Saumya Khandelwal is using photography to bring awareness to child marriages
Getty Images recently announced the three recipients of this year’s $10,000 grant with Instagram to photojournalists throughout the world who are making a significant cultural impact with their work.
Among them was Saumya Khandelwal, chosen for her raw photography showcasing young girls of India being married off as child brides.
Saumya herself was born and raised in India. Throughout her years at school, she was always doing something different. Sports and photography occupied her time in Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow.
Kulture Hub caught up with Saumya over email and she had plenty to share about her upbringing, how she turned her passion into a career, and what the Getty Images Grant means to her.
Saumya told us about her start,
“When I was in 9th grade I started shooting on a compact camera that my parents had brought for taking pictures on holidays. I would mostly shoot my friends, we would all make cool poses for photographs. Then off and on, whenever something was happening in school, they would let me shoot it. All throughout this my parents were very encouraging.”
She grew up in a the capital of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow, before moving to the capital of New Dehli. She described her upbringing,
“It is a small town, where the pace of life is much slower, where we still believe that happiness in not in earning a lot of money or living in a middle of a luxury but in having enough time for yourself and your family.”
As a child, Saumya was full of energy, taking on photography as a hobby.
After high school, Saumya enrolled in Business Administration for her bachelor’s degree. Alongside her friends, she would go on spontaneous photo shoots around their city, “for fun.” She continued,
“While some of them had DSLRS, me and some other people would still be shooting on our compact cameras. And we step out to shoot with the excitement to explore Lucknow.”
Since then, she began using her photographical skills as a lens to put a spotlight on other people’s lives. After college, she decided to take up a photography course and pursue her passion seriously.
“I think that has always been quintessential to my photography – the fact that I was always curious to explore, I wanted to know more about the people I was photographing, I wanted to see what their lives were and would think what it would be like to be in their place. Photography for me was a medium to know more about the world.”
“I also looked up to the works of Raghubir Singh, Raghu Rai and my mentor Amit Mehra. Now, I am also of fan of Nadav Kander, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Yuri Kozyrev and Francesco Zizola.”
She cites their “nuances” to be the most inspirational aspect of their photographs.
“How much more do you know about the subject than just the first hand information of what is happening,” asks Saumya. She describes photographers as “visual connoisseurs,” individually chasing hidden images throughout everyday life.
“We see things that others missed while they were hurrying past their lives – the way light cast a shadow on a wall or the water droplet tracing its path down a glass window. And I love the kind of photography which cannot be put in boxes, which follows no rules but which takes a course of its own.”
Though her Getty Award winning series focuses on one specific subject throughout the pictures, Saumya shares that she’s never intended on conveying any uniform message.
“My approach to photos is always to reveal something more about the people I am photographing than just the information of what’s happening. Instead of objectifying them, I will like to make it subjective, where the viewer can put a context to lives of the people I am photographing. I think those are the things that make the photos more nuanced and make people linger on for longer.”
When working on the photography for the young brides’ wedding days, Saumya recalls the amount of comfort and ease that flowed throughout the community as young girls readied themselves for marriage with an older man. But Saumya is questioning this accepted norm.
Muskaan*, 14 years old, has no definitive answer when asked about how she feels about her wedding. ‘What is there to feel, its all ok. It has to happen, there is no escape.’ Muskaan does not know that there is a life without these obligations, where girls do not get married so young and are free to study and pursue their dreams. Child Brides of Shravasti’ tries to understand how lives of child brides changes after marriage. This project is supported by National Foundation of India. *name changed #childbrides #childmarriage #girlsnotbrides #unicef #unfpa #indiaphotoproject #natgeo #lensculture #burnmagazine #photographers_of_india #photojournalism #india #uttarpradesh #shravasti #saumyakhandelwalphotos #creativeimagemagazine
Marriage isn’t the happy affair it seems to be for the young women of Shravasti. “Girls aren’t ever happy about getting married,” says Saumya, “It’s a necessary evil that they have accepted.”
For Saumya, one Shravasti bride in particular made a heavy impact on her, as she recalls the causality of which the young girl accepted marriage.
Saumya explained in great detail:
I have documented Muskaan’s child marriage and happened to spend a lot of time with her. At that time she was 14 years old and didn’t have much of an opinion on marriage. Rather, she didn’t think that she could have an opinion on it. She told me that it happens to everyone, and she has no feelings about it, because there is no escape from marriage.
On her wedding day, however, she was excited that she would wear a ‘sari’ and that all her friends would visit her. So in the middle of feuds between the bride and the groom’s families relating to dowry, Muskaan continued to attend to her friends.
Muskaan is the second of three sisters and she discontinued her education after 8th grade because of her marriage. Her father is a farmer and ever since her marriage she has actively started managing the house on her own.
