Two India: Beauty and Blight

Words: Kelley Heider

Photos: Anthony Delao Adams and Matthew Schniper

 

Matthew Schniper

Matthew Schniper

Two India, the title of the photography exhibition opening March 7 at the Modbo Gallery featuring the works of Anthony Delao Adams and Matthew Schniper, seems at first rather simple in its symbolism. It conjures dualities. It suggests the idea that two men, armed with cameras, can travel side by side through a place and emerge with very different stories to tell. But it also speaks directly to photographs that depict the beauty and quiet dignity of a people living in extreme poverty — a dichotomy that is easily lost in the bustle and commotion of Indian life.

They came to this project by different paths. Though both Anthony and Matthew are seasoned travelers, neither had ever been to India. When the opportunity to join local nonprofit Yobel International on their Exposure Trip to India this winter, both men jumped at the chance. They wanted to experience and interpret, firsthand, the lives and culture of a community that is linked to ours through the magnanimous efforts of the organization. As Matthew describes it, “Yobel’s mission is basically twofold. They do fair trade work, obviously, just to help with creating industry and so forth, but in this case it is actually counter-trafficking, so they try to create business opportunities in small villages so that the women won’t leave to go to the big city to take a ‘nanny’ job or whatever and end up getting trafficked."

He goes on to say that what he likes about what Yobel does is that they empower people in the local community to be the cause of positive change as opposed to trying to repair the problem as an intervening solution. Based on the feedback from locals, Matthew explains that it’s clear in the past other nonprofits have swooped in like superheroes without actually delivering on their promises to rescue these at-risk communities. I sat down with Anthony and Matthew to hear about their travels and get their take on the stories that accompany the series of images they’ll be presenting.

Anthony Delao Adams

Anthony Delao Adams

“I love what they do so much. For me to be able to use photography to help them tell their story, it just makes my heart jump.”

We’ll start with Anthony. Anthony moved to Colorado Springs almost two years ago after working for a nonprofit for 10 years doing community development projects around the world. Most recently, he worked with a children’s home in Thailand that housed at-risk youth. He worked with trafficking groups that helped get women out of prostitution and trained them to be self-sufficient. In fact, Anthony’s first trip to Thailand in 2010 triggered what he calls an “obsession with photography and capturing stories and telling culture stories.” Naturally, he felt a kinship with Yobel founders Sarah Ray and Donovan Kennedy when he was introduced to them not long after he landed in the Springs. “I talked to them and heard their story. I was moved by what they were doing. It kind of connected to some things in my past and past work.”

Eventually, their conversations turned to a discussion of how Anthony could travel with Yobel volunteers to document their work all over the world. “I love what they do so much. For me to be able to use photography to help them tell their story, it just makes my heart jump.”

When the India trip came up, Anthony jumped at the chance, without really thinking about logistics like funding or the additional work of applying for a visa.

Matthew Schniper

Matthew Schniper

And then there’s Matthew. Matthew came to the Springs in the summer of 1997 by way of Colorado College, where he majored in creative writing with a minor in film studies. After graduating, he went back to the food service industry where he had worked prior to college. Though he couldn’t have known at the time, Matthew credits this experience with preparing him for his eventual role as food and film editor for the Colorado Springs Independent. “I like being part of alternative media,” Matthew says. “I’m proud of the work we do as an organization in the community.”

Yet it’s the rare, outside story like this Yobel Exposure Trip that Matthew relishes. “We launched a website in conjunction with it, which has never been done. It was really great to do what I do on a weekly basis, which is reporting, but on that next level. Some part of me has always dreamed of international travel and photojournalism, and this is the first time I’ve gotten to do that: interview in the field, take photos in the field, bring it all back, and put it together.” 

For the website, csindystories.com, Matthew has curated digital slideshows of his images to coincide with audio interviews. There you can find a gallery of his photos from the trip and articles about his experiences. As Matthew describes this convergence of new media technology and local sponsorship to me, I can’t help but marvel at the size of this collaboration, and the idea that all of this came together in only a matter of weeks. This past November, after a chance meeting with Donovan, Matthew found himself in a similar position to Anthony — saying “yes” to a trip to India without a concrete plan of how to make it happen, and only two months lead time. However, it wasn’t long before he got the Independent to agree to his covering the trip and even coordinated the exhibition with the Modbo. “For me, I was very much there as a reporter,” Matthew explains. “I was participating, I was volunteering, I was doing pretty much everything the group did, but on another level I was staying a little bit removed so that I could take time out to report.”

