I’ve been to Kolkata, India on 8 separate trips since 2013. It has become a second home for me. Even the parts that make me uncomfortable – the constant cacophony of blackbirds, or the scents that I’m so unused to – have become a beacon of home. The blackbirds especially. I used to stay awake listening to their sounds; now they lull me to sleep and awake again in the morning.
I shot these images in Kolkata. I remember the day so well because we laughed the whole way through it. We – my partner in India, Laura Price – scouted a location. We had to do some begging to get this establishment to let us shoot here. The location: a horse stable. They were very wary of our presence… both the horses and the business.
I needed sticks. So, after securing our location, we scoured the grounds looking for sticks. But, it was so well manicured that that, despite the myriad of trees, they had absolutely no sticks laying around.
I’m a DIY kind of girl. When I need sticks, I find them. But being in the middle of a city with an extremely small car, I was out of luck. So, we went to a stick vendor.
Yes, that’s right – a stick vendor. And low and behold, we were able to buy many bundles of sticks. We had to hire a tuk tuk to get them to our venue, and everyone thought we were psychotic.
The funny thing was that it felt like normal life to me. See, I’m used to doing weird things for self-expression. Others aren’t, and sometimes I forget just how weird I seem to people. My everyday experience means dressing up in strange costumes, crawling into dirty places, or smearing myself in paint. I don’t think it’s so much the things I’m doing that freaks people out – it’s that I make time to do weird things for self-expression. Even the things that take a long time to clean up, or are inconvenient.
I know how important self-expression is. I know the value of being able to create something and say, “That’s me. That’s really me.”
And so I pass those lessons on when I go to Kolkata. I teach self-expression. I teach the value of doing weird things purely for yourself.
On this day, I got to work with some very experienced individuals. These women are Dance Movement Therapy trainors. They have done extensive work in how to move your body to heal. And they have done work to ensure others find that same empowerment. Their organization is called Kolkata Sanved.
The girls and I had been working together for years when I shot these images, so they only thought I was mildly crazy when I asked them to come in their best saris and cuddle up in a horse stable in a pile of sticks.
I did get a lot of long stares, and questions of if I was serious, and then a lot of laughing. And a lot of selfies. Obviously.
The program that I run in India (and other countries, like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Greece) is called “If I Could Fly”. It is a workshop that asks the question, “If you could fly, where would you go? What would that look like?”. I teach how to use a camera to express your deepest emotions. We often deal with themes of freedom, dreams, and emotional pasts.
These images were inspired by that title. These women are exemplary of the mission we are all trying to uphold: to empower those who have been through hardship to rise up and fly.
I hope you enjoy these images.
I hope you inspire someone today.
And I hope that, if you’re feeling down, you remember these women and all they are doing for their community. They regularly build up women who have been trafficked and have been through abuse to help them fly.
Well done, sisters.