During the last few years two colleagues and I have conducted a series of video workshops with school children in different parts of India. The workshops were part of a five-year project entitled ‘Childhood and Modernity: Indian Children’s Perspectives’ based at the Australian National University and funded by the Australian Research Council. Our overall aim was to gain new knowledge about how these children perceived and interpreted their surroundings, and what their perceptions could teach us about contemporary Indian society. We also hoped the children would benefit from the experience of looking at familiar things in a new way. In all, we conducted six workshops, of which I conducted four and the two others were conducted by PhD student volunteers. The workshops also employed a number of local assistants. The project made use of relatively inexpensive video cameras— hand-held consumer models of the sort that is familiar throughout the world. The children came from a variety of class backgrounds. The workshops were held in both urban and rural settings and ranged from Andhra Pradesh in the south to Ladakh in the north, and from West Bengal to Rajasthan.
How does one go about understanding how others see, and what they choose to look at? One obvious approach is to equip them with instruments through which to look at the world. This is what we attempted. But the same thing has often been done for other reasons. In recent years there have been numerous projects with children that make use of both video and still cameras. A large proportion of these appear to have been designed with a therapeutic purpose, based on the assumption that if you give cameras to disadvantaged or troubled youth it will somehow solve their social problems. I immediately rejected this idea on several grounds. I was not convinced that fostering self-expression alone had the benefits often claimed for it. Nor did I feel that simply giving young people access to camera equipment was productive without creating a structure in which they felt they were using it for some purpose. All too often, video and photographic projects with children appeared condescending towards them, implying they needed improvement and reinforcing existing power structures between adults and children. Children, I believe, ultimately sense this and feel diminished by it.
I took the view that because children see society from a unique position, they understand many things about it that adults do not, and there is much that we, as adults, can learn from them. It was important, I thought, that the children in the workshops understood they had something to contribute and felt they were actively engaged in creating new knowledge. The workshops were therefore organised as research projects. The children first chose topics they considered important in their own families or communities. They were then given basic instructions in using the video cameras, after which they began using them to explore their chosen topic. In the end they constructed a video report or film based on some of their material. The project offered them a chance to investigate subjects that are often not well known, or are known only from an adult perspective. For the most part they took this remit seriously and embraced it with enthusiasm.
The children were aged from ten to thirteen, and the workshops lasted from six to twelve weeks. For practical reasons each workshop could include no more than ten or twelve children, and most contained somewhat fewer than that. For the children, the workshops often seemed like a kind of experiment, but I regarded the entire project as an experiment, for to my knowledge nothing quite like it had been tried before. For this reason I was prepared to see it change and evolve. The biggest change occurred early, in the selection of topics and in choosing the children who would participate. In the first workshop, at Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh, I proposed that the group decide upon a single topic, after which they would all contribute something to it, either individually or in pairs. But this meant creating the group first.
I held meetings with the two sections of class 7 students. I explained the project as best I could, answered questions about it, and announced that I would post a sheet of paper on a notice board. Any student who was interested in joining the workshop could put their name on it. I would then speak to those interested and select the participants. There were fifty one students in class 7. I discovered the next day that all of them had put their names on the paper. True to my word, I interviewed all of them over the next few days and finally selected a dozen. I wanted a varied group, not necessarily the star students, but rather a mixture of those who seemed interesting in themselves and had interesting ideas. Half of those chosen were boys and the other half, girls. I included a few who seemed difficult or eccentric but on whom I thought it was worth taking a chance. The group of twelve began meeting, and after several days and much argument finally decided on a topic.
Following this first workshop, I concluded that the selection process, of both children and topics, needed to change. The workshop had been enjoyable, I think, for all of us. At least, it had provided some variety and challenges for the students. But I felt the choice of a single topic was too restrictive. It allowed too little space for individuals to pursue their own interests, and it was often difficult for the group to come to any kind of agreement. In the next workshop, I decided to select the participants largely on the basis of the topics they proposed, as well as their reasons for wanting to join. This undoubtedly involved some subjectivity on my part, but perhaps no more than in the previous selection method, which had relied more on an assessment of individual character. This new method was followed in the next five workshops and I believe led to more diverse and useful results. Following this, each workshop produced several films, either made by individuals or small groups.
