Sunday, 11 October 2009

July 9, 2009: (Session 1)

It was not any usual afternoon for 17 women who had congregated at the spacious office of Awaz-E-Niswaan, which is situated amid a crowded alley in Kurla west. As photographers Sudharak Olwe, Ravi Shekhar, Mexy Xavier and Jyotika Jain began to talk among themselves about setting up their presentations right, the gathered women had other things on their mind – about finding new jobs that could possibly fetch them enough cash to see through the next month.

Most of the women had been married at least once – they had come to Awaz-E-Niswaan with their gory stories of torture by the hands of their husbands and in-laws. They came, they sought aid, and had managed to take the first steps in discovering the strength in their existence. They were now ready to take on whatever fate had in store for them; all they needed was constant motivation and guidance and reiteration of the fact “Yes, you can.”

So at 3 pm, we were faced by a colorful audience that was ready to absorb photography and more. We began with basic introductions about ourselves and then the ladies introduced themselves. Contrary to our expectations that they may shy away from standing up and talking to the audience, even if that was just about telling their name and the nature of their association with Awaz-E-Niswaan, the women spoke. They were brave enough to openly state that they had first come to the organization when they were being harassed by their men and needed to find a better way of life. Impressed by their audacity, we knew that the rest of our first day of the workshop would be a cakewalk, and our group of participants was a batch hungry to learn more – for the sake of learning, for their own sake.

The series of presentations began with Jyotika Jain. Jyotika explained how, as a member of a conservative family and a conservative community, her decision to take up photography was frowned upon. An early marriage could have put a seal to her ambitions, if not for her encouraging husband. She explained how it was essential for her to break rules to achieve her goals in life. Jyotika further elaborated that she always felt a need to express herself. Having done her BMM, she realized that to express herself, writing was not her forte. She wanted to be in the visual medium. The very fact that her husband, who once worked with NDTV, is now a documentary filmmaker propelled her to dream big and to continue her photography. Currently, she builds her own photo-stories.

Jyotika explained how after marriage and her shift to Malad, she had to spend considerable time traveling as she had to change three trains to reach Sudharak’s residence. That is when she decided to document the women travelling in women’s compartments in the local trains of Mumbai. Local trains and working women are part of Mumbai’s DNA. Thousands of women spend more time travelling in trains, and are at great comfort to be themselves – after all, they are in a coach which is devoid of lecherous look of men. Here, women buy accessories, while off the travelling time talking on the phone, cut vegetables to save time in their kitchen, earn a few rupees by selling knick-knacks, look away into their distant dreams as electric poles and slums go swishing past them. This is what Jyotika had captured through her lens since February 2008, over 100 trains trips across various times of the day and year, and many frames before she could narrow down on one perfect frame.

Jyotika said that the ladies were most comfortable in the ladies’ coach and hence hey wouldn’t oppose when they would see Jyotika focusing her lens towards them. Since the photographs were taken over a long period of time, she was able to capture the mood of the coach during various seasons of the year – be it the batch of students going through their notes in the last minute before they would sit for their exams, or children who have lost their childhood in the quest to earn a living by selling plastic items from combs to mobile phone covers, or the many times when women would pass their long travel minutes by chatting on the phone and catching up on gossip. Jyotika also introduced the audience to Dolly, the eunuch who goes to the Gateway of India daily and earns her living by posing for photographs along with bemused foreign tourists.

The participants was awestruck and at the same time, had a sense of déjà vu when they saw Jyotika’s photographs – it seemed to be a slice of their own lives as most of them too had travelled from distant places to get to the workshop.

After Jyotika, Mexy Xavier took centre stage. Mexy has been in the field of photography since a little more than a decade and after a long stint with Indian Express, followed by a stint at a Dubai-based publication, she is now doing freelance work. Her presentation was a photo-story on 6 women achievers in the male-dominated field of construction. Mexy explained a little about each of the women and their work, and how they had fought with their families so that they could be at par with the men in the business. Mexy elaborated on the story behind each of the photographs – how she met them, how she convinced them to stand in a certain way, how she experimented to get the best photograph by taking many shots of a single person. Following her presentation, the participants asked her varied questions: “Did they give you enough time in their office?” “How did you get an appointment with them?”

Mexy replied to each of the queries patiently. She said that it wasn't too tough actually to get an appointment with senior officers. All that was needed was getting through the person's secretary and explaining what was needed. “Often, I would go to my colleague to help me write an application to some senior officer, seeking permission to photograph him or her. It all depends on what you want and knowing how to get what you want. And you have to be constantly trying harder to get through different ways to get your work done. Nobody is bothered about your work other than you, so you alone have to ensure to find means and ways to get your work done,” she said.

An obvious question in the mind of the participants was: how was it like to be a photographer in a male-dominated field? How would the men react? Mexy said that when it was all about work, there would be nothing coming in between that. “We all are professionals and we behave like that. And I think more importantly, it is essential to show that you mean business – and this you do by walking straight and confidently, and not giving the other person a chance to feel that you are nervous or incompetent, no matter how nervous you really are.”

