The Slum Girl

 

I was on my way back to my hotel, when she ran up behind me, yelling.

It was a high pitched sound, bird like.

Before I knew it, she was standing in front of me and pointing at my camera.

It was a young girl wrapped in a blanket and all too obviously from a poor, lower caste family. She was sleeping on the streets, along with so many others……..

I can’t remember which town it was. 

All I know was that it early one morning, just after sunrise.

It was a period of my life when I was taking black and white photos and developing, printing and enlarging them and displaying them in photo exhibitions. I was in the thrall of great black and white photographers, artists who captured the beauty and pathos of the human condition with the camera rather than a paint brush.  

 

When she suddenly appeared before me on that morning, I was taking photos for an exhibition  I had in mind called: ‘India: an Epic on the Street’.

My aim was to present a series of photos about the street life in the lower end areas of the big cities.

Portraits didn’t fit into my plan.

My focus was on people in their environment 

But I hardly had a choice here – as if I was going to refuse to take the photo of this poor, lower caste girl.   

 

What happened next was technical. I had my camera on manual.

The faster the shutter speed, the more chance the image would be sharp and less prone to camera shake. Of course, all depending on the focus.

With the powerful Indian sun rising quickly, I ramped up the speed, put the lens on the biggest aperture 1.8, focused – and ‘click’. 

I don´t think I even saw her.   

Everything happened so quickly.  

Hearing the ‘clunk’, she laughed and ran off.

Departed my life as quickly as she had appeared.

Like an apparition.  

 

Months later, looking at the images I taken during my time in India, I was surprised to see the the slum girl.  I’d forgotten about her. 

Once she was reincarnated on a piece of photographic paper however, she would stay with me forever.  

No doubt about it; the black and white image can express the human condition with a power and simplicity impossible in the case of a colour photograph.

But the quest to express the human condition might not be as simple as it seems. 

Having a camera did not mean that one was free to take any photo one liked.

There had to be limits.

I never used her photo in my exhibition.

I enlarged it, printed it and stored it in a drawer.

I had crossed a line taking this photo but I wasn’t sure what it was.

For some unfathomable reason, this girl was pleased that I took her photo and against enormous odds, could smile.

Experienced a moment of childish joy. 

Her grace, evident in spite of her desperate physical environment, the dried blood on her nose, the wild unkempt hair, moved me. 

Why did she want some privileged western tourist to take her photo?

The novelty of the event?

Because like many Indians, she was fascinated by films and even ascribed a kind of immortality to having her image recorded?

Because she didn’t often see a western tourist on her side of town?

 

My intention in presenting the exhibition ‘India: an epic on the street’ was to show everyday life of ordinary people in India. No other photo captured the lives of ordinary people better than this one and yet I could not bring myself to put it in my exhibition.

This in turn underlay a deep contradiction in what I was doing.

Whilst I was fascinated by India, loved the place and the people and travelled there frequently, it was never without mixed feelings and in this sense, a revulsion at the inequality and injustice anchored in the caste system. It was this which above all that I saw when I looked at the photo of the slum girl; a mixture of my failings and in much larger sense, the failings of a social order, a nation, a world.

Indian journalists, writers and politicians loved to blame colonialism for their failures, yet the caste system  – along with such grotesque human abuses such as female infanticide, bride burning, the systematic oppression of the lower castes – predated British colonialism by thousands of years. 

The slum girl was the timeless face of India.

Like the Taj Mahal or the temples of Varanasi.

I couldn´t change that – but did I have to go looking for it?

 

Her image was a kind turning point for me.

The doubts trailed behind me like the Hindus’ inexorable law of Karma – and they eventually caught up with me.

Taking black and white photos was a period in my life which came and went.

I abandoned the idea of documenting the human condition and instead focused on something altogether less contentious: using the camera when I saw a good shot.

Yeah, leave at that.

 

Sometimes I wonder about her.   

An old woman with kids, or more probably, dead.

Once there was Guilt.

Now it’s Sorrow.

 

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