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.

in xanadu did kubla khan etc. etc. etc.

on the way to srikalahasti, we came across this building, the mandapam of the oneness movement. it is the largest pillarless hall in india (the movement claims), able to seat 8,000 people. the oneness devotees are followers of sri amma and sri bhagwan, a holy couple that preach … actually, i have no idea what they preach. love, compassion, a higher power … ma nishtana, one might say.  oneness’ adherents say it is “a world changing phenomenon that is helping people of all faiths and paths move into higher states of consciousness,” and the temple is supposed to be “endowed with spiritual powers of ancient rishis who had meditated in the region. On entering the temple, the [movement’s] pamphlet declared that ‘the cowardly become courageous, the unwise become intelligent, barren hearts start flowering in love, and everyone will experience divinity'” (according to a journalist who investigated the place). of course, when we tried to go in, it was closed for renovations. we didn’t get any farther than the parking lot. (shades of walley world.)

across the way was this (for me) mesmerising tree plantation, one of a few that we saw as we drove through the south of the state. clearly, the a.p. forestry department is doing its work. in fact, we then drove into a national park and set out for the waterfalls, until we realized that it would be a 3 km hike in each direction; at mid-day, and without water or food, it wouldn’t be a good idea. still, it was nice to get a brief look at a decidedly not chennai-like vista – truly idyllic until the holiday-makers showed up.


as we drove through andhra pradesh, we saw granite rock formations that looked as though they had been built by hand. quoting from one website:

andhra pradesh is endowed with spectacular rocky formations, which at many places, are simply awe-inspiring. they are indeed a natural wonder of stony ridges and hillocks shaped into picturesque balancing forms through millions of years of weathering and wearing. the deccan plateau, that is the vast expanse of peninsular india, south of the vindhyas and composed mostly of grey granite, is among the oldest and hardest rock formations in the world. geologists date these rocks to a period 2,500 million years ago. that is the time when the earth’s crust solidified. molten magma then pushed upwards from the interior and hardened under the crust into domes and sheets of granite. then horizontal and vertical cracks developed and slowly the top layers of the crust eroded and these very hard granites were exposed. they weathered over millions of years into their present forms – resulting in the bizarre, awe-inspiring, wonder-striking and almost man-made-kind-of formations.

there is a society to save rocks that is dedicated to preserving these formations.

(in response to a comment i received, i should note that this is actually a necessary type of organization. there are stonecutting companies that will level entire hills of this size for the raw building materials, if they get the chance. a fellow photographer showed me a field where a hill on which gandhi had spoken had been cut away; nearby was a hill with a huge slice cut out, like a birthday cake.)

150,000 bricks

my comrade-in-cameras james and i took another roadtrip, this time into andhra pradesh. on our way to the temple town of srikalahasti, we stopped at a brick kiln, one of many along the road.

the bricks are stacked up and the fire is built underneath. they are not as sturdy as bricks made in the u.s.; if one has a crack in it, you can break it with your hands and it will crumble into pieces.
there were two or three families living in thatch-roofed huts (with brick walls, of course) on the site. i didn’t ask the head of the operation how old the boys had to be before they started working; i didn’t see the girls handling the bricks, but i assume they have enough other chores to do.

arubathimoovar festival day 2

we went back the next day for the main procession, of lord shiva and the 63 saints. the streets were not as crazily packed as they were the day before, but the area in front of the temple, which had been enclosed for the occasion, was fully jammed with worshippers. oddly, the event wasn’t as grand as the celebration of the day before, but i think it had more religious significance.

i saw a group of kids in the chariot from yesterday, so of course i had to climb up as well and take a look. i don’t know if there is a three-story shed somewhere or if they dismantle the chariot after the festival. right: two priests handing out ashes for marking the foreheads with the sign of shiva.
a temple band (horns and drum) play and the sun shines appropriately through the roof as the chariot with the statue of lord shiva wheels into place. (i’m sorry for having used such a shallow depth of field in the first photo.) right: devotees carry the first palanquin of saints’ statues out to the street. how often do you see the word “palanquin” these days?
you can see that the saints are riding backward in their palanquins, so they can gaze on lord shiva who comes afterward. right: the procession went out onto the street, where i again found the rolling beggar from the day before.

arubathimoovar festival

today, my friend and fellow tirupati traveler james and i went to kapaleeswarar temple to see the arubathimoovar festival. arubathimoovar celebrates 63 saints who were canonized for their devotion to lord shiva, and the highlight of the festival is the parade of temple chariots, each of which carries a statue of a saint through the streets.