Priyanka volunteered to share her experiences as a crime reporter, interacting with policemen almost daily. “When I started as a crime reporter, I ensured that I was alsways well dressed. That meant always wearing a dupatta over my kurta, over which I wouldn't otherwise carry one. Gradually, I became more relaxed with my dressing, after I knew that I could relax in their company. I had heard a lot of tales from people who said that cops do not respect women. But I never felt that even once. I spoke to them with an eager mind and they reciprocated. I also did not know how to speak Marathi but I would attempt to do so, and that would also be an ice-breaker. They were glad to see that a non-Marathi person was trying hard to speak in Marathi and wasn't afraid of making mistakes and admitting to them. It is all about how you approach someone,” she said.

Tea followed and the participants were still in awe of what they had been witness to in the first hour of their workshop. A few minutes later, it was time again for another presentation – by Tejal Pandey, who is a photographer with The Times of India. Tejal said that she did not have to go through any struggle as such to pursue her dream of becoming a photographer. Her parents were more than willing to let her choose her vocation and after a course at Sophia College, she decided to take up the camera to win her daily bread and butter. Her photographs depicted different slices of Mumbai – belongings of streetdwellers being burnt down while the effigy of Raavan was being burnt in the backdrop; a Caucasian girl running the Mumbai Marathon and being oblivious to some men leering at her; a metaphysical signboard at a Ganpati store; a man at Shivaji Park preapring gola with ice, to depict that summer had arrived. Tejal also showed two of her photographs which have featured in the Press Club calendar for 2009 – about the 26/11 attack. One photograph was about the interiors of a room near Nariman House where the NSG soldiers had taken position. They must have ransacked the house and eaten all the food there, and so after the attack had come to an end, they had scribbled on the wall in Hindi, 'Sorry aapka khana kha liya'. Another photograh was also in the vicinity of Nariman House, where the window panes of a building were completed shattered, but a woman in the above floor was just combing her hair near the window – just like any other morning. Tejal also showed some abstract photographs which she had taken when she had gone to the US in May 2009.

The participants were in awe of her photographs and their questions to her were about her career track – how she had managed to get to her current position in such a young age. Tejal replied that she was still very junior in her field, but that her course post her graduation and the support of her family helped her do what she wanted. “Photography is way of expressing myself. So even though I am a photojournalist, I take photographs which reflect my state of mind and how I feel about certain things and issues,” she said.

After Tejal, there was a presentation by Ritika Jain, a photographer with Indian Express. She was also Jyotika's cousin and she was inspired to take up photography from her. When Ritika was doing her BMM, she wanted to do an internship in a newspaper during the two-month long summer vacation. But after college re-opened, she wanted to continue with the job, and hence would work after she was done with college hours. Eventually, she developed a liking for photography and hence showed the variety of the work she gets to do in a span of one month. So her presentation had a wide array of photographs – press conferences; close-up photographs of food since she loved to go for food reviews; Sanjay Dutt leaving the court premises when he granted bail; abstract photographs of the city's moods. Ritika added that she loved to eat different kinds of food and hence whenever there was an opportunity to go for a food review, she would not miss it.

The participants then asked Ritika about how she managed to get past the huge media crowd for an event like Snajay Dutt being released. Ritika then graphically narrated the incident, about how she, along with some other photographers, had parked themselves on the gate of Sanjay's building early in the morning. “We knew that he would leave his residence only around 10 am, but we were there since 8 am. The we suddenly saw him leaving the building and we managed to take a couple of shots. Later, he entered into a car and drove away into the court. All the photographers jumped onto their bikes to follow his car. I jumped onto the bike of one of them, and we zoomed past the roads of Mumbai. When we reached the court, it was completely crowded with many more media persons. I wasn't able to get my way through, when I requested a cop to let me in through the barricade. I told him that I was new in my job and that I had to prove my worth to my seniors by getting a good photograph of Sanjay. He said that I should stand in one particular corner and shouldn't move at all. I didn't know whether I should trust him, but then I thought, let me just do as he says. I smiled at him and then went over to that corner. When Sanjay was finally leaving the court, I was able to get a very good view of him and hence a very good photograph, thanks to my vantage point,” Ritika narrated.

The participants were delighted to hear the story behind the way the photograph was taken, and learnt that every photograph had a story behind it. All of us sat in a huge circle so that there was more comfort among the participants to be able to share their views about the photographs that they had seen. They were not as forthcoming, and that wasn't a surprise. We talked about what it meant to like a photograph and what it was like to take photographs on a day-to-day basis.

It was almost 6 pm and as we wound the first day of the workshop, the participants were given the subject of the assignment for the next week: to get along photographs of anything that appealed to them. “Newspapers and magazines are flooded with images and I am sure that at some point, you must have thought that a certain photograph was very beautiful. We want to know what do you like to see in photographs. But you are not restricted to get just cutouts of photographs. You can also bring along some of your personal photographs from your album – something that may be cloe to your heart because it takes you down the memory lane or because there is some special significance attached to that photograph. At the same time, we want you to write about why the particular photograph that you chose to being appealed to you,” explained Sudharak.

Ravi added that a small write-up was also expected from them about the photographs they had seen, of the 4 presentations shown to them. “I am sure that once you go home and reflect on the photos that you saw, you will be able to decide for yourself which you liked the most. We want you to write about those photographs, and what you liked about them.”

With this, the first workshop session came to an end. It seemed that the participants enjoyed the three hours of seeing and talking only about photographs, but their real interest in what was being done would be visible only by their presence and participation in the second session of the workshop.

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