Sunday, 11 October 2009

August 27, 2009: (Session 8)

As the holy month of Ramzan had commenced, the participants had decided to come to the workshop at 1pm, so that they could be get home early well in time to beak the long spells of their fasts. The participants began trickling into the airy office of Awaz-E-Niswaan one by one, and begun to hand over the memory chips their cameras to Anuja, so that their photographs could be downloaded. Anuja, a budding self-taught photographer, had begun to come for the workshop recently and had developed a camaraderie with the participants of Awaz-E-Niswaan.

The workshop was joined by some more senior people – Sudharak's friend Dilip Raote, a senior journalist who had a regular column in Mid-Day and had recently taken to photography; Ravi's friend Lima Rosalind, conservationist who was with WWF and is now working in Ranthambore National Park. Also accompanying Sudharak was Helena Schaltze, who had just landed from Germany that morning for her joint photo-exhibition with Sudharak.

Everyone sat in one large circle and Ravi began the workshop by asking everyone to talk about they spent their previous week. “Now that Ramzan has begun and your eating habits have changed for some time, how has been the week? How has been the experience of taking photographs now, after the initial hiccups and nervousness? Were you able to take photographs this time around more confidently?” he asked.

Reshma said that there was a school on her way home, from Sandhurst Road station, and the previous Thursday after the workshop, she decided to stop by at the school. “I spoke to one of the teachers that I met there and I told her that I was learning photography. Through our conversation, I learnt that the school was celebrating Teacher's Day in advance as on September 5, due to Ramzan, any kind of celebration wouldn't be possible. I was told that I should meet the principal the next day so that I could be allowed to take photographs. When I met her the next day, she was quite delighted with the prospect that someone who document the function for the day, and she even remarked that she they known that they would be subjects for photography, they would have worn some fancier clothes!”

Reshma then went on to explain how she spent the day shooting the Teacher's Day function in that school. Some children enacted a stage play wherein they dressed up as teachers and scolded their fellow classmates, who were their students in the play. The students had then left the school and the teachers began to play their share of games. “There was a game in which four corners had names of four cities and everyone was running when the music was on, and when the music was stopped, one city would be eliminated. There was a lot of action and hence it was difficult for me to take photographs. The next game was about lighting many candles with just one matchstick, something that could not be accomplished by anyone completely. They also played a game of musical chairs, and later on, the winners of these games were awarded with prizes. I felt honoured when the teachers invited me to have snacks ands coffee with them,” Reshma explained.

Reshma had earlier told Sudharak that her paternal uncle had his heart on the right hand side of his body, and although he leads a normal life, he gas to often go to the doctor for regular health check-ups. Sudharak had then suggested her to document on camera how his day-to-day life, right from the time he wakes up till he retires for the day. “I went to Nerul to meet my uncle and i was able to shoot quite a few photographs. This time around, I was glad that nobody stopped me from taking photographs, anywhere,” said a happy and evidently confident Reshma.

Hasina, who was glad to hear that quite a few women had participated in the gay pride parade that took place on August 16, 2009, was eager to know more about the experiences of the women who had been there. “What did you observe and what were your overall experiences being part of such a huge and different kind of a parade?”

Reshma said that the first photograph that she took at the parade was taken after she had climbed onto a grill, and had one hand gripping onto an iron bar for support and the other hand holding the camera. “Looking at me, many photographers from the media came to take my picture because i think it was an unusual sight for them.” she added that there was a general camaraderie in the air, and that she was glad that there weren't any dampening elements who would pass on remarks to her. “It was also for the first time that i saw a filmstar from such a close distance,” she said.

Gazala, Nilofer and Yasmin, who had gone to the parade together, and had walked separate paths so as not to attract attention of mediapersons, elucidated their experiences, which they had shared in greater detail in the previous workshop session.

While Nilofer said that this time around she concentrated on taking photographs of her home and the Ganpati celebrations at a pandal near her house, Yasmin said that she took photographs of people in her surroundings and ensured to take their permission before capturing them on camera.

