An Empathetic Approach to Photographing Marginalized People with Different Abilities

By Rebecka Calderwood

Nepal-based documentary photographer Anica James was sent with Photographers Without Borders to Tamil Nadu, South India, to document Sristi Village. Sristi Village is an educational agriculture project by the organization Sristi Foundation, which is dedicated to "economically and socially empower the marginalized and intellectually disabled persons (...) and protect their rights to ensure them equal opportunities and full participation in society." James's work has been featured in publications such as Vice, the CBC, and The Atlantic, among others. Her portfolio creates conversation for people with disabilities because of her ability to expose vulnerable moments in its rawest form. James's photography skills help to tell this story, but her approach to empowering those that feel powerless is what makes the difference.

Rebecka Calderwood: Tell me about your thought process when deciding how to tell this story of marginalized people with intellectual disabilities?

Sristi Village members tending to the 8.39 acres owned by Sristi Foundation. © ANICA JAMES

Sristi Village members tending to the 8.39 acres owned by Sristi Foundation.
© ANICA JAMES

Anica James: Because I have worked with a bunch of organizations and have photographed a number of people who have various kinds of disabilities, I photographed it more with an empathic approach as opposed to sympathetic. I myself have mental health and learning disabilities, so I felt very comfortable documenting the Sristi Village members because I was able to relate to some of them; if I cannot connect with my subjects on some kind of level, I always find the photographs look staged and boring. I tried to get all of the shots that Karthik (the founder of Sristi Village) wanted and needed, but I also tried to capture more of the happier and real shots using my own documentary approach while also respecting the staff, volunteers and members, as well as my own safety.

RC: What have been the best stories you've been able to capture on this assignment?

AJ: Everything I shot during the four-day long Pongal festival really stands out in my mind as some of the best shots I took that clearly told a story. A lot of the really great stories I heard about the members were more difficult to shoot, either because everything was in the past and now they are just content, or because it was bad timing, but I did manage to capture what the daily life is like at Sristi Village and that was the most important. Some of the funniest and best stories I heard and/or experienced were from the volunteers, but those were more personal stories, the kind you talk about after work.

RC: Are there any special moments that stuck out where you felt particularly proud to be on this assignment?

AJ: Through the friendship and bond I formed with some individuals in the Sristi Village community, I managed to encourage the pursuit of happiness by helping participants gain confidence. In the beginning, there was one of the participant who tried to ruin my shots on purpose. He would even fiddle with my tripod so it would collapse. It was very frustrating, but I tried talking to him calmly and he began to co-operate with me. I wound up seeing a lot of my younger self in him, and noticed that he was very gifted and he needed something that he enjoyed to keep him focused. I noticed that he was very mechanical and curious about my gear. I ended up teaching him how things worked and found scrap electronics for him to play with. I tried to encourage staff members to react to similar situations the same way I had, too.

Sristi Village members taking a break after working. © ANICA JAMES

Sristi Village members taking a break after working.
© ANICA JAMES

RC: What were your thoughts going into this project, and how have they changed since completing it? 

AJ: Going into this project, I felt kind of nervous because I had not been anywhere alone for a while, and so I had to remind myself how to be independent and hold my own, especially in a new culture. If anything, this trip made me regain my confidence while working on assignments, not only through my photography and how I shoot, but also as a photographer—and human—in general.

RC: Anything else you'd like to say about Sristi Village or your experience?

A member playing with one of the children of Sristi Village. © ANICA JAMES

A member playing with one of the children of Sristi Village.
© ANICA JAMES

AJ: I originally went in thinking that I wasn’t going to make friends and to keep a protective fence around me, but as soon as I got there and met everyone, especially Karthik, I was so motivated, inspired and moved that I took down the fence and wound up making a lot of new friends. Despite the language barrier, I met so many wonderful and positive people. Overall, it was a really great environment to be in. It was a great learning experience on a number of levels and I look forward to returning to Sristi Village someday to teach a photography workshop to the members.

To see more of James's work, visit her portfolio.

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