Eight year old Sneha skipped down the lane way toward her home, her tiny feet deftly avoiding the puddles formed by women scouring pots and washing clothes. Moving quickly out of Sneha’s way, a wiry balding cat scattered into a dark doorway and a wide-eyed baby stopped chewing on a piece of wood used as a doorway barricade to watch Sneha run by. I was rustling through the plastic bag I was carrying when some children and their mothers noticed what Sneha was clutching to her chest and dropped what they were doing to rush at me in a frenzy of flailing arms and high-pitched chatter. Surrounded by a growing mob grabbing at the plastic bag I was holding tightly, I looked for a rational face; someone who could manage the swelling crowd. Long arms and tiny heads poked their way into my bag like piranhas attracted to shiny bait. My glasses slid down my nose and I couldn’t find my hands to push them back up. Finally one of the older boys demanded some calm and there was a brief respite where I stepped out of the fray, re-organized my glasses on my face and smoothed my shirt. I reached into the bag and tried to sort through the contents, squinting into the sun while children leaped on my back and climbed my limbs for a better view. The bag didn’t contain candy, money, iPads, or winning lottery tickets – it contained photos – of them.
Kane and I have taken thousands of photos over the years that Dirty Wall Project has worked for this community. We document the lives of the people we help as a tool for this blog to give readers a visual feast to attach to the story and give a face to a name and a name to a face. It is important to us that the readers of this blog get to meet the people whose lives we write about and care about.
The camera is always dangling off my shoulder, never in a case, always ready. If I’m not using it the kids use it to take photos of their friends, their homes and stray cats and us. My workhorse camera, a Nikon D90, (now with a taped lens, dust in the crevices of the lens cap, a cloudy monitor, faded symbols on the control buttons, and a strap with a shadow of the Nikon logo that has been soaked with sweat) has been dropped, bashed, passed around and the lens has been smeared with countless tiny fingerprints when the kids grab the camera to see their image on the monitor. The kids are brilliant at figuring out the controls and a few of them have a keen eye for composition and a definite flare for photography.
When I’m not taking photos to document a blog post I almost always heed the call, “Please, click my photo!” Women quickly arrange their sari’s pulling the free end over their heads as a veil, men check their collars, smooth their shirts and swipe their hands through their hair, kids grab a friend and make faces. Having their photo taken can be a serious business and the usual pose is unsmiling, hands at their sides. But if I can catch them before they “pose” I get delightful images and candid expressions. They direct me. Whole body please, or only from the neck up please. They check their image in the screen and then rearrange themselves for one more photo please…Outside of the community I am asked to take photos of barbers, shopkeepers, brash groups of male teenagers, ladies selling fruit on the pavement and the occasional rickshaw driver. Never imagining they will get a copy of the photo, it is always a thrill to find them again and give them the photo that they may have forgotten I took.
We try to document their lives whether it is a new baby, a visiting relative, a new shirt, a birthday party or a school function. They are usually content to see their image on the monitor on the back of the camera, but we decided that a hard copy of their photos is just one more way for DWP to contribute to the community. We give out hundreds of photos every month. I have finally figured out a way to distribute them without causing pandemonium. I sort them in groups according to where the subjects live in the community, wrap each group of photos in white paper, label the paper, and then have some of the kids help me deliver them. They bound down the lane ways knocking on doors, shouting out names, flipping through stacks of images until they find the right photo to give to each person. There is anticipation, elation, and always a little shout of joy when someone receives their photo.
Just a shiny piece of paper with an indelible image of their families or themselves – a moment in their lives saved and savoured.
Although a picture is worth a thousand words – I only have a few – Thank you DWP donors for making sweet moments possible.
Cost of 1,144 photos: Rupees 11,467 - (CAD) $197.70