Gazala said that she knew about some women in her neighbourhood who were victims of domestic violence, and she wanted to tell their stories through her photographs of them. “My best friend was married off to a man, and when she entered their house after getting married, she found that she had been cheated – there was nothing in that man's household. They had told her parents that they were well off, but the opposite was true. There is also a widow whose photographs I took. She has three children and to support the family, along with the mother, even the eldest child does some work. It is very sad to see such abject poverty. Yet I encountered another woman who had suffered violence at home at the hands of her husband and in-laws,” said Gazala.

Gazala said that she was enchanted the way Mohammad Ali Road was decorated during Ramzan, and she wanted to capture the glittering mosque in her camera. She decided to ride pillion with her brother on his bike and then go about shooting, like a pro. “My brother rode above the JJ flyover and then he halted for me to get off and take some photographs. I then noticed a cop who was observing me, and when our eyes met, he instructed me with hand signals to go back and not take photographs. I requested the cop that being a photography student, I needed to take some snapshots. After much coaxing, he allowed me to take just about two photographs, but I managed to take quite a few of them,” she reminisced with excitement in her voice.

Naheeda, who still seemed to have been in awe of the camera and nervous about using it, stated that during the rains that lashed her neighbourhood in the previous week, most of the nullahs in her area were clogged, which was quite a menace. She therefore wanted to show her disapproval of the situation by taking photographs of the clogged nullahs and the garbage. “There is also a Ganpati pandal near my house and I decided to capture the frenzy within the pandal through my camera,” she said.

Rubina said that following the previous workshop session's instruction to document their personal lives, she decided to show something peculiar from within her house which would not be seen in any other house. “We have a certain iron instrument in our household which we call 'chhongey', which is used only during Moharram. Then we also have a special machine that was made by my grandfather, which is used to prepare sweets in bulk during festive seasons. These were some of the things of my family and household that I thought would be essential for me to show to the world,” she said.

Rubina added that she also went to the shops in her neighbourhood to try and get some good images, but one of the shopkeepers told her that if she happened to get the photo published, the cops could come and accost him for no reason. Yet she managed to take the photographs that she needed, as well as that of a local MLA whose visit into the locality had led to a huge crowd congregating that day. It was also during that week that one of Rubina's friends had a kidney ailment and succumbed to her disease. “During the funeral when all the people were gathered for mourning, and I was trying to capture the last journey of my beloved friend, I could hear people commenting behind my back, 'Look, there she is, the divorceee'. That annoyed me no end. Even at a grave time of a mourning people were more concerned about me and my life. It was just the wrong time and place to make such comments, yet people never miss a chance to gossip about somebody's life. I have moved on, why can't they too?” said an embittered Rubina.

Saira then narrated her experiences with many different people from different walks of life, whom she wanted to capture in her camera. She met a lady who was selling kerosene, another who was a vegetable vendor, yet another near the railway station. “All of them permitted me to take their photographs and we would engage into some friendly conversation. There is a woman in my neighbourhood from whom I often buy many household articles. This time, I went to her to take her photograph and we got into a long conversation about us and other general things,” she said.

Sudharak thought of what Saira had done as one of the achievements of the entire workshop – engaging with people through conversations. “Saira had a reason to engage with them this time, and that reason was the camera. This is exactly what is expected of you – to engage into conversations with people, but without the camera. The camera gives you a lot of confidence but you need to take that to another further step ahead. You should be able to assert your point confidently. The camera has been the perfect starting point for this, and this is the prime motive of this workshop,” he explained.

Tabassum said that she and her friend Heena had to one day go to a masala company for a job, but it was only half way down their journey that they realised that Heena hadn't asked for the address to that place! While they were on their way, then came across a slum area where a hefty man was beating up his wife just outside their meagre house. “We told him to stop beating her up but he retorted back, 'She is my wife and I can do anything I want with her. Who are you to stop me?' I got very angry and told Heena to take out the camera. When he saw the camera, he froze. He pushed his wife inside and yet he was trembling before us and we had barely taken his photograph when he walked away in huff. The entire road was filled with drunk and abusive men but somehow we got past that road and reached our destination. We had to then go to Powai for a job interview and on our way back, we decided to walk instead of taking an autorickshaw as we wanted to look around and take more photographs. Our legs were aching but we decided not to give in to those cramps,” said Tabassum.

