Shivjeet Yadav, all of 13, was holding a digicam and clicking photos. He was on a dusty, kaccha road in Janwar village, where his only companions were the odd bullock cart that passed by and a few grey-haired men huddled under the shade of nearby trees. Over the past year Yadav has taken hundreds of photographs: of his friends, neighbours and other villagers. The best part? No one turned down his request. “They were happy,” said Yadav. “They even posed for me.”
Yadav and several of his friends had their first brush with photography when Gaurav Prabhu, a Mumbai-based portrait photographer and photography trainer, arrived in the village in Madhya Pradesh’s Panna district last year. He was exploring off-route destinations and the 26-year-old came across the Instagram account for Janwaar Castle, India’s first rural skatepark for children, in Janwar. He was intrigued and signed up as a volunteer but was soon asked by the mentors at the skatepark to teach the children photography. Prabhu agreed. “I wanted the kids to capture their childhood memories by themselves, like everyone is doing around the world,” he said of his week-long photography class.
This is not the first time change in Janwar has come from outside. Janwaar Castle was set up in 2015 by Ulrike Reinhard, a German author and activist, who had first visited the country in 2012 on work. Her travels took her to Madhya Pradesh, where she fell in love with Khajuraho. Soon after, a hamlet near Panna National Park became home and she began journeying around the state. It was then that she discovered Janwar, a village with a deep caste divide between the Yadavs, the landowners, and the Adivasis. Reinhard, who was part of the Skateistan project in Afghanistan, where skateboarding was used to empower children, felt Janwar would benefit from something similar.
One of the rules in the skatepark is “Girls First”. Yadav, who is the son of a cattle grazer, doesn’t wholeheartedly agree with it but he does allow the girls to go ahead, photographing them as they make their way around the park. He has shot people swimming, skating in the graffiti-covered skatepark, doing nothing and even posing for him. While he enjoys photographing humans the most, he also keeps an eye out for birds on trees.
“That kid [Yadav] has something that will make him a great portrait photographer one day,” said Prabhu, who hopes to return to Janwar soon to see how the children are faring. “He just knows what to capture.”
It didn’t take long for Prabhu to see how talented Yadav was. Sensing that the 11 children in his class – a mix of Yadavs and Adivasis – may be wary of the unfamiliar device, Prabhu encouraged them to play with a couple of digicams on the very first day itself, to overcome any fear.
This was first time Prabhu was teaching photography to children, so he decided to keep things simple. He used local slang to explain concepts: headroom, a key element in composition, became khopdi-fasla. In order to help with framing, Prabhu asked the children to draw images of what they wanted to photograph. They made rough sketches of flowers, skating tricks and the landscape. After the afternoon class ended, Prabhu asked his students to take five pictures each and report to him.
While most returned with photographs of flowers, skates and trees, one had clicked five portraits. Moved by the precise framing and natural eye for portrait photography, Prabhu asked the child, Yadav, who goes by the nickname Sippy, to photograph everybody in his village.
Yadav says everyone praised the first five photos he took. “They said, ‘He is very talented, he will do something great,’” he recollected. The other children and the volunteers at the skatepark, where Prabhu was conducting his classes, were sceptical that a 13-year old would have the dedication to see the assignment through. But he returned in the evening with around 200 photos in his silver digicam, of the “aadmi log” from the 200-plus houses in the village. “No one really taught me how to click humans, it just came to me,” he said. “I wanted to shoot people, and I did.”
Yadav, who studies in class eight, is yet to decide what he will become when he grows up. For now he is happy taking photographs. “I like the zoom thing in the camera,” he said. “It is so good: if you rotate it, you can see a person [who is] standing far from you [clearly] and vice-versa. It is magical.”
All photos by Shivjeet Yadav.