Sunday, June 17, 2007

New Delhi Project

I am working with 5 MIT students and 4 Indian students, documenting their work and helping them out when I can. Jessica, Julie, Catherine, Yamilee, and Namrata (Sony) are the 5 girls from MIT working on these projects and Musheer and Dharani are the two male Indian students working with them. They are starting out by observing 2 different Indian NGOs and learning about how they work and how they decide how to best serve each of the communities. After observing these NGOs, they will spend their last couple of weeks setting up a new NGO based on what they feel (after their observations, surveys, and lessons) is needed in a particular community and how they can best serve it. At this stage in the process, they are observing Deepalaya, an NGO that works to enable self-reliance among children in the slums. I was lucky enough to arrive on a day when they visited one of the worst slums in Delhi. What surprised me was that despite the cramped spaces, dirty water, and infinite number of flies, their homes and themselves were very clean and the people were so welcoming and pleasant. It was hard for me to believe that these people were very poor, uneducated, malnourished, and living in the “slums of Delhi.” In some ways, I found these inhabitants more pleasant than the other Indian citizens that I’ve met. (The photograph to the left is of a free, open clinic that 2 physicians held at a Deepalaya school next to the slums. They had little equipment and a set amount of medications, but they were able to help make pain go away and assess what the patients problems were.)

There are several large cultural differences which I find hard to accept, the main one being the aggressiveness and forwardness of the people. There are no lines or right of way, it’s whoever makes it to the front first, and whoever can be the most forceful to get their way first. People blatantly stare and solicit, being very persistent and just hanging around until they finally give up and leave. There is a lot of cat whistling and honking, people defecating anywhere they please, and no women on the streets. What also surprised me is that there are few places that have been modernized. Speaking with the students about their experiences, a prominent response, and something I noticed myself was the lack of progress within the society. As one of the up and coming leading technological powers, we would expect India to have at least a portion that’s modern with women wearing more western clothing, tall buildings, modern architecture, and more technology. However, it does not seem like the society itself has had significant development. (The picture to the left is of a Henna artist at work on a tourists' hand. Henna artists filled the India Gate property, a great tourist attraction that we visited.)

Conversely, I find the culture exciting and captivating. From the movies to the outdoor markets to the food (which has made me sick, but was very good while on my taste buds..) to the enthusiasm that the students and staff I work with show, I feel honored to have this opportunity to immerse myself in this experience. The wildlife intrigues me and the people that I have had the chance to get to know and speak with have made me laugh and taught me so much. Their enthusiasm and overall wonderful, carefree persona are definitely characteristics that I can learn from. (The picture to the left is of a barber, working on the sidewalk. I took this photograph from the auto rickshaw, an open-air-pressurized-gas-powered-vehicle that I was taking back to campus.)

The MIT students also have an enthusiasm and passion that I hope to capture through my photography and interviews to show the other students and community members how exciting helping these other countries really is and how much you can learn both about yourself and other people. I began my interview process, just informal, very laid-back conversations about their motivation for this project, how they first got involved with international development, what they would recommend to other students, and of course their experiences. I will be writing about my view on their experiences and how I see them changing and developing during my visit with them. Everything moves much slower here than in the states; in the words of the professor they are working with here, "America moves as if there is no tomorrow. Everything must be done now, today, right away. But in India, there is a tomorrow. And a day after that. We like to be flexible, get thinks done at our own pace." However, despite the overall slower speed, the changes and the impact of the experiences on these MIT students is quick and very noticable. From habitual changes such as going from eating meat every day to not eating it at all to character changes such as slowing down and accepting that things can move at a slower rate and we must adapt and be patient, I can see the students growing and developing right in front of me.

I, myself, have already experienced so much in my first couple of days here. Me, the girl that hates it being hot, has adjusted to the humid climate, though I was lucky enough to arrive a couple days before the rain began, cooling the temperature down to about 100 degrees F. My stomach is still adjusting to the food; my first experience of getting sick from the food was last night, and though unpleasent, definitely not as bad as it could have been. The observation that has surprised me the most and really helped put things in perspective is what I've mentioned before - people in the slums with so little, living amongst flies and with little to no money to support their families, are so happy and so welcoming! The children are just like the children in the U.S. Despite cultural differences, they still run around giggling, teasing each other. They still love to be the center of attention, beaming and making silly poses in front of my camera and bursting into giggles when I put my camera down and give them a smile. It is as if we've developed a secret through my taking a photograph of them. The connection that I've been able to get through taking pictures of the people here is incredible. I've always felt that the more I understand my subject, the better the photograph turns out and the more meaning it holds both for me and an unbiased viewer. However, I think this is the first time that I've felt such a strong connection from taking a portrait photograph. It is like an unspoken secret or connection that the click of the shutter has created. Through our eyes, we have crossed the language barrier and the cultural barrier where the core of who we are is all that matters. The human connection is a strong one, and the power of the camera to create this connection has surprised me. I have been struggling a bit as well in trying to gage when it is appropriate to take the photographs. Had I been a freelancer not representing any organization, I would have felt a lot freer, but as a MIT representative, I feel more obligated to be extra careful about not leaving behind any negative feelings. This has gotten in the way of my photography, leading to only a few photos that I actually love. It gets better everyday, and hopefully in the next couple of days, my tentativeness to move around and get the angles that I want will subside.

Despite the Indian students assuring me that I should feel free to move around and take whatever photographs I would like, I do feel a bit intrusive constantly moving around taking photographs, afraid that they will feel like I'm taking advantage of their poor condition or that I am disrespecting them with my constant movements. Because I do not understand the culture completely, it is something that I think only time will cure. But I am rapidly getting better and growing more confident. Another problem is that I cannot take out my camera whenever I want to take a photograph. Due to crime and the lack of females on the streets, not to mention lack of people of my color, I am a prime target and am constantly harrassed to purchase this and purchase that, and have to be on the constant lookout for thieves. The Indian students informed me that yielding my camera in certain locations is dangerous at it makes me an even greater target, so sadly I have found myself not as able to snap the best photographs. It makes me wish I was able to shapeshift into different ethnicities and between genders. Being female, I feel that I am able to be better accepted in peoples' homes and to be able to form a connection with my subjects more easily without them being skeptical. However, it is definitely more dangerous being female.

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