On a family trip to India two years ago, my camera allowed me to make sense of the indescribable poverty we encountered—to not simply stare in horror, but to represent what I saw, and to show others.
I crave the mechanics of photography: to carefully assess the environment to modify the exposure triangle, the orderly fashion of focusing the aperture if I am shooting a portrait or landscape, or the shutter speed to manipulate motion. And yet, in photography, rules and numbers blend with the nonsensical. Out of this, an aesthetic emerges.
Often, it is not until I look back at my photos for the hundredth time, maybe days, months, or years later, that I notice patterns that subtly transcend the photographs’ visual elements.
During my trip to India, I participated in this anguish. I couldn’t just be a detached, privileged tourist.. If I could photograph the people who lived in these deplorable conditions, if I could capture and represent their facial expressions, my photographs would take on a newfound purpose. I was profoundly aware that the streets did not fit a conventional standard of “visually pleasing." I was actively aware of what I was taking pictures of, yet I was still removed from the emotional impact until two years later.
In 2013, I read this story about a 23-year-old student was gang-raped in New Dehli— (no exception to the 24,000 cases of rape that were reported in India in 2011). 42% of girls in India have been sexually abused,. However, numbers don’t speak to the lived experience of being a female in India. They may evoke horror, and sympathy, but not empathy. And the difference—how we respond to others’ pain—means everything.
Quiet Women of India
Looking back, there is an undeniably striking pattern to my portraits. In Agra, I photographed men working on tiles for the Taj Mahal, leaving my family mesmerized by their delicate, precise handwork. In Rajasthan, I encountered men who were elephant connoisseurs, or expert artisans and pottery-makers. In Jaipur, men lined the streets, either individually or in groups, looking to make money through entertainment— playing music, or letting tourists hold their giant trained snakes.
My photos illuminate men in India as active members of society. Whether or not they are victim to the inescapable poverty that pervades the nation, they have the tools and support of society to hone their skills. The awe I once felt observing these men and their talents has dissolved into bitterness—bitterness that their XY sex chromosomes arbitrarily give them privileges that Indian women have never known.
In my photos, the women either stand still, or perform. The men are constantly moving, constantly creating. Creating, I would soon realize, is a privilege not all can afford.
The men were everywhere in my pictures. The men were whom I was photographing not even realizing the social ramifications of what I was attempting to do. (Or something like this) Where were the women?
At our hotel in Jaipur, a group of Indian women arrived every night at dinner to dance, to provide us entertainment. Dripping in jewels, beaded garments of clothing, faces plastered with blinding smiles, they performed for us. I was amazed by their graceful, swift limbs under the weight of such heavy and extravagant clothing. In the pitch black night, their impossibly white teeth and shimmering accessories could have lit up the whole sky.
A Legacy of Limited Language for Indian Women
In Agra, mere minutes away from the sprawling and glorious Taj Mahal, handmade villages are planted off of a dirt road. When we pulled over to the side of the road, hoards of children swarmed our van. Our van was an emblem of privilege; its shiny white exterior screamed the possibility of charity, of money. As American children take comfort in their iPad screens, Indian toddlers subconsciously associate the roar of a fancy engine with the prospect of a glittery reward— money.
In one sense, with my camera blocking my face, I was removed from intimate interaction with the children in front of me. The rest of my family simply waved as my dad retrieved money from his pocket. Eager to do something other than just stand there and stare, I frantically pressed the camera’s shutter button, wondering how it feels to have a large, foreign device shoved in your face. I wanted to keep my distance, but not to appear detached, as if I was scared to confront the reality in front of me. Despite my efforts, my body felt intrusive and out-of-place.
It felt painfully superficial that the only thing we could offer them was money. And yet, it was painfully clear that money is all that they wanted, or at least all they know will help them.
When I did reluctantly put my camera down, I was in awe of their contagious energy and palpable joy. In my photos, faces crowd the frame, with hardly any background visible. The background—tattered tents and hand-washed clothes drying in the sun—felt less important than their faces. The children clung to each other, their bodies intertwined and hands clutched.
At the time, taking these photos had been a way to access and confront the horrific poverty in India-- to represent it, to identify the beauty in the courageous people we encountered. And yet, what I failed to realize was the intersection of poverty and gender that could subtly extracted from my photographs. The females in my photos were decorations; objects of entertainment. Powerless to their circumstances, powerless to the authoritative men around them. Their beaming faces illuminate a devastating innocence--a lack of awareness that their roles and value in society have been decided for them.
Author and Photographer: Caroline Geithner
Caroline is a current English major at Georgetown University with a passion for writing, psychology, traveling, and photography. Growing up just outside of New York City, she spent many of her weekends in high school exploring the city and now does the same in Washington D.C. She tutors underprivileged children in Washington D.C. and has become passionate about children’s equal access to education, including gender barriers that disadvantage young girls.