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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

Photojournalist Saumya Lifts Her Soul’s Shutter To Pour Out Anger About Destiny Of Child Brides

  • IWB Post
  •  January 17, 2019

“I dreamt of a life where I will walk the mountains with my camera and bask in the smaller joys of life.”

These were the thoughts of Photojournalist Saumya Khandelwal when she first envisioned her journey with a camera. Time flew, and soon after completing photography course at Jamia Millia Islamia’s Mass Communication Research Centre, Saumya stepped into the world of professional photography.

Her first stint was with senior photographer Amit Mehra, followed by working with VII Agency photographers, and later at Hindustan Times in New Delhi. For the next three years, Saumya did what she loved the most, photographing and documenting feature stories!

Saumya Khandelwal

Currently working with Reuters, Delhi, and alongside on her personal project, ‘Child Brides of Shravasti’, when IWB asked her about the dream she once had, Saumya shared, “I am content, though I need to give myself a respite to find why I am a photographer!” And with a slight laugh, she added, I would still go to the mountains, but not with a camera!

Intrigued to know more about the lives of child brides in Shravasti and Saumya’s experience of documenting them? Let’s ask the photographer herself:

What led you to photograph ‘Child Brides of Shravasti’?

Around three years ago, I came across an NGO’s literature on child marriage and was stunned by the crazy statistics. It stirred me to know more, but I didn’t know how to authenticate! Then once while visiting my hometown, Lucknow, I just thought of taking de-route and checking myself. Shravasti is a small district in Uttar Pradesh. And, unfortunately, it turned out to be worth it. The condition really was as bad as the statistics suggested. And I knew I’d have to come back!

Through the help of an NGO, called DEHAT, that has been working on child marriage and other issues, in the district, I got to acquaint with the villagers.

Saumya Khandelwal

Saumya has been documenting her project “Child Brides of Shravasti” on Instagram. It won her the National Foundation of India Award 2017, and she is also one of the three recipients of the Getty Images Instagram Grant 2017, awarded for highlighting the stories of under-represented people.

But how did you get access to the families, don’t they remain secretive about it?

In Shravasti, the scenario is not like how it is in Rajasthan, for instance. I have read about how there people are aware of the legal consequences of child marriage. But the situation is very different in Shravasti, there is no awareness, and hence no fear. It is surprising, but for them, it is not something that they need to be secretive about. So that made it easier for me to get access to their families and earn their trust.

When I asked her about the trust factor, Saumya shared, “You know, there were instances which would have served as great food for my camera, but I just couldn’t get myself to! The fact that they trusted me to let me in their family closed my camera shutter.”

Did you experience it often, the ‘whether I should shoot this or not’ internal conflict?

Once a girl had her siblings visiting her at the husband’s house, soon after her vidaai. And a feud broke out between the girl and her in-laws. And she was arguing and being too loud with them. She obviously didn’t know what marriage meant, and so unable to understand the situation, she started arguing over it. While a photographer would have loved to capture the emotions and expressions, but I was just as clueless as the girl. It truly was symbolic of the larger picture; a little girl is married off without any idea of what the future holds and how she has to live with it!


Saumya Khandelwal

I didn’t intend to sound naïve, but couldn’t stop myself from asking Saumya if she’d ever get a call to just take away the girl, she replied, “I know what you mean. But as discouraged as my helplessness makes me feel, the fact that through the medium of photographs I am able to make this reality reach to people gives me hope.”

Are you in contact with some activists, too?

No, I am not. I don’t know to what extent that would help. I mean if you pick up the crime record and go through the statistics, you’ll find that in 2015 only 296 cases were reported under child marriage act, and out of which only 4 were from Uttar Pradesh, and the conviction rate is registered zero. So, the situation is rather dismal.

The founder and chief of DEHAT, Dr Jitendra Chaturvedi, once told me about how someone had brought Police to stop a marriage from taking place. In that moment the family sought apology, but later got the girl married on some other date. Yes, sadly, that’s the reality.

What is the mindset of the women of Shravasti?

Mothers acknowledge the fact that it isn’t a wise choice to make. They shared with me their views on how they feel it is not good for the girls’ health, and how it not only leads to early pregnancy but also adds to the financial and other responsibilities. But in the same conversation, they’ll talk about how it is due to the pressure of the society, and even otherwise a practical choice to make.

Saumya Khandelwal

Sorry, but practical choice? Yes, their concerns, given their situation and lack of exposure and education, sound genuine. They want to safeguard their daughters from getting exploited, and also they’d say that if their father dies early, then it makes it very difficult for them to get the girls married. Which then leads to another issue, that older the girl, more the dowry!

Tell us about the dowry scenario?

It varies with the financial conditions. There are a lot of backward castes in Shravasti, so in the communities that are extremely poor, dowry mostly gets limited to utensils, etc. But if it is a not-so-poor family, then the expenses may go up to 2-2.5 lakhs, which includes the wedding arrangements, food, jewelry, and often a bike, too!

Saumya Khandelwal

What did you mostly converse about with the girls?

