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From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013  issue

Photographing the Forsaken   

A group of student photojournalists from Nebraska learn about more than photography as they chronicle the experiences of the downtrodden in India. Fri., November 30, 2012.


By Scott Winter
Scott Winter (swinter2@unl.edu) is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.      

A junkie wandered over as Andrew Dickinson finished off a bottle of water in the 109-degree heat. The American college student had been shaking hands, memorizing names and asking questions of the heroin users at the park for a week. The junkie thought he'd ask Dickinson for some rupees for his next fix. Dickinson shook his head.

"No. I can't."

"I'll pray for you and I'll pray for your family," the junkie said, looking Dickinson in the eye.

Dickinson gave him the empty water bottle, knowing it would go that night into the junkie's burlap bag, one that ultimately would bulge with assorted plastic trash. It might net the junkie 50 to 80 rupees less than a dollar, but almost enough for a fix.

"I know if I were him, I wouldn't [care] about these American guys," Dickinson said later. "I'd know they have money. But this guy will pray for me and my family."

***

Dickinson talked to his photo professor about the dusk light, shadows and angles for the wide shot he needed of the park on the Yamuna River, hidden from the nearby freeway embankment by foliage. The holy river wasn't necessary for the contextual shot, even with the chemical haze above it and the constant sewage release below. Instead of focusing on the river, Dickinson tried to find an angle on the path below that led into this heroin hellscape.

Professor Bruce Thorson, my colleague at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, adjunct instructor Brian Lehmann and I would split up in New Delhi each day to join different photojournalists from the school on excursions as they tried to find the right images to fill out their stories and overcome obstacles in the field. It was May 2012, and India was hot.

These 11 students had prepared to do stories about India's forsaken, and they had three weeks with no distractions no other classes, no part-time jobs, no girlfriends or boyfriends, no parties to work on the story of their dreams in the capital city of the largest democracy on Earth. The project was one in a long line of poverty photo projects in Kosovo, South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan that change students' worldviews and transform Thorson's photographers into a team.

This is a story about photographic perseverance. Some days, emotions overcame students who worked with untouchable children who are beaten for not behaving in school. Other days, students had to confront sources who didn't show up or put on a farce of a show when they did. And sometimes, they just needed the courage to ask a question, or move in a little closer, or see a story develop.

***

On a Sunday, Thorson's colleagues again tried to help Dickinson get his wide shot of the park, filled with heroin addicts who were being kept alive day-by-day with rice and clean needles. No shot had worked for the 21-year-old, who would become editor of his college newspaper in the fall. He couldn't capture the park's personality, its paradoxically calm insanity, with wind blowing softly through trees, garbage and chemicals. Then one of the junkies drifted over. Below the bloody gash above his right eye, Mohan gave Dickinson a haven't-seen-you-since-Shiva smile and took Dickinson's right hand in both of his own.

"Hello, Mohan," said Dickinson after exhaling the smoke from his cheap, local bidi cigarette. Dickinson wouldn't take out his Marlboro Lights very often in the park, because he'd have to give away at least four every time. He needed to smoke to remain calm, and in a small but significant way, he felt the bidi connected him to these guys, who will take long drags on the rolled tobacco between heroin hits to maximize their high, to make the numbness stretch to five, maybe six, hours. Maybe longer.

Mohan watched Dickinson climb 25 feet up a tentacled tree that provided shade to 14 junkies below. Mohan sat crouched on his heels, sharing a bidi with two other junkies. He looked up at Dickinson and lifted his eyebrows, pointing up to the American photographer, his eyes wide.

Dickinson's mother lives 11 time zones away in suburban Kansas City, where she raised eight kids three adopted and volunteers in health clinics. All month, Patti Dickinson wrote her son encouraging e-mails and posted comments on all the students' blog posts from India.

"Wow. This is great work Dickinson. Can't wait to see more."

"Love the second picture..with all the buckets. You all are doing some nice work. I'll be following along.."

"The kids are so lucky to have this amazing experience..their photos and stories are fun to read. Safe travels.."

But as her son teetered on a limb two stories high, shooting high-definition video of blood clouding into a syringe, a New Delhi junkie named Mohan was the one who watched over her boy. In Hindi, Mohan told Dickinson to be careful.

***

Thorson didn't want to crush his students' passion, but he wanted to be clear. He reminded them about their Skype discussion, just two weeks before, with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer John Moore, the man who photographed former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination on the streets of Rawalpindi in 2007. Every shot they were getting in these first 10 days may look and feel good, as Moore had said before the trip. But they're shooting in a candy store, Thorson told them. Everything looks like an image. And because the content is so new, so foreign, so exotic, the photos all taste like candy. But that's the problem. They were candy. Junk food.

"The quality of the images has dropped from what you were doing in Lincoln in the spring semester," he said. "Now, it's time to focus and bring quality to the content. Don't let the content control you. You control the content."

