India Day 8 – Empathy & Leprosy

Something amazing happened today.

I woke up early, dreading the day but wanting to prepare myself at all levels. I went to the church outside and spent 45 minutes reflecting on a woven mat on the floor. I had to clear my head before facing this challenge directly, in a way that the camera was not between my subject and I, but an accessory to the situation, in telling their story beyond my own eyes. Preparing for today was perhaps the most solemn I’ve been about a story. I can’t think of anything that was this challenging human to human that I’ve faced before. I’ve waited nine hours to photograph Obama, broken into an abandoned amusement park flooded by Hurricane Katrina, stalked with Army snipers, chartered a boat into the middle of the oil spill, faced AIDS directly in Kenya, traveled 8,500 miles to get here… this was the most uncertain I’ve felt approaching a subject with a camera. It pains me to say it, but losing Daniel has given me a perspective with a deeper understanding in relating to the children, to those feeling pain and facing enduring, chronic hardship. He is here with me. The question was, would I be accepted by the lepers, or chased out, causing further turmoil for Timbrel and ANCER?

The meal for those living in the leprosy colony was cooked here at the church by volunteers, and Timbrel invited them to come serve the community. The headmaster of the school came and he was exceptionally nervous about me photographing, thinking they would be offended and thought it would be better if I didn’t capture. That made Timbrel second guess things for a brief moment, but we were committed to it. She concluded that even if the people are upset with my being there, I’ll be gone soon enough, and this story needs to be told to help bring the colony support, which is the most important thing I could hope to do for them. I was ready as I was going to get after a week of empathizing with people at church, the children’s home, in the community, and at the school, which focuses on impoverished children.

Our driver, Prasad, took us in his SUV, and on the way, the group discussed in Telugu their thoughts on what I would be doing, how it would impact what was going on in the colony, how I might approach them and what their role was around me. They were quite worked up at this point and Timbrel saw that she was causing me stress. One of the older women could feel the shift in emotion and started singing hymns in Telugu; everyone immediately joined. The mood entirely changed. She was amazing. The rest of the drive there was spent singing, and I reflected on the significance of what was about to transpire, as well as what was transpiring that very moment.

About 20 minutes later, we got to the colony around 12:30 PM. There were people waiting for their weekly meal, I had my cameras at the ready, one wide lens, one tight, but I dropped both lenses/cameras in the past week so I’m wrestling with focusing issues day to day. I don’t have time to really think or talk about that right now but I can still do my job until I get back to the states. I paused before getting out of the vehicle. The volunteers started unloading, set up to serve the meal, and were watching me out of the corner of their eyes.

The people greeted me like they did as I was leaving the first time, with smiles, palms facing in and a slight bow. I removed my shoes and took a seat on one of the few chairs, watching as everyone found their place on the floor. I saw a little boy watching me intently, and I knew immediately he was my in, my ice breaker. I waived hello to him and he cautiously smiled. After a few minutes of our interactions, I raised my camera. Click. His dad encouraged the matter and eventually got in on the action. From there, I photographed Timbrel and the church volunteers serving.

As I worked, people began to forget about me, when suddenly one woman asked me to make a portrait of her. She lifted her hands to show me her disease embodied, and looked right into the camera. I am not sure if she knew I was there to help or not, but she understood that what she was doing was visually very powerful. I showed her her image: she smiled a bit and went on her way. That left the door open and I walked right in. If only I had more time…

There were a few people upset with my presence, who saw a white American thinking they would be getting money from me. Ethically, as a photojournalist, I can’t pay or influence the stories intentionally: my contribution is accurate, just, and honorable documentation. They were rude to Timbrel about it, I fear that’ll have repercussions later, but I got what I was asked to come for; a story that will hopefully open eyes at home and give a small voice to this community. I have an edit of 14-15 images that I want to submit to a publication, somewhere, documented in 70 minutes on my second visit there. It’s as deep as I could hope to get without moving to India, spending more time with the people and building a relationship on trust. The trust built by Timbrel and the ANCER community was certainly an advantage that I couldn’t be more grateful for. The wonderful people in this community graciously lowered their guard, completely vulnerable on their terms, and let me in. Some didn’t open up at all but I was locked in on those who had opened themselves up.

I’ll have to save the stories for the real deal; I’m having a conversation about an elephant in the room without showing pictures or talking about the story of said elephant. Some of the images are really hard for me to look at, but it’s important to share them. I wasn’t sure if I would get this part of my journey documented, so I need to find a publication as an outlet to share those stories with you… I owe it to this community to do their voice justice.

I’m feeling pretty tapped out overall but learning so much at many levels. Timbrel’s dad was in Delhi all week working and came home this evening; he said he was glad my health is restored and could see I lost a lot of weight. I feel healthy but still tired every day, which is part of why I think I damaged my gear. I know better than that. I’ve done a lot of work, 5000 images with over 1000 finals, 20.5% retention rate, which is probably my highest with digital/on an assignment.

Two other stories are visually finished today, as tomorrow we fly from Rajhumundry back to Hyderabad for the wedding tomorrow night. I do feel this is the best work I’ve produced in my entire life, looking at each individual image, and the stories by chapter. I haven’t had a lot of time but was welcomed into every situation, and that made me become invisible faster, and helped me to be more patient in finding layers, colliding moments in a single frame. I hope the results are apparent once these stories become available to you. It is my honor to be able to present the stories of so many deserving people to you when the time is right.