Ladki:Focus on the Invisible Girl Child

A moving exhibition offers a glimpse into the lives of young girls forced into labour and marriage in the hinterland

Souzeina S Mushtaq Delhi 

In an empty courtyard surrounded by decaying walls sits a girl in her early teens. She is dressed in green, a black dupatta wrapped around her head, hands adorned with bangles, and silver anklets encircling her feet. The camera has captured her perfectly — her piercing eyes look straight at you, forcing you to pause and pay her attention.  Her name is Shabnam. She is 13 years old and was married last year. She has dropped out of school and will continue, for the time being, to live with her parents, spending her days doing household chores, until she goes to her husband’s home at the age of 15.

“Shabnam wants to continue with her studies but fate has other things planned for her,” says Mansi Midha, 29, Shabnam’s photographer and recipient of the 2013-14 National Foundation for India grant. The grant will support her work on the invisible girl child project. Twenty-three photographs by Midha were displayed on the walls of India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, during the recently held exhibition, ‘Ladki’, a show on the education of the girl child.

While studying communication design in Delhi in 2003, Midha was introduced to photography, which eventually became her passion. “I would start missing out on my classes, taking my lunch breaks off, and going somewhere and taking pictures. It was some madness,” she says.

After finishing her degree, Midha felt the need to do more. She studied photography at the International Centre of Photography in New York but came back to India after finishing her programme. She continued to take photographs, most of them centred around education. “Education is something that is very important to me. There have been a lot of projects as well as assignments, whether they were self-assigned or commissioned, around the theme of education,” she says.

According to the National Family Health Survey, there are around 24 million child brides in India. “They should be in school, even if they come from a background where their parents are not educated. Without education they cannot move forward. They are only going to be in the same trap that their family was in,” says Midha, adding: “Something always pulls me towards working on projects like this.”

The exhibition focused on how young girls are forced into labour and marriage. The pictures displayed were shot primarily in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and the National Capital Region of Delhi. The aim is to provide a glimpse into the lives of these young girls and highlight their plight.

As a photographer, Midha believes in connecting at a deeper level with the people she photographs: “I am not one of those photographers who takes one picture and vanishes. There was this girl who was raped; I could not photograph her face. But I visited her three times in Ajmer. It is just that you build this personal connection and this trust with somebody and that is important for me. Every story hits me hard. There is not a day that goes by when something does not affect me.” “Yes, there are some pictures that you get on the go, and they are fleeting moments, but I like engaging with people,” she adds.

Midha has been pursuing her passion for photography for some seven years now. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and Emaho magazine. When asked about her journey so far, Midha says it has been good but not smooth: “There have been challenges. Sometimes getting into certain places and getting access to people has been an issue. It has been hard but being a woman was advantageous too.
Because people would trust you with their daughters.”  It is easy to see why Midha’s work is appreciated and resonates with the viewers. As famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.”  

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2014