Sunday, 11 October 2009

Photography workshop at Awaz-E-Niswaan

Pictures often speak louder than words. And when these pictures reflect the innermost desires, pain, agony, dreams by a section of the human race which has been dominated upon and abused for a long time, the pictures then can only behold anyone's eyes.

This was the vision when photographers Sudharak Olwe and Ravi Shekhar conveyed to me when they were told about this workshop. I knew that I had to be a part of it -- and words, often if not as louder as the media chosen by the two gentlemen, can be the sword that shows its might through its varied dimensions. I had the power to bring life to the workshop once again, long after it had infused energy and confidence among the participants.

Over the course of the workshop, many new friends were made who conveyed the most essential ingredient of living -- of the need to love and be loved, despite the muck and dirt that one has fallen prey to, or will shove off.

This workshop was very close to my heart. It taught me lessons about life, marriage, sacrifice, determination; it taught me things about myself that I had never known; it taught me the constituent of that most important ingredient of life -- respect for the individual. Without respect, there can be no love; without love, there can be no life.

P.S.: At many places, I have referred to myself in the third person as this was the official documentation of the workshop that was submitted to Awaz-E-Niswaan.
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.
July 16, 2009: (Session 2)

Charged with new hope and anticipation about what new windows would the wide lens of photography show them, the 17 ladies had brought with them a couple of photographs which tugged their hearts and minds. They also reflected upon the photographs that were shown to them as part of the presentations from the previous week and most of the women expressed the way they related to those photographs at different levels.

For Rubina, the photographs taken by Jyotika struck a chord with her. She could relate to the working class women who travel by train to and fro their work place daily, and who, in order to save time in the kitchen, they clean and cut vegetables. The women who travel together and thus formed a close-knit group of their own, would freely share details about their new purchases – be it clothes or accessories or jewellery or appliances. “It is interesting to note about Mumbai’s working women that the trains are their lifeline and that after a long journey home by train, they have to wake up after a few hours, freshen up and then catch the same train again to work. They care least about the world as it goes passing by because their mind is already preoccupied. These women demonstrate a rare kind of stamina and grit to face the same routine of their days, each day of their lives,” said Rubina.

Nilofer was thankful to the photographers for giving them the opportunity and hope to think for themselves that yes, they too are capable to learning something as beautiful as photography and thus do something worthwhile out of it. She was impressed by the photograph taken of a child selling some hair accessories on the train to earn a living. “It is sad to see how these young children, who should be having a normal childhood of playing games and studying in school, are pushed to work to earn a few rupees,” she said.

Taking photographs is something that Gazala loved doing, and she said that her enthusiasm for the workshop was therefore evident. For her, photographs taken of the routine of urban life interested her and she found it intriguing that there was actually so much that could be done with the camera. A photograph taken by Ritika, of a foreigner in Colaba, with a miniature of the Taj in the foreground caught her eye. She said that Ritika had an interesting perspective while taking the photograph – India is synonymous with the Taj for foreign tourists, and Mumbai is also almost always part of tourists’ itinerary. She said, “Various ideas were beautifully expressed in a single photograph.”

Raziya was glad about the fact that the photograph of a eunuch was also taken by Jyotika. “Eunuch feel most comfortable in the ladies coach and often women shoo them away or having negative prejudices against them, whereas they are just like any other human being.” Razia was also much on awe of the photograph of Sonal Patel, who had introduced the concept of micro-tunneling to the Indian construction business. “It was refreshing to see women like us breaking the societal barriers in order to do something for themselves and the society at large,” said Raziya.

There weren't more participants who were forthcoming to talk about the photographs that they has seen the previous Thursday and hence it was decided to now let them speak about those photographic images which they had brought along. It was more essential now to hear each of them speak about their choice of photographs. Again, each of the women were called one at a time to sit on the chair next to Sudharak and Ravi, and speak to the others about why they chose to bring along a certain image clipping. After about 5 seconds of hesitation, the presentation of the choice of personal favourite photographs began with Reshma.

Reshma brought a newspaper clipping from a Hindi newspaper and showed it to all present for the workshop. The photograph was that of some men tending to an ailing parrot and tortoise at Crawford Market. She explained that those birds were ill and so that they could be successfully sold in the Wednesday market at Crawford market, the vendor was taking the pain to examine the bird and the animal’s wound. “People usually never give a minute of thought towards animals, let alone ailing ones. But these men were tending to the parrot and the tortoise simply because they knew that they had to fetch a good sum for selling them, and hence they thought it worthwhile to get them treated. Here too, the aim of commerce led the men to take care of the animals, and this is a sadly selfish situation,” she said.

Saira had bought a clipping of print ad for a new show on TV called 'Ladies Special'. She said that the photograph depicted something that was out of her daily life – women jostling for space in a local train as they head to their workplace. “Despite the efforts that the women have to make to finish their household work and get to their workplace on time, it is nice to see that these women in this photograph are smiling – it seems like they are ready to take on life as it comes,” she explained.

Heena, who always has a beaming smile on her face, showed a paper clipping which was an advertisement for eye lens. “Many people do not know that if they have to wear eye lens, they need to maintain a strict hygiene routine. I used to wear lens earlier and I know well how it needs to be maintained. Although I do not wear lens anymore now, I still recollect the regiment I had to follow, and hence this photograph connected with me deeply,” she explained.

Rubina had three paper clippings with her, each of which were different from the other. The first was a news clipping about a boy called Vivek. “Vivek's only crime was that since he was hungry he had stolen an egg. His head was tonsured for committing that petty crime, and hot tea was poured on his bald head. A reporter, who was walking past that area, managed to get a quick photograph of the little boy and put the story across newspapers. It is sad that people torture children for such a petty crime. He is not a criminal in the making either – his dire hunger compelled him to steal an egg. People can be very ruthless with children,” said Rubina. Her next clipping was about a news story wherein a woman is some hinterlands of the country was getting married to a dog, with all Hindu rituals in place. The marriage was performed because the woman believed that only dogs are most faithful and hence she wanted that faithfulness from her partner, indefinitely. Rubina said that the news item intrigued her and had made her wonder about the ideas of trust and marriage.

Ayesha had a news clipping of a some rural women who were all smiles, as they brandished their inked fingers. “Most tribal and rural women have nothing to improve their lives. They are always neglected, so when they have been bestowed with the right to vote for their franchise, their happiness at the thought that their vote will be counted is well evident in their faces. Suddenly, the feel empowered and their inked finger is something that they would love to show off,” she explained her interpretation. She showed another newspaper clipping about a high society lady who was seated on a classy sofa and was in the news for having designed dresses for dogs. “It is funny to see the entire photograph – you look at the lady's confident body langauge and you know that she is someone who is rich, and can afford to even spare a thought on her pet dogs. So here she hasn't only spared a thought – she has gone ahead to in fact design clothes for them,” she said.

Paigumberi brought with her a photograph of ace tennis pro Monica Seles, and it was nice to know that Paigumberi was well aware of the trials that Seles had been through. Paigumberi explained how Seles was the top seed player for 178 continuous weeks and many books had been written on her. “One day, a man attacked her with arms with such gravity that Seles was unable to recover for many months. She was able to get back to the tennis court only after 26 months of the incident. I am inspired to see women like her who have fought many battles and have emerged successful. She is truly an inspiration for me, as I too was interested in sports as a child,” Paigumberi said.

Raziya had brought with her some photographs which appealed to her because of the way the colours were arranged in them. One of the photographs had a girl trying to swim with rubber floaters on, while another photograph showed an airhostess doing about her work inside an aeroplane. “The airhostess has a very busy job and she has to be constantly on her feet, she cannot afford to not smile because her job is to ensure that the people flying in the aeroplane are in comfort,” Raziya said. She also had a photograph of the newly-opened Bandra-Worli sealink in the backdrop of the sunset. “The new sealink is something that has added to the beauty of our beloved city. The sealink looks very beautiful at night when it is brightly lit and I hope that we all are able to go there soon and soak in its beauty.”

Raheema was shy to talk about the pictures that she had brought along. She had a clipping of two young girls who seemed to be friends and looked excited. “The photograph is very refreshing. It is nice to see the girls smiling about something, and it seems that they are very good friends.” Raheema also had a photograph of a young girl dressed in the garb of a bride. “The sight of a bride is always very delightful. The bride is well decked up, and she has many hopes and dreams in her decorated eyes. The entire visual of a bride is always pleasing to the eyes,” said a shy Raheema.

Shabeena had brought along a cutout of actress Priyanka Chopra, in which the actress' back was shown while she turned around to flash her smile. “I love Priyanka Chopra as an actress. Plus, in this particular photograph, she is wearing a very gorgeous saree. I think nobody could take her eyes off this photograph and hence I like it very much,” she said.

Yasmeen had brought along a photograph of two people enjoying the rains. “I like the colours in this photograph. Rain by itself is very refreshing and it is nice to see the two happy people having a good time in the rains.” Nilofer brought with her a photograph which appealed to her funny bone. “This is a photograph of a man taking the picture of a monkey. People always want to take photographs of beautiful things only. But this is a picture which shows the lighter side on each person. The monkey by itself is a funny animal and I found this photograph quite hilarious,” said a coy Yasmeen.

