Kolkata: Capturing today with the HOPE of a better tomorrow
When I took the decision, with the support of my family, to leave a well paid career in accountancy to become a full time photographer it was in a quest to get closer to ‘real life’ as much as following a passion that I’d been nurturing for the previous 3 or 4 years. Of course keeping food on the table and a roof over our heads would demand working incredibly hard to ensure a steady stream of wedding and portraits clients. But we also said that life as a photographer should provide us with the vehicle to travel the world, enable us to enjoy it as a family and be all about putting my skills to a good cause where possible.
Therefore when, back in May of this year, I was gearing myself up for a very long and intense wedding season I noticed a Facebook post advertising an opportunity to travel to India with Nikon and the Hope Foundation in November to document their work in saving the street and slum children of Kolkata from lives of pain, abuse, poverty and darkness.
The trip resonated on all sorts of levels – a chance to visit a part of the world that had long since captivated my imagination, a platform to boost my learning curve in documentary and street photography under the excellent tutelage of Nikon ambassador and long time photography hero Mark Seymour, and of course the opportunity to do something for a good cause. Once again with the support of my family I was fully signed up almost there and then.
Sure enough the next few months whizzed by in a crescendo of wedding bells and before I knew it I was battling against time to get my vaccinations and visas all sorted. Sunday the 1st of November duly arrived and within the space of 16 hours or so I was transported from a gloomy, cold and wet England to a very bright, warm and dry India. No sooner had I arrived and I was experiencing what was to become normality for the next week – a hell raising drive through the mayhem that is Kolkata, eyes shut and prayers being recited most of the way.
Arriving at our B&B, my fellow photographers and I were greeted by Mark and various representatives from the Hope Foundation. For the next couple of days any feelings of jet-lag were quickly arrested by the sheer assault that was taking place on all my senses – incessant car horns ringing constantly in my ears, pungent smells (good and bad!) hanging in the air, rubbish and chaos everywhere and homeless children and families on every street. But the smiles, characters, colours and textures kept on coming. I soon came to realise that Kolkata is the most incredibly fascinating, yet upsetting city I’ve ever been to.
Over the course of the week we were chaperoned by the Hope Foundation around some of their projects – the slums, the Hospital and the Child protection homes. One evening we were even able to join them on their Night Watch programme that exists for the rescue, placement, restoration and repatriation of vulnerable street children. To lighten things up a bit we also spent some time through the week visiting & photographing some intriguing street areas – such as the Malik Ghat Flower Market, the College street book market and the area where there were local potters sculpting hundreds of statues of the Bengali Hindu God of choice, Kali, as part of the Diwali preparations.
There were many ‘highlights’. But having been back for a few weeks there are a few the things that stick in my mind the most. Such as the time when I was asked if I wanted to hold a newborn baby I had been photographing with her mother down at the railway slums, the moment on the Night Watch when we were alerted to another little baby sleeping on the street who had a badly swollen leg and was promptly admitted to the Hope hospital with a blood clot (I still pray to this day she survived), watching people scrubbing themselves and doing goodness knows what in the Hooghly river (a tributary of the Ganges) and less than a hundred yards away (down stream) people washing their pots and pans. Then there was the occasion when I visited the Hope Hospital. I had been spending a few moments with a 9 year old heavily deformed girl and capturing her incredibly beautiful smile, watching that smile get bigger and bigger every time I showed her the back of the camera. Then I was told by one of the doctors that she had been found in a bag on a train only a few weeks before. I was stunned into silence as a tear or 2 ran down my cheek. Last, but by no means least, I’ll always remember the evening at the British High Commission where I met Maureen Forrest, the founder of the Hope Foundation. I remember being so totally inspired by her story that I decided there and then that I would try and raise more money for the charity upon my return (see below).
But throughout the trip I was overwhelmed by the comments I was receiving from people back home in response to the images I was posting up on social media. Most touching were those that had said that they had sat down with their children to look at the images and discuss the contrast in their lifestyles and fortunes. To think that my images had conveyed that much power blew me away, I can tell you.
And in the weeks since I’ve been back that show of support has continued to amaze me. Everyone has been asking about it to such an extent that that’s why I’m sat here writing this now.
Delivering on my promise to myself and to Maureen I have set up a JustGiving page and I’m pleased to report that at the time of writing I am 25% of the way to my target of £1,532. Why £1,532? Well as I said above one of my favourite moments from the trip was when I had the great honour of cradling Sahasra, a 2-week-old little girl. Sahasra (‘a new beginning’) is trying to survive along with many other children and families in the slums by the (working!) railway lines without access to clean water or any medical care. So £1,353 will pay for 250 slum families to get clean water and £180 will pay for 10 Hope street medical packs.
The amount raised has come from a number of different sources – anonymous donors, from a few photo shoot gift voucher’s I’ve sold and from my wonderful wife and son, Nicola & Seb. To date they have raised £100 from selling lollipops! But they’re not any old lollipops – they are encased in reindeer and moustache cutouts!
Every night 250,000 children go to sleep on the streets of Kolkata – hungry and without shelter or protection. If you’d like to help out with a small donation then I’d be delighted if you would visit my JustGiving page here.
Finally, I’m pleased to say that the Hope Foundation now have my 400 strong portfolio of images which they can use to help raise the profile of their work and challenges in Kolkata. Indeed I was absolutely delighted to learn a couple of weeks ago that they would be using a few of my images of the children at the protection homes wearing father Christmas hats for their Christmas Cards this year.
Thank you so much to you for reading, to Mark Seymour, Nikon and the Hope Foundation for putting the opportunity together, to my fellow photographers on the trip for their company, banter and laughs, and to my family, clients and friends for all their wonderful support. Last, but by no means least, thank you to the people of Kolkata, teaching the world to smile through the gravest of circumstances.
Below is a video slideshow with some of the images and underneath that are lots of individual images.