A few weeks ago I went on a solo photography trip to India to shoot a self-assignment about the nomadic communities living in Gujarat. As part of my pre-trip preparation I undertook some research, bouncing ideas around with friends, checking articles and other resources, and learning about the current reality and life conditions of these groups. I knew the two plus weeks I had planned to devote to this trip where going to be tight for such a complex subject matter, but I was more than happy to take the challenge.
With about 4 million members in more than 300 different communities, the nomadic population of the state of Gujarat is quite substantial and diverse. In the past each nomadic community used to provide a specific service to the society: many groups specialised in performing – they were musicians, fire-eaters, snake-charmers, acrobats, whereas other tribes would carry out manual work (e.g. ironsmiths, knife-sharpeners, bamboo artisans). Technology and industrialisation have contributed to the collapse of the demand for such services, leaving these people out of work, threatening the survival of their culture and traditions, and – what’s worse – eroding their livelihood.
The level of literacy among these communities is negligible and therefore it’s hard for nomads to move on to other jobs and pursue alternative, solid sources of income. Plus, they’re often victims of prejudice and discrimination, which makes their lives even harder. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s no record of their existence as individuals in the civil registry, which ultimately means they have no IDs, they can’t vote, and are also unable to apply for government benefits and so on.
During my research I stumbled upon a name – Mittal Patel, a young former journalist from Ahmedabad, who has made the upliftment of the nomadic communities of Gujarat her mission in life. As founding member and managing trustee of Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch (VSSM), an Ahmedabad based NGO, she’s helped thousands of nomads gain access to basic rights and improve their lives. The successful interventions VSSM carried out in the last few years include establishing “informal” schools within settlements, helping some nomad children gain access to public schools, helping adults get IDs and voter cards, and providing financial and bureaucratic help when needed for the construction of homes.
I contacted VSSM before my trip and told them about my interest in nomadic tribes, and asked whether they would be able to help me access some of the settlements they work with. It wasn’t long before I received an email back from them saying they were happy to help me with my project, and asking me to meet them at their office once I was in Ahmedabad.
When I finally visited the VSSM office, Vimla, the Chief Administrative Officer , recommended an itinerary and called some of the local coordinators in the districts I was going to visit to confirm they were available to show me the settlements in their area. When everything was sorted out I was excited and ready to go – fortunately I had my Indian friend Amit with me all the time: once I left Ahmedabad English was no more an option and he had to help me communicate with the outside world. Amit was also the “organizer” of the team, because he was the one picking the phone, booking accommodation and sorting out our transportation.
When I was on the way to the first settlement with Harshad and Amit, I think I was a bit nervous – I was concerned that people would find it annoying to have someone with a camera around their homes. But as I entered the camp I was welcomed by a number of smiling people. They all knew about my project and were happy to collaborate and have their pictures taken. Now it was all up to me to decide what to shoot and how. My aim was making images that show nomads in their environment and give an idea of how their daily life looks like. I was also interested in photographing success stories and issues related to how these communities are integrating in the mainstream society and document some of the work VSSM is conducting. I’m not yet sure whether I have achieved all I wanted to achieve, but I know that I’ve at least put the basis of a photo documentary project that I will most likely continue shooting in the next future.