To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
To See a World, a precursor to a larger ethnographic study of disadvantaged populations and photography in India, addresses issues surrounding class and cultural ‘otherness’ and attempts to mitigate the concerns of recent ethnographers and theorists by directly presenting photos taken by Western photographers of Indians to South Carolina based Indians and Indian interviewee.
In an age where increasing globalization and polarization of wealth is combined with and viewed through an increasingly theoretical reflexivity, is it possible to achieve a truly fair and balanced portrait of any ‘other’? To See A World examines cultural observation and fairness through informal interviews with South Carolina-based Indians about photographs taken in India. The photos used in this project are part of a larger project in support of The Guild of Service, a nonprofit agency based in India. This film acknowledges that any attempt at ethnographic inquiry, even when best intentions abound, invariably involves the establishment of power dynamics between the viewer and the object of that view, and that by bringing in representative voices before the project begins in earnest, a better understanding of sensitive cultural issues involved might be gained. I am interested less in creating a new form or style than uncovering some personal reflections about the nature of ethnographic inquiry and navigating issues of cultural ‘otherness.’ This effort is in response to personal, academic and philanthropic goals. Personally, I am exploring the extent to which I am unwittingly involved in an extension of colonial segregation and cultural homogenization. Within academia, the critical world has opened over the last decades to include a post colonial reading of various media and I am interested in continuing this dialogue in the specific genre of philanthropic documentary. Furthermore, as a philanthropic endeavor, how does my relationship as filmmaker to the subjects of my ‘gaze’ affect the ability to raise both funds and awareness, which is the ultimate goal? Finally, how will the dialogue about these photos affect the Indians living in South Carolina?
On May 18, 2009, a collection of photographs taken in support of Guild of Service, a massive Indian nonprofit collective giving much needed aid to disadvantaged populations across India will be exhibited in the Indian International Center in Delhi. This collection of photos was taken in Vrindavan, India and includes formal portraits of the inhabitants of a shelter for widows who have been pushed away from their families. Also included in the exhibition will be a series of photographs taken in and around Aamar Bari, the shelter describing the world in which these women live. The Guild of Service defines itself in the following way:
Since the past three decades the Guild of Service has been trying to reach out to the marginalized section of women, the widows, women in prostitution, women in slums, women in agricultural sector, women in Panchayati Raj. Efforts have been made by us to open up new avenues for integrating widows into the mainstream. Since the present condition of these women is a result of social injustices it is imperative that a preferential policy should be implemented for the upliftment of this dispriveleged group.
The goal for this exhibition is to raise awareness of The Guild of Service and the women of Aamar Bari. While in India next year, I plan to embark on a documentary project that will raise further awareness of this worthy project and explore the concept and potential of philanthropic documentary.
Ethnographic research, which is at the heart of this project, has been beset in recent decades by the first instance of a shift in perspective from that of the filmmaker/observer to the perspective of the one being filmed/observed. There exists an inherent polarization as a result of the dynamics of capturing another human on film and, while it may be impossible to completely erase such a polarization, I hope to address this issue head-on by prefacing my trip with a series of conversations with Indian citizens currently living in South Carolina. Through this interaction and by a public and open admission on my part of this dynamic, I will attempt to approach a deeper perspective, an Indian perspective, which will guide me in my final project.
A single camera on a dolly on a semi-circular track captured these interviews. To insure maximum attention remained on the photos and views of my friends, I framed the interviewees tightly and avoided my own inclusion in the film. Three images from Vrindavan remained constant through each interview and are edited in at the appropriate points. I chose to edit certain portions of the photo and include different bits to build the tension before finally revealing the entire image. I strove for a subtle, pensive tone and I employ a combination of classical Indian music and contemporary electronic Indian “dub” at some points to further frame the interview, thereby broadening the reach of the ethnographic potential while at the same time reiterating the attempt at cultural awareness.
I will encourage my friends to speak frankly and the questions will remain the same for each interview, although follow-up questions are possible. I will begin by asking for a description of each photo and then about specific points regarding gender, poverty, Indian identity, Indian photographic culture, American/Western colonial representations of India and personal aesthetic views. To ensure that the goal of Indian perspective is achieved, I will include my friends as much as possible in parts of the shooting and editing process such as specific camera placement and shot sequences. I was able to interview three South Carolina based Indians; all of whom graciously gave their time and opinions to help with this project. Future work might center on interviewing equal numbers of male/female and a broader array of age groups.
The film is from my POV, but I strive to ensure equality between my friends and myself by openly displaying and explaining the tools of the craft, encouraging participation in the filmmaking process, and through the subject matter of the questions. The audience for this film includes ethnographers and anthropologists interested in India as well as Indian culture in America as well as those interested in the cultural and philosophical issues that are intrinsically tied to filming other cultures. Through this project, I hope to gain valuable insights about Indian views of photography that will inform the final project to support The Guild of Service and future philanthropic documentaries.
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