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.