Last January, Brooke Shaden joined forces with an organization called Blossomy to travel to Kolkata, India, to help teach photography to survivors of human trafficking, giving them a chance to learn to create and tell their stories. Her time in India was filled with love, kindness, and building connections. With the help of Blossomy, Brooke is looking to establish a school of photography in the area to provide free education as well as the opportunity for a future in a career that can provide self-assurance and hope.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your art.
If nothing else, I’ve always had an overabundance of passion and inspiration. I started photography five years ago and when I did, it became an all-consuming force in my life that has lead me down the path of self-discovery. I create self-portraits so that I can see myself as a character. I love to explore my imagination, as strange as it might be. My childhood was filled with written words formed into stories and poetry. Later in college I studied filmmaking, but it wasn’t until I graduated that photography became my calling, and I work at it every day, trying to fulfill my passion.
How did you get involved with this project?
I was emailed out of the blue by an organization called Blossomy to teach photography to survivors of human trafficking in Kolkata, India. I went in with the idea that the camera is simply a tool that they can use to tell their individual stories, of which there are many and each one so important.
What was your experience like in India?
Eye-opening. Passionate. There was love. There was exploration. There was understanding, for myself and others. I used what I know about storytelling to try and help others to tell their own stories… and in the process, I realized that I still have so much to learn about myself and others. It is a different world over there. Values are placed on different things. Even my images were interpreted in drastically different ways. I found peace in simple things, found beauty in disturbing things, and realized that every place in the world has something to teach us all. I went in with that confidence, that I could teach something to someone else and in turn, they could teach me something as well.
How were you able to use photography to share good in the world?
At the heart of most photography is a story, and I took that inspiration into the classroom to figure out what stories the young women I taught wanted to tell. Some shared stories of heartache and others shared stories of hope. In the end, each of those stories was translated into a self-portrait that they completely designed and photographed. I believe that if more people take this approach – that photography can be used for storytelling and healing – so many people will be exposed to the possibilities of self-expression.
Is there a specific memory you would like to share?
I remember sitting in a circle with the women I was teaching, and I asked them to tell a story in their own words. It could be anything, I told them, whether it really happened or not. One of the stories was incredibly symbolic, where she told of a penguin who got lost from her family and fell in the ocean and thought she would die alone, until she woke up and realized it was all a dream. I have thought about that story so much since then – about how moving it is to see someone tell a story that seems completely made up and fantastic, but understand that it is all a metaphor. We all use the same language at the heart of it all, and I will take her story with me for the rest of my life.
Has the trip changed how you see the world?
Yes, very much so. I went into it skeptically, wondering if I would be one of those people who left thinking that something fundamental had changed about me… but it did. I realized how much work there is to do. I realized how one person really can make a difference, and I’m not necessarily talking about myself. Each person I spoke to on that trip made me realize something about myself! So imagine if more people got involved, even in very small ways, to help others, the world could be a community, and that community could be very inspiring.
Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?
I do, which I feel quite shy about because I get very nervous to ask for things…but here it goes! I am helping to start a school in Kolkata India for survivors of human trafficking. What I realized upon visiting was that so many people going through the system leave the shelter homes but have no where to go, and some end up back in the trade. Photography is my passion, and I believe that by creating a school there would give an opportunity to those people after the shelter homes, an option for a future.
The school is self-sustaining, as there will be a studio attached to it which generates income to pay the instructors as well as those creating the images. If a student takes one full year of the course, they can either go back to teach the course or work in the studio, thus being paid for their work and creating a future for themselves. We are looking for $25,000 and I know that if every person just donated one dollar to this cause, we could fund it and change so many lives.
Thank you Brooke for sharing your story! Best of luck to you!
Photos from Brooke Shaden.