One Future Inspire I Jahanara Raza, Albia Khan: Vastavikta- The Photovoice Project


One Future Inspire is a series of interviews with young people across countries, borders, spectrums of work and being. These people share a common quality — they inspire us. Our aim is to bring their work to the fore with the hope that it might ignite a spark in someone, somewhere.

The Thought Project interviewed two members of the group Vastavikta, a Photovoice project by Slam Out Loud– Jahanara Raza and Albia Khan. Jahanara is a documentary film producer, performing artist and curriculum designer. She is currently pursuing an interdisciplinary MPhil at Cambridge University in Education, Arts, and Creativities. She has designed and implemented arts educational initiatives with 400+ children across India. Albia is a 16-year student at RPVV government school in New Delhi and Jahanara’s co-researcher in this project. 

Q) To Jahanara.

Please tell us a little about yourself and what got you to taking up this particular project?

As a woman brought up in Delhi, in a very protected environment by very opinionated parents, I was the youngest in the house, and despite having a loud mouth, never really had an independent voice. Last year, while I was in Delhi  working with Slam Out Loud, helping with the monitoring and evaluation bit to figure out how they dealt with a more robust impact system; I realised I was working in a space of voice without knowing what my voice was. That was a big motivating factor for me to leave Delhi and come to a university in the UK to figure out ‘What is my voice?’ That was a personal motivating factor. Professionally, I saw a lot of potential in a project like this and I always wanted to work with girls particularly above the age of 12. Once you hit puberty, a lot of things start changing and a lot of girls also have to drop out of school.  How do you make them realise that what their voice is number one, and the fact that it matters.

Secondly, public education systems, or government schools, in Delhi or across the country, are not on par with private schools. I feel that people who come from households where parents have already been to schools have an innate advantage because the vocabulary they use at home, the TV shows they watch, and the books they read, have a lot more nuance intellectually. I feel it should be the opposite. The public education system should be stronger here, otherwise education for social justice and equality is not going to happen.

Q) To Jahanara.

Could you talk a bit about what project Vastavikta is?

It started as a requirement for my thesis project. Here at Cambridge university (Jahanara is pursuing her MPhil in Education, Arts and Creativities), you’re supposed to produce a 20,000-word document. Because I want to continue working in the space of education and I don’t want to be an academic, I wondered, “What am I going to do with 20,000 words? I’m going to spend 3 or 4 months of my life writing this to no avail- just for marks. What is the difference between me and somebody else who is trying to pass their boards?” I wanted to do something that would not be mine but would be ours. The project originated from an idea — How can I spend time with these fantastic girls and pave something out of it? That’s when I reached out to Slam Out Loud and they definitely have to be credited because they started working in this community as TFI fellows, and Jigyasa Labroo (Founder and CEO, Slam Out Loud) reached out to her old class that she had taught and asked these girls whether they would like to learn photography; and using photography as the medium, this project developed.

Q) To Albia.

Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born and brought up in Delhi. I am a fun loving girl. After all, it’s just about being yourself and doing whatever you want to do.

Q) To Albia.

What was your experience working like with Jahanara didi?

It was a great experience. I had a 3 month holiday when I received a message saying ‘would you like to learn photography?’ While I went there with the motive of learning photography, I got to learn about my own voice and reality. She is not just a teacher, she made us feel like we were equal to her.

Q) To Jahanara.

What challenges did you face during the implementation of this project?

It was a challenge of equality. There’s this whole notion that they are elders, therefore, must be respected. That was a huge challenge, for them to stop calling me didi and start calling me J. The second challenge that I faced was that there was a diversity of influences. Because Delhi is so cosmopolitan, everybody came from different regional communities, and each one of them had a very different experience of being in school. And their personalities were really different. How do you give individual attention to each person and also give them space to express things the way they want to express, photographically? Nobody should feel like someone is doing it better. It shouldn’t be competitive like exams.

Q) To Jahanara.

Did you face any challenge from the parents of these students?

