The story of an exhibition that began when five anganwadi workers went about capturing their work with a digital camera.

On a sunny September afternoon, five women in government-issued saris lean over a plastic table at Thalam Gallery in Bangalore, combing through photographs.

“This one is cut off, we can’t use it.”

“Let’s use this one, the light is better.”

“I like the content in this one.”

Most days, Geetha, Sumitra, Sujatha, Varalakshmi, and Yashoda run the childcare centres (called anganwadis) that form the backbone of the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme (ICDS). Recently, though, they have become something else: artists.

That afternoon, they were working on Picturing Change, an exhibition of photographs they produced and curated after receiving training from professional photographer Greeshma Patel. The exhibition empowers them as storytellers, those with firsthand experiences with poverty, a population whose perspectives are missing from current conversations.

Media coverage of India’s anganwadis frequently segues from portraits of ragged children with empty eyes to the faces of concerned ministers shaking hands. After visiting anganwadis, this coverage feels false. When it comes to crises, anganwadi workers take action — accompanying families to hospitals, securing financial help, and putting in place preventative measures for the future.

More striking, though, is the difference between the impoverished children in the media and those in the care of anganwadi workers. At Sumitra’s centre, for example, we are greeted with lively children who make us watch them perform one or more intricately choreographed dances accompanied by songs in Kannada, English, or Hindi. At Yashoda’s, children swarm around, eager to show us how well they can write their names. At Geetha’s, we are not allowed to leave before the children recite all the rhymes they know — a process that can take the better part of an hour. Most of these children do not get enough to eat. But this does not mean that they are incapable, hopeless, or unloved: they are just hungry.

Watching the workers made us wonder why they are never consulted on policy. What if they had the tools to tell their own stories? What could we learn? What have we been missing? These questions led to the development of Picturing Change.

This July, we equipped five anganwadi workers with digital cameras using funds raised on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo. Greeshma then trained them in photography, and curating. Most participants had never held a camera before, but they were eager students. “Even the smallest things that we told them, they used in the field,” Greeshma says. “We treated them like artists, and they owned it.”

Photographing children is no easy matter. Luckily, the visually rich landscapes of anganwadis and their surroundings make them excellent places to learn photography. In Sujatha’s centre, sunshine pours through the windows, bouncing off the green walls and illuminating the faces of children stacking multicoloured Lego blocks. The banyan tree outside provides the perfect backdrop for capturing children holding hands in circle games.

Greeshma has a talent for catching those spontaneous moments of vitality that only an artist can anticipate. It’s something she imparted to the photographers in her fluent Kannada, teaching them the basics of composition, encouraging them to kneel down to children’s levels, showing them how to coax work out of spaces that can be cramped and shadowy.

Although the images capture many moments of joy, they do not romanticise poverty. Sumitra, for example, snapped a picture of a mother holding her severely malnourished and mentally disabled boy. The family relies on Sumitra’s regular visits to keep them connected to the government services that make it possible for them to care for their child. Varalakshmi shot an image of two older women who have lived in a slum for decades, and whose grandchildren are anganwadi students still trapped in the cycle of poverty. These poignant photos lay bare how much more still needs to be done to provide safety nets for the neediest.

The power of these photographs moved Thalam co-founders Dilip Param and Perumal Venkatesan support the project. Citing the example of Raghu Rai’s famous image from Bhopal, Burial of an Unknown Child, Venkatesan says, “Photography has a history of creating change and sparking dialogue.”

Certainly, the women have no shortage of relevant subject material. On any given visit, we find workers running non-formal preschool, distributing rations, conducting educational meetings with mothers (where they offer advice about nutrition and family planning), visiting homes, updating records, administering schemes, and collecting population data, sometimes all at once. And these are only their official duties. Workers also guide mothers through everything from bank forms to school enrolment to voter registration, and spend their own money on students, purchasing rice and eggs when the rations come late, or school supplies for preschool activities. Some, like Yashoda, even find baby clothes for the siblings of students whose families are scraping by. The best workers are the busiest, partly because they are well connected and knowledgeable, but mostly because they care deeply about the people they serve. Many, in fact, are intentionally recruited from their local communities. As Sumitra said, “Anganwadi workers are teachers, doctors, and mothers.”

Accompanying women on the shoots made it clear why they elicit so much trust and respect. Varalakshmi, for example, took a series of photos of the homes she visits daily. The day we went with her, we watched her picking her way through muddy alleys and between lines full of laundry, working the families like a politician, eliciting smiles and spontaneity with her easy rapport.

“Don’t you want to be in an exhibit?” she said, framing an image of a mother and children.

The woman giggled shyly, hugging her son closer.

“Make sure you come to the anganwadi,” Varalakshmi said, touching the little boy’s cheek as she stood up. “We’ll do rhymes together.”

We recently asked the participants what it was like to have researchers around. “The good thing,” they said, “is that you can take our work to Delhi.”

Fortunately, Canvera has generously agreed to print coffee-table books of the work, which we can use to take the stories beyond Bangalore. This is, perhaps, the best outcome of this project: if and when I go to Delhi, I will be taking the anganwadi workers’ stories, not mine.

Picturing Change was inaugurated on September 28 and will be on show at Thalam Gallery, Bangalore, till October 12.

mathu.subramanian@gmail.com