We made a number of observations while conducting the workshops. Because the children who took part varied so widely geographically and in background, it would be unwise to try to draw any general conclusions about how Indian children see their society or even their perceptual processes as children. One can, however, point to some interesting differences and unexpected results. Overall, we were constantly surprised by the children’s choices and inventiveness. We had been careful not to dictate any particular style of filmmaking, for one of the aims of the project was to see how they used the means available to them and what part their exposure to public media played in their creative decisions. The initial video training was basically intended to teach them how to hold the camera steady and get reasonably focused and viewable images.
One of the surprises was the sheer variety in the ways the children used the camera. I had expected that with their limited familiarity with visual media, which largely consisted of television and Bollywood cinema, they would be likely to imitate the models they found there. But perhaps because we were asking them to do something quite outside their usual experience—to film the reality of their own surroundings and to use the camera as an exploratory tool—they did nothing of the kind. I was constantly struck by the originality of their approach, and their departures from conventional cinema and television formulas. In a sense, they seemed to be reinventing filmmaking as they went along. To add to this, each film made by a child reflected the personality of the one who made it.
This is made clear by the films from the workshop held in Delhi. The children were from fairly poor backgrounds and attended a government-funded school, although one with connections to the Department of Education at the University of Delhi. This workshop produced only four films, but they couldn’t have been more varied. One, by a boy, was about the workings of a small, neighbourhood general store—the kind one finds on almost any street in Indian cities. Another was by a girl who wanted to explore the oppression of girls, and the privileges extended to boys, in families she knew in her area. The next one, by a boy, is almost indescribable, so I will only attempt to describe it later. The last was by a girl who asked the question: What do children do at home when no adults are present?
All these children were eleven years old. Besides the obvious range of topics, the style of each film was distinctive. The film on the general store seemed to have been made by a born ethnographer, for Ravi wanted to find out everything about the store and document it: who ran the store, who were the customers, what they bought, their relations with the owners, how the stock was replenished, how the money was handled, and so on. Anshu, the girl interested in the lives of girls, was the child most influenced by television and produced a kind of investigative journalism, interviewing different girls about their experiences and showing them doing piecework at home and household chores while their brothers played outside. She closes the film with a heartfelt address to the camera, filming herself at dusk on her rooftop, asking plaintively why girls can’t be given the respect afforded to boys. Shikha, the other girl, made a calm, quietly perceptive film focusing on her younger brother and older sister, with simple scenes of getting up in the morning, playing with the family dog, and occasional interactions with adults.
Aniket’s film, the fourth, is for me a special case, because it successfully combines in a kaleidoscopic, almost anarchic manner aspects of daily life, performance, media technology, erotic attraction, and touches of Surrealism. Even more than the other films, it feels nothing like an adult’s film; it could only have been made by a child. For example, I know of no adult filmmaker who would think of singing while he filmed, but Aniket does. He sings to a dog, to other children, and to a minutes-long image of himself in which he appears half asleep. What is also striking is that about two-thirds of the way through the film a new bride, aged about sixteen years, comes into the family. From then on, Aniket is fascinated by her, filming her in romantic images, and indeed, singing to her.
It would not be possible to describe further intricacies of the twenty-four films produced in the project, since they vary greatly in topic, style, and interest. But I shall turn instead to some more general observations about the experience of working with children in such diverse geographical, cultural, and economic settings.