The last person to talk about some images that caught her eye was Gazala. She had brought some photographs of a little girl trying to slience someone – the image said it all, with the girl putting her lips out and pointing her finger towards her lips, in a bid to silence something or someone. Gazala also brought a photograph of a picturesque locale. “It is nice to see perfect surroundings of a foreign place – where there is no dirt, only greenery, white clouds... the oversall sight of such a perfect landscape will make anyone happy.”

Sudharak then got down to business and elaborated on how photographs have their own way of communicating. He stated that it was evident that everyone was trying to show happiness through the photographs that they had selected. “It is the desire of everyone to be happy, to give happiness to others and spread that happiness around. We all want to be surrounded by positivity at all times and photographs often convey that message. Even if it s simple photograph of someone like Monica Seles, her history alone is very inspiring and compels anyone to reach higher in their own fields,” Sudharak elaborated.

He then went on to speak about the different types of photographs that were seen – they all belonged to different genres and hence he felt that this exercise was surely a successful one. “If you comb through any newspaper, you will get to see different kinds of photographs, in different pages. Hence the types of photography can be divided into many genres – sports, fashion, film, stock, news, etc. After a photographer has done sizeable amount of photography, he/she is able to decide what interests him/her the most, and the person can pursue that genre of photography. But as said earlier, it is all about respecting what you see and only then proceeding to take a photograph of what has been chosen by the eye,” explained Sudharak.

He then egged the women to speak out about their immediate surroundings which they would like to capture through their camera lens. The women, who were still trying to open up themselves in the second session of the workshop, were hesistant about coming up and sharing their ideas. We understood their apprehensions – fear of being ridiculed, fear of their idea not being good enough, and the general lack of confidence. But Sudharak and Ravi were aware of what was holding them back, and hence there was no percieved need to rush with pushing the women to speak up.

Paigumberi then came up, and was made to sit before the audience. She explained how she had once seen a woman without a hand. “The person who has lost a hand is not bothered about what people say and the constant glare that she has to deal with all the time. Rather, she has faced her reality bravely and has decided not to let anyone, anything or any circumstance come in the way of her life. She would want to fight it all and lead her life as though nothing has happened at all. If I had the chance, and if I had a camera in my hand at that moment, I would have surely taken that woman's photograph,” elucidated Paigumberi.

Fatima was the second person who walked up to talk about what she would love to see through her camera. Fatima's children stayed in a hostel and they would come home during the weekends or longer breaks. “When my kids come home, I love to hear them talk about their hostel experiences. They talk very animatedly and recite their poems and songs. My kids also catch up on their games with my brother's children. It is wonderful to see the house colourful when all the children are playing their own games in all earnesty. All the children often recreate the classroom at home, with one of them becoming the teacher and the others enact themselves as students. Sometimes, even when I am trying to fall asleep, I can see them playing and it is very interesting and hilarious to see them trying to play quietly, so as not to disturb me. My children and their innocent games is what I want to capture through my camera, and each time now, ever since the workshop has begun, I keep on thinking about what all I can possibly take photographs of,” said an excited Fatima.

With the rest of the participants still trying to muster the confidence to stand up on their own and talk about their desires, Ravi decided to talk about being playful in every aspect of work and life. “What does Zakir Hussain do? He plays with the tabla, and out of that playfulness has emerged tabla playing as his profession. Now that is exactly what Sudharak, I and Mexy do with the camera – we play with the camera. We play with seeing different things in different ways. We cannot get a good photograph unless we are relaxed while taking photographs. Imagine what a bad performance would Zakir Hussain deliver if he was all nervous on the stage! He is able to deliver a good performance only because he is relaxed and is in a playful mood, when he has his tabla with him.”

Ravi then asked the participants if they watched TV, and what did they see in the shows. The participants replied in a faint chorus, “We see love in the serials; we also get to see mindless arguments and people manipulating one another.”

Ravi then asked the participants whether they had a chance to take a look at the latest TV show on Sony channel, called 'Iss Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao'. “What do you think is the show all about?” The replies were varied: “The show is about people's attitudes while they are made to stay in a jungle,” “The show is about celebrities showing their true colour without any makeup,” “The show is about how celebrities tackle crazy stunts with weird animals.” Ravi went on to add that if we minutely observed the each and every frame in the show, we could get a glimpse of the way the celebs were dressed, how they would talk to each other, and what they were feeling which they were communicating through speech and their body language.

Sudharak elaborated on TV shows further, stating that people's expressions on TV conveyed most of what was to be told. “There is some reason why we repeatedly watch something on TV and why we want to continue doing that. The reasons we continue to watch some films is maybe because of the actors, the story, the comedy – it could be any reason that drives us to go back to something again and again. It is due to the visual splendour that we want to watch something repeatedly, and that is exactly what we watch with keenly and with concentration.”

Ravi continued to stress his point by asking rhetorical questions related to the participants themselves. “Do we observe things around us? Do we really observe around our house, our neighbourhood and the path during our journeys to this workshop? Often, we do not really 'see'; we only 'look'. We take the animate and inanimate things around us for granted, and we go about doing our work as though we are half asleep. So it wouldn't be wrong to say here that our mind is somewhere, and our eyes are somewhere else. There is no sync in that and that is something a photographer cannot afford to do. Forget photographers; we need to have our minds in sync with whatever we are doing at the moment,” explained Ravi about the metaphysical aspect of seeing differently.

Ravi and Sudharak then decided to bring in some visuals to break the tedium of chats and discussions. A presentation ensued which had many photographs on aerial shots from across the world, followed by a presentation of predominantly Muslim women from various parts of Islamic countries. After a long presentation with about 60 photographs, the next step was to gauge the response from women about the photographs that they had just seen.

“It is not everyday that one gets too see aerial photographs. Aerial photography takes a lot of effort, and the photographer just hires an aeroplane or helicopter to fly around for sometime and take photographs from around the world. Sometimes he is sponsored, sometimes he spends the high cost of hiring the aeroplane on his own. Moreover, newspapers hardly carry any aerial photographs, unless there is a drought or flood situation. The beauty of the earth captured from many miles about the land is completely missing from popular media. We might get to see some of these on TV channels like National Geographic Channel or Discovery, but that again is not an everyday thing,” explained Sudharak on the rationale behind doing the presentation on aerial photographs.

He added that the participants were being exposed to these kinds of photographs so that they are able to get a wider perspective on seeing things in a different way. “Due to the bombardment of similar kinds of images all the time, we have lost the ability to think or see differently. Hence it is all the more essential that we regenerate new thoughts in our minds and thus open us our horizons,” he said, before egging the participants to talk about what they observed or liked in the presentation.

Ayesha said that she could instantly relate with one particular photograph of a woman in her burqa, who was enjoying a dip with a bare-chested man in some water body. While most other participants laughed upon seeing that photograph, commenting that it was weird that the burqa was needed even in the waters, Ayesha said that she had been in a similar situation before. “When I had been to Tikujiniwadi with my in-laws, all the women in the group wore burqa. It was a water park but never once did we shed our naqaab.” Ayesha also said that it was an eye-opener to see the photographs of the minorities in the world – the Africans, the Jews, labourers, the Afghan girl on the National Geographic magazine. She said that anyone could look at a photograph and decide upon what the situation could be like, when the photograph was taken. “However, when we have information about a certain photograph and the incident which led to the moment to get captured on camera, it is then that one begins to look at the photograph differently,” she said, after she asked questions about certain news photographs and the reason why the moments were captured in a certain way.

Sudharak emphasised the need for getting out of the comfort zone to be able to face one's fears, and thus be confident about anything that needs to be done. “The reason I ask you all to talk about the photographs that you liked or left you thinking is because I want you to get out of your shell. It also helps us understand the way you look at images, and thus we are able to decipher more about you.”

Ravi added to it, stating that the centre of one's body has to be essentially comfortable. “When we sit up straight, we find the centre of our body to be our stomach. That part of our body has to be relaxed and from therein comes the feeling of accepting ourselves the way we are. And once we accept our own body completely, the confidence in us can never hide then on.”

“When a person walks into a room, the way he stands, the way he bends down to take off his shoes, the way he walks – his entire body language speaks volumes about the person's self confidence. This is exactly the reason why we want you to come up here, and speak for yourself about what you liked or did not like,” said an encouraging Sudharak, whose words prompted the participants to make a beeline to come and talk about the presentation they had witnessed few minutes ago.

The series of feedback began with Rubina who said that she liked the photographs of the mountains, in their different colours, sizes and shapes. “It was also interesting to see some women wearing naqaab, who were seated in front of computers. To me, that was a very positive sign because Muslim women are mostly pushed behind, in terms of education and personal development. That particular photograph was like a refreshing beacon of hope for women like me, and other marginalised Muslim women,” she said.

Naheeda noticed one photograph which disturbed her a little bit since it was reflective of her community. “The photograph showing a cloth partition between some Muslim men and women showed exactly how our society operates. Women are subjected to a life of seclusion, and this is evident even when they do a common activity like praying. In that sense, Hindu women have it easier as they are at least allowed to roam around and pray freely, in an open space,” she remarked.

