India Through a Lens: Unforgettable Scenes of Hope and Heartbreak
We stood outside a padlocked, whitewashed government hospital on the outskirts of Nigaw, a remote village in rural India.
A trip to India from Elon University at the beginning of Summer 2010.
The building, about the size of a three-car garage, was small and box-shaped with barred windows and, by all appearances, abandoned. In an area where these state-run hospitals are plenty in number, they offer little to the people who live there. The building was empty.
"They've never seen a doctor here," said Jayesh, one of the staff members at the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP), a nongovernmental organization headquartered in nearby Jamkhed, where we were staying.
This hospital wasn't the kind of local health care facility I was used to. When the villagers get sick in Nigaw, they go to see Asha, the Village Health Worker (VHW). She has no professional medical equipment, no background in medicine. What she has is training from CRHP.
Villagers clambered through the doorway behind us, about 15 of them packed against the door, as I carried in my camera and tripod, setting up to shoot video of the empty rooms. Shelves were bare and dirt covered the floors. The maternity ward lacked a bed. The facility looked as if it had been deserted as soon as it was built; the outside was covered in a new paint job, and there was nothing but dirt on the inside.
This was the third village visit I'd been on since I arrived at CRHP a week and a half before. We were out with the mobile health team, a group that provides support for the villages and facilitates development of the organization's programs. I was making a documentary about the organization and everything it does.
We were in the heart of Maharashtra, a part of India that American tourists rarely see. I'd come with 10 other students from my Periclean Scholars class at Elon University to work for CRHP, a pioneering organization aimed at educating and empowering villages in the area. We were all just finished with our sophomore year, only a year into the program, and we were starting work with the organization, which hopes to improve health care and education in the region.
Periclean is an academic program in which we learn about a developing country and establish projects to address social and economic issues. Each academic class, made up of about 30 students, focuses on a different area. Our focus is India, and this was the first group we'd sent to work in the field.
CRHP focuses on community-based primary health care. This concept - one slightly foreign to the Western world - was best explained to me by a fellow Westerner as the dissemination of information on health care into the villages. It's about bringing the knowledge to the people of the developing world and giving them the power to implement stronger medical programs on their own.
CRHP uses a Village Health Workers model, training women from more than 100 villages in Maharashtra to practice basic health care. These VHWs come to the CRHP campus at the expense of the organization and are trained for everything from delivering a baby to treating depression.
The organization also offers a secondary-care facility for those who need treatment. The hospital is located on CRHP's campus in the market town of Jamkhed and charges only what people can pay - even if that means nothing.
Small Moments Mattered
We'd come to intern with the organization and develop projects that many of us will work on for years to come. Some of us created paperless ways for CRHP to conduct business, for instance, and others interned at the secondary-care hospital on the organization's campus. My project was to create a 30-minute documentary about CRHP that could be used to raise awareness and generate funding.
We had studied health care in India for months leading up to the trip, learning all about the understaffed government hospitals that lacked many needed supplies; the phenomenon of medical tourism, which leads foreigners to vacation in India to get better deals on expensive surgery; and the expensive but much more effective health care of private hospitals.
But the situation gains new meaning when you see it with your own eyes. Or, in this case, through a camera lens.
My project took me on four trips to CRHP project villages. Each trip was an opportunity to see rural India in its truest form - a rare opportunity for an American on a tourist visa. These were the people of Gandhi, the people who lived in extreme poverty. I tried to photograph as many of them as possible, attempting to capture the face of India's villages.
Not allowing the piles of trash that lined roads and the pigs rolling around in sewers to bother me was relatively easy. As long as I wasn't actively involved in what was going on, I was OK with it; I was simply an observer. But when the poverty had a face, it couldn't be ignored.
It's American to want to help people in all corners of the world. After all, we were there to help people who lived in extreme poverty. And going on trips like these can provide incredible experiences for Americans to see and experience parts of the world completely different from their own.
A Feeling of Helplessness
It was in the small moments that the trip had the most value.
Some of those memories won't fade: the gathering villagers behind us as we entered the hospital; the hospitality of the Indians as they invited us into their homes to eat and drink tea. In one 10-second clip, one that I managed to get almost by accident, a little girl walks up to a boy who is sitting on a sidewalk. He pats the ground next to him and she sits down, putting her hand on his shoulder. She hands him something, and they smile at each other.
I came back from India with 1,400 photos and 10 hours of footage that captured some of the greatest moments of human interaction. The faces and the scenes caught on camera are ones that will stick with me for a long time as the images of a country I fell in love with.
I have photographs of everything from the cow market to portraits of the children and families that live in Jamkhed. I have a shot of my professor walking through a market bursting with color, photos of a wedding where I was pulled up on stage to document the -marriage, photos of hiking up a -mountain to visit an ancient fort with the countryside laid out for hundreds of miles in front of me.
These moments were when I was able to capture the truest emotion of India. The faces, the colors, the feel. While working with CRHP was one of the most gratifying jobs I've ever had, what truly shaped the trip was the everyday moment as small as when a villager would smile and offer the typical Indian greeting "Namaste" as I walked by.
The image that will haunt me the longest is one I encountered during our first village visit.
I was showing some of the locals my camera when they pointed to a woman sitting in her doorway a few feet away. They wanted me to do something for her, but their meaning was lost because they couldn't explain in English and I couldn't understand their language.
She was old and looked tired, and she wouldn't make eye contact with me as I knelt in front of her. As I sat there -holding my camera, 10 or so villagers crowded around us, many of them -trying to tell me something. She was speaking, but not to me. Her tone was almost disgusted, or maybe sad, I -couldn't decide which.
It was in the moments like these when there was no avoiding the fact that I was an outsider. My guard would drop and it hit me that I could do nothing to help these people as they stared back at me. Seeing the woman's desperation and not being able to help her felt like defeat. These were the moments that really shaped my trip.
Jayesh told me the woman with the sad face suffered from clinical depression, which is one of the larger issues CRHP battles, especially in older -villagers. I understood that. But the -villagers kept talking as if they wanted me to do something, and all I could do was nod helplessly and walk away. I never knew what they and others -wanted or needed from me.
Someday I hope to go back and find out.
Jack Dodson is a summer intern at The Pilot. He attends Elon University.
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