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Every Woman Is A Powerhouse — Deepti Asthana

Deepti Asthana, a self-taught photographer, captures riveting stories of girls and women from unseen corners of India. She talks to us about her relationship with the lens and how it offers her a glimpse into the lives of her subjects.

By Ritupriya Basu on 25 January

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Japiyammal, 34, sells dry fish for a living. She lives in Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu, where the fishing community is being asked to leave their land for the sake of tourism.

With a penchant to unfurl overlooked and unnoticed stories from the remotest nooks of India, Deepti Asthana found her calling in photography. She turned to the lens as a way to foster her long-subdued creative streak, and began traveling to isolated villages looking to make a difference with the images she created. When she found herself at a salt plant in Gujarat talking to a 13-year-old working girl pitching pans of salt into a tractor, she realized the potential of what she was beginning to build.

Thus began her journey of sharing striking stories of girls and women across India through compelling portraits. Women of India, her ongoing series, shines light on stories that deserve to be heard.

When and how did you find yourself gravitating towards photography?

Before I began exploring the world of photography, I was working a stereotypical 9-to-5 job. I merely began making images to fill a creative void in my life, and the entire process developed gradually. I started exploring the different genres – travel, wedding and fashion photography but nothing really struck a chord with me. I wanted to make a larger difference with my work and make sure that my contribution amounted to something. It took me around 3 to 4 years to find my own voice and transition completely from the corporate life to that of an independent photographer, and thus began my journey.

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Mari, a 29-year-old fisherwoman in Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu, bathes by the open road.

What informs your sensibility as a photographer?

Most of the stories I cover come from a very personal space. My childhood, my past, my family history and shared experiences has a lot to do with the kind of work I’m doing today. I come from a small town in Uttar Pradesh, and the things I saw as I grew up stayed with me through my life. The way women are treated there, and the way my mother was treated in the family when my father wasn’t around urged me to do something that makes a difference, and catalyze change. The need to alter the narrative that women are weak or helpless, to one that acknowledges that every girl is a powerhouse in herself influences my practice. Photography is merely the medium that helped me achieve that.

Take me through the inception of your photo series, Women of India. What sparked the idea for the project?

When I started experimenting to find my own voice as a photographer I also began traveling a lot. I ventured out to small villages that embody the essence of India. On one such trip, I found myself in the salt pans of Mithapur, Gujarat. There, I met a 13-year-old girl called Bharti at a salt plant. When I met her I thought she might have accompanied her parents to the plant, who were working there. But to my astonishment, she soon started heaving up pans full of salt to fill the tractors that stood at the edge of the plant. Her wiry frame wasn’t made for such strenuous work. There was nothing to protect her against the hazards of working in the salt pans. Later, she divulged that her father had decided she could only live with him if she contributed to the work there.

Bharti’s life inspired me to officially begin this project to bring to the fore the lives of scores of girls and women in India who do not get a childhood or even a basic education they deserve. Their lives are so far-removed from our urban existence, and the kind of culture we are surrounded by. These narratives deserve to be heard, and I want to tell them.

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Deepti's first photograph from the series was of Bharti, a 13-year-old girl working at the salt pans of Mithapur, Gujarat.

Photography has always been a tool to catalyze social change and shape the collective conscience. What kind of impact do you hope your images have?

I hope the images build empathy in the viewers, and shed some light on the lives of these women. When we discuss feminism, or talk about equal pay and gender equality, the context is almost always very urban. Whereas most of India still lives in small towns and villages, and it feels like they’re centuries behind us. My intention with Women of India is to bridge this difference, and bring about some change, no matter how small it is.

When I shared the series in an international space, people could immediately relate to it. The issues that this project highlights are not necessarily Indian, but in fact global. The situation in a village in India could very well be of that in a village in any other country, which is why this project becomes even more relevant and important.

If the right kind of minds are working together, it is possible to change the lives of many women across the country. I use my art as a means to start a larger discourse, that eventually helps shape our collective conscience.

What about this project challenges you as a photographer?

Working on Women of India teaches me to fight my own fears, and that has been the biggest challenge. A lot of what I’ve seen on these trips has stayed with me, and every time I venture out, those memories sit at the back of my head. Will I be safe? That is one recurring question that I’ve always had to ask myself. In overcoming that fear and trepidation, I’ve become stronger and more resilient and that is how this project has helped me grow, both as a photographer and an individual.

1. Sangeeta, 38, holds up a picture of Ashok, her late husband, at their house in Vidarbha, Maharashtra 2. Shakila Husain, 75, weaves to make money for a living in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh 3. Sheela, 21 and a migrant, lives in a makeshift house by the sugarcane farm in Somnath, Gujarat.

To bring complete honesty to your work, how important is it for you to connect with your subjects? How easy or difficult is it to form that connect?

To form a connect with a subject is of utmost importance for them to offer me a glimpse into their true self. I have also been very lucky in this regard – wherever I’ve gone till date, everybody has been very warm and welcoming, giving me a place in their lives for a few days. To build a project like this, you can’t come across as an outsider. I spend weeks with my subjects, trying to blend into their lives and look at the world through their eyes. That connection I form with them is what lends intimacy and honesty to the images I make. Unless you have built that relationship, any picture you take of that person will be superficial at best.

On what basis do you select your subjects?

My selection of subjects is always serendipitous, never preconceived. It is only when I come across a person with a compelling story that I begin conceptualizing the image. Sometimes it is the urgency of a story, sometimes you just stumble across a fascinating person – it is at that moment that I know I need to contextualize their journey in an image to share it with the rest of the world.

Where does the project go from here? How do you plan to expand it?

It has been 5 years since I began this project, and I launched the website in 2016. The plan from hereon is to keep adding to the depth and breadth of the project, and to create more impactful images. I want to bring a few women photographers on board to expand the series and push it from a solo project to one that is being steered by a collective. I also want to find a gateway to actually bring about some change to the lives of these women who are at the heart of the project.

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A ‘women-only’ swimming competition at the banks of the Narmada River, Madhya Pradesh

What does 2018 hold for you?

I am presently collaborating with Fòcas Scotland. They recently announced the winners of six digital commissions to make new collaborative lens-based work that will tour Scotland and India in 2018. Three of the artist are Indian, the other three Scottish, and I feel stoked and humbled to be selected as a part of the collective. The touring exhibition will also be accompanied by a print publication.

Other than my work with Fòcas, I have plans to push Women of India to a whole new level this year, and hopefully you will see a fresh crop of talent helping me scale new heights.

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