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Portrait equality
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Portrait equality
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Portrait equality
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
4 March 2014

Portrait equality

In a country of so much suffering, madness and complexity, the proposition of giving photos, not just taking them, can seem simple and insignificant.

Written by Livia Albeck-Ripka

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

On a hazy afternoon in Varanasi, we stopped to buy some beans. Cross-legged amongst his vegetables, the grocer shook his head when I asked if I could take a photo. I showed him our polaroid camera, pointing at the slot where the photo would instantly appear. “For you,” I tried to explain. He looked perplexed until his neighbour said something in Hindi, and then he wobbled his head from side-to-side in that way that means both “yes” and “no” in India. I took it as permission.

When I handed the polaroid over, a smile broke across the grocer’s face, and stayed there as he watched the image slowly develop. He placed it down carefully while he gave us the beans, and we left, trailing along the chaotic streets of the holiest city in India, where we passed chanting men as they carried their dead down to the Ganga River for cremation.

In a country of so much suffering, madness and complexity, the proposition of giving photos, not just taking them, can seem simple and insignificant. But seeing the shift from reluctance to gratitude in a person who’s been given—however small—a gift, convinced me otherwise. On our trip to India last year, my boyfriend Daniel and I took part in Portrait Equality, a project which helps give photos to people in developing and remote communities. After applying online, Fred the Camera and two rolls of film appeared in the post. We could rent the camera for free, on the condition that we gave photos to as many families and people we met as possible.

In our first week, we stayed at Barefoot College in Rajasthan—a school which not only breaks through caste barriers, but teaches grandmothers to become solar engineers. Every six months, they bring women from around the world (who must be over 35, illiterate, and have never left their villages) to Tilonia to learn the skills needed to solar-electrify their villages. “All are dragged kicking and screaming,” said the founder Bunker Roy “but they return home like tigers.” The college is strict in its selection criteria. If they train men, they learn and leave for the city, explains Bunker. Grandmothers, however, return as leaders and carers for their communities. On top of its work in solar power, Barefoot provides clean water, healthcare and education to the people in the surrounding area. One evening, we visited a solar-powered night class, run for children who work during the day. After our first days in Delhi battling touts and trickery, this was a profound insight into rural life. I had to agree with Bunker when the next day he told us, “I think one day people will realise that living in cities is hell, and it’s time to go back home.”

 

Two weeks later, having travelled by train through Pushkar, Rishikesh and Agra, we arrived in Varanasi—the most spiritual, dirty and maddening place in India. Believing that death in Varanasi will bring them salvation, Hindus come from all over the country to die by the River Ganga, which flows 2525km from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bangal. The bathing ghats, which stretch along the rivers’ edge, are places for washing, cremation, card-playing and cricket. Here, everything and nothing is sacred. Walking along the river that day, we met an artist who was trying to re-beautify a stretch of the bank. “It is in your hands to make a difference,” read a quote from Nelson Mandela on the ancient brick wall. Amongst the piles of rubbish in the streets, the suffering people and the impending sense that nothing in India could change, here was another person like Bunker, just trying to do his bit to make things better. Later that day, we met two boys who couldn’t afford kites for Uttarayan (The Kite Festival) just a few days away. We followed them through winding streets to a tiny shop where we bought them one each. They thanked us, smiling, and ran away.

By the time we reached the Andaman Islands—closer to Thailand but owned by India—Daniel and I had used up most of the film. We’d found it was impossible to give one photo away without it fast becoming a craze. There was no reason to save them, so we gave them out. Communicating that we wanted to give photos, not take them, had been challenging with most of the people we met. Often it would take handing the pictures back-and-forth a few times before people understood they were theirs to keep. Sometimes they’d look at us, bewildered, until we’d put the photos in their hands and walked away.

Livia Albeck-Ripka

Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian journalist in NYC. She has had bylines at The Atlantic, Quartz, VICE, Haaretz, Tablet & others. Livia is a former fellow at Fabrica & previous Deputy Editor at Dumbo Feather, covering culture, identity, politics & environment.

Feature image by Livia Albeck-Ripka

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