What possible good can come of this? I'm being asked this question by a lot of people. Sometimes I feel they'd accept it better if we had organised for a tailoring training session or even a handicrafts workshop. But digital cameras? How will communities use this skill in the long-term?
One year ago, we did a small experiment with a group of slum children and cameras. During a discussion on photographs I was asked to explain why I liked a particular picture. After I said my piece, the girl sitting next to me, turned around and said "you know, I'd have liked this picture better if the flower in the foreground took a little less space in the frame".
At that moment it just didn't matter that she came from a slum and I didn't or that she was 11 years old and I was older, or that her mother tongue was Urdu and mine was not - what mattered was that we were talking as two people interested in photography - talking as equals, each with a point of view derived from the skills we had acquired as amateur photographers, me from an institute and she from the photo workshop that was being run by Kathryn, a volunteer from the US.
For me that's when Freedom of Expression was born The F.O.E team in action
The spirit behind FoE has never been to create a link to earning a livelihood. If that happens, brilliant. But what its main intention is, is to be an equaliser. By making the camera accessible, by demystifying it, it becomes one less thing that’s a divide between us and them.
I have in the past enrolled myself in salsa classes, my friends are learning foreign languages, some have joined bird watchers clubs and others join up for treks - these decisions haven't always been made to enhance our professional or earning capacities. But personal, yes, definitely. They are new exciting skills to have and they make you say 'hey I didn't know I could do that, but I can!'.
They've opened our eyes to a lot experiences, made us feel more connected, enhanced our feeling of belonging to a world that does these things. And we are definitely the richer for it.
This is exactly what a digital camera is doing in the life of a child or a man or woman from a village. It's giving them an opportunity to experiment with something new, something exciting so they too can say 'hey, I can handle this!' and they can feel the power of achievement.
FoE is training children from slums in Hyderabad. Villages in Sheopur Madhya Pradesh (near the chambal valley), tribal farmers in in Araku valley who are growing organic coffee, men and women (from extremely patriarchal villages) in Punjab and women farmers and self-help group member in Nagaland.
None of them have ever held a camera in their hands because no one gave them a chance to, or even thought that this could be something they'd like.
We are hoping they do.