Pain Won't Be Her Only Story
By Sarah Annay, Her Future Communications Director and creator of Vision for Empowerment workshops.
We first started offering Vision for Empowerment workshops in 2015. What started as an employment exploration project has turned into something even more empowering—a workshop that gives young women and girls a voice in Kolkata, through photography and visual storytelling.
So often we see imagery provided to nonprofits taken by others from distant lands and lives. This project seeks to change that. It teaches women and girls how to tell their own narrative to the world, using photography— in a way that’s both deeply personal and uplifting to their body image and selves. Many of the young women I teach have humble backgrounds including: growing up in a slum community without clean water or even primary school education, living in one tiny room in the red light district where their mothers are sex workers, or growing up in a shelter after being found on the street, not knowing who their family was or why they were abandoned. Kolkata is a place where poor women and girls are not safe. They are not given the same opportunities or value as boys, and this creates a sub-culture of women who feel chronically ‘less than’ and who do not know how to rise above their circumstances.
Throughout this journey, I have met young women who want to live a different story—where marriage is not the end-all and where instead they can continue their education and find a job. Beyond art therapy and storytelling, this workshop has provided other opportunities to the female photographers—and this perhaps is the most fulfilling part of the journey.
Saba took the first VFE workshop in 2015. She immediately understood the design terms of composition and began shooting manually within the second week. She was a leader to many of the students, especially the Muslim girls. Many had never left their neighborhoods and now were photo-touring their city—one they’d never really explored.
Saba came back every year to the workshops, always anticipating to learn more. She takes out a DSRL camera year-round and sends me images of the pujas (festivals). Saba, in 2016, told us about her dream to go to medical school to be a gynecologist. There are very few female gynos in her community, so most women are embarrassed to seek OB/GYN care, even when they are pregnant. She has since began her studies and is in her second year of pre-med. She will be the first female doctor from her community, and also, a gifted amateur photographer.
WEEK ONE: RABINDRA WORKSHOP
This year, I taught a series of 4-day portrait workshops, highlighting the life of Frida Kahlo and her work as an artist and activist. The first workshop was held at Rabindra, Her Future’s flagship jewelry studio in Kolkata, where 10 young women work as designers and metalsmiths, proving income for themselves and uplifting their communities. Their stories are all different but Her Future Coalition has rescued them from severe gender violence and exploitation. I also invited the women who have joined the Vision for Empowerment workshops for the past 3 years. It was awesome introducing these two groups of women, and the more experienced VFE photography students acted as mentors to the jewelers.
Choosing Frida Kahlo as this years workshop theme was exciting—as I have introduced her artwork in previous workshops with great response—and this year, we dove deeper. Many of the young women at the jewelry center had not heard of her. Now, it’s all they are talking about.
For those who do not know Frida Kahlo’s story—she is one of the most famous Mexican painters of the 20th century and an international feminist icon. She suffered many physical ailments in her lifetime, including polio as a child and at the age of 18, she was in a bus accident that broke her pelvis, spine and collarbone. She began painting self portraits from her bed, as she underwent multiple operations on her spine. She was politically active and married Diego Rivera, another famous muralist and teacher. They traveled the US and Europe for commissioned work and their love story is deeply embedded in her paintings. Frida’s art is extremely personal, as she used painting to deal with chronic pain and her tumultuous relationship with Diego, who took care of her until she died at 47 years old.
Recently, I stumbled across a rare photo book of Frida Kahlo in a bookstore in Florida. Inside, there were images I had never seen, a few showed her sillier side, and one, flashed a quick smile. This was a rare image of Frida, as most photographs are stoic and serious. She looks powerful, and sometimes, a bit stern. She was very intentional in how others documented her. Her elaborate wardrobe hid her shortened leg and the often bandaged women underneath. She holds a sense of beauty and authenticity that I do not recognize as easily today, in a world of digital image overload. This is the Frida I shared with the young women.
In Asia, and especially India, the selfie culture has taken over, even among the population of women that we work with. Photography has become less of an art and instead, a certain vanity. “Look where I am, how good I look, and what I am doing…every second of the day.” I too am guilty of taking many fleeting images of myself and the mundane moments of daily life.
The goal of these portrait workshops is to share the story of Frida Kahlo, in all of her brilliance and sadness— how she expressed herself—as an artist, as a political revolutionary, and as a person who had endured physical pain beyond belief.
On the first day of class, we introduced camera functions and composition and went on a photo walk. On the second day, we piled into one room, all sitting on the floor, and I shared her story. It took three hours to tell, with translation and questions. No one interrupted me. To capture the undivided attention of over 20 young women in a cramped space with a creaking ceiling fan—I knew choosing Frida was the right choice.
The following morning was spent choosing backgrounds, wardrobe and lighting for their Frida-inspired portrait. We purchased dried flowers from New Market and they created crowns. Two woman dressed masculine, to portray the images of Frida wearing a man’s suit. Many chose images from the photo book to emulate.
