By Mary Kay Seales
I took this photo in a small town outside Mysore, India, in a tiny Islamic school with a few classrooms and less than a hundred, maybe less than fifty, students. I had been invited to visit because I was an English Language Specialist with the U.S. State Department. I was often transported to places like this with little or no agenda except to somehow show up as an “expert.”
Of course, I wasn’t an expert in these environments. I had no idea where the students were coming from in terms of their learning styles and needs or the teachers’ challenges.
I was always asked to visit the classrooms, sometimes to speak (without having been given any idea what to talk about), and then I would meet with the teachers and principles. and be treated to lunch, or tea and biscuits, all very formal and incredibly respectful. It was a situation of mutual honor in that they felt honored to have a visitor from the U.S. Embassy, and I felt honored to be invited to share this time with them, to be invited into their world for a brief moment.
In this little school near Mysore, after listening to the teacher’s lesson, I asked if I could take a few photographs. Of course, the teacher said yes. But did the students really have a choice? As you can see, there is a different feeling coming from each of the students, some bored, mostly serious, one shy, a few looking to others across the way. For what, I wonder? Assurance? Approval? Amusement?
But the little girl in the first row, the one in the brown scarf, has always mesmerized me. Her look is challenging. Defiant. Cool.
I really like her.
She’s not giving an inch.
I may be taking the photo, but she is participating on her own terms.
If I had this to do again, I might not take the photo. I see now that the children were being forced to let me take it. Maybe they would love that I have posted it, but I’ll never know.
Witness in Our Time, Second Edition: Working Lives of Documentary Photographers. “Witness in Our Time traces the recent history of social documentary photography in the words of twenty-nine of the genre’s best photographers, editors, and curators, showing how the profession remains vital, innovative, and committed to social change.”