She said that the photograph of some women on a beach wearing jeans as opposed to some other women in burqa, at the same place. The ones wearing jeans seemed to be most comfortable in the open environs of the beach, as opposed to the women in burqa. “There was also one photograph of Muslim men engrossed in their namaaz to such an extent that they have not noticed that one of the men's bicycles had fallen off ands was likely pull down the entire line of cycles near it. Maybe that's what one can call the power of prayers,” she said.

For Ayesha, photography was about instantaneous moments that she would want to capture in her camera and freeze it forever. “It is, however, only here in this workshop that I have learnt that women are also doing very well in this field, across the world. It is through photography that we have had a chance to see the beauty in diversity of the world. I especially liked the photograph where a cow was beheaded and the knife still pointing towards it, while a woman's face was also near the beheaded cow. The fear in the woman's face seems so real, as though she is trying to convey that after the cow, it was now her turn to go under the knife. It was also intriguing to see the photograph of some women in an Islamic country, who were being tried in a court of law, since their only crime was that they had allowed themselves to be photographed in public, while a judge or some official walks past them. That photograph was rife with irony – the same women who were being punished for posing in public now had their photograph taken in a court!” she remarked.

Mexy stated that it was nice to see a woman like Ayesha put forth her views and understanding of the photograph that she liked, and encouraged the others to be more forthcoming with their views too.

Next, it Reshma's turn to voice out her views. She said that the photographs they saw seemed more like paintings since they looked so pristine and perfect. She said that it was quite funny to see a woman in a complete naqaab in neck-deep water, along with a man. “it is understandable that a woman would go into the water too with her naqaab on, but the fact that she was still wearing her gloves in there was like taking the issue a bit too far. Other than that photograph, I also loved to see the flowers' farm which was so colourful! Then, the houses in Sweden looked all so similar although they were very colourful and clean and neat. But when I saw the photograph of a man taking a picture of some women – all of whom were in a burqa – I could connect with the photograph easily. Once, my brother had asked me to pose for a photograph, but I refused to so as there was no point in taking my picture while I was all covered in a burqa, with just my eyes visible,” reminisced Reshma.

She added that it was a daily thing to see Mumbai through photographs in newspapers and magazines, but it was nice to see the foreign locales too. She found the images of the effects of the Hurricane Katrina and a volcanic mountain quite riveting.

Tabassum said that the photographs of some water islands and that of Iceland appealed to her greatly, but those of the women in burqa disturbed her as it reminded her of the tough times that Muslim women have to go through. “Hence I liked to see the photograph of the women on the beach – they seemed to have been enjoying themselves and their freedom. Other than that, when I saw a photograph of some people in a queue, I could instantly identify with it because that activity is also part of my daily life,” she explained.

While Gazala said that she had loved the photographs of the Taj Mahal and those taken in Rajasthan, Paigumberi said that the photographs of Mumbai, where people were getting onto a crowded bus was easily identifiable. She said that the rains were an integral part of the city and the way the people get accustomed to it after some point of time, while they also enjoy it. “The photograph of the smoke emanating from a volcano seemed like Shaktimaan was leaving the Earth to go away somewhere far off. And that made me think hard about how are aerial shots really taken. In fact, as I was coming to the workshop today and saw Ravi taking some photographs, I decided that someday I will take his photograph when he is engrossed in shooting!” she said, inviting a lot of laughter.

Fatima said that she had seen photographs of foreign locales before, but it was only at the workshop that she realised how tough it was to take them. She said that through the explanations put forth by Sudharak, Ravi and Mexy, she could understand the many procedures needed to take just one photograph and hence its significance grew even more. “I loved one photograph of some logs of wood being transported on a river. Doing such a thing was tough and I can only fathom how tough it must have been for the photographer to take that shot. It is nice to see that the photographer has captured man's various ways to ease his own life and the way he does commerce. At the same time, I was saddened to see the photographs of women in their naqaab, but at the same time, it was encouraging to see women in similar situations sitting in front of the computer or having guns in their hands. This reassured me that women can indeed achieve anything they may desire,” she said.

Raziya told the group about the photographs that appealed to her – the women in an Islamic country who were being punished for having their photographs taken in a public place; women in naqaab who had lined up and had guns in their hands; the difficulties faced by Mumbaikars during the floods during 26/7; the woman wearing her naqaab who was enjoying some moments with her man in the water. “All these photographs represented different genres of photography and it was interesting to learn the stories behind almost each of them,” she said.

Raheema, who was still nervous about coming up and talking before an audience, was shivering when she it was her chance to talk about her favourite photographs. She said that she liked the photographs of the women working on sewing machines because it seemed empowerment to them. “When I saw the photograph of the women with guns in their hands, the thought running through my mind was that I wish I had a camera in my hand to take that photograph myself. That picture was very powerful and struck a chord with me. I also would have loved to take photographs of the women labourers who toil to be able to earn their daily bread,” said a shy Raheema.

Shabeena said that since water would enter her house during the floods, she could easily relate to some photographs which showed the effects of heavy flooding. “If the camera was in my hand, I would have taken photographs of people while they are working, as well as photographs of women who choose to dress in trousers and jeans like men do,” she said.

Yasmin was also of a similar view – she talked about the photographs she would have loved to clicked herself, had she been given a camera. She talked about the funny element in the photograph which showed a frog atop a bike, and the women in naqaab who had guns in their hands. “I would have loved to take photographs of farms around the world because I simply enjoy being in a farm, and through this workshop, I have seen so many different farms which are very colourful because of the varied crops that grow on the fields,” she said.

Both Nilofer and Heena had their favourites in the aerial photographs. While Nilofer said that she was glad to see the women wearing naqaab with guns in their hands, Heena said that she couldn't stop laughing when she saw the photograph of the frog atop a bike.

The photograph that most appealed to Badrunissa was that of a car being taken on a cart. She said that the picture was humorous, and that no words were needed to explain what was going on. The photograph was simple and self-explanatory, and that made it interesting.

The aerial photographs had motivated Saira to such an extent that she wished to be taking those photographs herself, especially those of the melting glaciers. “The photographs of women were quite inspiring – they conveyed a message that women are capable of doing and achieving anything, provided they have the will power, courage, strength and motivation to attain what is on their mind,” she said.

Like all the others, Farhat said that the various landscape photographs were pleasing to the eye. However, she differed from all the others, when it came to photographs of the women in burqa. She found the series on the Muslim women very depressing because their identity was framed only by what they wore. “The world knows Muslim women only by the black burqa which they cover themselves with, and since this is a very negative image, I kept wondering about the need to include so many of such stereotypical photographs in the presentation. The photograph of women wearing naqaab but holding guns in their hands was again another reinforcement of the stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists, and that photograph seemed to convey that now women too were becoming terrorists. I personally do not like that a Muslim woman's identity is defined only by the burqa that she wears, and hence all the photographs depicting a Muslim woman were in that not in my approval,” she said strongly.

With Farhat, the sharing of ideas about photographs drew to and end. Ravi stated that he was happy to see the diversity in the views of the women, and the way in which they were seeing photographs differently. “I'm glad that Farhat expressed her disapproval openly, and I can state here that it was not intentional to depict the stereotypical identity of Muslim women. We just wanted to show the way in which despite the barrier of a naqaab, the women were doing things which would have not been expected of them for the very reason that they are Muslim.”

Sudharak concluded the workshop session stating, “As you as you have an eye and are able to see, photography and film will continue to be alive.” He signed off by instructing the participants about the assignment for the next week: bringing write-ups of what photographs they would like to take and the reason behind it. “We want to see how differently are you thinking, but of course, this doesn't mean that you bring a write-up about shooting aerial photographs. Write about what is possible by you, with your limited means. You think of the idea, and we will help you to execute them.”
July 23, 2009: (Session 3)

The participants were armed with ideas buzzing around them, which they had hoped to translate into photographs sooner or later. Most of the them wanted to documents the lives of their family members, but then there were others too who wanted to go beyond the walls of their homes and freeze the outside world in their camera.

Rubina said that she had noticed a sweeper near her house who was doing his job with dedication. “It was pouring heavily and yet that man did not allow the rain to come in the way of his job. He could have not done it, but I wanted to capture his sheer commitment to his job.”

Saira said that her children would be happy when the school would be shut during a heavy downpour, and they would end up at home frolicking about. She said that she would love to take their photographs when they are engrossed in their own games. “Then there are a few women in Chor bazaar who have to struggle a lot to put up their wares and stalls. I had once enquired with them and they had told me that they had to pay hafta to cops to let them do their business. Then there are those scores of women who always are running to catch the train on time to get back home. I would like to photograph these two sets of women – both of whom are toiling in their own individual ways.”

Gazala said that during the week, she had been witness to a small scale riot between the Hindus and the Muslims in her area at Sewri, which went on till 4 am. She had checked on the TV news channels, but there was no report or even a mention about it. 'In the morning, the entire area was strewn with the debris of the riot – glass pieces from bottles, stones, shoes. Later we learnt that 4 Hindus and 4 Muslims were arrested, who were released on bail. But we all feared that the issue could have blown out of proportion. I wanted to shoot that riot in whatever possible way I could. But other than that, I enjoy seeing the women fighting in trains and that would be quite interesting to document!” she said, which was applauded by everyone.