one of the first things we encountered was a group of beggars who roll themselves through the streets, chanting, blocking traffic, and begging for alms. as the middle shot shows (and i’m only including it as evidence, not because it’s a particularly good shot), they aren’t in such bad shape for rolling themselves four or five blocks in the procession with the chariots; i have to believe this isn’t their first rodeo, so to speak. the chariots themselves are pulled along by devotees while priests distribute holy ashes and other blessings …

… that is, until the chariot carrying shiva pulls into view. this was a much more serious affair, about two stories tall, with more than a hundred guys pushing and pulling it and thousands thronged around it.

the ropes used to pull the chariot, and the crowds pushing, pulling, or following it, were massive.

a trip to fort gingee, including the attack of the annoying younger sibling

(with a few apologies to will cuppy:)

this sunday, i woke up at the painful hour of 4 am to travel with the photographic society of madras to fort gingee, 160 km south of chennai. it was an impregnable fortress complex consisting of three forts atop individual hills. the british referred to it as the “troy of the east.” and where is troy today?

the ride took nearly three hours, including a stop for breakfast, so it was already getting hot by the time we started our 90-minute climb. there are a number of buildings at the base of the fort, including granaries, a gymnasium, stables, and a marriage hall; then one passes through a thick wall, and begins climbing to the top. the buildings at the top are separated from the path by a 10-yard wide, 20-yard deep chasm. wikipedia notes “It was thus an impressive sight [sic] where the defender could seal himself indefinitely.”* naturally, the buildings are in ruins today, but it was still a good opportunity to take some photos, so let’s get to it, shall we?

rajagiri fort – “the king’s fort” – and the tower of the marriage hall; a walkway in the marriage hall; the granary ceiling.
the fortress wall; the guard house after the drawbridge; a vishnu temple. (note the graffiti).
more ruins, and views from the top. the hill in the distance is the krishnagiri fort.

on the way down, we came across the monkeys, who had found a rubik’s cube at one point. ownership of the cube was still an issue.

the monkeys come to the rubik’s cube. note the piece on the ledge. the monkeys consider this. the older monkey investigates the piece.
can i eat it?  the monkey determines that, indeed, he cannot eat it … … and he goes for the rest of the cube, which immediately attracts the younger sibling’s interest.
can i play? hell, no.

*throughout history, “indefinitely” in these situations has meant “until the food ran out.” 

“compelling” images? you decide.

i’ve just signed up for some online courses with an outfit called “the compelling image.” for their sample lesson, i was instructed to take two shots that incorporate various described compositional techniques to create images with visual impact, rather than the equivalent of snapshots of uncle fred by the side of the house. i didn’t think it right to submit shots i’d already done, so i went out today and grabbed a few shots. compelling? who knows. it’ll be interesting to read the professionals’ feedback.

happy new year.

i only had to submit two, so i didn’t include the third one, but there’s something about the girl’s face and the boy’s body position that interested me so i’ve included it here.

aftermath of cyclone thane

for the past two days, we have received increasingly frantic warnings about cyclone thane, which at first was heading straight for chennai: charge our phones, fill our gas tanks, stock up on milk and water, and so on. yesterday morning, however, the cyclone veered south, straight for pondicherry; bad news for pondicherry, but this downgraded our expectations to just heavy winds and rains.

this morning, we looked outside and saw that there indeed had been heavy winds overnight (leaves and branches down), but no real damage. i took the dog down to marina beach, despite the driving rain, to shoot the impact of the storm with a holga plastic camera and a roll of 120 mm film. it was a lot of fun, and even cooper, who hates getting bathed, was happy to run around in the rain.

the holga is a clumsy camera, but sometimes it gives you exactly what you want.


two village women.

between jodhpur and udaipur, we stayed in the village of nimaj, in a tented camp overlooking a lake and a bird sanctuary. it was very relaxing after the bustle of the cities. the food was rustic, the rooms were comfortable, they had dogs – what else does one need?

the one full day we spent there began with a tour of the village itself, and then in the evening we took a walk through the bird sanctuary. the village was pretty quiet; the highlight of the visit was the school and then the pottery demonstration. apparently, there once were three potters in the village; now there is only one, and none of his five children plan on taking over the business once he retires. with the cheap availability of plastic and metal containers, there’s not a lot of need for earthenware water pots. i suppose one can find something philosophical or nostalgic to say about this, but is it better to have local potters or engineers? it depends on whether you’re the one who has to be the potter or not.

kids at morning prayers; and kids in the classroom.
the potter at work.

in the evening, we took a walk through the bird sanctuary, led by the camp owner and his dogs. normally, i’m not big on nature photography, but it was rewarding when the birds stayed still long enough to be captured.

this last one is not a bird.