My interactions with them would start with general talks and not with camera, because it was important to have them comfortable with me. I have been going there for almost three years now, so I have had a lot of conversations with them. No girl would refuse for marriage because they don’t know they have an option to. That’s how they are conditioned, and it is how it is.

Any vivid memory of a particular girl that you got to shoot with?

Uhmm yeah, there was this one 12-year-old, who unlike all others was rather chirpy and excited. She’d tell me about her friends, likes, dislikes, and wouldn’t get shy even when I took pictures of her while talking with me. I was pretty impressed and her school teacher had also given me a positive feedback about her. She was in class 5 then and could read quite well (kids of class 5 usually can’t also read there)

Saumya Khandelwal

But things changed for her soon. When I met her, she had been married, but her gauna (send-off) would happen in a while. Her father-in-law had promised her that they’d allow her to study and work, later. But when she went to her husband’s house, in my subsequent visits, I noticed a clear change in her. She’d grown a lot more reserved and seemed strangely mature, all her tomboyishness had disappeared. I even took books with me, but not sure if it reached her, or where they must have got lost in her housework!

What is the level of education there?

Rather bleak. Shravasti has many villages, so some have schools, and some don’t. But either there are no teachers, or they’re not concerned and serious enough. Most of the schools remain locked, and if sometimes, some NGO’s teacher would go out to call the girls, again, either the families wouldn’t send them, or their circumstances wouldn’t let them.

You must have picked up on the general understanding of girls about marriage?

“Go to another house, live with the husband and his family, and take care of the house. Which is a part of marriage, but for them, that’s all marriage is about”, she exclaimed.

Saumya Khandelwal

And how exactly has this experience shaped your opinions?

The definition of marriage for me, you mean? The idea of marriage being a union of two families more than two people, has completely taken over I think. The forever hovering pressure of “what will people say” and of society is proving to be destructive for people.

Any unwanted tendencies that it led you to zoom in on?

The one thing that it has made me realize is that we’re living a really privileged life and that things could have been very different had we been born somewhere else. When in Shravasti, I often talk to the girls about myself and about the life in cities in an attempt to broaden the horizon for them a bit. But sadly, I only see hopelessness and an attitude of acceptance of fate, in return.

Saumya Khandelwal

It is a clear impact of lack of education and exposure. The girls get married at an age when they’re experiencing not only a physical change but a much deeper level of emotional evolvement, too. Things appear much different in reality than when you are sitting far away and reading about them, and it would leave me depressed.

I wonder how to frame this, did there come a moment of breakdown for you?

Thousands of times, but I mostly managed. I used to feel angry and pissed off thinking about their mentalities and about ‘why they think the way they do.’ And sometimes it used to get too much for me to digest in a day. But then again, I couldn’t have taken out my anger at them or get judgmental, so I would return to they city from the villages, and try to start afresh the next day.

After having earned 80 votes in the Manipur elections, Irom Sharmila’s struggle across two decades seems futile. With few supporters she navigates through politics rather aimlessly. Today she made an appearance at a protest in Jantar Mantar where #afspa was only one of the many issues that made it to the agenda. But she is a strong woman, rather, she is a rare combination of strength and sensitivity. #iromsharmila #photojournalism #manipur #delhi #reportagespotlight #indiaphotoproject #creativeimagemagazine #dailylifeindia #saumyakhandelwalphotos #india #northeast

221 Likes, 5 Comments – Saumya Khandelwal (@khandelwal_saumya) on Instagram: “After having earned 80 votes in the Manipur elections, Irom Sharmila’s struggle across two decades…”

Speaking of other projects, we saw on Instagram, the spotlight reportage that you carried on the Iron Lady, Irom Sharmila! Tell us about your meeting with her?

Having read so much about the Iron Lady, I was very fascinated. But when I first met her, I was amazed at how sensitive she was. There were so many interviewers asking questions back to back, but every time she would answer patiently, even to the repeated questions. But she was vulnerable to the extent that some questions moved her to tears.  I got to meet her twice later also.

And we also learned about another project, ‘Delhi in Transit’! What stories have the fellow commuters’ hands told you?

Ah, that started when I was working with Hindustan Times, and it is one project that is more about imagination, and things that my photographs usually don’t talk about. It addresses my curious thoughts which often people/strangers pique in me. Like you rightly picked, the hand gestures, so like why someone sits in a certain manner, what are their expressions speaking, what must be their lives be like!

Saumya Khandelwal

Delhi in Transit, is not me telling something, just me wondering what people might have to tell!

So on the contrary and final note, how do you capture your family?

Interestingly this was the exact discussion I had in London with the other photographers, at the Getty Images Instagram Awards. One of the co-winners had documented her family stories, and there, too, I was asked whether I had ever clicked my family. To be honest, I don’t think I am capable of doing that, of photographing my family or people who are close to me.

And I feel it has a lot to do with who you are and calls for a certain level of maturity, that would aid you to be able to justify the act of capturing the dear ones in your frame.

Before we ended the conversation, we were curious to ask if she had ever clicked herself also. Guessed the answer?  “Haha, no never!”

Saumya Khandelwal

This article was first published on November 13, 2017.

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