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The Legacy of photos

How Altaf Qadri’s photos resulted in sustained local support for students and teachers at India’s School for Less Fortunate

By M. Scott Brauer, World Press Photo Foundation

When photographers take pictures and tell stories, what do they hope to achieve? Some photographers are explicit about their purpose and know what they want their images to do. Others find their stories have consequences they did not imagine.

I thought it would be interesting and important to look at specific cases where, by design or not, visual stories have made a difference in the world, leaving a legacy of change for the people in the pictures.

In this first installment of what will be an ongoing series, I spoke with Altaf Qadri about his story about the School for Less Fortunate, a free school under a Delhi metro bridge for the children of migrants and farmers. Starting with the initial publication in 2012, his photos have spurred both international and local action to support the school and its students.

Altaf Qadri, 42, is an Kashmiri photographer based in Delhi, India. After five years with European Pressphoto Agency in Kashmir, he joined the Associated Press as a staff photographer in 2008, eventually relocating to Delhi in 2012. “It’s a typical wire agency job,” he says, “You have to do almost everything from politics to protest, from sports to fashion.” He’s covered the Afghanistan conflict, elections in Myanmar, floods in Thailand, and many other of the region’s major stories. But the job does afford Qadri some time to work on stories. “If I happen to find a story which is very good and which I feel is an important story to cover, I would take some days off to work on it. And AP has been very helpful in those cases. If I have an interesting story to cover, I’m allowed not to shoot hard news [for a while] and to follow the story.” Qadri encountered one such story in September 2012.

“I was walking around,” he remembers, “I saw some kids waiting underneath this metro bridge. I thought they were going to school but I knew there wasn’t any school nearby. I asked one of them what they were doing. ‘We’re waiting for school to start,’ they said. I said, ‘Where is the school?’ and they said, “The school starts here.” The students pointed to a blackboard painted on a wall underneath the bridge. Qadri waited to meet the teacher, Rajesh Kumar Sharma, and learn about the school. “I was very amazed to see how these kids used to sit on the ground without anything underneath. It wasn’t summer…It was a little bit cold, and they still managed to sit on the ground and concentrate on their studies.” This began a couple of months of following the story, which was eventually published widely via the AP starting in November 2012 and which won an Honorable Mention for Contemporary Issues storiesin the 2013 World Press Photo contest. But the story didn’t end there.

“As soon as it was published,” Qadri says, “there were a lot of inquiries from people to understand where the school was, who was running it, and how can they help. [Initially and after the World Press Photo award], there was a lot of overseas emails and a few people visited the school and gave them some donations. For example, [the students] got good mats, school bags, and shoes.” Qadri says a lot of people wrote to him wanting to help build a school, but he says that is not possible. “Since the school was running under the bridge,” he says, “it isn’t legal to construct anything.” Qadri says that the students’ parents — mostly migrants farm workers living in poverty — can’t afford the costs associated with attending a government school, even though students don’t have to pay tuition for government schools, so the only option for their children is the free school under a bridge.

The attention has resulted in sustained support for the school beyond the initial waves of donations. “After this thing is published and people came to help this guy and the school,” Qadri says, “He got more motivated to help kids of other areas. He is now running multiples schools around the area…where he has convinced the parents of that area to send kids to the school.” Qadri says that his pictures are instrumental in this process. “[School founder Rajesh Kumar Sharma] shows [Qadri’s] pictures and that convinces them. This way he has some documented proof that he can help their kids.”

As it turns out, Qadri wasn’t the first to photograph the school. When he first started working on the story, Rajesh Kumar Sharma, the man who runs the school, showed him an old, weathered clipping from a local newspaper in that area of Delhi that had run a story about the school and published a photo. “He showed me a newspaper which was quite old… Since it was local, nobody took it very seriously. Nothing actually happened with that… You know, a single photograph on a front page — it wasn’t a great newspaper to start with — not many people would read that,” Qadri says, comparing the photos he took to local coverage. “The pictures we [at the AP] did…it had wide reach and impact.” He’s humble when he talks about his own photos, but acknowledges that the emotion and storytelling he tried to capture in the photos had a major impact in helping the school. “The pictures were good enough. I’m not boasting about myself, but pictures made a difference.”

Qadri speaks precisely when he describes his approach to the story. He wanted to focus on the kids and their enthusiasm for studying rather than focus on their poverty. “I didn’t have to show that they’re poor,” he says, “It’s there. It’s revealing. Why would anyone sit on the ground? They don’t have the luxury of sitting on carpets. I didn’t have to direct the audience to their poverty. It’s visible there. What I wanted to draw attention to was how keen they are on their education, even in adverse conditions such as that.” He thinks that if he had just focused on how poor the kids are, the response might not have been as great. “I think when you see that someone is so keen on getting something despite of their conditions, it really makes you think, ‘Yeah, we should help them achieve their goals.’ If I had concentrated on their poverty rather than what they wanted to achieve, maybe I would have lost the plot. Look…you know these kids don’t have means to get a proper education…they still get whatever they can from this guy who is giving it for free. I think I have been lucky to get that point across.”

Thinking back about the initial response to the pictures, he can’t credit one particular publication to starting the international and local interest in the pictures. They were published so widely, reaching foreigners, Indian expats living abroad, and the local audience. After the World Press Photo award ceremony, Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands donated supplies to the school. “She sent two cartons of books to the kids, and I distributed it among the kids there. That was amazing…. There was this Indian guy, a businessman who lives in London. [After he saw the pictures] he came down to Delhi and I took him to the school. He bought some basic stuff, like the mat, the drinking water — which was very necessary for the kids — new uniforms. But it’s not only expats…it’s also the local community which helped.”

The local Indian response to pictures continues even now, and Qadri isn’t always sure where it starts. “Due to social media influence, pictures get out there and they spread like wildfire,” he says. “[Indian people on social media] get very motivated when they see kids in the open, barefoot without any mat. They do realize how lucky they are because they have been to normal schools and how fortunate they have been…Even if [the person sharing the photo] doesn’t know where it is, they share it.” Early on, Qadri tried to follow the photos on social media, but he says it’s gotten away from him. This attention draws local volunteers to the school to help however they can. “A lot of volunteers are coming to work as teachers,” Qadri says, “There’s one guy who every day gives away biscuits to kids…So many volunteers help with different things.” In a way, what started as a local story in a small paper, traveled the world by way of the Associated Press, and has returned to create a sustained local support network to help the kids and keep the school running.

His story has made the school, and especially its founder, well-known in India. “He’s now quite famous. He gets invited on radio shows now.” And with this attention, Rajesh Kumar Sharma has been able to spread the word about the school, increase its capacity, and start similar initiatives in other areas.

Qadri has returned to the school since he first photographed it to see how things have changed. He says he can’t really assess the quality of the education the kids receive, but says it seems like things have gotten better for the kids. “If there were some issues, I don’t think people would let their kids go there.” The school Qadri photographed grew to two separate class shifts each day with additional volunteer teachers. “There used to be only one blackboard [painted on the wall under the bridge]. Now they have got four….the number of kids has increased and now [the school] looks more organized.”

Qadri recently returned to the school to ask how the school children have done after leaving the School for Less Fortunate. The school’s teacher said that three or four of the children that Qadri photographed have begun attending colleges to continue their studies. “I hope these kids achieve whatever their dreams are,” Qadri says.

This piece was published in WITNESS, World Press Photo Foundation.

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