While Yasmin had decided to take photographs of women who feed their children on the trains, Nilofer too wanted to take photographs of women who fought in the train due to petty things like being hit accidentally by an umbrella!

On her way from her home to the railway station, Tabassum had to cross a slum area where the people lived under tarpaulin sheets and cooked food on small stoves. “The children from the slums play and bathe in the mud, and there is no remorse or sadness on their faces, whatsoever. Children are the same everywhere; they are concerned only with their games. That is what I would like my photographs to be about.”

Raziya said that she was brimming with ideas which she would love to develop them as photo stories. “I like to see my daughter waking up early and getting ready for college. She has a fixed morning schedule and that is what I would like to capture on my camera. We also have a kid in our neighbourhood who is so naughty that his mother often ties him up. He is always up to some antics which would be fun to take photographs of. Then there is a police chowkie near my house which is supposed to be a watchdog for our area. But whenever I go past it, I always see cops sipping onto tea or reading newspapers and having a very relaxed attitude. There is also a bhajiyawala, a nimbu paani vendor and fruit vendor who are always inundated with crowds. Many people in my area are able to eat breakfast, thanks to the bhajiyawala who is very swift in his cooking. Then there is also a wholesale market where imitation jewellery is sold – these are some ideas for me to document through my camera, along with the flooding of slums which is a perennial feature of Mumbai.”

Shabeena said that she would like to document the way female vegetable vendors go about doing their work daily, while Raheema said that she would want to feature a woman who would continue to sit at her makeshift stall under a huge umbrella, even during a downpour.

Paigumberi said that while standing on the Bandra skywalk, she had often seen people get in and out of trains hurriedly, and she would often wonder, where do so many people come from? “The people look like ants from a great height above and I would like to feature that view in my photographs. Additionally, I would also like to photograph the dedication to God which is seen among Muslim men during the time of namaaz, when they would pray, no matter if it even rains.”

Paigumberi went on to explain how her wearing a burqa gets her to be the centre of attraction whenever there is a threat to the city. “The other day I was travelling to VT station and there was a rumour about a bomb scare. Suddenly I could sense many eyes looking suspiciously at me, and that made me feel very awkward. On another occasion, Bal Thackeray's rally was proceeding near guru Nanak Hospital in Bandra and I was the only woman there who was dressed in a burqa. I could feel that some heads were turning around for a better view of me. At the same time it was also raining heavily and I just wanted to get home as soon as possible. But I had to take a detour on my route because I had realised that God forbid, if there was a blast at that moment, I would have been devoured by the crowd – simply because I am a Muslim who was wearing a burqa that day,” she narrated.

Paigumberi further added that it was indeed a matter of shame that people are constantly in a jealous mode, and are always trying to pull down those who seem to be doing well in their lives. “Why is it that people's focus are on unnecessary issues, whereas those issues which need attention are sidelined? I am fed up of the discrimination between men and women. I am fed up with the bad roads that we have in our city, and the government chooses to not do anything about it. Why are our opinions not accounted when decisions are being made?” she asked with indignation.

Changing the mood of the workshop was Heena, who suggested that she likes the entire process of getting her daughter ready for school, and that was what she would like to take photographs of. “I feel pity for the street urchins who fall asleep on the roads and can do nothing when it starts pouring – they continue to be fast asleep because there is no way out for them. I would like to take their photographs and show it to the world the sad state in which these children are living.” Heena also narrated an incident when, during a rally, someone spread a rumour about a bomb being found. “We all were scared; we cannot afford to take rumours lightly these days. Hence me and my friend began to run, but we enjoyed that sudden sprint,” she said with her trademark laughter.

Fatima said that her sister, who was supporting the family financially in a major way, was very committed to her job. “Even if it is pouring outside heavily, my sister will still wake up at 6 am and get ready to go to work. I admire her strength and determination to support our family and keep us together. Sometimes, there is no electricity in Mumbra early in the morning, and yet, under the candle light, she manages to get ready and leave the house for the day. After her, my bhabhi wakes up to cook for the entire family's breakfast and tiffin. Then my brothers would wake up slowly, one by one. I would thus like to track the morning hours in my house since I am very close to my family,” she explained.

Farhat said that the roads in Mumbra are often blocked due to waterlogging during the rains. “It is during such a time that the only BMC hospital in Mumbra has to work under candle light! It is a very sad state but this is exactly why I want to document this situation on my camera,” she said.

Badrunissa had a tale about her children, which she would want to take photographs of. “My elder daughter attempts to teach my son but they almost always end up fighting. But there is still love between them. So I would like to take their photographs when they are studying, or at least trying to do so. I also work in a dispensary as a compounder where a poor boy often comes, wearing a girl's frock. He looks very cute in that dress and he is always busy playing in the mud. He never misses a chance to greet me. I would like to take his photographs too,” she said.

With the participants done with their bit of talking, Sudharak explained that the ideas were diverse and fascinating, yet it was essential that the participants work within the already set restrictions of geography and availability of their subject. “You also need to figure out your own comfort zones. Your home and neighbourhood are the places where you are most comfortable, and you first photographs should come in from there itself,” he said.

Ravi suggested that once they would get the cameras in their hands, the participants could take photographs of each other till they could be comfortable with the camera. “There is always a great deal of excitement when you get the camera in your hand for the first time. But you should be able to respect that instrument and not misuse it. You need to concentrate on what you are going to shoot,” he explained.

After a tea break, it was time for the participants to actually get their hands on Sudharak's camera to understand the nuances of focussing on the subject and composing a photograph such that only the essentials elements would be in the frame. “You have to play with light so that you can get very different results each time you subject is in a different position,” said Ravi.

The participants paired among themselves and a tripod was set up in the small room which had the window through which enough light was coming in, and a bright yellow wall which was the perfect backdrop. Sudharak explained how to focus on their partner and take a shot of her, and he had showed them the ways to focus and zoom in or out, as needed. One by one, each of the participants posed and then shot the photographs too. Photographs were taken by Sudharak also so that it would help him to explain the difference between the way in which the participants and he shot the photographs. It was a time for fun for the participants as each of them posed, smiled and giggled for the camera.

The camera was then unmounted from the tripod so that the participants could take at least 3 shots each. They were extremely careful with handling the expensive D3 cameras, and had consciously wound its strap around their neck. They roamed around the office, often asking anyone to pose for them in whatever way they wanted, but with hesitation.

With just about half an hour left for the workshop session to end, the photographs were downloaded so that feedback could be given on them. Sudharak showed them where they have faltered – most of the participants had included too much space within their frame and had allowed for other foreign bodies to pollute the composition. Sudharak then told them that as a photographer, it was their individual duty to ensure that nobody was obstructing in their way of taking a good shot and that they should have used the zoom option in a better way. “Most of the photographs here convey that they were taken in a hurried manner. You need to be patient and thoughtful while taking the photographs. Also, most of you have not focussed the camera well. Additionally, you should have no hesitation in moving around to take the photograph of a single subject from many different angles, until you are able to get a good photograph which is well lit. Each of you need to practise to look longer though the lens so that you get the focus right,” he explained.

The session had drawn to an end and Sudharak assigned the participants with a project for the next week: to come prepared with better and doable photo stories. He insisted that they look around more, within their own life and family and neighbourhood, and thus pick cues of what they would like to show to the world. As the participants began to wear their burqa to make their journey back home, the smiles on each of their faces was unmistakable – they were excited about having taken their first shots as photography students, and their confidence levels had evidently surged.
July 30, 2009: (Session 4)

The non-availability of Kodak cameras for the participants of the workshop on Thursday, July 30, 2009, led us to believe that it was the best time for the photographers to show their work, the diversity therein, and thus encourage a platform for discussion and debates on various topics.

Hasina said that she had been in the process of penning her thoughts over issues of an egalitarian society with men and women respecting each other and their differences. She read out her article, which she had jotted down in Hindi and began with her views on the burqa. This, she said, was especially after Nicholas Sarkozy, who was the guest of honour at our Independence event in New Delhi last year, had to face opposition by certain fundamentalists when he had his then girlfriend model Carla Bruni seated next to him at the event. Fundamentalists argued that only the legal spouse of the head of a state or nation could be permitted to such an event alongside, and not a girlfriend. Sarkozy was in the news recently when he proclaimed that the burqa would be made history in the annals of modern France.

Hasina was speaking in that very context of the burqa. According to her, the image of Muslim women portrayed by the media is always a stereotypical one – one that has women in black burqas to connote the suppressed lives they lead. It is indeed sad that a woman’s identity is determined by the religious norms that she is bound to follow, and that leaves her own identity, or even the quest for it, to a naught. At the same time, due to the over-zealous attempt in protecting the religious sanctity through the compulsions forced upon women, her health, financial and personal issues are sidelined. The importance of women and thus her essence in the society have been gravely neglected and more often than not, it is the women who are the first ones to fall prey to any kind of malice. And yet, despite being “protected” by the burqa, there is no respite for women from the atrocities upon them, and their right to justice is denied. In some fundamentalist countries, a girl is subjected to wear the burqa from a tender age of five-years-old – even before she may learn the basic alphabet. At the same time, there is also a good chunk of women who also feel that the burqa completes them.