In Shravasti, girls do not start living with the husband right after marriage. They typically do it after a ceremony called ‘Gauna’ which happens in a few years’ gap after marriage but the time period may vary. Some people do it in a few months after a marriage while others might wait for as many as 4-5 years before doing it.
When I met Muskaan post her marriage she had more things to share about her husband. She seemed to like him and spoke with him almost everyday whenever possible. She confided that both of them finished a 1200 minutes phone talktime in one week and now haven’t spoken for two days. Her husband had gifted her a mobile phone so that they could speak. He also asked her to not step out of the house alone and Muskaan dutifully followed. She also claimed proudly that she had now become more responsible and took care of the house all by herself.
Muskaan does not have apprehensions about her marriage now. In fact she looks forward to it. She talks fondly of her husband and seems to like him. I was happy for her because I have met girls who did not seem to like their husbands at all, but don’t have an option.
Muskaan* walks along the fields bordering her village. One in ever four girls gets married before she reached 18 years of age, in Shravasti, India. ‘Child Brides of Shravasti’ looks into the lives of such girls. The work received the Getty Images Instagram Grant and is supported by the National Foundation of India. #childmarriage #childbride #shravasti #india #everydayeverywhere #ruralindia
Saumya enjoys toying with photos candidly as well, simply showing off the beauty of her subjects.
“I am in fact very ok with images that don’t share any information but are taken for pure visual pleasure. I think that is why we are photographers. That’s the space in photography that inspires me, and I wish to be in a position where I am able to pursue it.”
But it’s also important for her to touch on topics that focus on the destruction of humanity.
“I would like to work on the havoc that we as humans are wreaking on the environment, and particularly water bodies, apart from telling more stories of marginalized communities and women.”
Suman Nishad at 11 years is married. She didn’t know of her marriage until the haldi ceremony took place. She felt a pang of fear for the unexpected that was to pursue. Her friends recall that she would not stop crying. Despite that, Suman hasn’t discussed her marriage to either with family or her friends. Secretly, she wishes that she could just get to study some more. Here she spends a light moment in the forest near her village where she has come to gather some wood. #reportagespotlight #everydayeverywhere #childbrides #childmarriage #girlsnotbrides #girleducation #unicef #unfpa #instagram #saumyakhandelwalphotos
Right now, Saumya’s work has been based in India where she works with Thomson Reuters as a photographer in New Delhi. When asked if we’ll be seeing more countries added to her portfolio, she answers, “Inshallah,” Arabic for “God willing.”
“My work is based mostly in India because I had been working for an Indian national newspaper. Every time I travel somewhere within the country I think there is so much to be told. And since I balance my personal work along with my job, it makes sense to do projects which are closer to where I am based so that I can make as many visits as possible. But if I get a chance I will definitely want to work in other countries.”
As for the Getty Instagram Grant, she “never, ever” imagined she’d be nominated, let alone win, “I was overwhelmed. It was beyond belief. I could not sleep for a few days after that.”
She visited London for the Getty Images Grant announcement, where Getty displayed work and an honorable gallery mention for the three recipients.
@amitmehraphotography this one is for you Sir. So honoured and humbled to be a part of this. Thank you @instagram #Repost @instagram (@get_repost) ・・・ Photo by @khandelwal_saumya In Shravasti, India, Saumya Khandelwal (@khandelwal_saumya) documents vibrant, joyous scenes in celebration of marriage – but the reality is these brides are children. “It almost feels like a girl is born to be married here,” says the 27-year-old photojournalist. “They don’t know that there is an alternative way of life.” Saumya maintains a physical distance from Shravasti with her home in New Delhi, but her connections with the girls, and their stories, keep drawing her back to the rural city. “I think, primarily, what they need to know is that they have options in life. They should have the ability to dream,” she says. Saumya is one of this year’s recipients of the Getty Images (@gettyimages) Instagram Grant. The grant supports photographers who use Instagram to document stories from underrepresented communities around the world.
As for other projects, Saumya has worked on pieces such as “Biography of Scrap,” where she focuses on the industrialism that is silently affecting our society today.
“I happened to visit Mayapuri on an assignment for the newspaper where I was working. And it was not like anything I had seen before. Its hard to believe that a place like that exists in Delhi.”
What inspired her to delve into creating the piece was the”absence of development in this story of industrialism.” While Mayapuri thrives over manufactured works, it lacks the basic necessities found in other cities.
“It does not have roads, and no government infrastructure seems to exist there apart from its visible electricity poles. So my curiosity lay in the processes and order that is hidden under the visible layer of chaos. Because the industry is still functioning, people are still making money.”
For young photographers breaking out into the spotlight, Saumya reminds anyone getting their pictures out there to “continue doing the work you enjoy, and do it as well as you can, and acceptance will follow.”
Wonderful words spoken from a beautiful photographer with an influential eye.
It will be exciting to see how far Saumya will take her photography in the future. We’ll be watching.