In Transit Tales: A Guide for Creating Participatory Photography Projects with Migrants and Refugees, the author recounts a story from a workshop conducted in a barrio in Peru in 1973 in which participants were asked to take pictures of “exploitation.” While most delivered images of policemen, shop owners, or landlords, a young shoeshiner captured a nail protruding from a wall. His was a novel and unexpected approach to the question; initially, the facilitators assumed he had chosen to show a metaphor, an abstract representation of the struggle faced by the boys who worked on the streets. Upon further probing, however, it was discovered that the shoeshiner had chosen to show the nail he was forced to rent to hang his shoeshine box on at night, an example of exploitation specific in its presentation but universal in its implications. This simple nail in the wall inadvertently sparked discussion in the community, achieving the purpose of the workshop.
This anecdote reveals the true power of documentary photography: the image is not the end in itself; it is a means to an end, to something larger and more complex.
When telling stories of adversity, those who are experiencing that adversity are almost exclusively the subjects of the photographs; the camera, in the hands of an observer, is pointed at them, capturing an image within a frame that includes or excludes only certain elements of context within a spatial relationship determined by the photographer. Embedded in every photograph is a power dynamic, and when someone is photographed they are subjected to a portrayal outside their control (Transit Tales 9-11).
This is why the shoeshiner’s nail is so important: the boy was able to take ownership of his narrative – his definition of exploitation – and through that manifested his sense of self, not one assigned to him by someone else. Through that ownership the seeds of change were planted.
At this juncture it is important to remember the ethos that drives Dream a Dream throughout its many ventures. The organization is child-centric, placing at its core the interests, emotions, and dreams of the young people with and for whom it works (https://dreamadream.org/our-strategy). This operates in tandem with an overarching theme of dignity through adversity – the notion that dignity, as defined as the preservation of respect and the absence of exploitation, can be maintained and exhibited through careful consideration of what and how stories are being told. The natural continuation of this paradigm, then, is to empower those who experience adversity to tell their own stories. The natural continuation is to place the cameras in the hands of the young people themselves, which is exactly what the facilitators did in 1973 in that barrio in Peru, and it’s exactly what we did in Bangalore in 2018-19.
The Communications Team and I planned and implemented a photography workshop in four distinct sessions that were designed with the Dream a Dream Life Skills Education model in mind. The basis of this model is the Arc of Transformation, a purposefully escalating succession of opportunities for confidence-building and self-reflection intended to positively transform participants (Bhat 2). The four sessions of the workshop each contained an arc, and each, in turn, acted as part of a larger, comprehensive arc; arcs within arcs, narratives within narratives. The focus of each session mirrored the concentric circles of the child-centric approach (https://dreamadream.org/our-strategy). In sequence, the sessions encouraged participants to first explore and document their own identities and narratives, then, moving outward, the stories of those around them, then their communities; the final session was a celebration of it all.
The participants were, in no particular order, Srihari, Uma, Raza, Kantha, Wasim, Amreen, Shahid, Johnson, Kavya, and Manohari, all members of the Dream a Dream Life Skills Education community.
SESSION ONE: THE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND MANIFESTATION OF ‘SELF’
During the first session, the question we encouraged the participants to consider was: “How do I see myself?” In an era when photographic self-expression has never been easier thanks to both the advent of social media and the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, it’s an important question. It presents an opportunity to explore metacognitive thinking – thinking about thinking and being aware of one’s awareness – in the context of the concept of self.
Prior to attending this first session, we asked each participant to identify a photograph that featured her or him as a central subject to share with the rest of the group. The photographs had to portray them in ways they liked for reasons simple or complex; the intention was to examine identity through memory, the notion of who one was and where one has been, which is an existential quality of both photography and, again, of the concept of self.
In accordance with the Arc of Transformation, the session opened with an emotional check-in designed to identify and equalize participants’ emotional states prior to arriving. Because the workshop aimed to encourage the expression of self, the check-in took the form of a selfie, the most widespread form of self-expression in the world. The act of taking a selfie, so common in India, is powerful by virtue of the ease with which someone can express emotion and share with others; each participant in the session displayed their emotion to the group in a quick click.
The participants then shared their prepared photographs in smaller “family” groups, chosen so as to minimize hesitation when speaking in front of a larger group; with the presentation of each photograph the speaker started to acknowledge the conscious and subconscious decisions that go into how one is portrayed, and why that matters.