But Hasina wanted to make her opinion regarding the burqa very categorical – the whole idea of burqa has precipitated to become that of a mental burqa. Similar is the case of the Hindu woman who has to wear a mangalsutra or a bindi to communicate to the world that she is a Hindu married woman. These are rules made to follow for the women in a society that is patriarchal.

Hasina concluded her talk with the way the various elements of the society reacted to the Delhi High Court ruling of legalizing gay sex. According to her, this ruling was strong enough to suddenly unite the different fundamentalist factions in the country, each of who proclaimed that anybody from their community found to be gay would be exterminated from the community.

“Why are always certain limits drawn only for women? When a woman is not allowed to make her own choices regarding what she wear and the way she follows her religion, where does her own identity lie? When a homosexual woman is termed as a non-woman and is also ostracized from her religious community, how is she able to exercise her own choice?”

A discussion soon ensued among the women regarding the meaning of burqa in their lives. Badrunissa explained how none of her family members ever wore a burqa. Her sister’s daughter, who had studied fashion designing, is now working at a designer’s firm, where it is a norm to for everyone to wear jeans. Some of her colleagues too insisted that she should wear jeans. So her niece had begun to wear jeans, with long kurtas and a scarf too. But the men in her household have vehemently opposed to such an attire. They have made it a compulsion for her to wear a burqa over her jeans. It is weird that despite her wearing clothes covering her entire body, she has been forced to wear a burqa, simply because jeans do not fall into the usual clothing bracket for Muslim women. Something as strong as a fatwa was issued against her niece, with the men stating that she would not be able to get out of the house henceforth if she did not wear the burqa. Suddenly, a regressive force had begun to strangulate their hitherto unorthodox family.

While Paigumberi voiced her strong sentiments against strange and unacceptable rulings, Fatima was of the opinion that the girl’s father’s viewpoint should be taken into consideration. She said that the girl’s father would have been aware of the kind of looks that his daughter would fall prey to, and there would be nothing that he could have done about it. The family’s esteem must have come into play here, and since nobody from their surrounding locales would have ever worn jeans before, his daughter was likely to be subject to the greatest amount of leering, and this must have been something that he had foreseen. Hence he must have issued the rule that his daughter should wear burqa anytime she had to get out of the house.

Fatima said that it was for the first time on Thursday too that she had worn a short kurta – above her knees. With a blush on her face that lit up her whole being, she explained that it was only within the closed doors of Awaz-E-Niswaan that she felt comfortable to be herself, and wear a short kurta. But despite this freedom for the three hours on a Thursday, she would surely wear back her burqa on her way home.

The discussion soon veered towards sexual abuse on the road. It was becoming a heated one-sided discussion, with all women resounding each other’s thoughts and reaffirming the fact that nobody had a right to a woman’s body other than the woman herself. Hasina drew an end to the discussion explaining that if a woman had her own educational and financial strength, there is hardly anything stopping a woman from achieving what she wants, and deserves. Educational and financial strength alone can give the woman the confidence to be herself, fight her own battles – big or small, and be able to say no to injustice.

Pushing the women to voice out their pent up anger regarding societal norms and suppression was Sudharak’s presentation on the female guards in a village in Manipur. The presentation was about the women of the village who tried to do away with the perils of alcoholism in the village. The women stood guard as sentinels to prevent the armed forces from forcefully attacking the villagers and disappearing into the night darkness with the young men and girls. But this was a larger goal. Their primary aim was to draw public attention to any kind of abuse against any woman and subsequently tackling the issue with force, rather than by being meek.

The mornings in the village had a past of blood strewn into the jungles leading to the mangled bodies of the raped girls and no sign of the men kidnapped. The senior ladies of the village then decided to take law in their own hands – a group of women with torches and machetes would guard the village boundaries until the wee hours of the morning. At the same time, if a woman would hear of any trouble brewing in the village during the day, any woman would continuously bang a kitchen utensil against an electric pole, and within minutes, a group of 200 women would gather. Nobody could defy their combined strength; nobody could dare to outwit them. The photograph of a particular senior lady was very endearing – what with the explanation about her provided by Sudharak. The lady was known to lead women in many marches, and in one instance after a violent day, the women stripped naked completely and marched into the state legislative assembly. That particular woman had led the march, shouting out slogans condemning the government. That village in Manipur was the perfect example of a matriarchal society whereby law was taken care of, with the official state and central armed forces having no say in the security of the village, and perfect harmony amid the villagers.

The participants at the workshop were charged after seeing the strong visuals. Sudharak casually asked what could be done next. Raheema, then muttered, “Ab toh ghar mein jaakar sab ko seedha karna hai.”

From the hinterlands of Manipur, the women were catapulted back to the refined aura of Bollywood stars. Sudharak started with by telling the participants that taking photographs of filmstars was what he did for a living, but that statement did not exude any response – as much as when the presentation began, with Karisma Kapoor smiling from a door. The response was a resounding “ahh!” and a volley of questions soon followed, addressed towards Sudharak. “Have you really met her?” “You were really in front of her?” “Was she really standing before you?” “Did you really ask her to stand and pose in that particular way?”

And soon there was one photograph after another, of pin-up stars of Bollywood. Be it the close-ups of dashing actors or the shy smile of the actresses, the participants continued to be in awe of the photographs. But the most number of resounding “aahs” were heard for Salman Khan and Shahid Kapoor. The participants were speechless for a moment but soon gained ground when Sudharak decided to show them his project on conservancy workers. The presentation was a testimony to the tough lives of the conservancy workers of Mumbai who are hired by the BMC. These workers maybe paid a salary of around Rs 7,500 but their lives are distraught by unhygienic working conditions and addiction to drinking to get away from their pain of unable to improve their situation. Sudharak explained that there is high mortality rate among these workers because they are in constant contact with toxic materials and gases, and their employee doesn't provide anything for their safety. Once they dump all the waste into dumping grounds, they do not even have soap to wash themselves clean. Then, when they board the bus to get back home, they are often shooed away by the passengers due to their stench. Besides, these workers have to deal with just any kind of waste – be it old furniture that is dumped and flushed into the gutters or dead animals or even just-born foetuses.

By the end of the presentation which comprised around 30 photographs the participants of the workshop were awestruck at the way in which these workers, without whom Mumbai cannot survive, are treated by their employee and the society at large. The participants had various perspectives on the subject – while one of them said that humanity had literally gone down the drain as the workers faced the same horrible plight as the dead foetus, another said that as a society we never spare a thought to think how we dispose our waste; yet another participant was of the view that the West had been successful in recycling waste which we ought to adopt too in India.

Fatima then remarked, “After seeing these gripping black-and-white photographs of the conservancy workers, the photographs shown from the glitzy world of Bollywood had faded from my mind.”

Sudharak then moved on to talk about his work with the women in Chitrakut in Uttar Pradesh, who had won their own personal battles against domestic violence. The women, who had managed to get moral and legal support from a local NGO, had manage to fight cases against gender inequality head on. Some of the women were fighting cases against an abusive husband, another was fighting against her rapist who had raped her few days after she delivered a child, while yet another had managed to get her in-laws build a separate living space for her after a prolonged abusive relationship. The presentation contained photographs of a the wife of a police constable who was beaten up by her husband mercilessly, of a woman who had lost her leg due to incessant beating by her husband on her leg, of a woman whose nose was cut by her husband during a trifle fight over dinner, of a young girl who had been raped as a child and now had a male demeanour.

Post the presentation, it was evident that there was a renewed vigour among the participants – they suddenly sat up with an erect back – maybe a sub-conscious realisation to take stock of their own situations and their life. The women began to feel renewed, and Ravi Shekhar then made a statement that a person who always remember old encounters but would never forget the gender of the person with whom the encounter took place. He stated that it would take many donkey years for the society at large to do away with the idea of gender, and instead work with just the idea of a person as he or she is. But Priyanka then rose up and put forth a counter argument to his point, stating that why wasn't it possible to simply respect and celebrate the gender difference? All that was needed was only respect for the individual and that the male or female identity was immaterial. She then spoke about the need to love oneself first before anything else. She spoke about her own ideas of freedom and her struggle with her family when she decided to go bald on her birthday.

Priyanka then elaborated on her own personal experiences of being witness to two women in her family who were victims of domestic violence, and who were helpless about it. She further said that there was a desperate need for women to realise their own worth and that that alone could help them get to wherever they wanted to go or do.

