I needed time before I could share these photographs publicly. I needed time to process the experience before I could revisit these photographs that made me FEEL emotions on such a profound level. To be honest, I feared the photographs did not capture the energy of one of the most unique souls I’ve encountered. I decided to put them aside for some time, so I put them away in a folder on my computer.
Over time I realize that I’m not doing Rekha the subject of my work justice unless I displayed these photographs with the public. I’m now ready to showcase this special project.
To provide some background, a few months ago I was visiting Mangalore, a small seaside city in India where I grew up. The city is ripe with picturesque imagery and vibrant communities that are filled with character. I came across a fishing market that immediately caught my attention by the distinct stench of fish that consumed the air. After several days of walking through this bustling neighborhood, my eyes were immediately drawn to a smile that was beautiful, authentic, and contagious. I knew I had to meet Rekha after seeing her smile. Her personality was striking- she was open and kind and her energy was undeniable.
I learned that she worked at the male dominated fish market for long hours under the scorching hot sun every day. In the market the fishing boats arrive with the freshly caught fish at 3 AM each morning, which is when Rekha began her workday, she unloaded fish from the boats until 5 PM. The market was packed with bidders, fishermen, fish preparers, ice cutters, boat repairers, and numerous other laborers whose workplace was constantly filled with the pungent odor of dead fish and the ground was filled with fish juice and remnants of fish. Rekha was a stark contrast to the environment she worked in. Everything from her smile to her enthusiasm and optimism to her colorful signature skirts set her apart. She walked slowly with a limp due to polio she acquired at a young age, but this did not stop her from working diligently every single day.
Rekha kindly invited me to her home in a slum community far from the market. I entered her 6x6 home that was built with materials such as cardboard, stray bricks, and even stacks of newspaper. After Rekha returned home she quickly washes her work clothes, bathes out of a bucket, and makes it a point to change her clothes, brush her hair and display her femininity. Over tea and snacks she generously shared with me and insisted I eat before I got to work learning about her and photographing her life. I learned that she grew up as an orphan along with her six sisters. She didn’t know her age let alone her birthday, since there were no records kept of her birth. Despite what she’s overcome in her life, she is resilient in her determination to live a happy life. She is fortunate for what she has which is very meager and consists of no material possessions. Instead she spends her energy caring for the other members of her close and vibrant community.
I cannot begin to describe how fortunate I am to have met such a truly beautiful human being. The time I spent with Rekha has truly changed my life. Despite what may seem like such a difficult and undesirable life, she was fortunate for everything in life she had, from her community, her job, and her friends. I realized that, despite having a privileged life, I need to constantly realize how much I have, not only the luxuries I take for granted like a home, a career that allows me to work in an environment that is quiet and comfortable, and plentiful amounts of food, but more importantly for all the experiences and people that make my life full- just like Rekha's.
Rekha inspired me to spread love to others, and to brighten the lives of those around me. I decided to start this practice by taking an opportunity to provide Rekha an experience to add more joy to her life. Days before I left Mangalore, I took my last visit to the fishing village. This time I was not equipped with my camera, but instead I carried a birthday cake in my hand, and presented it to Rekha so she could experience the joy of having a birthday party, an experience unknown to her. Members from the entire market community eagerly joined in the festivities and sang and danced with Rekha. True to Rekha’s personality, she celebrated the love she received from her friends but also reciprocated by cutting the cake into enough pieces to feed the large number of people who showed up.
I will never forget this experience, and will make a point to spend time with my new friend each year, and continue to learn about her, the life experiences that have defined her, and explore deeper into her life. I will of course convey this inspiring woman through the lens of a camera with photographs that tell her story.
Special shout out to my mom Prasanna and cousin Nita for helping me so immensely with this project. Thanks for putting up with the stench of fish, long days of baby sitting, and helping me discover who I am through this amazing personal journey.
Thank you Kathryn Kruger and Ben Chrisman for your guidance with this project. I truly appreciate all your input from the bottom of my heart and know I will keep hearing your voices in my head as my work progresses.