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Scottish Lolitas and dating in India: Photographers from two nations capture critical moments

The contest organised by Fòcas, a photography platform, looks at the works of emerging photographers in India and Scotland.

At a park in Lucknow, photographer Gayatri Ganju noticed a gazebo in a quiet corner, hidden from the public eye. She watched as several couples visited the little structure in search of a private space. Ganju was reminded of the multiple conversations she had had with her friends growing up. The problem was always the same – if they can’t afford to spend money every day at cafés or meet at each other’s homes, then where can one go off for a few quiet moments with their partner? In these moments, a public space – a hole in the wall, a deserted road – turns into a romantic getaway.

Ganju started noticing such spaces in her hometown, Bengaluru, on her return from Lucknow and over the next few months, kept her eyes peeled for an opportunity to document this phenomenon. Her series, Strictly Do Not Kiss Here, is about couples who find refuge in old monuments or at a park bench facing away from the evening walkers, for a date. One image from the series has been shortlisted for the Fòcas India 2017-’18, a photography competition organised by Fòcas, which offers emerging photographers a platform for international exchange, exhibition and training. In its first year, the contest has invited emerging photographers in Scotland and India to submit works that lend themselves to the theme “Document”.

Photograph by Gayatri Ganju (Courtesy: Fòcas).
Photograph by Gayatri Ganju (Courtesy: Fòcas).

Ganju’s shortlisted image for Fòcas India shows a couple in a park behind some shrubbery, carefully positioning themselves and turning their faces away from the photographer, but letting her capture their small intimate moment. “The series is like a tribute to my teenage self,” said Ganju. “Like a snippet from my diary from 10 years ago.”

All of Ganju’s subjects knew they were being photographed but all had one request – take the picture but don’t show our faces. “New social structures and values are fast making their way into the urban lifestyle. But the old ones aren’t disappearing,” writes Ganju in the introduction to the series on her website, referring to the incidents of moral policing in various parts of India. There have been instances of couples being harassed, beaten up and shamed for as little as holding hands in public view.

Photograph by Sandeep Dhopate (Courtesy: Fòcas).
Photograph by Sandeep Dhopate (Courtesy: Fòcas).

“I only go ahead and photograph them if they allow me to,” said Ganju. “I hang around them or with them till they become a bit comfortable with my presence. Sometimes it becomes like a little game for them of how they can best hide their faces while still expressing their love.”

According to writer and curator Katherine Parhar, who co-founded Fòcas with photographer Arpita Shah, the decision to work with a theme that is an extended definition of photography itself was deliberate. “We wanted to be as open as possible, to be led not by our own visions of Scotland and India, but by the visions of the emerging artists who submitted their work,” said Parhar. “In some ways it was a gamble. But it paid off. We received so many entries, more than we imagined possible, and we’ve had the honour of seeing surprising work from both India and Scotland – some of it difficult, some joyous, but all of it reflective, all of it compelling.”

Photograph by Magdalena Walczak (Courtesy: Fòcas).
Photograph by Magdalena Walczak (Courtesy: Fòcas).

Photographer Lucie Rachel sent entries from a series which documents her parents’ relation since they met, married and her father came out as transgender, Louise Kennedy captures the hyperreal Scottish Lolita community – a subculture that originated in Japan and is gaining popularity the world over. It reinterprets and mixes together Victorian children’s wear, French Rococo fashion and Gothic style.

Photograph by Louise Kennedy (Courtesy: Fòcas).
Photograph by Louise Kennedy (Courtesy: Fòcas).

Indian photographer Sutirtha Chatterjee’s shortlisted image is a portrait of a student at a school for the visually impaired in Kolkata.

“The project documents their reality and lives which can be so similar to ours if nurtured in the right way,” said Chatterjee. “The work is not an attempt to reveal the ‘truth’ of the students but is more about them being in the moment. It is an attempt to bridge the gap of inequality and inspire sensitivity towards the blind by showing how their lives are like ours if they are nurtured inside a healthy environment provided by specialised schools.”

Photograph by Sutirtha Chatterjee (Courtesy: Fòcas).
Photograph by Sutirtha Chatterjee (Courtesy: Fòcas).

During the time he spent with the children in his series, Chatterjee witnessed sweet moments between siblings, classroom activities and school ground chatter. He recalled a conversation with a student named Brihaspati Mahato, an art student who wishes to learn more about philosophy. “He explained to me how those who cannot see, dream,” said Chatterjee. “This deeply affected me. I understood how important and critical their other senses are. Mahato’s dreams are mostly comprised of feelings. His memories are constructed around the senses of touch, smell and hearing. He remembers a tree by how it feels and a flower by its smell. He remembers his visit to a beach in West Bengal by how it felt to step into the water for the first time. He recounted how he often dreams of that seaside.”

Photograph by Hannah Laycock (Courtesy: Fòcas).
Photograph by Hannah Laycock (Courtesy: Fòcas).

According to Parhar, the jury looked for artists who made brave images. “They looked at artists who took risks in their work to tell coherent stories that left them wanting to see and know more,” she said. “They found that the photography they saw was so varied that it made them reflect quite deeply on what kinds of photography they love and believe in.”

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.