Matthew Schniper

Matthew Schniper

The reality of the trip, the country of India, the city of Calcutta, was not something for which they could prepare. Both men got sick. They lost 10 pounds apiece. They were cold, tired, and emotionally drained. At times, searching for meaning in the cacophonous onslaught of sensory assault seemed futile. In the first place, the training, which they both undertook, exposed them to the unglamorous side of philanthropy. They lived like locals, entirely without creature comforts. All their water for cooking, washing, and drinking came from a nearby stream. At night they could see their breath and slept in zero-degree sleeping bags, bundled up with hand warmers in an effort to stay at a temperature comfortable enough to sleep. It was harsh and discouraging at first.

Anthony Delao Adams

Anthony Delao Adams

“Human trafficking causes are very popular. It’s really trendy to be involved in it,” Anthony explains. “People are really passionate about it to a certain level, but what Yobel does is the unexciting stuff. They go in and they do a business training, and it’s not exciting. You go in and you’re in there all day in a cold, dark little old church building. You’re teaching a very basic curriculum. It’s not exotic. It doesn’t feel like you’re saving the world. You're almost like, ‘What am I doing here?’ In reality, what they’re doing is setting up a system that gives people hope. It gives them alternatives.”

Matthew agrees, adding that one woman he spoke with had an apt description. “They get stuck in what she called ‘the robot syndrome’ of being on autopilot,” he explains. “There are no opportunities, no hope, no change of environment to inspire them or make them believe that anything could happen, so they end up on autopilot just trying to survive. They make so little money that the concept of savings is difficult for them to grasp."

Matthew goes on to describe his amazement at the level of illiteracy and lack of basic knowledge among the participants in the course — people who had never held a calculator or learned about math equations. The Yobel staff warned the volunteers early on that the course of training may seem hopeless. Matthew and Anthony were in total agreement: it did, but only at first. By the end of their stay, they could see a glimmer of hope in their pupils, who began sharing ideas to start pig farms, micro-lending operations, and craft work. In fact, the translator they worked with was a former pupil who shared with them that she had started a 100-woman knitting group. Matthew pauses to riffle through his things and produces a pair of green knitted gloves that he purchased from her. In fact, Yobel has seen such success with their training curriculum that the staff is planning more trips to grow the program and to shift their focus to the Exposure Trips in addition to the Yobel Market. The aspect that Matthew finds particularly fascinating about this is the ability to trace dollars spent in the market back to the source and document, over time, how it transforms the communities that produce the goods.

Anthony Delao Adams

Anthony Delao Adams

Our conversation soon shifts to Indian culture, particularly that of Calcutta, which was where the group spent the least amount of time — but ironically, had the biggest impact on both men. Matthew shared a good analogy for the way that India inhabits its people. “If I put you in a white suit… you know, like a white dress suit and asked you to run across a muddy field,” he explains, “and then I saw your suit at the end of that field, there is no way you’re not going to have mud splatters all up and down those pant legs. And to me, India was like that. There was no way we were getting out without something.” He leans in, gesturing with his hands. “You’re breathing in this stuff. Your eyes are burning, your chest will get tight. You’re stepping in stuff; you’re stepping around everything from people sleeping, to piles of excrement, to trash, to burning stuff, to whatever. At every turn, you’re so conscious of it.”

Matthew Schniper

Matthew Schniper

“It was really challenging to get into a place mentally to be able to see the story that wanted to be told there.”

If Anthony was wearing one of Matthew’s white suits, it would be thoroughly caked in mud. “I did expect to be overwhelmed. I expected to get sick. I expected to be moved very deeply by what I was going to see. I expected to be challenged from a photographic sense in terms of capturing stuff. I expected to be inspired. All of those things,” Anthony explains. Unfortunately, his initial experience was tainted by illness, and Anthony found himself instead rather underwhelmed and very uncomfortable. “I was in bed for the first two days. I hardly left, which was really hard because everyone was out and about doing their stories, and I’m missing out on Calcutta. I am missing stories and moments in time right now. I am upset and crushed by this.”

When he did make it out of his bed, the streets of Calcutta delivered on his expectations. Both Anthony and Matthew commented on the sensory overload they endured while traveling through the city. “I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and the noise level, kind of the underlying tones.” Anthony describes feelings of surrender to the disorientation that ensued. He felt stunted, unmotivated, and unable to see the thread of his story for all of the people bustling past. “It was really challenging to get into a place mentally to be able to see the story that wanted to be told there.”

Anthony Delao Adams

Anthony Delao Adams

“It was one of those moments that you want to find that you just stumble across and, like, instinct kicks in. I took off running down the road in my flip flops, stepping in who knows what, tripping over who knows what.”

