Avoiding Single Stories: Through a Photographer’s Lens

“Show a people as one thing. As only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

Often we play a game in the fields of southern Rajasthan. In the morning, we wrap ourselves with scarves and sweaters, and allow our minds to wonder if the day ahead of us will remain cool. Signs point to dementia as we forget what previous days have reminded us time and time again. The sun will come out. We will perspire. We will sit and drink our tea in the shade of a mango tree. Eventually, we will give in and we will take off our sweaters.

It was on such a day, and it was such a moment, when I felt crippled by the possibility of delivering a single story. I had just removed my sweater and was walking back towards the school building. Through an open doorway, I could see children in uniforms focused on the words of the presenter. One distracted boy looked my way. My primary task for the day was to archive our presentation at this village, and photography was my vehicle for completing said task. I took off the lens. I checked the settings. I raised my camera. My finger hovered over the large black button as I hesitated while I considered the weight of a single story.

Chimamanda Adichie’s words have lingered in my mind since I first listened to her inspiring Ted Talk this September. In her talk, she reminds us about the power dynamics that are in play when it comes to storytelling. Adichie warns that, “single stories create stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete”[1]. As volunteers in India, it is imperative that we do not perpetuate the incomplete images of India which have been popularized around the globe. Each narrative we choose to share—whether through writing, photo, or video—has the power to alter or exacerbate incomplete perspectives.

As a photographer, I have found myself hesitant to share certain images I have captured during my time in Banswara. The following is an effort to provide a holistic narrative through extended captions with images which could have an unintended impact otherwise.

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Kushalgarh Block. October 4th, 2017:  Pictured above is a man who was in attendance for our presentation in his village during the Janjatiya Kisan Swaraj Yatra. He seemed distracted. Various members of our team were delivering messages about true farming, child rights, and nutrition. This man would occasionally chime in, but more often than not he would joke with another village elder, or I would catch him staring off into the distance. I found myself wondering what he could have been wondering. After the presentation, we shared a brief conversation. It was clear he understood the content of the presentation, yet he maintained trepidation about the potential impact of our interventions. This has been consistent in my experience with the communities in southern Rajasthan. A trepidation to accept interventions because of letdowns during prior experiences. Multiple people shared stories about NGOs coming to their villages and their homes and suggesting changes, only to fail in following-up on the suggestions or providing any other guidance. Unmet promises lead to messages falling on deaf ears. I suppose that is what draws me to this photo time and time again. It serves as a reminder that we need to have realistic and achievable goals when we are working with communities in this area. We must remember it is their lives are we working with and working for. Thus, we need to listen, learn and act with their needs in mind. If not, our messages will float away with the occasional breeze, and we will continue being exposed to vacant stares.

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Thandla Block. October 11th, 2017: This is the distracted boy I mentioned in the beginning of my post. A presenter from VAAGDHARA was discussing child rights and I was walking in, out, and around the room as I tried to get the best angles for photographs of the presentation. Often, children laugh whimsically as I toy with my camera trying to get candid pictures of whatever scenes lie in front of me. If a person is overly distracted by the camera, I tend to disengage and attempt to retake the photograph later. However, this young man noticed my intentions time and time again. Eventually, we both gave in to laughter and I snapped the photo shared above. In my time as an AmeriCorps Fellow at an elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, as a big brother through the Big Brother Big Sisters of America program, and now as a William J. Clinton Fellow for Service in India, I’ve discovered the universal curiosity and humor with which children approach new experiences. For their curiosity I am grateful, and by their humor I’m re-energized for my work ahead.

 

[1] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED Talks, 7 Oct 2009. Accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

parijatjha

parijatjha

Parijat was born in India but grew up in Columbus, Ohio, from the age of 6 onward. He feels a sense of gratitude for the education and opportunities he has received and has always felt a sense of obligation to re-connect with and give back to India. At Ohio State University (OSU), this interest was intensified as he obtained his degree and worked intensively in the field of environment and sustainability. He hopes to obtain a PhD in Political Science one day, focusing on ethical development. He backpacked through the Himalayas in Nepal and spent a few months in India after he graduated from OSU, but he is so excited to experience India through a new and different lens as an AIF Clinton Fellow!

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