Project Koraput, India: The Call

by Jen Saffron 

In 2011, photographer Lynn Johnson embarked on a trip to India, documenting for National Geographic’s March 2012 cover story.  Her journey enabled her to follow the Christian Apostles, including St. Thomas in India, where she documented refugees – survivors of religious violence now settled in the community of Koraput in India’s Orissa State. She discovered what other news sources, such as the BBC, had already witnessed: religious violence.  

Three years ago, the Christian village of Talagumandi was subject to a wave of violence plaguing this eastern, predominately rural area, with many killed and the entire village burned down and returned to farmland. The extremists demanded that the Christians convert back to Hinduism or risk death.

Those who survived fled to the forest and eventually wandered toward the village of Koraput, where they took up residence, and still live, as squatters in a collection of abandoned buildings.  Extremists seek to regain social control over this impoverished class, keeping them out of schools, and passing laws to bar them from community funds, property ownership, government support, etc. Their only advocate in the area is Pastor Debendra Singh, an Indian who leads a small congregation in nearby Jeypore.

Pastor Singh, 2011, Lynn Johnson

“Jennifer, I am mailing you $100 for that India thing,” my mother sighed through the phone, “and this is after Connie Peduzzi’s son asked me for money for the American Heart Association.  Everyone wants money from me and it’s getting really old.  I don’t know how to decide.”

“I know, I know, Mom.” I said, skirting the familiar Italian Catholic guilt trip.  She did, however, have a point.  How are we supposed to decide?

With close to one billion people going hungry and one in eight people lacking clean water, where is one person to start?  It’s a personal choice: our call to action and its terms, costs, and benefits.

When Lynn Johnson returned from her trip in India, she recounted the life-changing conversation with one young man, Anil, who was tied to a pole and beaten for eight hours.  After listening to his testimony, she made her choice to answer her call to action. Lynn invited me to come on her journey to help transform the situation for 500 refugees in Koraput.  It’s a place to start, and I said yes.

Anil, 2011, Lynn Johnson

We started talking with people, some we knew and some we didn’t, schooling ourselves in microloan programs for women, the history of the caste system in Orissa, and religious intolerance both East and West. We started G-Chatting and receiving updates from Pastor Singh.  We set up a bank account to handle U.S. donations for Koraput infrastructural necessities – such as a well – to lay the foundation for sustainable living.

Yesterday we received a snapshot of a land deed being signed. The refugees bought their own land as a direct result of money raised at fundraisers held here in Pittsburgh.

As trained photographers, people working in the field to write and document other people’s plights and triumphs, we are trained to observe.  We disappear into the background and watch, sometimes appearing with small notebooks, asking questions such as, “What is your name, how old are you, and where are you from?” We don’t get involved. In fact, we are trained how to assess sources and work from neutrality (or at least fairness).

When we return from the field to the “majority world,” we craft our observations and experiences into exhibitions, magazines, and installations designed to engage the consciousness of viewers, who are also of the majority world (you). This is an imperfect set-up as we all know. The oft-toted phrase “raising awareness” can offer a glimmer of shared experience, but then what?  Whose awareness are we raising? To what end?

These are the questions we’re taking with us as we embark on a new journey to create a community project based in a model of mutuality. Coming together with Koraput, we seek to create a new community, inextricably linked and moving forward, together – a seed of peace.

This is a lofty goal, it’s been a challenge to us, personally and professionally, and we’re going for it.

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.