The city sent Anthony on a journey of deep introspection that wound its way through his past and unearthed deep emotions. The stories that developed are still unfolding before them as both men continue to process their experiences and search through hundreds of images that serve as mile markers along their journey. Anthony confides that even when he left India, he was feeling uncertain about the images he took.  Surprised by Anthony’s words, Matthew interjects to tell a story of the first night when Anthony felt well enough to go out to a restaurant with the group.  On the way out of the restaurant, a parade was passing on the street. “It was one of those moments that you want to find that you just stumble across and, like, instinct kicks in. I took off running down the road in my flip flops, stepping in who knows what, tripping over who knows what.”  Matthew asks excitedly for Anthony to share with me the image that he had captured in that moment. It’s a stunning photo of the procession that centers on a man carrying lights, his face half-illuminated, half-shrouded by night. Matthew boasts about how, technically, it is a photograph that would strike envy in the heart of any adept photographer. “That shot is awesome,” he says.

Anthony nods humbly. Matthew describes how, from a mere twenty feet away, that event amounted to nothing special in terms of shots he deemed usable for the upcoming exhibition. Similarly, one of Matthew’s favorite images of a woman with a basket in the marketplace differs greatly from Anthony’s shot of the same woman. Moments like these, and the opportunity for comparison, highlight how two photographers in the same place at the same time can come away with such different images. “What I like is that our work is very different, and hopefully, each has its own story inherent to it,” Matthew explains, “They tend to have a very different feel. I like his stuff a lot, but it is a totally different feel than mine. Right off the bat, it’s so different.”

Matthew Schniper

Matthew Schniper

“We’re in the field. We’re moving in this busy, bustling street in Calcutta. You need to get the shot.”

“We’re in the field. We’re moving in this busy, bustling street in Calcutta. You need to get the shot,” Matthew describes. Anthony chimes in, “It was so nonstop, too. I think that was part of the challenge, was trying to be still for a moment and let something speak to you.”

Matthew shows me a beautiful image of a group of boys playing cricket in the park. He explains how amid the dust and haze of pollution, the people of Calcutta have a way of fading into the distance. “We happened to walk in this park on a Sunday afternoon and it was completely surreal. There was this haze because everyone’s always burning stuff all the time. There’s just this layer of smoke over all the city. The people just disappear into the horizon. As far as you could see, there were these figures in the haze. It was so beautiful and so stunning.”

Matthew Schniper

Matthew Schniper

“Amidst the squalor, a vibrant color bursts through. It’s beauty mixed with blight.”

Despite the chaos and destitution that surrounded them, both Matthew and Anthony found a kernel of humanity. It was a theme to which, throughout the course of our conversation, both men kept returning, seeming almost surprised to have finally found it, alone, in the quiet of their own homes. While he describes to me a morning walk past slums of people living near railroad tracks, I can sense Matthew’s revelation that “Amidst [sic] the squalor, a vibrant color bursts through. It’s beauty mixed with blight.”

He goes on to describe passing courtyards on the street that, if you looked in, contained every aspect of life being lived in plain view — people cooking, eating, bathing, and raising livestock. I think of a comment that Anthony made about the level of life that you witness in a place like Calcutta, and I start to understand why they both seem so captivated still by this unforgiving and unapologetic place.

Anthony Delao Adams

Anthony Delao Adams

By the end of the trip, both men had a very different reaction to their return to Calcutta — the city that, according to Anthony, has a way of invading, almost claiming its residents. Anthony took the city head-on and explained that some of his most beautiful moments from the trip happened on that last day. Meanwhile, Matthew adjusted his flight and cut out early, unable to face another minute there, let alone an entire day. Having been back in the states for a month, both men agree that they don’t want to return to India anytime soon, but maybe once the memories begin to fade. “Our India was hard,” Matthew says. “It was raw,” Anthony agrees. The resulting images are stunning.

Anthony Delao Adams

Anthony Delao Adams

As for the photographs — the legacy of their trials — they’ll be on display at the Modbo beginning March 7. When I ask them what they hope the Colorado Springs community will draw from their images, Anthony explains, “I’ve always had a very quiet approach to it. I just want to take my pictures because they move me personally, and maybe a few other people along the way.”

Matthew echoes that sentiment and talks of wanting to get out of the way and let his images speak for themselves. Both men agree that they want the exhibition to move people and challenge them to go out and have experiences of their own. What is probably most interesting to me is the fact that the two men haven’t seen their work in conversation. Brett Andrus of the Modbo will be curating the exhibition, which will bring their unique stories of India together for the first time. Perhaps it will provide some closure for Anthony and Matthew, or perhaps it will give them yet another layer of meaning to process.

The Modbo

Trading Places - CS Independent

Yobel International

Yobel Market