By Artika Raj for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Once you get past the very cool mohawk and goatee, photographer Pascal Mannaerts’ globe trotting experiences, from Ethiopia to China, to Africa and India, all captured in delectable frames are testament to his undeniable talent for capturing stories. And the stories behind his pictures are almost as interesting as the ones he manages to capture with his lens. Like those of the reticent white-widows of Vrindavan, apprehensive at first but with some cajoling, queuing up to be in his frames. Or of the day spent at a beauty parlour, chatting and kidding around with friends, Abheena and Amitava, one a hijra and one a transgender, only to go shopping with Abheena later, who wanted to buy a pair of heels, and strutted it like a boss. There is also the tale of Manju, a courageous woman who fights all threats and dangers to help sexworkers of Shivdaspur district in Varanasi, educating their children, and even running a school on a boat for them along the ghats!
On this month, is ‘Fate Breakers’, an exhibition of Pascal’s photographs at the Alliance Française de Delhi (curated by Jean-Philippe Bottin, director of Alliance Française India), which showcases as he tells us, “Women fighting against prejudice and determinism, be it from birth, from life’s perils, from intolerance or disrespect towards the other”. Photographing them in their everyday moments, these women are hardly victims of their circumstances, but those who are turning around the conversation by standing up against the injustices that they face, deriving in many ways their strength from their sisterhood.
For Pascal, there is inspiration in their stories, “The optimism and/or the pride with which these women live with, overpowers the sadness. For me, they are a perfect example of fighting against all difficulties with courage. People also ask me if, as a male photographer, and that too a foreigner, it was difficult for me to make them feel comfortable with me, but it wasn’t.” That might also have to do with how Pascal views his own art, “One must respect the culture and be aware of the traditions of the people you want to photograph. If your behaviour is kind and respectful when approaching someone, they open up naturally.” His pictures stand as evidence of this.
The keen eyed, Brussels-born photographer has an interesting take on Indians too, “I think that especially in India, people usually like pictures. They like taking pictures and having their pictures taken. It’s always so funny when, walking around, people in India approach me, asking me if they can take a snap with me, just because I am foreigner! This is a part of the spontaneity, the curiosity and the openness I have always felt here with the people in this country. And that’s one of the many reasons why I can say that I love to be here in India.”
The following are a selection of Pascal Mannaerts’ photographs from the exhibition:
Approximately 100 kilometres from the capital, in the city of Vrindavan, live the widows from different parts of the country, mainly West Bengal and Odisha, clad in white, singing hymns to Lord Krishna. Though still marginalized, over time, their devotion has earned them respect.
Working for Alliance India, Abheena and Amitava, one who identifies as a hijra, and the other as a transgender, both are on a journey of self-affirmation and an acknowledgment of who they are as people. They stand-up for rights of the hijra community, as well as the LGBT and are raising their voice against fighting the menace of HIV in the country today.
Founded in 1993, ‘Guria’ by Manju and her husband in Varanasi works to fight against the sexual exploitation of women in north India and especially in the district of Shivdaspur. The association helps not just the sexworkers in the area but also their kids, running a school for 150 of them.
Calling themselves not ‘victims’ but ‘fighters’ against the evil of acid attacks, Laxmi, Ritu, Rupa and Sonia have set up ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ and ‘Chhanv’, rehabilitation and support groups for others who have gone through something similar, also running sensitization campaigns that seek to pressure the government into coming up with more stringent laws on this issue.
Where Seema and Uganta, break out of the cycle of manual scavenging women belonging to their Dalit caste have been subjected to for centuries, and learn about stitching and textiles, as also training at a beauty centre in Rajasthan.
In 1997, Sheela Ji took the initiative to open Divyajyoti Centre (Divine light) in her neighbourhood in Varanasi to help specially-abled children – educating them, giving them training in handicrafts as they grow older, encouraging them to learn music and participate in household chores. Her work also involves sensitizing parents and neighbourhoods regarding the needs of special children.