Project Koraput: Going South

by Jen Saffron

Arriving in Delhi’s airport last night, we encountered a string of uniformed porters, drivers, and relatives, hanging over a rail like parade spectators, some holding paper signs with an expected guest’s name.  Our driver, Sanjay, held a sign that read, “Mr. Lynn Johnson” and after his look of surprise when Lynn introduced herself, we whisked off to the car.

Later that evening, jet lagged and hungry at midnight, Lynn and I ordered room service.  The lamb, nan, and wicked spicy cauliflower arrived for Mr. Jen Saffron and I signed.

Throughout the world over, social codes, mores and even laws dictate who are the served and who are the servers, and in the developing world, women are not the served.  This strata, illustrated the second we landed in India, is layered with complex social traditions and gender stereotypes that will deepen as we travel out of India’s capital south to Orissa, one of the top five poorest states on the subcontinent.  As Pastor Singh, our contact in Jeypore shared, women in his region are completely dependent and ruled by men.  In Orissa, chronic malnourishment impacts 48% of all women and their life expectancy is 59.

It is a known fact that the uplift of women in the developing world holds the key to improving the quality of life for billions.  Improving the status of women positively impacts children, families, and community development.  A woman who earns her own income reinvests up to three times more of her earnings into her family as compared to a man. UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, strives to identify key indicators for success in health, economic opportunities and self determination.

We also know that women in the developing world like India, while the least involved in causing the devastations that impact their lives, are totally beholden to these same travesties – violence, hunger, and climate change among them.  In fact, Lynn will continue from our journey to Calcutta to photograph among other projects, education and micro-finance programs for Ripple Effect, an organization of women photographers documenting the impact of climate change on women, and promulgating those images to help women become agents in turning the tide.

Arriving in Orissa from the comforts of our privileged American lives, how can we be of service?  Now it’s our time to be the servers, but that’s a choice, not a burden.   We’ll never have to be a beast of burden to an upper caste, and navigating the unknowns and realities around that should prove interesting as we begin documenting the resettlement of the Koraput Christian refugees in a couple of days.

Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.