Children of the Illam

Inspired by the PhotoVoice training, Mo Greig collaborated with young people of the Dhan Karanui IIlam children’s home in India to campaign through photography and raise funds for a new dormitory building.

At the beginning of November 2016 I travelled to India to set up a collaborative photography project with children of the Dhan Karanui Illiam (Karanui means grace and Illam means home). The Illam lies in the small village of Nilakottai about an hours drive from Madurai in the Tamil Nadu region of Southern India.  A little bit of magic takes place here each day, changing the lives of disadvantaged children by giving them the chance to turn seemingly impossible dreams into reality.

I was there because the NZ charity associated with the Illam had asked if I could take photographs to be used to help raise funds for a new dormitory building – Indian Rupees 7,500,000 (GBP £90,000) is the anticipated cost.

So to planning. I had never been to India before. I knew about the goals, aims and successes of the charity, but not a lot about the Illam itself.  I knew there would be challenges with language and building relationships in the few weeks I had to enable me to create a strong body of work that would reflect what life is really like.  I put forward a proposal to the Illam trustees suggesting that the children take the photos themselves.  They embraced the idea and gave me the green light to go ahead.

Yikes, now how do I put all this together?  I immediately signed up for a Photovoice three day training course.

I arrived in India full of an equal mix of excitement and trepidation.

© Sindhu

© Sindhu

Naturally nothing went according to the plan I had made.  I was to quickly discover that the way things are done in India is very different to other places I’ve been.  My biggest challenge was getting the children to be freed from their traditional learning structure of rote learning and a very prescribed daily living brief and routine.  I wanted them to focus on being as creative as they could and to show us (the adults) how they see their world through a camera lens.


© Marimuthu

The journey was not without many challenges, language being an obvious one, translations often changed intent and meaning. Sharing eight cameras among forty children and ensuring that every image had the correct photographer allocated to it when downloading to my computer was a nightmare, especially when similar photos were taken by different children.

With their days regimented from the time they get up at 4:30am until bedtime at 10:00pm it was often difficult to allocate “photography time.”  It became apparent very quickly that the model of “participatory photography” I planned would need to be modified to fit more comfortably within the confines of the culture and structure of the Illam.  Our project morphed and became more “collaborative” than “participatory”.  The most important aim was that the children were creating their own work and there would be a body of work available from the project to aid the charity’s fund raising aims.

I felt it was important for the children to see the results of their work and for it not to just “disappear” onto my computer.  With the help of the DHAN Foundation I organised an exhibition that was held at the headquarters of the DHAN Foundation in Madurai.

In my debriefing at the DHAN Foundation on my last day, the executive director and the Illam coordinator told me that in the beginning they were very uncertain about how this project would work, but the results spoke for themselves.  It has not just the quality of the work but the impact on the children themselves.  One example was that of a boy who had been a bit of a problem, he was not doing well with his studies, and wasn’t settling in very well at all.  I had said that he had a natural ability and a really good eye for taking photos.  Subsequently it was reported that there had been a major change in him over the past couple of weeks and it had helped the staff find a different way of communicating and teaching him.

Going forward they have decided to set up a camera club at the Illam with the media team of the DHAN Foundation acting as mentors to the children.

© S. Arthika

© S. Arthika

In six weeks the children had gone from never having held a camera to hosting an exhibition in a city (a far cry from a small rural village) with international guests viewing their work.  The results stunned us all. We were all so very very proud.

A leading Tamil magazine wrote an article on the project and published some of the children’s images.

It is hard to believe that none of these kids had ever held a camera before.  It is proof of the advantages of giving children a voice to tell their own stories.

The skills I acquired on the PhotoVoice training course were invaluable in making this project a success.  I am also extremely grateful to PhotoVoice for loaning the cameras for the children to use.

The next steps are to exhibit the children’s work in London, something they are very excited about.

Find out more about this project here or visit their social media pages.

Interested in the PhotoVoice training programme? Find out more here

Feature image: © P. Annam

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