Taken altogether, the activities and experiences of the first session comprised the Powerful Beginning component of the Arc of Transformation. The Powerful Beginning “[helps] us let down our guard, build trust and connect with each other” with the intention of “[helping] us trust the process” (Bhat 2). Focusing on something as seemingly simple and commonplace as a photograph is a means to build trust; we have the shared experience of taking a selfie to ease into the arc and intentions of the workshop, and we utilized it and other forms of photographs as tools to reflect and share.
It was during this session that each participant received a disposable film camera and was asked, with the finite number of exposures provided, to consider capturing stories that follow the arc of the workshop.
After introducing and familiarizing the participants to the cameras, we suggested that the first nine exposures be reserved for the expression of the self, for the objects the participants think define them and for the ways in which the participants see themselves. Relative to other workshops conducted by Dream a Dream, the instructions for the use of the cameras were purposefully left undefined. The participants thus entered the succeeding week free to consider these components of identity in their own ways.
Upon developing the film several weeks later and sifting through the piles of photographs, identities started to emerge. Participants chronicled their possessions: for one participant, a scooter helmet positioned next to a zagging beam of sunlight; for another, a school graph book. One striking photograph contained a single white football resting atop a stand in what appears to be an alleyway; a sort of monument to self.
Others found ways to insert themselves into the photographs. One young woman caught her own shadow on a sunny sidewalk, while one young man took a picture of his reflection in the oval mirror in his home.
The photographs throughout this article are taken from this workshop, developed in a dark room and scanned for digital use – imperfections and all, just as the photographer participants themselves captured.
SESSION TWO: EXPLORING AND UNDERSTANDING RELATIONSHIPS
During the second session, the question we encouraged the participants to consider was: “How do I see others?” As such, the emotional check-in consisted of partner portraits, or portrait photographs between partnered participants in which the emotion of the portrait subject had to be reflected not only in the image, but through the technical use of the camera, too. For example, one of the participants in a partnership arrived to the second session feeling proud of the previous session’s work; as a result, her partner lowered the camera to capture those feelings of pride with an upward-looking angle, thus positioning the subject as being above the camera, bestowing her with power. Another participant felt tired, so his partner took the photograph from eye-level with the subject pretending to sleep on the floor, thus creating empathy since we are “on his level.” Through this activity we set in motion the realization that, in documentary photography, more than just the subject tells the story; oftentimes, the story can be told through the use the camera, through distance, framing, position, and technique. The intention was to help the participants capture the emotion of another, and use the tools available to them as a photographer to do so, and to respect that emotion, whatever it is.
Later, in new pairings, we asked the participants to draw their partners using coloring supplies. This compelled the consideration of another person, of that person’s sense of being, and of how that person would want to be portrayed. This motivated scrutiny of the physical mechanisms that allow for emotion – the smile, the eyes, the eyebrows – and thus for connection with an audience. Then, upon the completion of the drawing, the artist delivered it to her or his partner, the subject. We asked the subject of the portrait to then think about and list all the people who surround them with support – friends, family, teachers, community members – so that, when they embark on the second week of documentary photography using their disposable film cameras, they have, somewhere in-mind, the notion that there are others who surround them, that their portrayal matters, that their cameras can be used to explore the narratives of others, and that the power of a camera to convey those narratives is vast.
This is the Arc of Transformation’s Transformative Experience: the realization that a photograph can have immense implications not only in one’s own identity and narrative, but in the identity and narrative of another. This is the “high-impact powerful experience” that shifts understanding, “[an] experience that can be created by using the arts, or sports, or any other medium that lends itself to engage in it, in a non-judgmental way.” Further, “[the activity] is hopefully something that we have never done before,” (Bhat 2) – documentary photography conducted in this manner, as we came to find out, is something none of the participants had done before.
Photography is a powerful tool; its implications for others must be explored and experienced to be understood.
For the second set of nine disposable film camera exposures, we suggested the participants capture images of others, of those identified earlier in the session during the main activity as being the sources of support and connection. In preparation for the next session and in order to get the participants thinking about the impact of the photography workshop on the community, we also suggested six exposures be used to capture moments of interaction between the self, others, and the larger community.