The day of the shoot was magical. Every corner of the jewelry center was full of women making intentional portraits. They used window light, some went onto the rooftop (recreating imagery of Frida on a rooftop in New York City) and all were focused on their posture and hand placement. There were moments I saw Frida in the corner of my eye—especially Donny, she inhabited her. And I could see that Frida’s spirit was giving her life, especially in knowing her dark past. Frida’s message is that we can endure and be beautiful, even on our darkest days.
On the final day of class, images were printed and they each created a Mexican-style Nicho Box to hold one photo. The nicho box originates from the Catholic retablo. These retablos (or shrines) are found all over Mexico and are a fabulous way to display images as a public art installation. The shrines to themselves (and Frida) now hang semi-permanently in the stairwell at the studio—a constant reminder of intentional art, of exploring pain through imagery and female empowerment.
Soma, lead designer and Program Manager at Rabindra, said of the workshop, “I have never seen all of the girls see a photo of themselves and feel so beautiful.” Frida’s spirit was flowing everywhere.
WEEK TWO: NIJULOY SHELTER HOME
The second workshop took place in North Kolkata at a shelter home for girls, Nijuloy. Her Future has partnered with this home for years and many of the girls are sponsored for school through our donors. It is a beautiful home, with a sprawling courtyard, gardens, and murals throughout. Around 125 girls live in the home due to an array of circumstances, many are at-risk of being trafficked, come from abusive homes or have been left on the streets.
On day one, we hit our first road bump. I was told by leadership that we cannot take photos of the girls in my workshop. Nothing can be taken of their faces for protection. Government intervention has increased at children’s homes in Kolkata, as there has been recent reports of abuse within homes in another part of the state. I was told that the girls are taken aside by government workers monthly to have “check-in’s” for any signs of abuse. Although this intervention is provided to protect young women—it also eliminates certains projects and makes it more difficult for visitors offering arts workshops.
That evening, I came up with plan B—still introducing Frida Kahlo’s story but instead of using the camera to capture the girls portraits, we’d instead make them with paint and natural materials. This is one example of the challenges that can exist when working within homes of vulnerable women in Kolkata, but being creative and flexible, there is always a way to get things done.
There were 6 girls in the workshop, which is a sweet spot as an educator, as I find groups of 6-8 people the most engaged and able to open up. We began the first day learning about composition, and because three of the girls are training to become jewelers, I applied these rules to jewelry, painting and photography. Then, I taught them how to use my polaroid camera, and had each student photograph something in the home that inspired them, following the rules of composition. They loved seeing the images reveal themselves on the chemical paper and excitedly ran over to show the house mothers. I explained to them they could not photograph each other, and they responded unsurprised by this. A couple of the girls seemed to fear having their photo taken.
On the second day, I introduced Frida Kahlo’s life story. I brought with me several books of her paintings and shared a slideshow. As I dove deeper into her story, specifically her miscarriages and months spent bedridden, one of the girls, Ashayana, started crying uncontrollably. I asked Aslyn (who was there filming and assisting) to hold her. I thought for a moment I should stop the story or skip onward to a more pleasant part, but instead, I continued. Looking back, I don’t know why Ashayana cried. She didn’t tell me. But this may have been a part of her that needed to be shared. Rarely do these young women cry or hear others stories that are as dark as their own. Frida showed her she’s not alone.
Ashayana said later during discussion, “It was different to hear a story of a woman who lives so far away from us, going through so much pain. And she survived it by painting.”
After lunch, another student pulled me and Soma (our translator) aside to speak in private. She told us that Diego Rivera (Frida’s husband) reminded her of her own father. Her father also cheated on her mother with her mother’s sister. He kicked her mother onto the street and she stayed at home, forced to see her father and aunt have sex in their one-room home. She said she is thankful to be away from them, but wants to find her mom. She hopes she’ll come back for her.
I couldn’t believe the impact Frida’s story had on these young women. Her story gave them a safe space to open up and be themselves. I couldn’t imagine being a teenager sharing a home with so many girls, with so many heartbreaking stories. But there is also a sisterhood, and they support one another the best they can.
On the final day, the girls created their own portrait of Frida Kahlo, based on their favorite paintings and incorporating some features of themselves, using pastels, paint and natural elements. They then created Nicho Boxes (shrines) to display the portraits in. The boxes came out beautifully, and they showed me where they will hang them on their beds. There is so little that is defined as “yours” when living in a shelter home and these boxes provided an art piece for their space—and a reminder, that they can endure, as Frida had.
I left Nijuloy, full of hope for these young women, that they will continue to study and be able to provide for themselves one day. Three of them are moving out of the shelter soon, to work full time as jewelers and live in a working women’s hostel. I imagine them hanging their Frida-inspired nicho boxes in their new flat, concentrating on the future, and remembering that their pain is shared across all borders, and all women. I take comfort in the knowledge that the pain of the past won’t be their only story.