The clock was ticking but there was a desire to talk, discuss and have an exchange of ideas on issues of gender relations and the society. In a sweet way to conclude the workshop on that particular Thursday, Sudharak gave the audience a glimpse of the photographs that he was to showcase for his upcoming exhibition to be opened on September 4 at Cymroza Art Gallery, along with a German photographer. His photographs would depict Germany as he saw it, while his German counterpart who showcase India as she saw it. The participants were enthralled to see Germany through Sudharak's eyes – the Germany which is pristine and garbage free, the Germany which was many decades technologically ahead of India, the Germany where people do not fear to express love openly, the Germany which celebrated independence in the fullest form, the Germany where the government had real inclusive projects for the citizens, the Germany where people loved their spouse, their children and their pets the most – in that very order. It was a refreshing break to see colours of a country different from our India, and each one privy to the photographs was sub-consciously comparing the lifestyle of the Germans with Indians. The presentation ended and in the dark room of Awaz-E-Niswaan office, all one could see was many smiles – positive smiles of seeing something beautiful, hopeful smiles asking whether our lives would ever be able to match up to the lifestyle of the Germans?

The workshop concluded with Sudharak's quick presentation about the children in a Swedish school, who belonged to many different countries of the world, who had sought refuge in Sweden. The plan was then set for the next workshop session, with a field trip to a few art galleries in South Mumbai. It was decided that we would all congregate at the footsteps of Jehangir Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda on July 5 at 2 pm.
July 5, 2009: (Session 5)

Most of the participants reached Jehangir Art Gallery at 2.10 pm, along with Priyanka. It was different kind of a gathering for the women, with most them decked up for their day out of their lives of drudgery. After the congregation was complete (which included making some calls to those who hadn't arrived till quite some time and ensuring who all wouldn't be joining the team), it was decided that a group photo should be taken at the footsteps of Jehangir Art Gallery. All of them women had shed their black robes except for Reshma. We entered the first gallery on the left hand side on the ground floor and saw a painting exhibition done by four male artists. Their works were about religion, violence, peace, popular media, ruined childhood, rural life and other landscapes. While some of the women pondered over each canvas in their bid to understand what meaning the strokes tried to convey, there were others who thought that it indeed required a significant amount of patience and will power and hard work to paint on such large canvases.

This latter idea was reconfirmed by Nimisha Sharma and Veena Chitrakar, who are daughters of renowned artist Indra Sharma. The exhibition by Veena had paintings done by her in her typical style of various lines and textures, akin to textiles. She explained how the two sisters were inspired by their father's dedication to his painting, who would often forget to eat his meals while he would be engrossed in his studio. The participants of our workshop queried Veena on her way of working and the artist was humble to take the women through a tour of her paintings. She helped them understand the bigger picture in her paintings one at a time, which helped the participants realise the different ways of seeing and expressing.

The adjoining gallery had some metal sculptures which was observed with keen eyes by the participants. The designs were radical and this enthused the participants to look at the made objects from different angles. After many photographs taken within the gallery, the contingent walked up a few metres behind Jehangir Art Gallery, to the Goethe Hall, where Rekha was showing her exhibition.

The participants of our workshop were enthralled to see a vibrant Rekha – with salt and pepper hair, colourful capris and a dynamic demeanour, Rekha explained to the participants how she loved painting and despite her age of 55, she was as enthusiastic as her grandchild who was in town to check his grandmother's exhibition. When one of the participants commented that most of the characters in Rekha's paintings had their eyes shut, Rekha retorted, “But isn't that how most people are – leading their lives blindly?” and she was rewarded with a thundering laughter and applause for her honest observation and its manifestation onto her canvas. Rekha had also reserved a small section in the exhibition hall to her husband's few aerial photographs. He had recently taken to photography and Rekha thought that they were good enough photographs to be displayed in her exhibition. The participants seemed to be refreshed and renewed upon meeting such a person with a positive and inspiring outlook, and with that, the group crossed the road to Bodhi Art Gallery. The ground floor had some photographs on Ladakh as well as some portraits in black and white, while the upper floor had some photographs by Ketki Sheth, who had some candid black and white photographs of film stars of Bollywood.

After a brief inspection of photographs at Bodhi Art Gallery, the participants packed themselves into taxis and headed towards the NCPA, to be treated to a visual delight by a presentation by Mukesh Parpiani, the curator of Piramal Gallery. As the former photo editor at Indian Express and Mid-Day, Parpiani showcased his body of work through the times of Mumbai – from black and white photographs of politicians and riots to coloured photographs of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. There were about 50 photographs that could be categorised into hard and soft news. Parpiani then entertained questions about how tough getting to a news spot was in the days without the mobile phone and when he would hack into the radar of the Mumbai police's wireless service to get news about incidents, so that he could rush his photographers at the spot.

After a break of about 15 minutes which was a well-satiating one with sandwiches, tea, biscuits and sweets, Parpiani showed the participants around the gallery, showing them archival and art photography. After a heavy dose of seeing with dedicated eyes, it was decided to get soaked in the light air of the Marine Drive. For a few women, it was the first time that they had been there and their fluttering tresses was a kind juxtaposition to their ardent desire to be able to move about and live their lives freely. A long photo session ensued and the women were seen in a demeanour like never before. The participants of our workshop were living it to the fullest in that half hour by the sea – somehow, the sea was a metaphor of finding its own shores and flowing freely despite coming across the boulders, just like the women who desired to flow in their own individual lives notwithstanding their own personal hurdles.

Some of the women were getting late to reach home. Some, like Raheema, had lied to their families that they were going to Kurla for the workshop as was the case on every Thursday. So it was essential that they get home on time so as not to attract attention for reaching home late. But others like Heena did not show an ounce of the need or desire to get back home. They opened up the knots in their hair, much like opening up their bottled frustrations; they swung on the streets with no care, much like they would love to do that more regularly; they laughed aloud and wished to laugh more till their tummies ached, in their own mundane lives. Alas, they had to get back to the same place which, rotten as it was, had forced them to come to Awaz-E-Niswaan in the first place.

August 13, 2009: (Session 6)

Charged with the experiences of the past week, the participants were ready to share their thoughts, ideas, observations with the group. While most of them had penned their thoughts neatly, it was interesting to note that they had made varied observations and the trip alone had revitalised them. Ravi asked if anyone would want to share the trip's experience with everyone, and he picked the reticent Raheema to begin with.

Raheema, who often shies away from talking, said that it was her first trip ever to an art gallery and the experience was something that she had not imagined. “There were some paintings which we had not understood, but after looking at them keenly, it was pretty simple to see that the painters wanted to communicate the ideas of peace and violence, but they said it in their own creative way.”

Naheeda had written her own essay about the trip last week, right from the point where it began to where and how it ended. “At the entrance of Jehangir Art Gallery, I noticed a family portrait and it humbled me immensely to see the contribution of a family to something like art.” She went to add about her understanding of some of the painting that were stuck in her mind. “I was sad to see the first painting which depicted Gandhi with a gun – he fought against non-violence all his life and a gun took his life. On the other hand, I saw that the painter wanted to show that Mother Teresa and Jesus wanted to communicate something to the children, who were wrapped in layers of newspapers.” Naheeda also expressed her delight upon seeing the paintings which were a riot of colours.

Naheeda added that the black and white photographs of some filmstars at the Bodhi Art Gallery were a refreshing break from the more popular colour and glamorous photographs of those stars. “When we went to the Centre for Performing Arts (CPA) and saw some fantastic photographs of Mumbai by Mukesh Parpiani – water logging in the city, the Ganpati pandals in Matunga, a train accident, a street child sleeping on the footpath near a car in South Mumbai, Mukesh Ambani's wedding function, a sadhu with sword who was seen talking to a cop with just an umbrella in his hand – the photographs were very gripping and we could identify with them. We had some good snacks and then even had good fun at Marine Drive,” she said.

Reshma said that she was enamoured to learn about the hard work that would go into making one painting by any painter. “I was enthralled to hear that the painters would put in 3-4 days for a single art work and would even forget their meals because they would be so engrossed with their work. It is also interesting to see how these artists express themselves through colours.” Reshma said that when they walked into the Goethe Hall, she firstly keenly observed Rekha and only later began to look around at her paintings. “Rekha said that she was 55 years old but she had a very elegant and confident poise that defied her age. The colours in her painting reflected the happiness and sadness in one's life, and how women get in and out of sticky situations through their lifespan. Even her husband's photographs of clouds were enchanting – while we think of taking images of what we see on the ground, her husband climbed up many miles ahead and has done an amazing job. Rekha had also painted a picture of her guru which she had kept it separated from her paintings which were on display for the exhibition. I think that act was wonderful for Rekha showed her respect to her guru by not keeping it along with the other paintings,” she said.

Reshma continued to elaborate on what all she had seen the previous Thursday and remarked about Parpiani's photograph which depicted the stock market crash: “He had torn an umbrella and through the torn section the BSE building could be seen. I quite liked that idea. I also felt honoured that he gave us his time and spoke to us well, besides providing some good snacks.”

Ayesha said that she would want to say about something that wasn't spoken about by anyone until then. “Each one of us enjoyed our freedom at Marine Drive. We weren't stopped from doing anything at all and we didn't want to get back home too. I too go to Chowpatty alone when I'm feeling low, but this time going to the sea front with so many people only heightened the pleasure. When Sudharak made us all walk together while we bent and took our photographs, we felt as big as those celebs whose photographs he often clicks. We were at once, at par with those celebs and this is one feeling that I will forever treasure,” she said.

