Happy Home and School For The Blind
Dilip Bhatia series depicts young boys in the midst of their daily activities at a large boarding school in the photographer’s native India. The photographs are moving and life affirming, with children smiling in almost every picture and bursting with a genuine, happy energy that seems to spill out of each frame. Bhatia’s use of a selective depth of field creates an intimacy that emphasizes the spirit of these boys as individuals. Though this school is undoubtedly a strong and nurturing community, as seen so clearly in the photographs, it is the personal experience of each boy that comes through to touch the heart. Bhatia’s ability to capture this essence is what makes his photographs exceptional.
Dilip Bhatia currently lives in Mumbai, India, where he works on both commercial and fine art photography. An alumnus of the Brooks Institute of Photography, Bhatia established the D Studio N Gallery in South Mumbai and has worked as a photographer in the advertising, fashion, and film industries in India for fifteen years. EYEMAZING spoke with the photographer.
Heather Snider: Can you tell us about how you became involved in this project?
Dilip Bhatia: My brother Kumar was making a commercial film involving seven visually impaired children and these kids were from The Happy Home and School for the Blind. I was to do his movie’s publicity pictures, so I was able to interact with the kids and that’s when the birth of the series happened. When I expressed my desire to do the pictures to the Dean of the school, Ms Banaji, she was kind enough to let me do it.
HS: How would you describe the program or the kind of instruction they receive at The Happy Home?
DB: They are treated and taught like all other normal kids; only certain techniques are used so as to make the learning convenient for them. Special importance is given to learning different crafts such as pottery, mosaic, hand weaving, and music so they can be taken as career options later. Most of the children come from not very affluent backgrounds, or situations where the parents cannot give them the time and attention required. The majority of them live at The Happy Home from Monday to Friday and then go to their homes for the weekends.
HS: Would you say that the series is about The Happy Home and School for the Blind in particular, or is it a general statement about blind children, their schooling, or their community?
DP: This was a specific series for The Happy Home, not a statement for visually impaired children in general.
HS: It appears that the school is only for boys; is there a separate girls’ school? Is it common practice in India to separate boys from girls at school? And if so, did you ever visit a girls’ school?
DP: That’s a good question. Subconsciously this question has popped into my mind so many times and I’ve meant to address it, but I never did ask the authorities. Yes, it’s an all boys’ school but that is not really the norm, we do have co-education schools. I do not know about a girls’ school, but will surely find out now…and if there is one I would love to do something new with them.
HS: For how long did you work on the series? And how did you know when you were done or the series was complete?
DP: I worked about twelve days or so, and trust me you can never be done with such a series. I hope to eventually make a book. For the time being, I stopped after I could give the school enough pictures for their brochure and have a few for me to cherish forever.
HS: How many photographs did you take and what was the editing process like? Was it different in any significant way from editing other work?
DP: I shot hundreds of images because, besides my series, I was also doing pictures that the school could use for their brochure. My editing process is very simple… it’s a yes or no… either a picture works or it does not. The pictures in this case had to have that little “it” factor.
HS: Were there differences you felt in photographing people who can’t see in comparison to photographing sighted people? Do you think that you looked at them differently, or that they see themselves and their environment differently than sighted people do?
DB: This is a wonderful question. Well, to start off, I felt heavy and sympathetic within…towards these kids... to be born as humans and then to be deprived of the right to see the world in its entirety. What we just take for granted—vision and all around us in its proper form—is a mystery to them. So naturally, I felt more caring and loving towards them than I would be in other circumstances. But as I started shooting these kids and got to know them more they put me at ease with their self-assured, normal and, most importantly, happy behaviour. They were so eager and enthusiastic to be photographed that it became a pleasure to shoot them.
I have to narrate one of the first incidents. After taking my first few shots, I excused myself and went to the computer to see the images and make sure everything was OK. When they found out what I was doing, they all rushed to the monitor and gathered around it. Each of them would then ask me where they were and how they were looking! They had me in tears with their enthusiasm. The beauty was that they were oblivious to the camera hence every image looks candid.
HS: Did you think about or look at other well-known photographs of blind subjects? Some that come to mind are photographs by Paul Strand, August Sander, Jed Fielding, Mary Ellen Mark, and several Life magazine features.
DB: To be very honest I did not look at any other work of a similar subject… I would definitely look these works up now. In a way it’s good because great work always stays in the subconscious and comes out somewhere! Mine was a reaction to what I saw. I did not go with set pictures in my mind.
HS: Your use of black-and-white for this series suggests a timeless element and a connection to historical photography, was this intentional?
DB: Very, very intentional. Black-and-white is my weakness. Most of my other series and landscapes are in black-and-white. In this case, it helps the emotional quality to come out better, it gives the pictures more depth. Colour would have been a distraction from what I was trying to say.
HS: Most of the images appear to be spontaneous, taken in the midst of daily activity, while others were obviously constructed in cooperation with the boys. Can you describe working in these two different modes?
DP: The only difference in creating the constructed ones was that I was looking at a concept or a result, so my approach was different. I was getting what I had in mind as opposed to seeing something good and clicking it. As far as the kids were concerned there was no difference; either way they were not aware of my being there. And when they were aware, they did not know when I was going to click, hence the result is still candid.
HS: The most obvious example of a constructed photograph is one titled E which shows three boys enacting the proverb of: “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.” What is the story behind this one? What did you want to communicate with this photograph?
DP: This is a lovely one. All through my growing years somewhere or other we would see the three monkeys enacting the proverb…See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil…in various forms such as artefacts, wooden statues, etc. So somewhere along the way it was engraved in the mind. That particular day, while photographing the kids, I was just pondering about what could be good or an advantage of being visually impaired. It struck me then that these kids are spared from seeing all the wrong, scary things happening around us in the world and that they do not get to see any evil. So the three monkeys came into action. In this case, I staged the shot with three kids and of course the blind one did not have to block his eyes. While doing so I asked him to sing a song for me and enjoy it, so he almost was clapping “I see no evil”...ha, ha, ha.
HS: One of the most striking aspects of the series as a whole is the feeling of happiness that comes through, the sense of a healthy and vibrant community at the school. Did you sense this from the beginning? Was it something you discovered along the way?
DP: The name of the school is The Happy Home so at the back of my mind I wanted to keep the pictures “happy.” When I started clicking it became even happier as the kids were so positive, not for a moment did they ask for sympathy or help. They were very cordial and jovial and respectful. This resulted in most of the pictures giving a feeling of happiness and positivity.
HS: Was this happiness the overall feeling you were left with after doing the series?
DP: The one main thing that I learnt from these kids in the time I spent with them was that not once did they complain or ask for sympathy. The next time I meet someone less fortunate, I’ll know not to automatically treat them as such, because these kids, no matter the graveness of their problems, held their head high and kept their spirits up. One should support that and not be preoccupied by what they don’t have. I also learnt that most of the rest of us need to stop complaining because not once did I see any of these kids complain about what they did not possess: vision.
TEXT BY HEATHER SNIDER
© Picture by DilipVishwamitra Bhatia