The project asked of these children several unfamiliar tasks: first of all, to examine their own immediate experience and surroundings, which few had been asked to do before, and second, to analyse a specific topic, both visually and intellectually. Filming is in fact essentially a process of analysis, since, in conveying any event or situation, the filmmaker must select certain salient points through the framing and selection of shots. Most of the workshops were conducted in cooperation with schools, and children from poorer areas and in government-funded schools often found it difficult to select topics or think about how to film them. They had rarely been asked to think independently, and their initial ideas for topics were very often those that had been impressed upon them by adults as being important. This kind of response was actually fairly widespread, for even the middle-class children tended at first to suggest topics they thought adults would approve, for example problems such as air and water pollution. Yet, unexpectedly, one or two of the most analytical films were made by children from schools in which rote learning was predominant.
I had imagined that in an age-range from ten to thirteen, the older children would make the more interesting and sophisticated films. What I discovered was the reverse. The films that delved most deeply into their subjects, and that seemed to take the most care in observing the physical world, were made by some of the youngest and physically smallest children, aged ten and eleven years old. Two that come to mind were both made by ten-year-olds: a film by a girl about her goat-keeping family and one by a boy about his father, showing him at home and in his daily work as a village barber. Whereas both these films were inventive and multi-faceted, films made by children approaching adolescence seemed more circumspect and less experimental in their approach.
The actual physical size of the filmmakers also played a part in the ambiance the films conveyed. These films literally represent a “perspective from below”, because children see the world at a different level from adults. Physical objects seem to crowd in on one more closely and one gains a vivid sense of the spaces in which Indian families live—more so than in almost any of the films I have seen made by adults.
Differences in the social class of the children also revealed some significant contrasts. Before this project, I had conducted several trial video workshops in other schools and institutions. One was in a shelter for orphaned and homeless children in Delhi. The young filmmakers there were quite fearless in filming the most intimate aspects of their lives, including dressing and bathing, which in that place offered little privacy. They frankly filmed the sights they saw every day. By contrast, middle-class children in some of the other workshops had many more inhibitions about what they felt could and could not be filmed. Anything related to the body or to sexuality was immediately off limits, despite—or possibly because—they were either experiencing, or were on the verge of, adolescence. In one case a fairly innocuous scene of a boy not wearing a shirt was considered by the group too intimate to be included in the completed film. It seemed that these children, whatever their behaviour in private, were highly conscious of what they wanted adults to see. They lacked the bravado of the children in the Delhi shelter, who would have been astonished at the reserve and seeming lack of independence of these middle-class children. The children in the shelter also tended to show more kindness to one another, and there was less bullying, than in a traditional, upper middle-class boys’ school where I conducted another workshop.
I have mentioned only a few of the observations that have emerged from the workshop project and its precursors; more will undoubtedly come to light as we reflect upon it and make further study of the films themselves. Most of these comments have concerned differences rather than uniformity, but I will end by noting one phenomenon that did seem universal. Children in the video workshops became inordinately attached to their cameras. The project had four camera kits, which were used in each successive workshop. The children took good care of them, but even so I was amazed that the cameras survived six workshops without significant damage and with the loss of only one cable and one lens cap. It was a sad moment when, towards the end of a workshop, it was necessary to take back and pack up the cameras. The children often resisted, begging to be allowed to film for a few more days. Something else also began happening. In several cases, the children began treating the cameras as living things, speaking to them as they recorded, sometimes in an embarrassed, half-joking way, as if they were friends or intimate companions. I will end by quoting part of what one boy said to his camera while walking along a grassy path as the workshop was winding up. It perhaps tells us that although the children’s films have taught us a lot, for at least some of the children the experience of the workshop went deeper than we realised at the time.
Dear camera, we had amazing moments together … and now is the day we have to leave … disjoined, as you go to another owner and I take a new step in my second part of life. You are a great friend of mine, and shall always remain. And we together have learnt something of each other. Farewell, my old friend. Shall you live a happy and good life. The same with me.
Commentaries by a number of scholars on the films from the Delhi workshop have been published in TAPJA, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 15, no. 5, (2014): 453–79. The films themselves can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/7690450 using the password CIESCHOOL (all caps).