Concluding the talk on shared experiences, Farhat said that almost all the participants had no exposure to art, and so the trip was an eye-opener. “In the photographs taken by Sudharak and Ravi, which were earlier shown to us, we could see the life of the aam aadmi, and his tribulations. But in Parpiani's photographs, we mostly got a glimpse of the high-society, the city decked up during festivals or politicians. That made me wonder – do you as photographers have your own freedom about what photographs you can take, or are you dictated by certain norms laid down by the organisation you work for? Editorials reflect a newspaper's identity, and I wanted to know how does it work with the decisions taken for publishing photographs.”

Priyanka decided to reply to that question, stating that today, news is just another business which is dictated by market forces. “A media house will refrain from writing or airing negative news about a certain company, simply because that company advertises with the media house. It is sad that when the incidents of farmer suicides were heard about a decade ago, there were just about 3-4 journalists covering that issue. It was happening at the same time of the Lakme Fashion Week, which was being held for the first time in India. However, there were more than 200 journalists covering that event. The priorities of media houses have changed; they will follow that path where there is money. They do not care about real issues really,” she said, adding that reinforcements of repeated truths and reality was needed to set an agenda for the masses.

After the discussions were done, Ravi announced that the cameras would now be distributed among the participants. He showed them the slick cameras, and asked Priyanka to demonstrate how it needs to be used. After the demonstration – about switching the camera on and off, zooming in and out, clicking on the right button by pressing on it for over 3 seconds to take a photograph, viewing the photographs that had already been taken, and deleting the unwanted photographs – Ravi decided to call out to any participant to voice out her confusion about using the camera.

Paigumberi said that she was a little confused, and this led Ravi to invite her to demonstrate the use of the camera, as far as she understood it. “I have understood that the tiny round tikli is for switching the camera on or off, while the longer tikli is for clicking photographs,” her usage of the word 'tikli' reinforced the usage of both the buttons in the camera.

Ravi then explained to the participants that he wanted them to have a look, touch and feel experience with the camera, and asked the women to pair up themselves based on their proximity of stay. Once the cameras fell into the hands of the participants, the office of Awaz-E-Niswaan was suddenly waking up to life. There was a lot of healthy commotion and the participants were moving around the office to check what all could the camera capture. There was laughter, amusement, instructions given about posing in a certain way for the camera, and the participants learnt how to be confident with the camera.

Soon, after the practice session with camera, someone noticed that the clock was ticking by and it was time to go home. Before the women could pack the cameras into the pouches and they themselves could wear their burqas, Ravi explained to them the assignment for the next week: “I want each of you to shoot around whatever you see, preferably your immediate surroundings, in three days. And then you will pass on the camera to your partner for her to shoot. Have you noticed that when you are about to take a photograph, you suddenly stop breathing for a moment? That stillness is evident in a good photograph when it turns out to be crystal clear and non-hazy. Ideally, we would want each of you to shoot 500 photographs so that you develop your comfort with the camera and you are able to capture different things and show it to us. We want to know what you see and how you see,” he explained.

The workshop had ended for the day and the women had taken along with them a lot of enthusiasm. The confidence brought about by the camera had already begun to seep into their lives – almost all of them hung the camera around their neck and stated, “Now we are also photographers.”
August 20, 2009 (Session 7)

It had been one week since the participants had a camera around their necks and had found a new way to seeing things they often saw and show what their eyes captured, through their camera. Each camera had the chance to capture images seen by two women, and after a short period of downloading the photographs in the Awaz-E-Niswaan office, it was time for the participants to talk about what it meant to actually have a camera with them.

Ravi Shekhar wanted to know the experiences of the women when they were armed with the camera and moved around their known and unknown spaces in the city, to capture the various moments. He acknowledged the fact that people are usually afraid of the camera – it is like a mirror to them which shows them their true colour, and they are scared that their true colours will actually be revealed. He also spoke of the necessity to be smart while wielding the camera so that the person taking the photographs do not come in the line of fire or ire.

“I had once seen a documentary film on a secluded factory where dolphins were fished out and were being cut by huge saws that were operated by machines. It was a highly restricted area, so obviously it was impossible for a camera to be let in. But the filmmaker somehow managed to get his camera in there and film what goes on inside the factory. That requires courage and smartness. The camera has the power to draw instant attention and so it is necessary to be swift and smart,” he explained.

It was not the time for the participants to talk about why they captured in their camera, what they captured. So while some photographs were still being downloaded, and after a lot of contemplation on who would come up first to share their personal camera experience, Raheema decided to bow down to pressure and talk about what she saw. “It was during one Ramzan evening that I decided to take my camera out and capture the mood, few minutes before the people could end the fast for the day. It was nice to see the area decorated with lights and people standing near food hawkers. As I was busy clicking photographs, I noticed one particular man who approached towards me and insisted that I take his picture. When he did not stop pestering me, I finally decided to take his photograph too. Besides, since I was very happy to have the camera in my hand, I also took photographs on my family and household, when they were busy with their mundane lives,” she explained.

Raziya that a madaari performing acts with a child and a monkey had caught her eye, and it was humbling to see the child holding his hand out to the forelimb of the monkey. “I took about three photographs of them and then moved a little ahead on my street to see a man working on Ganpati idols. It was overwhelmed to see how the artist had painted every minute detail of the idol with patience. There is also a bakery shop quite close to my house from where I purchase my daily bread. I was intrigued to learn how was bread made, so I went to the shop and began to take photographs, as well as a video, of the different processes involved in making bread, beginning with putting the flour into a machine to make the dough. I also learnt that different processes are employed to make pao and naan. Further, I also took photographs of a shop where supari or betelnut is cut. Also, I saw some labourers who would come to the city for work from their villages and they would hardly get their pay on time because of the ruthless contractors,” she explained.

As the week that passed by also celebrated India's 62nd Independence Day, Paigumberi decided to mingle among celebrating crowd to take photographs. She said that although crowds made her nervous, she found it all the more annoying that the general public stares at others who decide to do some work on the road. “I hated it when everyone was staring at me when I was taking photographs. Eunuchs proclaim that all three sexes are united and they are no different from males or females, yet they are the noisiest lot – they were overreacting when they saw me with the camera. On the other hand, when I was trying to take photographs of my mohalla, the people began to mock at me. They said, 'Suddenly the milk vendor wants to become a crorepati, just with a camera in her hand.' I chose not to reply back at them, but some of them went and complained to my mother about what I was doing. They did not dare approach me themselves. Even my uncle said that it would be best if I had a press card with me so that I did not have to bother about my security,” Paigumberi said with an angry tone.

Paigumberi wondered how could one tackle the issue of crowds and unwanted stares. “I also went for the gay pride march, and was literally just an ant among the swarm of photojournalists. I wanted to take the photograph of Celina Jaitely by there were huge men who were doing their job of being her bodyguard rather too well,” she cited.

Fatima, on the other hand, had to face a strange dilemma – her younger brother had too many questions to ask her about the camera, and he was adamant at not letting himself be photographed. “In the beginning, whenever I had to take any photograph and would begin to focus my camera on the subject, my hands would shiver. Plus, the opposition that my brother was putting up unnecessarily was annoying. I thought to myself, if I am having to face so much trouble in my own home, how am I supposed to go and work out in the more mean world? So I decided to document the interactions between my children and my nephews,” she said, happy at having found a solution to her problem.

While some participants had to come to terms to their own fears and apprehensions, someone like Rubina knew how to tackle any menace. “When I went to the market area to take photographs, everyone was staring at me. I was aware that I was attracting a lot of attention, but I decided to ignore it all. When I was travelling by taxi near Byculla church, I saw a cow sitting in the middle of the road very quietly and elegantly. I took a photograph of that cow while the taxi was still in motion. The shopkeepers in the market were wondering what a woman wearing a naqaab was doing with a camera, in the middle of the street. Some of them even asked me what was I doing, to which I replied that I am sending my photographs to Dubai! They asked me if I had the permission to take photographs, but when I retorted back angrily as to why should I need permission and whose permission should I take to keep them quiet, they all went mum and got back to doing their own work. This whole episode reinstated my self confidence,” she said with a bright smile as she recollected her tryst with her camera.

So it wasn't a surprise either that Rubina's testimony was followed by a loud applaud by the rest of the participants. Next in line was the reticent Yasmin, who admitted that she was confused about what photographs she could take. “I was travelling by train and I remembered the photographs taken by Jyotika Jain. I decided to take the pictures of the hawkers trying to make a living by selling various articles on the train, but they became very conscious of my camera. After a few photographs, I was compelled to put my camera back into my bag. This week there were also magnificent celebrations of Janmasthami, so I took pictures of the human pyramids that were being formed,” she said.

Nilofer, on the other hand, said that it was with much struggle and personal determination that she was able to take some photographs. “I didn't have the courage to go alone and take photographs. I had called up Gazala but she ditched me in the last moment. I asked in my family if anyone would accompany me, but I ended up fighting with them. I took a neighbour's kid along but had to bribe him with sweets. Finally, I went to the slums in Wadala and took photographs of the way people live in such small areas. One vegetable vendor saw me taking photographs and almost began to fight with me. I was determined that I would surely take her photo. So I stood between two cars so that she could not see me, and then I clicked on,” Nilofer remembered.