The students are real crackers. So I had to face nothing. They did all the background work for me. Also, the fact that Jigyasa had worked with these kids before transferred a little faith. One parent came to check whether the class was  real or not. A few of them were not letting their kids go for a field trip, so I called them up and spoke to them. They did not know what we were doing. They didn’t know we were challenging the very basis of being oppressed. They thought we were doing photography. Something that I kept in mind was to let the girls there decide themselves whether they wanted to be a part of this or not. I felt that parents operated from a lens of fear that ‘my child will get so empowered that they won’t be able to survive in the existing society’. And I didn’t want parents to again have that control over them because we are trying to fight that control. It was more important to get their own individual consent to do things rather than their parents ordering.

Q) To Albia.

Would you like to talk about any challenge you faced while you were working with Jahanara di?

Yes, in the beginning my parents objected. But I told them that some things are bigger than the efforts taken to do it and that it is more about the process of learning. They eventually agreed.

Q) To Albia.

What do you think about the work you have done with Jahanara Di? How do you want people to perceive you and the work you have done with her?

Some people might think it is sad, but for me, even say the night is about enjoying it. If nightlife photography interests me, if it is something I like, I will do it. Everyone has their own thoughts and interests and their own points of view. We all need to understand that.

Q) To Albia.

Do you have any book, movie or person who has inspired/impacted you a lot?

There was this TFI fellow who came to teach us and taught us for 2 years. His name was Tanmay Tyagi and in the beginning there was a major communication gap between us. But once he started teaching, we opened up and got talking about my family problems, my school life and even my personal problems. He too started telling us about his life, what he did, and the lessons he’d learned; listening to these made me shift my own perspective towards life. He has inspired me a lot in many ways.

Q) To Jahanara.

What sort of resources did you need to carry about this project in particular?

Most importantly, we needed a safe space where we could have access regularly. We also needed cellphones, because we needed cellphone cameras. Luckily, 8 or 9 of them got their own phones and I had to rent just a few. Apart from that, just regular stationary. This is not a very resource intensive project, if you have phones you could do this anywhere. I was very adamant that they must learn on the phone and not on a digital camera  because often, it isn’t easily accessible.

Luckily, I didn’t have to do the technical teaching. I was in a great position to have had fantastic people step in to teach the technical aspects of photography. One was Girik, a TFI fellow and the other was Aditi Kulsreshtha, a professional photographer.

Q) To Jahanara.

Would you like to talk about any experience or person that has inspired or impacted you?  

For my dad, as a man, who understands what I have to go through on a daily basis and to stay stuff like “I wish you were a boy; the world would have been such an easier place for you”- left a deep mark on me. My parents support has always inspired me.

Q) To Albia.

What would you like to tell the students of your age?

Just be who you are. It’s okay if you are quiet, shy and not too fond of interacting with a lot of people. Don’t change yourself to fit in and do what you like. I also think that teenagers these days experience a lot of pressure. If you know yourself and love yourself for who you are, you will be fine. When I was taking my 10th CBSE boards, I was depressed, and went to a counselor who made me understand that it was all just a matter of loving myself. I mastered that bit slowly, and a lot has changed in my life because of that.

Q) To Jahanara.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

Listen to students. They have a lot to say and they have such an articulate voice that needs to be cultivated. If we want to change the way learning happens in our country, especially through the public systems, we need to listen to our students and stop treating them like second class citizens. Also, special thanks to Slam Out Loud for the space, support and direction.

Q) To Albia.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us as a concluding message?

I would like to tell teachers, to not think of students as puppets. I know that they have a lot of work pressure, but we also take a lot of effort to come and study here from far, and to just end up listening to their taunts all day is deeply disturbing. Teachers could be friends too, like the TFI teachers. I know you are our mentors and you will show us how to get ahead in the future and guide us on how to live our lives, but some things are supposed to be left for us to decide.

Jerin Jacob was the interviewer and Manogni T was the transcriber of this interview.

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