Upon developing the film, we encountered many photographs of family members – infants, siblings, elders, mothers, fathers. Most photographs seemed to be of genuine moments. A natural inclination for photographers is to construct moments by arranging the subjects into coordinated lines and requesting a uniform facial expression. Even if a majority of the participant photographers had done that, which they had every right to do since the manners of expression were at their discretion, most did not; they embraced the challenge head-on, imbuing their images with narratives of truth and dignity in which the subjects and the cameras worked together in those moments to tell stories. That’s documentary photography.
SESSION THREE: A COMMUNITY OF OWNERSHIP
During the third session, the question we encouraged participants to consider was: “How do I see myself and others in a community?” Accordingly, it was during this session that we distributed the photographs to the participants, having developed them in a local darkroom. The photographs, as can be seen in this article, are intimate, emotional, and reflective; moments in the participants’ lives that brought forth new considerations and thoughts.
The bulk of the third session was dedicated to allowing the participants the time to construct their narratives in large flip-books through the combination of their respective photographs and written insights. By examining the photographs the participants were made aware of all the entities within the photographs; the communities that surround them. By arranging the photographs in a certain order and adding insight and reflection by way of text, the participants were motivated to interpret those communities and their roles within them, to derive meaning from the individual moments captured in the photographs with the aim of arriving to a bigger picture. The narratives were wholly of the participants’ creation, honest and dignified by virtue of coming from these creators. This session was the Creation of Meaning, the point in the Arc of Transformation at which “[we went] deeper into who we are and what we are capable of, when we are able to see and hear ourselves beyond all the voices and images that hold us back” (Bhat 3). This notion of “images that hold us back” is especially relevant because the sessions of the workshop and the resulting narrative photography booklets were designed to spur the emergence of self and the establishment of ownership of narratives, achievements that defy prevailing practices of documentary photography that limit the subjects’ ownership and therefore inhibits any senses of self. Any image taken of someone which subjugates that person is an image that holds them back.
SESSION FOUR: CELEBRATION
In the fourth and final session, the question we encouraged participants to consider was: “What value can come from sharing my story?” Prior to their arrival we made large-scale prints of the photographs, one from every camera; seeing their images printed and hung on the walls instilled confidence and pride in the participants and their capabilities as photographic documentarians and storytellers. Printing the photographs validated the creative risks the participants took when engaging with the workshop; the cycle of risk and validation is what encourages new positive developmental behaviors to take hold.
The majority of this session was dedicated to holding a safe and open space for the participants to share their narratives and reflect upon the experiences of being the ones to consciously tell their own stories. Each was met with a cheerful round of applause.
This session, the final component in the Arc of Transformation, was the Celebratory Transformation, the moment in which the new perspectives, knowledge, and actions are celebrated by the workshop community “to make sure we never forget” (Bhat 3).
After all had been said and done, I couldn’t shake the photograph of the single white football from my mind. The combination of its graphic starkness and symbolic potency made it resonate with me. I think this is why: in the larger conversation of adversity and aspiration, oftentimes a young person’s identity is decided for them. Narratives often emerge in which the defining characteristics of the young people somehow all stem from or are tied to the forms of adversity they experience, as if they are nothing more than the obstacles they face. They are more than the adversity they face, with personalities and histories rife with the complexities afforded to anyone else. Like the shoeshiner’s nail in the Peruvian barrio in 1973, the football represents far more than initially suspected. In a simple, stark photograph, one of the participants captured a part of himself that may otherwise have never been made part of his story if being told by someone else, especially in the context of discussions of adversity. The football is how he wants to define himself, and the role of football is his life and the pursuit of this dream is the story he has chosen for himself, a manifestation of control exerted over his own narrative. Sometimes that story revolves around a single white football; what matters is that it’s him who decides – not anyone else – and that we continue to have the conversations about how to make that happen for others.
- Bhat, Sucheta. Arc of Transformation – Dream a Dream’s Approach to Programmes. Arc of Transformation – Dream a Dream’s Approach to Programmes, Dream a Dream, 2018.
- “Dream a Dream – Empowering at Risk Children – Our Strategy.” Dream a Dream – Empowering at Risk Children – Our Strategy, dreamadream.org/our-strategy.
- Transit Tales: A Guide to Creating Participatory Photography Projects with Migrants and Refugees. Transit Tales: A Guide to Creating Participatory Photography Projects with Migrants and Refugees, CFD Barcelona, Jungleye, OST (Oiseaux Sans Tête), European Youth For Action (EYFA), 2017.