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Indian Railway

Indian Railway (The Ground is on Wheels)


It was my thirteenth or fourteenth trip to India, the homeland of my parents who moved to America thirty years ago. I photographed on local and regional trains, covering over fifteen hundred miles between Mumbai, Bangalore and Mysore. I expected to emerge with an insightful documentary project and ended up with something I still don't know how to define.

All of my relatives had dissuaded me. I was told so many reasons to be afraid as a woman traveling solo that I started feeling uneasy all the time: according to everyone, men were certain to harass me, and all sorts of horrible things could happen. It was the wrong time to be reading the Times of India, to see headlines like “Young woman fights train thief, loses leg” and “Abduction alert: 77% rise in no. of cases in 5 yrs.” I had never worried about harm at the hands of strangers, and my photographs back home in Brooklyn sought to counteract such a common misunderstanding of working-class people as dangerous criminals. I felt angry that fear was planted inside me, and upset that my faith in the decency of those around me could be so easily shaken.

Adding to this anxiety was my inadequate knowledge of Hindi, which I can understand but not really speak. It was the other giant obstacle in my process; I know I work best when I can talk to the people I photograph, in an effort to establish mutual trust. The language barrier immediately marked me an NRI (Non-Resident Indian), a label that I had a hard time reconciling.

That limbo of familiarity without personal claim is probably the main reason I felt a deep responsibility towards every potential subject to defy the shallowness of conventional representations of Indian people. I resolved not to photograph the poorest people unless it was a collaborative portrait, and asked as much permission as possible. I didn’t want to be that foreigner that simply visited, took a few dehumanizing snaps and left.

Of course I was pleasantly unsurprised at the kindness and grace of the people I came across. Men everywhere openly stared at me but nobody bothered me. Eventually I fell into a shooting rhythm, and feelings of disharmony were mitigated as I thrust my face outside the open train doors into the deafening rush of air.

I still don’t really know whose story I’m telling with these pictures, whether it’s just my story or the story of how I saw a place or the story of the people I saw. I guess it must be all three. I figure that’s good enough because it’s the truth.