Inside USD

India’s ‘Untouchables’ Inspire Alumna’s Exhibit

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Vivien Francis spent three months in 2010 based in Gujarat, India doing an internship, taking 5,000 photos and writing down everything she observed. Yet, all the while, she felt completely overwhelmed.

“I saw that woman everywhere I went,” Francis said, pointing to an extremely frail person with haunting eyes and more resembled a live human skeleton in the photograph. “There are millions of people in India in that condition. I felt so powerless when I was there, but in my heart, while there wasn’t much I could do, when I came back, it was my motivation to do this work.”

For Francis, a 2010 graduate of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies’ 17-month track master’s program for peace and justice studies, it’s one of many reflections during a tour of her 47 story-telling images that comprise “Untouchables of India: A Photo Documentary of Caste Issues and Human Rights Abuses.” The display in the Hahn University Center’s Exhibit Hall ends a month-long run this Friday, Sept. 23.

Each photo transports the viewer in such a way that you could see yourself there, enduring the oppressive summer heat alongside women who have nothing or see children who, despite innocent smiles, are treated inhumanely as one of 167 million — 16 percent of the country’s population — Dalits.

“The pictures and stories explain how the caste system started and why the Dalits, ‘untouchables,’ are treated this way. They’re seen as being beneath the regular caste system,” she said. “They have certain occupations assigned to them like cleaning toilets. They think they have to do this because they were born as Dalits. They believe their karma is bad and they need to purify themselves by doing this so in their next lifetime they can be reincarnated into a better caste.”

Francis (pictured, right) explained that Dalit children are separated and not educated in public schools. The risk of young girls being sexually abused is very high and Dalit women are abused and subject to a “triple discrimination” of caste, socio-economic standing and gender.

The internship Francis did was through Navsarjan Trust, which was secured with the help of Peace Studies Assistant Professor Topher McDougal. The organization is dedicated to “teaching these people that they’re human beings who deserve to be treated with respect, honor and dignity and deserve the same opportunities as anyone else.”

“Being there reminded me of Guatemala,” said Francis, born there to a Lebanese father and a Palestinian mother, who has lived in some of the world’s most conflict-afflicted areas. “But the caste system in India has a different dimension I’ve not seen anywhere else; seeing the discrimination and not being able to get an education just because you were born among a certain group of people? There’s social structure discrimination and a worldview that’s so ingrained in their minds that they don’t even realize the discrimination they’re receiving. They think that’s how life functions, that it’s normal.”

Francis’ photo collection ranges from images of Dalits at the Ganges River, women laborers and children at boarding schools she visited to spending time with Valmiki, “the lowest of the low” that perform dangerous manual “scavenging,” she said.

The exhibit, funded in part by a grant from USD’s Center for Inclusion and Diversity, has had immense support from KSPS, IPJ staff and other campus supporters. Francis has a 76-page book with more information available at her website.

Each photo in the exhibit carries its own significance, but when asked to point out her favorite, Francis picked two.

“Untouched” (pictured, left) was that of a little boy whose bright smile and demeanor melted her heart. “I took 100 pictures of him. He’s naked, but I’ve never seen a child look so pure, so happy. It made me think, ‘I don’t what we’re doing with our children here in America who seem to need lots of things to be happy. This child here has nothing and is very happy. He’s a Dalit, an untouchable, and here in this picture he still seems untouched by everything around him.”

The other photo was that of a woman, “Cultural Laborer,” with a wrinkled face and an expression dominated by her concentrated stare.

“I put this picture up in my room when I got back,” Francis said. “Every day, I’d see these eyes looking at me, asking, ‘What will you do?’ I’d have a conversation with her and say ‘I did this for you.’  She’s my motivation.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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