Interview with Suchitra Vijayan: Lines of Grey and Social Change Through Photography
Lines of Grey is a project of social change through photography conceptualized and cultivated by Suchitra Vijayan. The idea is to provide cameras to the children, enabling them to capture their world in pictures. The concept is similar to the award winning documentary film Born in Brothels, where children of the red-light district in Calcutta recorded moments of their lives through cameras handed out to them. Using the donations from friends and volunteers around the world, Suchitra supplied disposable cameras them to the street children in Tanzania. Cameras in the hands of these children first flicker a smile on their lip. A dream flourishes when their camera captures what any eye merely glances over, never stops to see. The idea rests upon a slogan associated with the project, called Every child is an artist.
Suchitra is a barrister by training and works for the UN. After schooling from Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan in Chennai, Suchitra moved to UK where she graduated with a LLB and European Law (Hons.) in 2004. Since then she has worked for UN War Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and UN War Tribunal for Rwanda. Suchitra is as young and relentless as she is passionate about her NGO effort. She epitomizes the modern Indian woman, who is global not only in her aspirations and achievements, but also in her pursuit of her dreams and ideals. Her own photography is quite fascinating, and she recently was awarded with the Nikon Imaging - Emerging Talent of the Year award. Suchitra is very well read, widely traveled, and immensely inspiring person, and I am sure this allows her to be an exemplary mentor.
I owe my friendship to Suchitra to our shared love for poetry and literature. Back in 2004, when she was still a student, we exchanged several emails, discussing authors, philosophers and poems. Even back then, I was amazed at her intensity, work ethic, and nature of her will to effect change. Many of us are able dreamers, capable but lazy poets or many times, well meaning mortals trapped in our daily circle of money, education, career, love, relationships, parties and movies. It requires a strong sense of purpose to go out there and try to organize something voluntarily, without a material gain in sight. Suchitra has been actively harvesting creativity in form of images from the children in Tanzania, and has managed to get to a point where some of these will be exhibited in Bay Area in US, and in Chennai, India.
While the intentions are noble, the effort is charged with single-minded devotion, the approach is based on aesthetic, the labor is of love, there are many hurdles in realization of real goals. Let us assume that such an effort can indeed empower kids to channelize their creativity. Yet to make a significant change, one needs volunteers around the globe to carry this effort. The whole issue of logistics is baffling one, and so far Suchitra has limited her scope to Arusha, Tanzania. One might argue that what the kids need most is education, clothing, housing and means to earn a livelihood. The photography seems like a distraction, as if, from those goals. Having worked with children in slums in Delhi, I figured that most children were motivated by play, by humor, by adventure. Poverty molds the scope of their imagination, but does not curtail it. The richest tales would surface through conversations with these children, and the only lesson I learned there was this: No amount of money or schooling distributed randomly to these children can help them as much as a personal attention, where both their angst and amazement at this world are interpreted, addressed and cultivated. Suchitra has been working to provide the flash of hope, a snapshot of creativity and joy to these children.
I shot a few Questions to Suchitra and here they are:
Why lines of grey?
To answer why “Lines of Grey “ I need to talk about my fascination with the colour grey. This goes back to my own love affair with black and white photography. Like all great love affairs, it started with this heady feeling of getting the winds knocked out of me and I was in an expedited hurry to learn and discover everything there was to know about this medium. In that process I came to understand this subtle but complexly layered colour called “Grey”. Grey is an achromatic colour between white and black that exist in the state of great lightness, caught between the lighter side of black and darker side of white. Grey is a shade of remarkable gradation, it is its own complement. Grey remains grey when its colour spectrum is inverted, and therefore has no opposite and alternately is its own opposite.
Lines of Grey represent the street children who are a part of this project; each shade with its complex mixture of shadows, highlights and mid-tones. They are the product of economic and social injustice that is rampant in this world. These children are prisoners of prejudice, social attitudes and numerous negative associations. Just like the shade grey, these children live on the marginalized edge of extremes. They are the existing reality and the beautiful abstraction.
How long do you plan to carry out this project? What happens when you move from your present appointment?
The photography project was designed to last for a period of six month. Then the process of compiling the children’s images, their stories and thoughts begins. This will culminate with the launch of our website and series of exhibitions. The money generated from this project will go back to these children. The website is also geared toward having individuals sponsors for addressing the education and other economical needs of these children. Since I no longer live in Africa, I am planning on getting my friends from that area and some of the older kids form the Project to co-ordinate and continue the project.
What is future of lines of grey?
Right now 24 hours of sleep doesn’t seem enough to accommodate the collective dreams and aspiration of everyone who is a part of LOG. Not surprising since most of us are dreamers first. Left to our devices we would conjure an imagine where LOG would solve all of the worlds problems. (Chuckles) . On a more serious note, there are plans underway to start similar projects in India. In June 2007, Lines of Grey was registered as an NGO in India, and plans are underway to launch the NGO in the United States. Right now the projects focus on photography as the medium. If every child is an artist, then art should also take different forms.
Honestly I am not sure what future lies for Lines of Grey. I am not sure if we can generate enough interest, enough momentum to sustain the NGO. I am not sure if it will make any sustainable change. But Lines of Grey is not just a project, it’s an idea. Everyone who is a part of this project decided to be a part of an experiment that seeks to make a difference at a personal level. The project runs on the inherent belief that individuals still possess the power to make that little difference that will one day become a part of the critical mass required to change this society and change it fundamentally.
Do you have plans of expansion outlined for your idea or project?
Expansion is a big word for the small acts we do. When I think in terms of expansion, I think about mainstream awareness about this kind of work. Every time I return back to India, I feel the phase at which the country is heading towards its intellectual death has been hastened. We have become a celebrity hungry society tuned only to the stories of rich and famous. We have become characters in soap opera in search of an author. Series of reality shows with “celebrities” shaking their legs to the latest bollywood number has become the nations pre-occupation. Urban India with its increasing disposable income has become deaf and indifferent to the stories of the “other” India and the underdogs of this world. If these stories do surface from time to time they become marketable commodity in a culture of sensationalism. True voices become buried and often do not have a platform. In this context Lines of Grey is a form of social documentary through the eyes of the “others”.
For instance, imagine giving cameras to the kids from various fishermen villages affected by the Tsunami. Imagine the powerful images these children would harvest from their reality. Their images have the power of self. If there is an expansion, that expansion to me is not kick starting more projects all over India and other parts of the world. But merely getting enough people interested to look and maybe think.
Have you noticed any change in lives of kids over last many months?
I wish I could say with brimming confidence that “yes I have”. But the harsh reality is not so. This project hasn’t altered their life drastically. But I can vouch for the happiness and joy that I witness every time I handed over the camera. I remember the immense pride, I felt when I saw the first set of pictures when it was developed. How they reacted when they saw their pictures. But these are not tangible and I am very aware of that. Inheritances of fond memories cannot be converted to currency. But they are nonetheless inheritance everyone should have a stake in and I can but only hope that LOG is contributing towards this in some measure.
On the more pragmatic side, in the great Indian art of self justification, I often tell my self the project just got over. When the website is done, when the exhibitions happen things will be different.
Here are a few websites that provide images and information about Suchitra and Lines of Grey:
Photos from Suchitra
Interview with Suchitra Vijayan: Lines of Grey and Social Change Through Photography
- » Published on October 29, 2007
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Author: Vivek Sharma
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