A Belgian photographer, Pascal Mannaerts, traveled to India and documented the lives of some of the most ignored communities of women through his camera. Know more about his interesting journey and his project called “Fate Breakers”.
He has spent several days with the “warm and friendly widows of Varanasi” at an ashram in the holy city to get a closer look at their life and struggles; along with his “fearless friend Manju” he has visited the red light areas near the Varanasi railway station where he watched her “give lessons to the children of sex workers even as pimps and goons threatened her”; in Alwar, he was “humbled by the welcome” given by the so-called low-caste families as he spent time with them in their small huts; and he can never forget the afternoon when “I went with my two friends, Abheena and Amitava, a hijra (eunuch) and a transgender, to the beauty parlour where we talked, joked and took lots of pictures”….
Over the last decade or so, has had amazing adventures during his trips to India and met many remarkable, strong women whose incredible spirit and chutzpah he has caught on camera.
The self-taught lensman showcases several memorable images and experiences through his latest exhibition, ‘Fate Breakers’, which is travelling to different cities across the country, including Chandigarh, Pune, Panjim, Bengaluru and Thiruvananthapuram.
“Like elsewhere in the world, in India, too, there are really tough situations that seem almost impossible to deal with. I’m amazed by the strength that the local women show as they make all efforts to overcome those difficulties,” remarks Mannaerts, whose snapshots of Indian women are part of a larger collection of pictures of women from various countries.
“‘Fate breakers’ portrays several stories of Indian women whom I had an opportunity to meet and spend time with. They are fighting against prejudice and determinism, be it from birth, from life’s perils, from intolerance or disrespect towards the other. These women have managed to beat the odds to make a difference and empower themselves, for their sake and for others. They represent the hope that things can get better,” he elaborates.
The exhibition features six groups of women:
- The ‘untouchable’ community in Alwar and Tonk in Rajasthan, who have found their way out of manual scavenging with the support of Sulabh International;
- The physically disabled youngsters from Divyajyoti Centre in Varanasi that provides them with valuable vocational training;
- The women rescued by Guria, a Varanasi-based non-profit that fights prostitution;
- The widows of Vrindavan;
- Acid attack survivors associated with the Stop Acid Attacks campaign; and
- The proud members of the transgender community.
Despite being a foreigner, Mannaerts did not face any problem in convincing women to pose for him. “People do ask me if, being a male photographer and a foreigner, it was difficult for me to make them feel comfortable in my presence. But quite honestly, it wasn’t a problem. I always say that photography is about the human being and about being human. If you are respectful, if your approach is honest and if you are aware of what is acceptable behaviour in the local culture then it is generally easy going,” he says.
Indeed, the rapport he developed with the women in his pictures was evident during a special interaction that he had organised with them in the Capital recently. The widows from Vrindavan and the women from Tonk and Alwar were especially happy to meet him and relive their memories.
Amidst the impromptu selfie session, one of them loudly declared, “When you were hanging around with us I could never have imagined that we would be on such huge posters on walls in Delhi. All this from the small camera you had in your hands at the time! This is great!”
Mannaerts recalls some interesting moments from his shoot at Meera Sahbaghini Ashram in Vrindavan, “After I had spent a few days going around town, I landed up one morning in front of this ashram. The women welcomed me with huge smiles and I felt they were happy to see me. Some of the older ones were initially hesitant to pose in front of the camera and so I told them that they didn’t have to get photographed. However, after a while, as the ice melted, it was the others who convinced them to get their picture taken. Once they were willing, there was no stopping them.”
In Rajasthan, Mannaerts was truly moved by the heartfelt reception he got from the women who were once silently bearing the ignominy of being manual scavengers.
“They heartily welcomed me into their small homes; it was an incredible feeling. And I felt the same way when I was with Manju and Sheela-ji, two women who not only take care of children with disabilities but also help out sex workers in Varanasi. Their dedication to their work blew me away. For instance, Manju, who reaches out to sex workers, has often been threatened with dire consequences if she continues but that in no way deters her from her mission. I went with her into the red light district near the railway station where she gives lessons to sex worker’s children. She simply told me to be alert and discreet with my camera. Despite the imminent dangers, there she was, boldly doing what she thought was right. That’s her everyday life,” he says.
The time he spent with his extraordinary friends, Abheena and Amitava, a hijra (eunuch) and a transgender, was unforgettable and fun. He shares, “I had a great time when I went with Abheena and Amitava to the beauty parlour. We spent the whole afternoon, talking joking and taking pictures. They had so much positive energy and enthusiasm despite the obvious discrimination they encounter virtually on a daily basis. Once the beauty treatment was done I accompanied Abheena to the nearby market as she wanted to buy new pair of high heels. As I walked beside her on the busy street, I was amazed by her pride, confidence and charisma.”
Whereas Mannaerts has been documenting people and social issues for many years now, ‘Fate Breakers’ is a project that is particularly close to his heart.
“This is not the first time I have trained my lens on social concerns. But being in India has been immensely rewarding. I consider myself blessed to have met all these brilliant women who found me worthy of sharing their life with me. Honestly, it’s an experience of a lifetime,” he signs off.