Friday, 12 March 2010

From Pain to Power

From brothels to mainstream, it’s a journey of transformation captured through the lens. This is the journey of 126 girls who were rescued from the red light areas in India’s eastern city of Kolkata and were rehabilitated into the mainstream.

Their metamorphosis from ‘pain to power’ has been captured by acclaimed photographer Achinto Bhadra. These girls have portrayed themselves in characters they can identify with. Fifty portraits out of 126 are being shown in the ongoing exhibition at Alliance Francaise in New Delhi.

Each portrait fascinates with its striking composition, colour, costume, make-up and expressions and comes with a moving caption. It is now for the world to experience their agony, their angst and their vulnerability at the hands of abusers through these pictures. The exhibition is on till March 13.

But for most, the photography exhibition “Another Me” is about the girls successful reintegration into society, their determination to start life afresh, their newly gained independence and how they see themselves and what they identify with.

The photography documentation project was first started about five years ago by Sanlaap, a non-government organisation (NGO) in Kolkata with the support of Terre Des Hommes Foundation (Switzerland). At that time, most of the girls were minors and were being cared for, counselled psychologically, imparted life saving skills to be on their own financially at Sanlaap’s shelters houses.

Sanlaap works against the trafficking of women and children for commercial sexual exploitation.
The aim of the project was to create awareness about how the hydra-headed monster of trafficking and prostitution preys those girls who become vulnerable due to domestic violence, early marriages, poverty. And highlights how they are exploited by relatives, friends or by those who dupe them by promising hope.

Most of the photographs are powerful manifestations of their dreams, how they see themselves and what they want to become post their rehabilitation. However, it was not easy for the girls to be part of this project and face the camera. There was fear of revealing their identity and to relive their past life.

But a lot of counselling at Sanlaap helped the girls to come out with their own stories though their identities have been safeguarded with the help of masks and make-up. It meant sharing their past experiences how they reached brothels and how it affected them without dwelling on what happened to them in those brothels. It also helped them to decide what they want to be in future.

Twenty-three-year-old Reena who now works as a youth motivator with an NGO in Kolkata says she was confused when she was asked to think of a character.

“It took me a day to decide it. But when I saw a fish swimming across a pond, I could immediately identify with it. I thought how a fish swims across despite all the troubles, I too would like fight all odds in my life and start living once again,” said Reena.

Aloka, 28, has portrayed herself as a bright yellow flower. “I wanted myself to be like a flower so that I can spread fragrance not only in my life and in others as well.”

After her rehabilitation she got married last year and runs a grocery shop along with her husband.

For Shikha, 20, her struggle doesn’t end with her reintegration into society. Today, she works as a life skill trainer with an NGO and trains girls how to improve their listening and communication skills.
This has made her all the more determined to raise her voice against women trafficking.

“I have done the character of a protesting girl. It’s a fight against the issue. So, I think myself as one who never gives up and who continuously fights for herself and others,” says Shikha who recently got married.

Her past experiences has made 23-year-old Saraswati cautious, alert and to an extent sceptic. Working as a self defence trainer, she is a third year student in college. She chose wasp to showcase her character. “I had many ideas but decided wasp was the best to suit my personality. Like a wasp I will keep up my defence and protect myself from exploitation.”

Taking part in the project had a cathartic experience on them. “Talking about my experiences during counselling and expressing myself in front of the camera was heart-wrenching. It made my heart heavy and filled my eyes with tears but in the end it made me feel lighter as if I was done with my past,” recalled Saraswati.

Only four participants could manage to attend this exhibition that was being held in India for the first time. This was the first time the girls took part in the photography exhibition that has travelled many countries, including UK, US, Spain France, Germany, Cambodia and Nepal.

They are more than happy to see themselves in the exhibition and to share their experiences to make it a success.

Today they have moved on in life leaving behind their turbulent past which they don’t want to discuss. What they do want to talk about is their future, their aspirations.

All these girls have a common link-- they smile while talking and have a strong desire to protect other girls from becoming victim of trafficking and help them to come out of their trauma.

Today they are a happy lot but what still hurts them is “to see new girl victims and hearing how their protectors turned into abusers. When we look at their pain our own pain feels very less,” says Shikha. “It hurts a lot,” they chorus.

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