the final photo is from a story about a children’s school. the three girls who worked on this story were struck by the teaching aids all over the walls, and lakshmi’s photos showed both how many there are and how the teacher uses them.
photographer: kokila kaveri. the improvement in composition from the first photo to the second is obvious. the last photo is a close-up of a child using the materials on the schoolroom walls.
photographer: jayamani jayavel. this photographer also worked on the schoolroom story, but then she did a series on unsafe drinking water and drainage problems in her neighborhood.
photographer: munirathinam pattabi. munirathinam focused more on life scenes, including scenes of women at work. again, the improvement in composition is clear.
photographer: shanmugam raja. shanmugam shot at a local religious fair, and then got up early to document food vendors preparing for the morning trade.
photographer: selvi murugan. selvi made some interesting, quirky photographs from the start. the latter two photographs document the condition of an abandoned school building that the village has failed to demolish even though there is a new school on the same grounds.
photographer: najma nazeer. najma also showed some talent from the outset. the second photo shows a woman working in a silk-spinning workshop. the third photo shows a girl squatting in the toilet facility of her house, which is located next to the railroad tracks.
photographer: pasupathi kathirvel. pasupathi, who takes karate from a village master, documented a few problems, including poor drainage around a temple and the disruption caused by street repairs. he jumped into a 3-foot hole in the road to take the last photograph.
photographer: vijay govindan. vijay documented two problems: poor wastewater drainage, and child labor. he spoke passionately about the latter issue on the final day.
photographer: vadivel raja. vadivel also photographed child labor. the final photo was taken at home; the girl does live at home and go to school, but this photo illustrates how girl children – unlike the boys – typically have to do household chores before going to school.

pashupatinath and boudhanath

we finished the evening by strolling through pashupatinath on our way to boudhanath. (don’t worry, the explanation follows.)

pashupatinath temple is a holy site for devotees of lord shiva. located on the bagmati river, it is an enormous temple complex, and people cremate their dead along the river banks, much as they do in varanasi. we could see a few bodies burning, and i would have liked to have gone down to photograph the cremations up close, but my hosts told me that it was considered rude to go in; and having asked about it, i couldn’t then go ahead and do it anyway. (next trip, i pack the 70-300mm lens.)

views of the cremations; stupas on the hill above the temple complex; and a monkey. there were a lot of monkeys up there, and they were not happy to see us.

if we’d had more time, we would have explored the areas of pashupatinath that were open to non-hindus, but we were eager to get to boudhanath, which is one of the largest stupas in asia and the holiest temple, outside tibet, for tibetan buddhists. (there are are tens of thousands of tibetan refugees in kathmandu and nepal, and the temple has been a center of tibetan culture since 1959, but boudinath already had been a tibetan pilgrimage site for centuries.) because it was the evening of a full moon, we expected to see crowds of pilgrims circling the stupa, which would be lit up with small lamps. the stupa was impressive in the light of the full moon, but the area was strangely quiet: people were holding back until the next day, may 6, which is celebrated as the buddha’s birthday.

we returned in the morning to see the square packed with worshippers circling the stupa counter-clockwise, both at street level and on the stupa itself. (according to some websites that i consulted, buddhists are supposed to circumambulate clockwise, but the tibetan bonpo go the other way. it just gets more complicated than i want to go into here.) there is a legend associated with boudhanath that a devout woman and her four sons wanted to bury the remains of kāṣyapa buḍḍha on the site, and she approached the king with an animal hide and asked to be able to construct a tour within the space marked by the hide; when the king agreed, she cut the hide into thin strips and laid out an enormous square, and the king had to keep his word and allow the stupa to be built. the structure is between 1,300 and 1,600 years old, depending on whom you ask.

kathman-two: bhaktapur

this post is rated “m” for mature audiences only.

on day two, we visited bhaktapur, a historic town just outside kathmandu. it’s a living town, albeit a heavily touristed one, and a unesco world heritage site.

the architecture is remarkable. the entry to the historic town (just past the ticket booth) opens onto a wide square ringed with temples and administrative buildings. it looks almost artificial, like a theme park version of nepal. once past this, however, you will find the actual shops and houses.

now, i must admit that one problem of living in india is that i’ve seen so many amazing temples that i’m not eager to take photos of yet one more amazing temple, especially when the light is nearly overhead; the shadows are too harsh and they don’t give the buildings much depth. the two photos in the second row are more interesting to me: they show typical newari architecture, the newars being one of the early peoples of kathmandu. note the beautifully carved windows on even the simplest buildings.

the above disclaimer aside, a lot of the temples here and elsewhere had some of the naughtiest carvings i’ve ever seen, so i did photograph those – at heart, i’m still a 12-year-old. one website lists the possible reasons that the temple beams are carved with such graphic scenes: sex was not taboo in ancient times, and the carvings are a form of sex education; the carvings are a way of contrasting hinduism with buddhism, which preached abstinence; the carvings were meant to inspire people to have children, to increase the size of the workforce; the carvings denoted luxury and royal extravagance; or the carvings would keep the muslim invaders from destroying the temples, since they would be unwilling to come near depictions of nudity. i think this last one is pretty laughable, but you can decide for yourselves.

one website says that the erotic carvings on the temple exteriors were an early form of sex education. if that’s the case, the guys who carved the beam on the far right must have been teaching the advanced placement class.

bhaktapur was great for people-watching, particularly in the side streets.

the baby’s eyes are made up to ward off the evil eye.
there were a lot of men hanging out under covered platforms that dot the neighborhood. the kids above were playing “cellphone” with pieces of broken pottery, and, generally speaking, people seemed capable of making their own toys. and finally, the pause that refreshes (ba-da-bing!).

next: pashupatinath and boudhanath


abby and i went to kathmandu this past weekend, to visit friends we’d made while serving in albania. it is a fascinating place, but first, i should clarify something: whatever bob seger was singing about in 1975, it certainly wasn’t this:

the first stop was swayambhunath temple, a major buddhist pilgrimage site atop a hill overlooking kathmandu. according to legend, the bodhisattva manjushri had a vision of a lotus floating in a lake on what is now the site of the temple. he drained the lake and the lotus grew into a hill, with the flower forming the stupa itself. as it happens, there is historical evidence that kathmandu valley once was a lake, so the legend has some element of truth to it; however, records also show that the temple was founded by king vṛsadeva at the start of the 5th century b.c.e. i wasn’t there, so i can’t say which story is the real one.

the temple complex is holy to hindus and buddhists alike – there is a shrine to harati, the hindu goddess of smallpox and other childhood diseases, next to the stupa – and the whole thing is so crowded with sculptures, buildings, and tourist tat, that it is difficult to get a good wide shot of the place.

on the neighboring hill is a monastery, lots of prayer flags, and the monkeys from which swayambhunath temple gets its nickname, “the monkey temple.”

we finished the day in durbar square, kathmandu (as opposed to the two other durbar squares in the area – “durbar” means “palace”), where there were lots of people trying to sell us things, and i took a few street shots.

next: kathman-two