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.
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: