Exhibit chronicles hate and hope in Indian community

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

In one of the many impressive images to come out of the "Koraput Survivors Project," two Indian men carry a giant, extremely heavy-looking pot of food. A crowd of people looks on. What is striking about this 35mm black-and-white print is not that it perfectly captures the hunger that accompanies the anticipation of a meal, but that this group of people is going to be eating from the same pot.

The idea of collaboration, of the strength and power that result when people come together and work together, is at the core of this photo exhibit, which runs through Sept. 1 at 707 Penn Gallery, Downtown.

'Koraput Survivors Project'

Where: 707 Penn Gallery, Downtown.

When: Through Sept. 1. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: Free.

The images are but one product of the partnership -- or, yes, collaboration -- between two Pittsburghers: longtime photographer Lynn Johnson, who often shoots for National Geographic, and Jen Saffron, a teacher, writer, photographer, curator and activist.

Last year, the two women began an effort to provide aid to the subjects of their photographs, a Christian community in the eastern Indian region of Odisha who were forced out of homes at machete point by extremist mobs of the Hindu majority.

Because of its religion, the community is "dalit," the notorious Indian caste of untouchables, considered the lowest of the low, explained Ms. Saffron. When its members arrived in Koraput, they camped out for days in front of the government building. They were ultimately granted two buildings -- filled with cow dung, which they were forced to clear out -- and not much else.

One of the goals of the exhibit is to demonstrate that behind this story of misery are intelligent, capable, proud human beings who are trying to rebuild their lives. One photograph shows a mother grooming her child, another shows men discussing intricate details of masonry.

Ms. Johnson and Ms. Saffron work closely with the community's pastor, Debendra Singh, who helps as a cultural and linguistic ambassador. Although not an original member of the community, he was approached by some advocates for the Koraput survivors and is now their leader.

The women have collaborated to the extent that they are not even demanding individual recognition for their respective images: Not one of the photographs tacked or stuck onto the walls, or hanging from the center of the gallery, has an explanatory label.

There are some pages of writings from the field that provide explanation about the people in the photographs and the humanitarian project. In the words of Ms. Saffron, they are advocacy photographs:

"Our point with this project is: How can a photograph or a text move people to make a difference?"

One wall of the gallery is dedicated to a tapestry of individual portraits of the community.

"There can never be too many portraits," Ms. Johnson said, adding that she hopes the unexpected presentation of the images as well as their physical presence will draw people in and make the experience more personal.

"The greatest gift is if it moves those people to action, either in their community or in relation to this community," she said.

The show signals a change in Ms. Johnson's life. For decades, she has been photographing subjects as a detached journalist. The change came as she was speaking to Anil Kumar.

"He told me, as a 15-year-old, his faith was so strong that when he was tied to this pole being beaten, for eight hours, that he said in his mind, 'Lord, my faith is strong, you can take me or you can let me live. Either way I am yours.'

"I had never experienced that level of passion and dedication for a cause. ... I thought, I need to do something, I need to do something more than take a photograph."

Although Ms. Johnson has been a photojournalist for 35 years, starting at the Pittsburgh Press, she had no clue about activist work. So she enlisted help from Ms. Saffron, who has used photography and writing in pursuit of social action since the 1980s.

The two women have another trip planned to India in the fall, when they will pursue a collaboration with Habitat for Humanity India. They are also trying to get some micro-finance projects underway, hoping to provide the kind of aid that empowers the community to be self-sufficient rather than dependent on outside, typically Western sources.

Right now, they have another concern: Suneli, a young girl who had a seizure and fell into an open cook fire. She needs immediate aid so that gangrene doesn't set in. In addition to all the other hardships that arise from being part of the dalit caste, she now faces skin discoloration and physical disfiguration.

"I've covered women's issues all over the world and I can tell you -- this child is at great risk because of how impaired she is, and how she looks," Ms. Johnson said.

Donations to the Koraput Survivors Project can be given online at www.communityhousepittsburgh.org/Koraput or by sending a check made out to Community House to 120 Parkhurst St., Pittsburgh, PA 15212. Put "Koraput" in the memo line.


Maggie Neil: mneil@post-gazette.com.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?