Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Young accomplices

Boys scavenge in the municipal garbage dump in Chennai, India. They spend their nights safely in a shelter sponsored by the Madras Christian Council of Social Service.

The subjects of my images are often unindicted co-conspirators in their creation. Take this image, for example, of some boys scavenging in the municipal garbage dump in Chennai, in the south of India. I met them in a shelter sponsored by a local ecumenical group. I was in Chennai in 2010 shooting images of their excellent HIV and AIDS work, and the staff invited me to come by the shelter early one morning. It’s a place where boys, who otherwise would have to fend for themselves on the mean streets of what the British dubbed Madras, can spend the night in safety, eat a decent meal and take a shower. But when morning comes, they head back out to their daytime jobs, which for most of them is scavenging in the huge municipal dump. I wanted to document that, but inspectors at the dump entrance aren’t very fond of foreign photographers, and the kids said they’d never knowingly let me in. So they put me in the group’s van, where I scrunched down in the back surrounded by boys, and we drove through the front gate and into the middle of the dump. The boys got out and started working, while I photographed them. Soon they’d forgotten about me and were engrossed in the details of their work, including consulting with each other about the value of the individual bits of metal and other scrap that they can sell to recyclers. I had at least 15 minutes to work before a dump official discovered me and requested that I leave. To these boys and so many others who literally conspire with me to make strong and compelling images of their daily lives, many thanks.

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