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 of my status as a visiting English Language Specialist with the US 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 and 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 usually met with the administration, teachers and principles. and treated to lunch or tea and biscuits, all very formal and respectful. It was a situation of mutual honor in that they felt honored to have a visitor of my status, 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.”