She added that both of them had to pass the same slum area on their way back home and remembered the man who was beating his wife. “Suddenly, we saw that man again who was hiding behind a wall when we saw us. He looked as us slyly and we looked back in anger at him.”

There was a loud roar of laughter and applause when all the participants heard Tabassum's story. Sudharak was more than happy at the way she handled the situation at that time, and the resounding response to it now at the workshop. “Keep up this tempo, and get similar experiences even without your camera. You have a right to stop someone from abusing another person and make yourself heard. In fact, you should have gone between the couple, showed him the camera and shouted back at him that if during the fight, the camera was dropped or broken, then he would taken to the police station and liable to pay for it. And next time if they ask you what possibly could you do to interfere into someone else's matter, then just retort back that you have a brother in The Times of India who could fix them straight!”

Sudharak's bold and encouraging words were received with great enthusiasm and refreshed looks on the women's faces.

The narration of experiences went on. Raheema said that she wanted to capture the mood of the evening in her neighbourhood, just when the Muslims were breaking their fast. As she had lifted her camera to take a shot, she noticed a policeman right in front of her who pointed out his finger towards her as though telling her not to do any such thing. “And I got nervous. But I went up and spoke to him, explaining that I was a student. It was essential for me to take photographs but he wouldn't budge. I pestered him for long enough but he wasn't ready to comply with my requests. I walked back home sadly.”

Sudharak then told Raheema that despite mustering the courage to talk to the cop, her success would have been recognised if she had managed to convince him and then bring home the desired photographs.

Shabeena was still shy to narrate tales of what all she had been shooting through the week, and plainly stated that she went to Ranibagh and got some snapshots from there. Heena said that she was going to her father's house one day and on her way, she came across the police station. “I went in to the police station and since I had been there so many times, everyone greeted me and hence I was able to take their photographs with great ease. I had also gone to Koparkhairne and took many photographs of a Ganpati pandal there.”

Sudharak asked her about her experience when she was with Tabassum, when both the women saw a man beating up his wife. “I felt that I should not have had the camera in my hand, but instead, a large stick so that I could beat him back. But I derived quite a thrill when we saw him petrified later, on our way back home,” she said, with her characteristic laughter adding volume to her words.

While Badrunissa focussed her camera throughout the week on her household and her family, Ayesha was able to shoot only for a day as a bad toothache had killed her tempo the next day. Ayesha had a close friend whose family would bring the Ganpati idol each year in their house, and Ayesha would be invited too. “I went to her house for aarti just before the visarjan and was able to capture the mood of the dancing crowd on their way to Chowpatty. I managed to take photographs for a good 5 hours but then it began to rain and I didn't want the camera to be affected. So that is where I ended my project work,” she said.

Raziya said that she had gone to her native village and there were many things about the rural landscape that caught her eye. She had gone here to visit her aunt and had noticed a small boy with huge dark glasses. When she enquired, the boy's mother said that he had undergone surgery. “I took the boy's photograph and then I saw a small tempo where many people had boarded it. It was the quintessential rural India before my eyes. When we reached a public bus stand, I was roaming around trying to look for interesting things to capture, but my mother was getting irritated for roaming around and attracting attention. Later, when we boarded the bus, the deep valley looked very enchanting from the top and I could see many waterfalls in the distant, which I captured in my camera. Back in Mumbai, I went back to my neighbourhood bakery and supari stores and a kite-maker, to take photographs of the processes,” Raziya explained.

Farhat said that she was on her way to Jaipur and Ajmer the previous week and hence her photographic journey went beyond the state borders. She said that other than taking many photographs of the journey from the window, she took photographs of the two families – one Gujarati and another Muslim – who were seated on her either sides in the train. “At some stations, I noticed how people had comfortably found space to sit for the journey on the roof of the train. Not only did they have their belongings with them, but I even saw a dog travelling on the roof! When we went to the dargah in Ajmer, we weren't allowed to take the camera inside. But once I came back to Mumbai, I wanted to show through my photographs the lives of single women who manage to run their families on their shoulders. I have managed to get hold of about 2-3 women but I'm still working on it,” she said.

