I took off my muddy sandals outside the door, and walked under a small doorframe into another world. The interior of the home was small yet beautiful. Ornate Hindu symbols hung on the walls and an altar adorned the back of the room. The central living space was about 10×15 feet, with a small door on the left that led to the kitchen. Opposite the kitchen was a small bedroom. The fragrance of incense was in the air, and the place was spotless, as these women had prepared for our visit.
The home was special because of the people who inhabited its space. Three middle aged women and a younger girl of around 20, all dressed in beautiful saris sat with us, and in true Indian style, we packed about ten of us into the living room that only sat around five comfortably. We sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch across from the women, sipping on the hot chai they had generously prepared for us. There’s a unique fellowship in India that comes from drinking chai together, and when I took the chai then, I didn’t understand its full significance. When I reflect on the moment now, I know that these women weren’t only opening their home to us. They were also opening up their hearts.
But let me back up a bit. When I heard about a Social Entrepreneurship fellowship, at the Santa Clara University’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society, I was captivated by its mission of educating the whole student through sending him/her abroad to work with a social enterprise employing entrepreneurial methods for solving complex social issues. I saw this fellowship as a unique opportunity to combine my passion for working with marginalized communities with my academic background in anthropology and international business.
Saying yes to its acceptance would take me all the way to India, and the experience I had there. I came to appreciate how working at social enterprises, such as Good World Solutions (the company I worked with) is not easy and demands great adaptability.
Back to Bangalore. The monsoon rains were coming down hard as I meandered through the muddy streets of a village on the outskirts of Bangalore. After visiting four clothing factories, I was frustrated not to have had the opportunity to spend more time with workers to hear about their lives and build trusting relationships. The factory’s productivity was too important, so interviewing time was limited with respondents. It wasn’t until that rainy July 6th in 2014 that I was able to talk with women outside of the confines of the factory, and further discover the amazing and difficult lives they lead, which would leave a lifelong impact on me.
In the factories we visitied, labor unions are highly castigated by management, and anyone who is suspected of starting one typically gets fired and refused employment in surrounding factories. There’s a culture of fear among workers, and it’s so intense that most refuse to talk with anyone about the hardships and treatment they endure in the workplace. In southern India, where approximately 80 per cent of factory workers are women, many of whom are uneducated, the environment is ripe for mistreatment and abuse. It was only through a labor union activist in the local community that I was permitted to enter into one of these women’s homes.
It took a while for them to become comfortable with us, as sharing sensitive things about their lives both in the factory and at home was no easy thing to delve into. There was so much fear about what might happen to them if they opened up and we misused the information. So, we started talking about lighter things: our research and experiences in India, our love of Indian food and chai, for instance. When we had built a little bit of trust and the labor union advocate ensured the women it was okay to speak, they began to tell us more about their lives.
The women had disturbing stories, explaining the verbal abuse and other difficulties they deal with in the factory. The average woman that works in a clothing factory wakes up at the break of dawn to prepare food and do what it takes to get her children to school, followed by a grueling day in the workplace that lasts for 10 plus hours for all of 3 dollars a day, a small sum even by Indian standards. She goes home, prepares dinner, and continues her household chores late into the night only to do the same thing the following day. “Where is the agency and freedom to dream in the lives of these women?” I asked myself. I felt helpless and heartbroken, looking into the eyes of these women who had accepted this to be their share of life.
Gregory David Roberts, author of Shantaram, wrote: “Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Sometimes we cry with everything except tears.” That’s how I felt after talking with these women. Who was I, as a white, privileged American male to tell them they ought to change the way they see themselves in their society. It wasn’t my culture or place to say something like that.
India was unlike any other place I had ever traveled to before. While I enjoyed seeing the “pretty side” of India, this fellowship also gave me access to conversing with workers in clothing factories that expressed the hardships and realities they faced in their day-to-day lives.
I find myself inspired by people like Che Guevara (during his youth in The Motorcycle Diaries) and Mother Teresa, people who committed themselves to live with and fight for the rights of marginalized communities. It wasn’t until I got back from this experience that I’ve started to process and piece all of these former experiences together like a puzzle, which has revealed its image to me. And I will be forever thankful to these women for opening up their home and heart to me.
By Holly McKenna
Running through the dimly lit factories, my mind was pounding with anxiety. The pictures were blurry at first, I didn’t know the culturally appropriate photographic behavior in India, and I didn’t know the language or the people. I just didn’t feel right snapping pictures of their faces. I have never been so negatively affected by photography in my life. I consider portrait photography one of my most valued hobbies. I get to know people, creatively figure out how to capture “who they are,” and take a picture with them. But I didn’t know these factory workers. I was just clicking away like a wealthy, white foreigner getting a high-class factory tour of this fascinating sight. I was taking pictures of this “fascinating sight” during a short trip, but for them, it is their life. I realized in this first factory visit, that I have an extremely hard time carrying the stereotype of a white, wealthy, American college student. I try so hard to portray my humble, non-judgmental, and culturally respectful attitude because it pains me inside when people think otherwise. Although I love photography, I couldn’t fathom raising my camera to snap a picture of a passed-out person on the street. I even felt guilt every time I brought out my fancy camera and took pictures in the factory, even with the consent of the factory managers.
After some time, I started to realize that my cultural sensitivity was a gift, not a curse. Understanding India more, and feeling more comfortable in the culture as a whole, my anxiety decreased and the quality of the photos increased. Roaming the streets and factories of India reminded me of how sensitive I am to what other people are thinking and feeling. I could have shot some incredible, shocking, and outrageous photographs, but I was too afraid to create an exploitative image of myself. Maybe I regret not taking more photos, but I also remember the intense inner struggle I was battling with most of the time that gutted all the photographic energy out of me.
At the end of the day, I feel like I developed my photographic skills in the least exploitative manner, which is something invaluable for my personal development and future endeavors. I was thrown a difficult ethical challenge to wrestle with, and since I wrestled, I am much stronger than before.
Matt and Holly are undergraduates at Santa Clara University. They would like to express their thanks to Emile McAnany, Keith Warner, Thane Kreiner, and many others.