Thorson often nurtures students in one-on-one meetings, but likes to drop hammers in front of the whole group when he senses complacency.

When sophomore Bethany Schmidt lost it for the second time on the trip, Dickinson remained quiet. The group had been talking about its daily shoots and successes. Schmidt had had neither. And she was inconsolable and angry.

Schmidt had worked with an NGO to accompany it on a factory raid, where she would find child laborers, then follow them to an ashram where the NGO cared for them. Once on the ground, though, the NGO wasn't cooperative, refusing to let her photograph any children and telling her the raids were too dangerous for her to come along.

Schmidt, six days into her first trip abroad, was concerned about a backup story she was pursuing, about New Delhi's first female rickshaw driver. She placed her hands on each side of her nose and squeezed tight while shaking her head. Then she wiped away tears.

"That's a good story. I don't want to mess it up. I'm not good on that kind of story. I'm not good at video."

I threw out another idea, a piece about destitute African immigrants who meet under a bridge to learn to express themselves through old-school graffiti and breakdancing.

Schmidt closed her eyes and shook her head. She couldn't speak.

The instructors discussed the emotional well-being of each photographer almost every night. After performing individual photo critiques in front of the group, or even in one-on-ones, they had to keep their students' psyches in mind.

While professors talked about what to do for Schmidt, Dickinson needed a smoke and pulled her outside of the guesthouse.

Schmidt repeated what she'd said inside. Then she listed reasons why she couldn't do the backup stories, either. She's from Hastings, a town of 25,000 people in the middle of Nebraska. Delhi's population is conservatively estimated at 17 million, but it's probably closer to 19 million, making it the eighth largest city on the planet. For her, it was a dirty place with too many people who wouldn't give her a break.

Dickinson let Bethany speak about her wounds. He nodded and smoked, leaning against a plaster pillar. He held eye contact.

"That's how these trips go," Dickinson said. "Things don't work out, and you have to move on to the next story."

On his last trip, to Kyrgyzstan, Dickinson wanted to photograph the lives of uranium mine victims, but Thorson killed the story when he couldn't get guarantees as to the young photojournalist's safety. Dickinson's backup plan was to cover antiquated coal mining in a remote area of the country. While waiting for that to come together, he found a piece on Ethiopian students who were trapped in Kyrgyzstan after a regime change back home. In the meantime, Thorson sent other students to do Dickinson's coal piece.

Dickinson was distraught. His two biggest ideas had fallen through for him, and he was stuck with a third idea that he felt was too soft. But that third idea won Dickinson and his partner first place in the Hearst Journalism Awards in the team multimedia category.

"Things will break for you," Dickinson said to Schmidt. "They always do."

She found her story the next morning.

***

Freshman Nickolai Hammar drove four miles north of New Delhi to Karnal, where he had found an orphanage that seemed to be doing all the right things. Easy photos. Easy story. Until he befriended a teen orphan who longed to be the fastest kid in Haryana. The boy hoped Hammar would keep coming back to the orphanage so that he wouldn't be sent back out to the fields to work.

"What?" Hammar asked.

The orphan explained that he was able to go to school when the American photographer showed up, but had to work in the 110-degree heat otherwise. Then the boy lifted his shirt to show Hammar what happened when he didn't work hard enough.

Hammar returned to New Delhi to discuss the story with his professors, who argued with each other as to whether Hammar was ready for the piece. He had photographic talent but no reporting experience.

He needed to shadow Dickinson in the Yamuna Bazaar.

The two of them climbed a concrete wall to see the park below. Dickinson stayed up there, giving Hammar some time to take in the men, needles and garbage. Dickinson still needed his wide shot. But then he saw some men talking and went over to shoot them. Hammar was fine with staying on the wall.

He saw men in huddles smoking heroin. Injecting heroin. He saw a junkie walking, almost carrying, another toward the medical tent. Then he dropped down off the wall to get closer.

Right away, he looked to his left, and saw the man who had been helped across the park. He was lying down. Not moving. In trouble. Hammar tried to somehow yell across the park to Dickinson in a whisper so as to not alarm the addicts.

Dickinson looked back at him.

"What?"

"Do you want to shoot this?"

He pointed at the man.

Dickinson climbed a staircase and shot down on the man, who seemed to be trying to swat flies from his face, but then began to turn over to face the sky.

Hammar wanted to pull his camera out, but knew this was Dickinson's story, and the addicts were starting to notice and to shout.

Dickinson talked to the men as much as he used the camera.

Hammar saw the man reach up toward Dickinson on the staircase. And that was the last thing he did before he died.

"The whole time, Dickinson was in the middle of it all," Hammar said. "He was taking pictures and trying to communicate with the addicts and assessing the situation. The whole time, he had this look of sincerity on his face that I've never seen from Dickinson before. It made me admire how he does what he does."