Born Again


The images are haunting: a young boy bent over pictures of his sister who had been brutally assaulted; a man, head swathed in bandages from a beating he endured. His crime? Accidentally brushing against someone in a higher caste. Photos like these portray the India that Vivien Francis witnessed for three months as an intern with Navsarjan, a grassroots organization founded by, and serving members of, the Dalit community, once known as Untouchables. Dalits hold the lowest social standing in Indian society, so low they are outside of the caste system. Representing 16 percent of the population, the 167 million Dalits in India face discrimination at every level, from lack of education and medical care to physical abuse and work restricted to such “impure” labors as working with animal hides and cleaning sewers.

“(For the internship,) I was asked to be creative,” says Francis, a 2010 graduate of USD’s master’s program in peace and justice studies. “I had the idea that I was going to take as many images as I could and later see what I could do with them.”

Francis’ photographs have become tools for advocacy, starting with an exhibition at USD, “Untouchables of India: A Photo Documentary of Caste Issues and Human Rights Abuses,” sponsored by the Center for Inclusion and Diversity. The 47 images are just a fraction of the 5,000 she took, but they weave a tale of the ravages of injustice — and the budding awareness among Dalits that they have the power to create change.

“The problem is that they believe they are born into a certain place because of a past karma,” Francis explains. “They accept the maltreatment because they think they deserve it and that if they serve well, they will reincarnate into a better place in the next lifetime.”

But with the help of organizations like Navsarjan, Dalits are beginning to redefine their lives through education and vocational training.

As a documentarian, Francis connected with the Dalits, drawing parallels from her own life. Born and raised in war-torn Guatemala by a Lebanese father and a Palestinian mother, Francis experienced first-hand the destruction of human rights amid conflict.

“I was able to identify with many things I had seen in Guatemala,” says Francis, who is in the second phase of her photography project, a book of her images for which she hopes to raise the necessary funds to print; she plans to use the sale proceeds to benefit Navsarjan. “By showing these pictures, I feel I am restoring the dignity of these people.”

A second organization has contacted Francis to document the lowest of the four recognized Indian castes, the Shudras, representing 50 percent of the country’s population, or up to 600 million people. Such numbers are paralyzing and humbling, Francis says, but she embraces her responsibility.

“I was hoping for someone to come and save us,” says Francis, when she began to question social inequities years ago. “But I realized that the power was with me. I can’t wait for a savior, or that perfect leader. It’s work we all have to engage in if we want to create a better world for our children. It’s our responsibility to be that change.” — Trisha J. Ratledge