In the eastern part of Bangalore, India there are eight legal slums. Legal meaning that the government cannot simply confiscate the land and bull doze all the homes. Either way, they are the poorest of the urban poor, says Pleasantville, New York Photographer Lynda Shenkman Curtis, “and considered invisible to the state.” So in wanting to do something more substantial than just being a tourist on her second trip to India, she thought she could use her photography talents to at least give a small group of children the ability to make themselves not only be seen but heard.
Googling south Indian volunteers, she says, hundreds of things came up. With a few phone calls, she ended up in a children’s community development center that never had any help from the outside.
Mostly akin to an after school program, these types of centers aspire to getting kids to think beyond just taking menial jobs and having children at age 17. Ms. Shenkman’s pitch to bring the kids photography was received enthusiastically by the administrators. “It’s not a new concept,” she says in reference to the Oscar winning documentary, Born into Brothels, and its mission to teach photography through it’s kids with cameras organizations.
Doing this all on her own, she went out and bought 10 cameras, as the sell to this group of sixty twelve to sixteen year olds came just as easily. No hands went up when she asked if anyone had ever held a camera, but the show of hand was certainly different when the offer went out to actually take some pictures. “They all raised their hands,” she says.
She mostly limited the lessons in photography, but stressed the importance of taking special care in deciding upon 12 shots each would get. “I want you to really think about what in your neighborhood is important to you,” she says she told them.
As a professional, she learned that the untrained eye can see beyond what she may have learned in the field. Taking shots at similar subjects, she realized, she said, “I wish I had taken those pictures.”
After getting their work developed, she instructed the kids to write about the experience. “The social worker said he had never scene them write like that,” she says.
Not discounting the novelty of working with cameras, she mostly attributed the success of her endeavor to something a lot less sophisticated. Giving them a feeling of empowerment, she says, “I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone to ask them what things were important to them in their world.”
In turn, the kids did take that intentioned glimpse into a future, which may now look different from the ones their parents took. “Kids were writing about their pieces saying I would like to be a photographer,” she says.
In a practical sense, she was thrilled that they no longer limited their aspirations to a predetermined ceiling, but the kids weren’t the only ones whose eyes were opened. “One of them came up to me and said, ‘I want to thank you for this opportunity,’ and I said, ‘I want to thank you because I learned just as much as you,'” said Ms. Shenkman Curtis.
Otherwise, she doesn’t intend to end the relationship or the supply of film and the center is thrilled to have her continue the project from her Oxygen House Photography Studio in Pleasantville but she also needs no photoelectric image to stir the memories of the what she left behind. “I’ll never forget their faces and the joy that they had,” she concludes.
Rich Monetti interview of Lynda Shenkman Curtis