Photography and Women’s Empowerment

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Empower HER is a not for profit organization based in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand in North India aimed at improving the lives of women and girls through skills development, economic empowerment and education. Over 200 women have benefitted from training in using information technology with a small number of in-house laptops learning MS Office, Photoshop and the internet. This has lead to some of them gaining employment in their local area. Some groups learn how to design, weave and make bags and accessories that will be sold online. The local government banned the use of polythene bags in shops on 15 April, so there is a new line of bags made out of newspaper being hand-made by the women.

Many people living in Rishikesh are migrant families from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Many of the girls and women in the local area are unoccupied at home. Some are alone whilst their husbands are at work, others are from families that cannot afford to pay for school fees so their education may stop very young, or in some cases never begin. Roshan who teaches the women how to make bags is 22 years old and had to start working as both her parents are unemployed, her father mentally ill, and she has younger siblings. Her responsibilities for taking care of the family started at an early age.

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Amit and Roshan, second and third from the left.

Amit Bhatnagar, originally from Chandigarh in Punjab is the founder of Empower HER as well as a number of other charities including Plant a Tree for India, a national conservation project. Amit started his career in finance, to then work as a documentary journalist for Pulse Media making programmes for the Discovery Channel about the streets of India. He then moved to Rishikesh to experience life in an Ashram and ended up staying there and creating a range of development initiatives. I also went to Rishikesh for a spiritual retreat, and Empower HER found me as myself and Amit have some mutual connections. He explained to me that women in this state tend do a lot of the physical work, whilst there is a huge problem of alcohol abuse and domestic violence lead by men.

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As the group have produced many bags, accessories and stationary that can be sold, the next stage is to promote and sell these products online. Myself and Amit decide the next step is to teach the girls some basic skills in photography, as a confidence builder, a change to their regular routine, and a way for them to take responsibility in documenting and promoting what they have made by hand. As some of them are also learning to use photoshop, they will also be able to use their newfound skills on the photos. I start with a discussion on the use of photos in daily life, where they see images, how photos can be manipulated, and the positive and negatives uses of photos in the media. They also gain insight in some of the different types of photography from portraits to conceptual and more artistic work.

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The girls are quite shy in the beginning but eventually open up and talk more as the session progresses, and it’s a great advantage that I can speak to them in Hindi. They each take turns in following my instructions and using a digital camera to take photographs of each other as individuals, groups and in different settings. There are many smiles and giggles throughout and much fun is had by all. Its wonderful watching them starting with shy poses wanting the experience to be over as soon as possible, to creating group photos and different angles on a scooter or with different expressions, as their confidence grows and they get used to the camera. A local male professional photographer joins me for the second session, adding another angle and expertise to the experience. It is a pleasure to work with the team, girls and women at Empower HER. I look forward to continuing a working relationship with them in the future to continue empowering local people, now that a seed has firmly been planted during my time in Rishikesh.

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