Under the supervision of John Grady, I applied for a Davis International Fellowship in order to conduct photographic research. I proposed to return to Ahmedabad to conduct a visual ethnographic study on the Vijay Health Quarters and Asarwa, a textile mill slum. In addition to traditional ethnographic observations and field notes, I intended to use two distinct but connected methods: my own ethnographic photography of people, places and events; and subject photography, or photo-voice, which entails putting the camera into the hands of those whom I am observing in order to capture what they believe to be the salient social features of their world. I would then use the photographs taken by both myself and the members of the community to convey information about their experience in the worlds we have captured together.
Three weeks after my application was submitted, I received notification that I had been approved for my work. In just two and a half months, I would be making my return to Ahmedabad.
I left the United States the day after my 21st birthday. I boarded the plane from New York not yet knowing where I would be living. I spent 21 hours, trying to figure out what exactly would happen when I landed in Ahmedabad. Initially, I was to stay with Sonal Mehta, my professor and friend, but an emergency arose at a site that she works closely with and plans had been shifted.
I was told that Salim, an auto rickshaw driver who I had met during my previous stay, was given instructions on where to drop me. I gathered my bags and exited the airport into a wall of humidity — sticky and familiar. I stood motionless as auto drivers vied for my attention and business. While their hands blurred in the flurry of their waving, I caught sight of the sign Salim was holding “Karl Rivera”. We made small talk as we walked over to his rickshaw. Thankfully, my arrival at four in the morning allowed me to quietly (re)familiarize myself with the smells and sights, as Salim whirred through the streets of one of my favorite cities.
After a short ride I was dropped off at Himanshu Banker’s home, my guide and friend during my last visit to Ahmedabad. Salim and I waited outside nervously, as call after call went unanswered. Following a few panicked voicemails, Himanshu came out of his home, and welcomed me. It was a beautiful reunion and I was finally so relieved to know where, and with who, I would be living for the next two months.
My first week back in Ahmedabad, like my journey to the city, was filled with uncertainty. My friend Mahir wasn’t responding to any of my messages and he was my direct connection to the sanitation slum; and Jignesh, a social activist and my connection to the Asarwa slum, didn’t seem to be reachable.
After a few days trying to regain communication with both of these men, Sonal suggested that I think about another locality within the city. Not too long after our brainstorming she mentioned Arzoo, an organization I was made aware of during my first visit to Ahmedabad.
Sulekha Ali, a young Muslim woman, founded Arzoo in the aftermath of the large-scale 2002 Gujarat communal riots between Muslims and Hindus. She believed that education was the means by which communities of different religions, and ethnicities could find greater harmony. Her solution was three pronged: First, with the help of young peoples in at-risk localities, she organized independent classes to supplement and/or replace municipal school teaching; second, she offered financial support to those enlisted in municipal schools so they could remain there; and third, she developed alternative forms of income generation for those who did not want to return to school.
The organization was established in the Behrampura area of the Old City of Ahmedabad. Though there are multiple sites doing Arzoo’s work, Sonal had established connections in Jamalpur’s Ramji Ni Chaaloi community in Jamalpur.
Sonal suggested again that it would be best for me to start my project fresh in this community as opposed to waiting for a connection that may never be rekindled. I agreed and after coming to consensus, she called Sulekha and described my project.
I realized, after hearing my project reiterated by Sonal, that my focus had shifted from wanting to understand micro level developments of pride; to wanting to a more dynamic, macro vision of the Ramji Ni Chaaloi community.
Since I was seven years old, I have been documenting my personal history. My interest in and reflections on community, since then, have developed rapidly. Eventually, I found that my words were no longer adequate, and I turned to photography to widen my continuum of opinion. Now, I explore photography’s powerful ability to not only impact communities, but also provide a sociological lens through which to understand them.
Ultimately, the purpose of this project, I realized, was to use a photographic approach that provided the parameters for a socially- responsible aesthetic inquiry of the Ramji Ni Chaaloi. I wanted to turn material collected through photo elicitation, what Doug Harper calls the ‘bridge between people’ and my own photographic documents into a critically conscious body of work exploring the connections, nuances and complexities of this locality. And so, with six cameras, I set out to Jamalpur to start my project.