Photographers look to give voice to suffering people with 'Koraput Survivors Project'
Mother Teresa once said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
Two North Side women, Lynn Johnson and Jen Saffron, have taken this notion to heart with “The Koraput Survivors Project,” a self-assigned documentary photography venture that, at its core, is about social change.
On display at 707 Penn Gallery, Downtown, in what constitutes the first public showing of their project, the 51 black-and-white photographs, 66 portraits and 7 massive color photographs that make up the exhibit were two years in the making.
Johnson, a freelance photojournalist, first visited the town of Koraput, in the Indian state of Odisha, in October 2011 on assignment for National Geographic.
It was there that she met and photographed Anil Kumar, a young man who was beaten for eight hours by attackers wishing to convert him back to Hinduism.
Kumar is a member of a group of nearly 500 landless Indian Christians living in Koraput.
In 2008, 3,000 armed extremists burned their village in Talagumandi, nearly 30 miles east of Koraput, to the ground, seeking to forcefully reintegrate the villagers into a Hindu caste system to which they consciously objected.
The community, then destitute, banded together and relocated to Koraput in order to rebuild their lives.
Considering her 35 years as a veteran field photographer whose job includes covering hate crimes, it was clear to Johnson that this assignment was to become more than an assignment. Determined to help the community she found at Koraput, she returned to the United States and, upon telling Saffron of their struggles, the two began a fundraising campaign and blogging about the plight of the Koraput people on the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh's website (www.worldpittsburgh.org).
Now fully engaged in the project, Johnson and Saffron await the opportunity to return to this remote part of India to continue aiding and documenting their subjects. Their last trip was in March 2012, and many of the black-and-white photographs, as well as the 66 portraits, are from that trip.
“This group of photographs is just the beginning of a larger body of work we are creating,” Saffron says. “Part of our problem is actually getting there to do it, because right now there is a ban on foreign travel in that state because of Maoist uprising.”
The portraits are one of the first things visitors will see. Arranged in a large grid on one wall, many of the individuals depicted are seen smiling, seemingly not at all the victims of the tragedy they endured or the day-to-day suffering from the grinding poverty they live in.
“It was like this big photo party,” Saffron says of the day she and Johnson set up a makeshift portrait studio and took the pictures.
“We chose to do this wall of portraits as a privileged visual space for people who are never privileged by society. Most of them don't even have photographs of themselves,” Saffron says.
Because of their religion, this group of refugees are considered “Dalit.” The term Dalit has historically been associated with discriminated communities of the Indian caste system. Otherwise referred to as “Untouchables,” Saffron says, “They are considered the lowest of the low.”
To put this into perspective, Christianity is India's third-largest religion, with about 24 million followers, constituting only 2.3 percent of India's population. Religious extremists among the majority are seeking to retain social control over this impoverished class, keeping them out of schools, and passing laws to bar them from community funds, property ownership, government support, etc.
For the Koraput survivors, their only advocate in the area is Pastor Debendra Singh, who leads a small congregation in nearby Jeypore. “He's our point person within that region,” Saffron says.
Pastor Singh works as a grassroots leader, empowering the poor in one of the poorest states in India by leading three congregations. Several of the photographs are from services Saffron and Johnson attended, including one impromptu service in an alleyway.
“There's a lot of public prayer in India,” Saffron says. “People pray everywhere.”
Other moments of reflection are beautifully captured in many scenes of domesticity. For example, several of the shots are of women in domestic situations, either cooking or caring for their children.
This is not by coincidence, Saffron says. “It's good that we are women, because we have a lot of access to domestic situations, and so you will notice a lot of women in our photographs, and we feel very strongly about privileging women in these images.
“Culturally it's incredibly different,” Saffron says. “Being that we were traveling unaccompanied, many people asked us where are our husbands.”
The large-scale photographs are perhaps the most emotionally gripping. Hung in a circle in the center of the gallery, they literally bring the viewer eye-to-eye with the subjects, making their plight hard to ignore.
“Of course, we appreciate making photographs. But we also appreciate what these photographs do,” Saffron says. “For us, this has been a real journey to make this body of work as an expression of advocacy and social justice.”
“We do this project to bring justice to people whose story nobody really wants to listen to.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.