Nilofer had also gone to the gay pride march along with her friends Yasmin and Gazala, and the trio had an experience of a lifetime. “We were busy taking photographs of anything that caught our eye, including eunuchs. One eunuch got really angry when I was taking her photo, and almost began to get into an argument with us. We apologised to them and they offered their hand to make peace. My hands began to shiver when I had to shake my hands with them! But we did not begin our photography journey without taking off our burqa, which we did, behind a truck. We then immediately wore some colourful masks to hide our identity, especially since there were a lot of media around. Many photographers thought us to be lesbians and wanted us three to stand together and pose near banners which shouted aloud about supporting same sex relationships. But we would walk away each time,” recounted Nilofer, as the other participants only laughed as she narrated every detail.

Nilofer added that after the march, they went to Girgaum Chowpatty where they continued taking photographs. “There the people thought that we were professional photographers and hence they did not bother us, and let us do our work,” she concluded.

Gazala, too, had tales about her first experience as a 'photographer'. “After having taken the obvious photographs of my family, I wanted to take the photograph of a handicapped woman who would come in our area to beg for alms. She was a stiff woman but somehow she allowed me to take her photograph. I was convinced that I had to take her photograph anyhow, because I could very easily relate to handicapped people. Later, when we went to the gay pride march, it was really nice to hear everyone talk in smattering English. I tried to converse too in English and one person wanted to take my photograph too, but I denied. He was kind enough to respect my denial,” said Gazala.

She added that on her route to her house, there was a BMC school and adjoining it is a slum. “I wanted to take their photographs and they began to look at me with questioning eyes. They asked me who I was, and I replied with pride that I was a photographer. They were glad to have a photographer among them and they welcomed me happily to talk to them and photograph them,” she said with confidence.

Shabeena wanted to take photographs of anything that she liked – be it the ice cream she ate, or the innocent eyes of a boy who was administered with glucose in a hospital. “I somehow convinced the kid and his grandmother to let me take their photograph, and they obliged.”

With a mother who is apprehensive about how her daughter would take photographs, Naheeda had to resort to utter some lies to be able to take photographs. “I work at a beauty parlour and so I had told them that I needed to go to the medical shop. But instead, I roamed for a bit and took photographs of vegetable vendors, the vendors selling fish, and anything else that seemed interesting in a market landscape. But then my battery died so I had to walk back to the beauty parlour. One day I had to go to Santacruz station and was quite agitated to see the slow pace of the work of the skywalk, which was in turn causing much trouble to the traffic situation. There was no place to walk in peace, and hence I took a couple of photographs there. Some vegetable hawkers who saw me taking photographs insisted that I take their pictures too, I obliged, and with many photographs to show my mother, she too let her guard down. She allowed me to take her photograph too. Now I am more confident of taking photographs anywhere,” she said with a radiant smile.

Another person to have found new confidence in herself through the camera was Tabassum. After having taken photographs of her family, she was able to shed any fear that could be hidden within her. “Now I want to take more photographs with a larger and more professional camera. Usually when I am walking on the road, nobody bother to look at me. But now, as I walk on the road with my camera in hand and taking photographs, they all notice me and do not mess with me. I have also learnt to take more time to compose my photographic frame so that I do not take any random photographs,” she said.

For Badrunissa, trying to get her daughter safely home from school became the subject of her first experience with the camera. “There is a slum near the BMC school at Agripada where my daughter studies. There have been many attempts to remove those slums – there was a murder there, and even Raj Thackeray had paid a visit. But the slums are still there and it is a nuisance because young girls like my daughter fall prey to eve teasing by the men. So I took photographs of that area,” she said.

Badrunissa also had been to Vashi during the week and was privy to a funny spectacle – a kid riding astride a dog. “I also had taken photographs of the wall paintings at Vashi railway station, followed by some photographs of some cops trying to catch some sleep. They saw me and I was afraid that they would confiscate the camera. They approached me but I was smart enough to convince them that I was only taking photographs of the wall paintings. After that trip to Vashi, I felt that I was more at ease to take photographs in my locale,” she narrated.

Ayesha had a long story to narrate about her manifold experiences with the camera. Choosing an idea to photograph had stuck in her mind ever since she left the workshop the previous week's evening. She was sure that one of the things that she would want to take photographs of was the market in Dongri where she spent her childhood, and the ladies who sold mogra flowers as gajra. "I was constantly aware that my hands were shivering when I was taking the photographs because I was afraid that the cops sitting at the nearby chowkie would snatch my camera, when they would notice a burqa-clad woman taking photographs. But somehow I managed to muster courage each time I took out the camera. Later, when I took photographs of the women selling gajra, some of them took off offence to it, while some others approached me and asked me to give them their photographs that i had taken. I also was quite intrigued by people who had made with the road – be it a drunken man who was swaying, or a woman who was selling vada pao along with another man, or some people who live on the footpath with just a tarpaulin sheet as their roof," Ayesha explained.

Ayesha is also trying her hand in business through Amway, and so she also took photographs at a seminar conducted by the company. She said that she remembered Sudharak's words that a place needs to be revisited many times so that its different aspects could be captured. "So I decided to minutely look at my daily route from my house to Sandhurst Road station. I also took photographs at the entrance of Haji Ali and when the vendors there asked me why was I taking their photographs, I told them that if my work was good, an exhibition could be put up. They then agreed to let me photograph them. I also tried to take my camera inside Atria Mall but I wasn't allowed to do so. One day, when I was travelling by train, I came across a South Indian eunuch who seemed upset that the train was empty, so she could not make any money. I asked her if I could take photograph her, to which she agreed and insisted that her photograph appear on the front page of a newspaper! Incidentally, I bumped into her again at the gay pride march later in the week," recollected Ayesha.

Reshma had an equally interesting journey while taking photographs. She had attended the gay pride march along with Ayesha and when she saw a fantastic photo opportunity, she climbed up a grill and worked through her camera. "Imagine a girl, all clad in burqa, climbing up some grills, to take photographs of the proceedings of a gay pride march -- the media there went berserk on seeing me that way and suddenly all professional lensmen turned towards me! The media wanted to know if I was attached to any organisation because of my participation. After that episode, I remembered that there was a girl in my neighbourhood who was strictly confined to her indoors. I requested her father's permission to let me take her photograph as it was needed for my photography examination. He told me to visit them the next day, but then he did not let me in later. I was dejected. Meanwhile, when I travelling by train just two days ago, I noticed that nobody would want a fisherwoman sit next to them. I decided that I wanted to their photograph," said Reshma.

She then told us about her arduous journey to document a single day in the life of a fisherwoman. Reshma reached Bhaucha Dhhakka the next day at 6.30 am to catch all the action. "I did not notice the signboard which said that cameras were not allowed. So although I took several photographs, one man finally noticed me and asked me politely to leave.He told me to take permission from the head office, which as shut at such an early hour. I went to the bridge where I saw fish being segregated and loaded onto vehicles to be sent across the city -- I was able to get their photographs. I learnt that they would also head to Dongri market and so I took a bus and reached there. I had to wait for two hours before the truck with the fish arrived. I took those photographs and also asked some fisherwomen if they would be okay if I took their photographs when they were heading home," Reshma explained.

She continued, "I was able to take photographs of the entire processes involved in the fish market. While some women agreed to being photographed, others were reluctant. One lady who was ready to let me take photographs, didn't let me take them finally after she was brainwashed by one of her colleagues. I managed to find out that the women do not go home with their basket, but I wasn't able to take photographs of the episode when they would return home. This entire experience – from 6.30 am to late at night – taught me not to be deterred by people's reactions," elaborated an already-professional Reshma, who had enthralled the audience with her narration of girt and determination.

Heena said that she wanted to take photographs of the Janmasthami celebrations, but the organisers did not allow her to do so. "They people in my mohalla were more interested where I got the camera from, if I had purchased it, what was I doing with it, etc. All those questions were annoying me. Then I shifted my focus to the vegetable vendor, the man who delivers gas cylinders, a child being taken to a doctor, and such observations that I had made in my locale. I saw a child in a dispensary and wanted to take his photograph, but he was afraid that I would print it in the newspaper. I was inspired by Sudharak's works on the conservancy workers of Mumbai and wanted to photograph something similar, but I had to put in a lot of efforts to convince people to let me photograph them," she said.

The narration of personal experiences drew to an end, and Ravi said that it was indeed necessary for everyone to admit that they were initially afraid to take photographs in public. But Mexy interrupted that it was evident from the photographs that the level of confidence among the women had surely increased. "But I think all of you would agree that the best photographs are those which were taken from a closer distance – the lack of distance from the subject is enough proof of the confidence in taking photographs," observed Ravi.

The confidence among the women was summed up best by the argument that Ayesha had to put forth during one of her interactions with a woman selling gajra. "The woman had told me that I would have to pay her Rs 20 if I wanted to photograph her. I told her that all I had was my camera and no money. She had no other option but to keep quiet. People were not bothered who was standing next to them when Celina Jaitely was up on the stage, but they were bothered when I was taking photographs. But this experience has showed me that I do not need to bother really what people have to say," she said.