Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Incredible India

Not long ago a principal purveyor of stigma and discrimination for people living with HIV and AIDS, the Christian church has become in many places around the world a leader in providing both care for people living with the disease as well as advocacy and education to reset the culture’s response to people infected with and affected by the virus. I’m in Chennai currently, wrapping up a three-week trip to India, and I’ve seen this repeatedly in the faces of people living with HIV and AIDS who have themselves become advocates for their neighbors. They are determined that everyone should live full and healthy lives.

Women in the Rangoon Street neighborhood of Chennai, India, march through the narrow streets near their homes to help educate their neighbors about HIV and AIDS.

Much of this work was done on behalf of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, but I spent the last day with a group in Madurai that gets funding from United Methodist Women and does street theater in rural villages. Young people, some of whom have lost parents to the virus, enthusiastically share information about the disease while at the same time breaking the myth that people living with HIV and AIDS should be treated as today’s untouchables. People are literally being set free by the these ministries.

I shot a variety of other subjects. One morning, for example, I photographed young boys who work in the garbage dump in Chennai, but who spend their nights in a shelter run by a local ecumenical group–the Madras Christian Council of Social Service. We had to be somewhat surreptitious in order to get me into the dump, in that local authorities don’t allow journalists inside. Garbage dumps aren’t pretty places, and in places like Chennai they’re filled with the some of the poorest people on the planet working in horrendous conditions. But the kids helped me enter without initially being seen, and I was able to photograph them for several minutes in their environment before being “encouraged” to leave by the dump manager.

Boys scavenge in the municipal garbage dump in Chennai, India.

The same organization runs a shelter for women who are survivors of trafficking, and I photographed there as well. But then the next day the women came to me with a request that’s new for me. Several of the women are interested in getting married, or in marrying their older daughters, and they need to prepare a packet of materials to take to a marriage broker–yep, most marriages in India are still arranged. An essential element of the marriage proposal packet is a photograph (actually two: one of the face and one of the entire body). So I became a marriage proposal photographer for survivors of human trafficking. The women and I had a lot of laughs doing that, and I was honored to play a small part in helping them get off to a new start in their lives.

India, as always, is photographer heaven. So visually rich and complicated. It’s also a non-stop barrage of sounds and smells as well. After a while in India I feel like I’m suffering sensory overload, and I long for a moment of quiet boredom. I’m sure that will come when I get home and start processing the images. With the HIV and AIDS pictures, there’s an added chore in post-processing. I can’t state anyone is HIV positive or even suggest it unless I’ve got a signed consent form from them. I’ve had to do these in three languages on this trip–English,Tamil, and Telugu–and I must have a stack more than an inch thick. Many people excluded a particular usage of their image, so it’s a complicated task to match the forms to the images and then be clear how and where we can use the image. As if I didn’t spend enough time in front of the computer as it was. I understand the value of the consent forms–we’re insuring that the rights of everyone are respected–but they are a PITA for a photographer. I guess I’d prefer to stick with the sensory overload and leave the paperwork to someone else.

Certainly my favorite images of India are those that reflect the ordinary daily life of its fascinating people. (If you haven’t figured out already, by placing the mouse over the image you get a brief caption. If you click on the image, it takes you to that particular image on my online photo site. There you can browse similar images to your heart’s content.)

Students practice meditation together as part of their studies at a rural college sponsored by Roofs for the Roofless in Karanai, a village in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.

Women walk home after a day of working in the fields near Poonthandalam, a village in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu.

Malaisami harvests jasmine blossoms in Nallur, a small village in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.

A mother braids her daughter's hair before she departs for school in Nallur, a small village in the state of Tamil Nadu

A woman carries food in several pots to workers harvesting sugar cane outside Nallur, a small village in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.

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