Conversations through photography

Inspired by her involvement in a PhotoVoice project while working for Christian Aid, Zoe Wright developed her own participatory photography project in India. 

Karattu Kovil is a small catholic village surrounded by mountains in the south of India. It is dry and its community has to work incredibly hard to make ends meet. There are few men because they have had to find farming work in more profitable areas and so it was with the strong women and children of the village that I spent three months between June and August.

Working under Raleigh International’s ICS program my fellow volunteers and I wanted to harness the strong, powerful advocacy skills shown by the women. To give them a platform to voice their opinions, and inspired by a PhotoVoice and Christain Aid project that I worked on I shared my camera with 42 women from self-help groups and encouraged them to photograph the daily issues that they face. Soon an abundance of images showing problems that we could try to help with appeared on my camera. Photographs of a dangerous road that had been approved for reconstruction two years ago, dark streets where streetlamps should be and dirty water tanks all highlighted that Karattu Kovil was the victim of government exclusion, perhaps due to problems of corruption or simply lack of engagement.

“My husbands name is ‘Dominic’ and he is 79 years old. He has trouble eating and walking because he has breathing problems. Please can you help us.”

“My husbands name is ‘Dominic’ and he is 79 years old. He has trouble eating and walking because he has breathing problems. Please can you help us.”

We traveled six hours by bus to take the images to the Zilla Panchayat (a very recently elected district council head). He saw the struggles that the women face through their own eyes and for the first time these women were at the forefront of their own development and they owned it.

Within a week Karattu Kovil lit up at night like its distant neighbouring villages. Water tanks were cleaned and provided with lids. Never again will they drink water hosting dead vermin and rubbish. The Zilla Panchayat himself visited the village and planted twenty fruit trees at the local school and opened himself up to questions from the village, a first for Karattu Kovil.

“Ten of our chickens have died so we are facing a money problem”  Photograph by Leema Rosy

“Ten of our chickens have died so we are facing a money problem”
Photograph by Leema Rosy

Having identified the power of the images, we held an exhibition of the photographs in the community and invited doctors and nurses who eagerly addressed the medical problems brought up by the photographs. The director of ODP (a social service society in Mysore) delivered a talk on farming schemes and the local council compiled a list of everyone without a toilet. These successes are great for Korattu Kovil but what I had not anticipated was the power of bringing these women together to discuss their photographs. These are proud, beautiful women and for the first time they saw that they all face similar challenges. They began talking to one another and could see that they can support each other.

Photo by Salethmary. “There is a water tank near my house and it is full of dust and it is very dirty. Someone is supposed to come and clean it but they don’t. The tap leaks and the tank doesn’t have a lid.”

Photo by Salethmary.
“There is a water tank near my house and it is full of dust and it is very dirty. Someone is supposed to come and clean it but they don’t. The tap leaks and the tank doesn’t have a lid.”

The conversations that a photograph can inspire can be life changing and we live in an era where our images make us globally accountable for our actions. A photograph posted on the web on one side of the world can begin a conversation miles away from where it began its journey. The women of Karattu Kovil know that their voices have been heard and if any message was left behind it is that they must keep talking and continue to bring about positive change.

Photography is at its most powerful. Lend a camera to someone who needs it.

Featured image by Jyothi: “We don’t have enough money to build a house. We have a five year old son.”

Read more about Zoe’s work with Christian Aid and PhotoVoice here.

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