I have considered myself a traveler and a storyteller for the past quarter-century, trying to see as much of the world as possible with what I can afford, and on my recent trip to Northern India I realized that you can’t say you’ve seen a country like India by only going to large cities like Delhi and Bombay. To really “see” it, you have to get off the beaten path and immerse yourself into smaller communities that are visited less frequently, as I did recently in and around Kishanganj in the state of Bihar on my third assignment for Photographers Without Borders. Historically a part of Nepal, it became part of Mughal India in 1840 after the local ruler got defeated by the Mughal India forces. Subsequently, it was then absorbed in the British empire. It is one of the most sensitive districts of India, as the borders are very close to Bangladesh, touching Nepal’s southeast edge, and to the north is the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. Kishanganj is the only tea producing district in Bihar and has lots of abundant farmland where corn, pineapple, lady’s finger, cauliflower, and rice are also grown. Although I had been to India several times before, this occasion was different. On this trip, besides telling stories with my camera, I felt like I learned to listen for the first time in my life, even though I didn’t speak the language. There was a story around every corner that the people wanted to tell me, and I am so thankful that I was there to hear to them.
I was assigned to photograph some of the heroic work being done by Azad India Foundation, an NGO that focuses on female literacy, formal and non-formal education for children, rural employment, income generating skills, and community health awareness programs dealing with various social issues. Since the late 1970s, Bihar has lagged far behind other Indian states regarding social and economic development, but organizations like Azad are helping transform people’s lives through education. Every morning my day started by being greeted by one of the foundation’s coordinators at my hotel, who would drive me at least 50 kilometers to different villages outside Kishanganj on a motorcycle. Nearly every day I met someone different, but all of them were caring, professional, and dedicated to getting me safely to and from my daily destinations. Most of them understood what I needed in English, although they spoke very little. It was always an adventure trying to communicate with my guides and the people of the communities they serve. The drives were consistently lively, dodging in and out traffic through small towns and the lush countryside beeping the horn all along the way.
On the second morning, I noticed from my hotel window that the fog was so thick I couldn’t even see a few feet in front of me. When my driver arrived, I tried to kill some time by slowing drinking my coffee, hoping the fog would lift some before our long drive that day began. Eventually, we had to leave, although the haze was still just as thick, and there was not a glimpse of the sun in sight. I’m pretty sure if my driver that day spoke better English I would have explained my concern about riding in that weather, especially with my tricky lower back and carrying all of my equipment. But, without saying anything, I tightened my backpack straps, took a few deep breaths, jumped on, and placed my life in the hands of a complete stranger. What happened over the next few hours was surreal, frightening, and magical. Our view of sight literally started at no more than a foot ahead of the front tire, and I felt as though we were driving inside a thick cloud. The face guard on my helmet stayed wet from the condensation, but I methodologically wiped it clean with the sleeves of my shirt about every 5 seconds so I could be ready for what would appear next coming out of the fog. Women with herds of cows, lost chickens, stray dogs, men walking on their way to work, a little boy herding goats, bicycles strapped with tall sticks of bamboo, jam-packed tuk-tuks, other motorcycles, and even a rare car now and then would come into sight and vanish as quickly as they came.
That morning I saw everything that is important in the world. I was able to see myself in every human, every animal, in nature, the mist, and the earth. I had a feeling of knowing who I was, and that life is pure and full of light. No words can accurately explain my experience, although I want to say and write it all. The best word I can think of is peace. I was worried I would forget all that I learned, but we just have to look, and we can find ourselves in other people and things. We are all connected. When I was young I was fearless, but as I got older I realized I lost some of my confidence. I’m afraid to be in front of and speak to large crowds. I’m scared of heights. I have a fear of not always saying the right words. After riding a motorcycle that morning in this foggy foreign place, I realized I have the ability overcome all of my insecurities. What is there to be afraid of anyway?!
The fog lifted as we approached the first village for our visit to some of the Azad Learning Centers that dotted a vast area. As a photographer, I wanted to photograph everything I saw continuously. I wanted to jump off the bike and run into the centers and start clicking, everything was beautiful and fascinating to me. But I needed to be patient and respectful first. The people all had stories they wanted to share, so I needed to listen. I feel as though the photographs I took on this wondrous adventure were given freely to me and nothing was stolen in any way. The people invited me into their lives. They wanted me there as much as I wanted to be. They were completely open, real, and willing to show me the good and the bad. There are so many photographers nowadays with Instagram, it seems like nothing is unseen anymore, but there are still untouched worlds of innocence. Many people told me I was the first foreigner they had met, and I only hope that I represented us well.
Life may be hard for most people in Bihar, but not once did anyone show a moment of disrespect, only dignity for themselves and their communities. Every doorway was open for me with a genuine smile and a “good morning sir” (even if it was late afternoon). I was often greeted by someone giving me a plastic chair to sit because most times that’s all they had to offer. Every day for nearly two weeks I visited a variety of centers, such as women’s health and self-help groups, computer labs for teens, formal education classes for children, family gatherings, and income-generating workshops such as sewing centers. One afternoon I was invited to visit two of the girls from the sewing centers at their homes to see how the opportunity they received from the Azad Foundation led to them starting their own clothing businesses. Being welcomed into the student’s homes was one of the best parts of my assignment, seeing them in action, and how their families watched proudly as I photographed the girls working.
Most of the indoor classrooms were dark and chilly, as electricity wasn’t normally available. The condition of the classes kept me on my toes trying to use available light which usually came from a single window in the back of a room, or from the doorway. Because it was still cold most mornings, the children all wore layers of colorful clothing and scarfs, which mixed with the interesting textured walls gave a lot of my photographs a unique look. Most of my visits only lasted about 30 minutes, so I had to work quickly to find the best angles and lighting before being whisked off to the next location. Many times after the classroom work was done, the teachers gathered the children outside to lead them in different activities, which was always a pleasure to photograph. I found myself absorbed in all the aspects of each visit, not only the kids were fun to shoot, but in many locations, the village elders would watch from the outside. At one visit during an outside activity, a man from the village just came and sat down right in the middle of the field of children, and seemed to start praying.
It is customary to remove your shoes before entering most buildings in India and I couldn’t help but noticed how soiled some of the kid’s feet were, indicating how far they may have walked to get to the center. Set in the Himalayan foothills, Kishanganj and the surrounding areas are plagued by severe yearly flooding. These people of India’s third most populous state are still recovering from the worst flooding in 30 years in 2016 which affected 285 villages in the area. The rivers overflowed their banks and in the process washed away scores of villages, cattle, caused the destruction of crops, and killed at least 5 people.
Hindus and Muslims observe peaceful conduct and co-exist in harmony; there is little evidence of violence stemming from religion or caste. Most households are underprivileged and lead a simple life. However, being a predominantly Muslim society, the people are conservative in their beliefs and ideas.
It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to have this community show their world to me. I took away a piece of kindness that was given to me, and now will try to pass it on. What I saw out there in this world was the staff members of Azad India Foundation dedicated to labor until the work is done. I learned to be still and listen. There is something out there for all of us to do. The energy offered to me that foggy morning from all the things I witnessed helped me brush up on my skills on being human.
Try to keep your eyes open, it doesn’t matter is it is real or just a dream, and see what comes out of the fog for you.