MANGALORE, Nov 27 — After traveling around three southern Indian states over a six-month period, 20 former street children are back on the road showing some of the 25,000 photos they took documenting child labor.
Armed with digital cameras, the 18 boys and two girls photographed children at work — in banana plantations, sugarcane fields, bulb-making factories and vegetable markets, or on the streets selling flowers and young coconuts.
By the time the last image had been snapped and they were back "home" at the Born Free Art School in Bangalore, they had covered 4,000 kilometers in Karnataka and two of its neighboring states, Goa and Tamil Nadu.
N. Satheesh, a 14-year-old with a prosthetic leg, showed UCA News a picture he took of a girl crushing stones in the hot sun. Muniyappa, his friend, showed a picture titled Agony of Labor, showing a child, pot in hand, who had to walk several kilometers in the hot sun to fetch water.
"These pictures show our own stories, of our lost childhood, agony, hard work, exploitation, suffering and survival," Satheesh told UCA News as he manned the visitors’ registration counter at an exhibition they staged in Mangalore, Karnataka’s main port, about 300 kilometers west of Bangalore.
That weeklong exhibition at Jesuit-run St. Aloysius College, their seventh, drew about 5,000 people. It ended Nov. 12.
The photography project is part of the Born Free school’s yearlong program to reintroduce street children to formal education.
The school trained the 20-member team, who range in age from 12 to 16, equipped them and arranged their travel in a hired bus and on bicycles. It also is helping organize the series of exhibitions of their photographs.
Satheesh, whose left leg was amputated after it became infected from a dog bite he suffered while sleeping on a railway platform, explained that when they were not on the bus, he got around by riding pillion on a bicycle.
Jayaram, who at 16 was the eldest of the photographers, said taking pictures of children in workplaces was like "a commando operation" at times, since they faced threats from employers and harassment from police. In one town, he was beaten up by a group of people, he said.
"We witnessed injustices of merciless employers, and crying and helpless children everywhere," he reported.
The youngest photographer, 12-year-old Santhosh, told UCA News that he had thought only a few children were forced to work. Finding "thousands of children like me" was a surprise, he said.
According to John Devaraj, founder and director of the Born Free Art School, India has an estimated 127 million of 246 million child workers in the world. He said 335 million children in India are under the age of 14, and 187 million of them are not in school, the majority of them working instead.
The Catholic layman started Born Free in 2005 as part of his "mission to liberate street children by training them in art and music," he told UCA News. The residential school takes street children and trains them in music, photography and painting for one year "in such a way that they are attracted to education and community life, and develop discipline."
The children have no formal education at the school, but live in a structured environment with time for study, manual work and play. They cook and eat together. Devaraj plans to get them enrolled at Jesuit-run St. Joseph’s Indian High School in Bangalore after a year at his school.
Satheesh, the first Born Free student, has begun his studies at the high school. But the eight other children he brought to the program, and the 11 others that followed so far, are still in their first year.
"We know the value of Born Free Art School," Satheesh said in Mangalore, "and we want to see such schools established in every city for street children and child laborers." The boy, who dreams of starting such a school, added that the photography expedition strengthened his desire to help other children.
Several exhibition visitors said the exhibition inspired them.
Rennie D’Souza, who manages an NGO in Mangalore, told UCA News it motivated him to work to free child laborers.
Social worker Clara Arun said the pictures of suffering children pained her. "The adult world has no right to enjoy life when children are working for us," the Catholic woman remarked.
For the Born Free students, however, the work they took up when their expedition ended in August was not over. The next stop was Indira Gandhi National Stadium in Delhi, where exhibition number eight would bring the faces of child labor to the doorstep of the country’s capital.