The circle of participants had almost ended, and the person to talk about her week was Priyanka. She said that she had gone to meet Reshma, Ayesha and Badrunissa in the compound of JJ Hospital to interview them for this project. “There was a stray dog barking aloud and other dogs followed to check on their friend. I just commented about how faithful dogs were. But Badrunissa said that men were akin to dogs. I then commented that it was wrong statement – comparing men to dogs was actually an insult to dogs, and the women couldn't stop laughing,” said Priyanka, which led into a roar of laughter among the participants.

Priyanka added that there was scooter parked in the compound and Reshma just went and sat up there. “Badrunissa decided to take her photographs but then we saw a man approach the scooter. We thought that Reshma's picnic atop the scooter had ended. But the man was kind enough to actually come to shift the scooter's side stand to the middle stand so that Reshma wouldn't fall off. We were all happy about it,” she said.

With the Ganpati celebrations keeping the city awake throughout the week, Anuja said that she had been frequenting to Dharavi to capture the mood there. She was more interested in the small Ganpati and the aarti in people's homes, no matter how small they were. “I saw two kids who were extremely poor and were living near the footpath, with just a tarpaulin sheet as their roof. Yet, even they had managed to get a small Ganpati statue, and small pieces of wood made up the tiny pandal, wherein they were conducting the aarti. They invited me to be a part of it and I felt very surreal with the entire experience. I would go to Dharavi in the morning and in the evening, I have been going to a pub called Blue Frog to shoot photographs of international artistes who were performing there,” she said.

It was then Helena's turn to speak about her past few days. All this while she had been lost in translation and she had her words translated in Hindi for the participants. “I was involved in my exhibition on my photographs of Eastern Europe. But then soon enough, it was time for me to start packing my bags to come to Mumbai for my exhibition with Sudharak,” she said.

Hasina finally got the chance to put forth many issues which had been on her mind since about two weeks. She said that she had busy the last week disciplining some women about camera distribution. “i have seen quite a few photographs taken by many participants and I have realised that while some of you have done an outstanding job, there are others who are taking this workshop very casually and this is evident in your photographs. You have been doing this workshop for quite long now, but some of you have really taken the pains to invest your time and effort into taking photographs. It is your own individual responsibility to learn well and take charge of your work. If you do not have the time or resources or the camera hasn't fallen into your hands in time, then it is all your responsibility. After all, if you create good photographs and are able to get it out onto the world based on the photograph's merit, there would be none more proud of your achievements than us,” Hasina urged.

Sudharak noted that another positive side-effect of this workshop was the developing friendship among the participants, which gave them a chance to share experiences together. “When photojournalists are in the office, there is always a sense of competition. But once we all are out on the field, there is a very healthy camaraderie among all of us. This is what was seen when Tabassum and Heena went out together and decided to raise their voiced against the man who was beating his wife. At the same time, I am glad that this workshop has instilled in you the confidence to be able to face a cop and even take his photograph. Until some time ago, your words were that you were sceptical of going on the road with the camera. Now it is your achievement that you can walk with pride with your camera in hand,” encouraged Sudharak. Hasina added that she found some of the women's participation in the gay pride march quite a positive sign.

After a brief introduction about Dilip by Sudharak, the veteran journalist went on to share some interesting anecdotes. He said that emperor Sumer, who ruled about 4,500 years ago, had made a rule in his kingdom that if a woman lived with a man for a year, she would lose her property and her rights over them. “But the women outsmarted the men – they would live with their men for 364 days and on the last day, they would go to stay at a friend's place. In that way, the women were able to be in a win-win situation – they would stay with the man of their choice, as well as not lose their property to him,” he explained, and this idea was received with a loud applause. All the participants were remarking among themselves about the wit and smartness of the women who lived many, many years before us.

