For those of you who have been anxious to read & see a blog documenting my first Vision for Empowerment workshop in Kolkata this fall—I apologize for the wait. 2015 turned out to be one crazy, awesome ride. I am in the process of designing the VFE photo books and they will be for sale in 2016. Read on.
It may not be true for all travelers—as many with wanderlust find satisfaction filling up their atlases with red thumbtacks by their front door, always one foot headed in that direction— but for some there is a specific point on the map that tugs at their soul, until they are able to reach it. And once we do (I’ll now include myself in this projection), that destination isn’t merely checked off the list, but becomes built into our lives and perhaps one day, we find it to be home as much as anywhere else.
For me, this has always been India.
Although my career as a wedding photographer involves putting together dozens of timelines every year, I always had trouble pinpointing where my love affair with India began. Was it in my 11th year, when I decided that orange and fuchsia were the best colors in the world and should be everywhere in our house? Or was it in college, when my bedroom was coined the title, “Little India,” and I decided, after seeing the documentary, Born into Brothels, that I would like to teach photography in India?
Through a series of serendipitous events, I met Sarah Symons, the founder of Made By Survivors, a nonprofit who rescues and employs trafficked women in Kolkata. Flash forward 8 months of meetings, fundraising and planning and I was en route to Kolkata to lead my first photography workshop, Vision for Empowerment, to women living in the slum and red light areas.
I shared with these women— Piyali, Shampa, Priyanka, Saba, Alpana, Zainab— the technical aspects of photography, the rules of composition and patterns (those were easy to examine on any busy street in Kolkata) and the beauty of being able to pick up a camera and share your visual narrative. I brought them to places in Kolkata that they’d never seen. They rode bicycles for the first time in their lives. We walked through the Botanical Gardens, which may have been the one place we didn’t see a piece of trash.
They shared with me, Kolkata, a place with seemingly two faces: one as the cultural and intellectual capital of India, the other as a city overburdened by destitute immigrants, whose homes sprawl out on the crowded walkways—everyday on the street we moved through a family’s kitchen, bedroom and bathing area.
This project allowed me to see India for the first time, through my own lens but also through the lenses 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, but 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.
Vision for Empowerment encompasses the photographs taken by the 6 women and myself. Our work doesn’t stand alone because we captured Kolkata together. Photography is not only a tool used for documentation, but an art that bridges the gap between two worlds— a visitor’s and a native’s. Check out behind the scenes photos below and the girl's work here.