Dilip also explained the meaning of the word 'economics', stating that the word was derived from the Latin words 'oikos' and 'nomos', which respectively meant 'household' and 'rules' or 'laws'. “In essence, economics means management of the house, which is and can be done only by women. Sadly enough, today, most of the well-known economists are men. There isn't a single Nobel prize winning economist who is a woman. But just imagine the city of Mumbai surviving for three months without a single woman – I doubt the city will be able to survive,” he said.

The participants all agreed that what he said was absolutely true – without women, the men would have a tough time indeed, even for their basic requirements. Dilip explained how Khalifa Haroon Rashid, a ruler who lived about 1,500 years ago, needed to hire people to manage his huge palace. “He decided to recruit women, but only after he was convinced that each of them were well-versed with the arts, sciences, history, philosophy, music and other fields. He would have the masters of each of the fields along with him when they would have to recruit a female hand to manage his palace. Such broad-minded he was and that too, so many years ago,” Dilip said.

Mexy emphasised the need for building relationships with the subject whom one is taking photographs of. “You can get good and candid photographs only when your subject is at ease with you, and he or she can be at ease with you only when you develop a rapport with them. And this rapport can be developed only when you talk to them. You cannot afford to take a photograph by not talking to the person, otherwise it will be akin to doing something intrusive,” she said.

Lima then spoke to the audience about her work, and she started off by saying that it was also essential to build a relationship with our environment. “Be it tigers or the trees, it is nice to be connected to nature. It begins with something as small as a baby leaf, whose smell is extremely beautiful. Also, every city has its own character which is best reflected in its flora and fauna. In Delhi, for every person there are 10 trees, whereas in Mumbai, for every person there is just half a square feet of green patch! In Mumbai, most of the trees are seen to be sprouting near the building pipes because of the excess moisture. It is indeed a very sad situation, when we look at the way we are treating our environment. So part of my job is to take children and teaches into the wild and enlighten them about our environment and the need to conserve it. I invite you all to come to the jungle of Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan where my work is currently concentrated,” she said, which delighted everyone.

With this, the long chat of sharing experiences came to an end and it was time to go through the presentations of the participants. The long discussion consumed much of the time, so all were aware that the presentations of only a few participants could be viewed and analysed by Sudharak. After a quick tea break, the presentations began with Gazala, upon which Sudharak remarked that she was looking differently and that was interesting. “However, you need to focus on what you are looking and what you want to take photographs of. The initial photographs were most entertaining – we got a glimpse of your family and your immediate surroundings; we saw your story where we know we cannot have easy access. But you were in a hurry and hence some photographs were out of focus,” he said.

Next was Nilofer's presentation, and Sudharak stated that although she had good compositions and knew what she wanted in her frames, she was not steady with her camera and hence most of the photographs were very hazy. Anuja added to Sudharak's explanation, saying, “The camera and our own eye sees a certain thing differently, and it should be our effort to bridge the gap so that we can bring about a photograph of what we actually see.”

Sudharak went on to state the importance of bearing in mind some essentials of photography – composition, lighting, flash, and the comfort level with the subject. “When you leave your comfort zone, you will notice it for yourself that you begin to wander, and so does your camera. You aren't sure of what you want to capture. Even when I am in a new zone, I feel a little uncomfortable because I do not know the reactions that could follow if I take out my camera in a certain place. Hence the best way to take the perfect photographs is to focus on a subject which is closer home to us, where we find ourselves comfortable,” he explained.

The last presentation that could be on view for the session was by Paigumberi, and Sudharak congratulated her for going in the middle of the crowd during the gay pride march and taking the photograph of a filmstar (Celina Jaitely) so confidently. “You also have a good sense of timing – you know when some action is going to take place and that is when you shoot. I think if anyone has to learn about being bold is from you – you weren't afraid to be right in the centre of action among the LGBTs during the march, and you also went ahead in your own area to take the photograph of your local MLA. Just be a little patient when you take photographs so that you do not miss out on essential parts within a frame,” he said.

It was already late for the women since they had to get home well in time before they could break their fasts. It was decided that the group would meet again on September 10, 2009, at the gallery where Sudharak had put up his exhibition. They were assigned to narrow down their subjects to their personal stories about their home and immediate surrounding, because it was essential that they be in a comfortable space, which incidentally, nobody else could venture into.

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