Born a criminal?

In Denotified Tribes, DNT, Documentary work, India, Uncategorized on May 22, 2017 at 3:11 pm



A baby born to a community living under a highway overpass in Mumbai

How could someone be born a criminal? I thought in the eyes of god we are all created equal or in America we are all created equal. The point is that there are many places that in politics, religion and government they speak of being born equal. Meaning that we all have the same rights and opportunities as one another. The truth is in fact far from that. For the last few years I’ve been working on a project in India that centers around what is called the Denotified and Criminal tribes. Basically this is a large group of nomadic tribes that have been living within the borders of India for hundreds of years if not longer.

Children play while living under a highway overpass in Mumbai

In 1871, the British colonial government enacted the “Criminal Tribes Act” to control supposedly ‘criminal’ communities. Despite the Act’s repeal in 1952 – five years after India gained her independence – these communities continue to have their livelihoods and dignity stripped away. Today they are like ghosts in their own country. Most live on the fringes of society in temporary encampments and extreme poverty. Without permanent housing, they lack official identity and cannot access vital social services or even cast their votes. Education becomes a luxury when children are needed to earn money for the family. Caught in cycles of intergenerational prostitution, a lack of education, and a fear of authority, these once proud communities are amongst India’s most dispossessed.

Saddest of all is that there are many generations born into this world with no idea how or why they are living the way they are. Only that this is there life. #thebirthlottery

Many of these people come from tribes that were made up of artists, musicians, puppeteers and the like. Few are able to practice their crafts these days but the ones that still are have managed to hang on to wonderful skills from the past.


A puppeteer from the Bhat community

Three albino brothers in Delhi, India

Two people sleep on the roof of a building surrounded by a DNT community.

A DNT family in Solapur.


What could she possibly be smiling about?

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2015 at 12:51 pm

The heat, oh the heat!  I guessI knew in an abstract way that it would be hot in India this time of year. Sure, I’ve been to hot climates or at least I thought I had. I mean Africa (okay it was November) but I live in NYC, it’s so hot in summer their and the humidity can do you in. Still the heat I’m feeling here in Delhi is really kind of crazy! It’s over 100 degrees every day. I’m feeling more than a little disgusting and sticking to myself, I don’t want anything to touch me, I’m starting to dream of a shower, not literally but I am thinking about it hard. I know it’s going to happen and a cold shower sounds just about right. Knowing that I’m going to take that shower is something I can really hook myself into. Knowing that things change for me when I leave this place and that I CAN leave this place is really all the comfort I need at this moment.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 12.38.49 PM

A dog cools off in an open sewer.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 12.40.38 PM

Kids playing in an open sewer.

Kids playing in an open sewer.

Still this is not a story about my suffering, it’s a little story of how I came to be with and document the De-Notified and Freed Criminal tribes of India. Two weeks ago I had not even heard of these tribes but since arriving in India and working with Ruchira Gupta and her NGO www.apneaap.org I’ve learnt quite a bit and you can certainly look it up online to learn more but the bottom line is during the British rule they labeled these tribes who were as they said “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bail able offenses” Once a tribe became “notified” as criminal, all its members were required to register with the local magistrate, failing which they would be charged with a crime under the Indian Penal Code. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1952 repealed the notification, i.e. ‘de-notified’ the tribal communities. This act, however, was replaced by a series of Habitual Offenders Acts, that asked police to investigate a suspect’s criminal tendencies and whether his occupation is “conducive to settled way of life.” The de-notified tribes were reclassified as habitual offenders in 1959. So basically these tribes were essentially given a scarlet letter and even though the law was repealed when India got it’s independence the damage was done. Stigmatized and marginalized within a society that often falls back on a caste system these groups do not even qualify for the lowest caste. As such they are treated with very little respect and find themselves living on the fringes in abject poverty. Setting up little tent cities on side roads with limited opportunity for adequate income.

As a result of the limited financial income options they are often forced to turn their daughters and daughters-in-law to prostitution and their sons to pimping.

As a documentary photographer I have seen a lot of poverty in India, Bangladesh, Africa and Australia but what I witnessed within the community of these DNT’s was far beyond what I had seen in the past. With barefoot children and adults thin and frail in tattered clothes performing the most basic of services like blowing up balloons to sell on the street.

A young girl from the De-notified tribe blows up a balloon to sell on the street.

A young girl from the De-notified tribe blows up a balloon to sell on the street.

Since it was so hot out many people were just taking refuge in their makeshift tents and sleeping while others were on beds on the edge of the road. When I finally got out of the car I was greeted with warmth and kindness. Young kids practicing their English on me “ what is your name?” “my name is David, what is your name?” they would giggle and repeat my name, “hello Dabid, my name is….”

Huge smiles stretched across their faces as they asked to be photographed. Each child trying to one up another and taking the main focus of the composition. How could they be so happy I thought to myself, living like this? When their very lives seem so precarious not knowing where the next meal will come from never mind safety or education.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 12.44.40 PM

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 12.47.50 PM

We set up to photograph some portraits of the kids and adults to try and create images that would help to quickly tell a story of what goes on for these individuals to whomever viewed them. Communication was tough but thanks to Jasneet from apneaap we were able to get some great images.

It’s never my goal or intention to show people in a bad light, I try to focus on the positive and the human spirit. My goal is to make a “human connection” with whomever I photograph and with these individuals in a very short time I believe a trust was forged.

After about an hour or so we said goodbye and started to head back to the office of apneaap and I was scrolling through some of the images of the day. I was struck by the portrait of one little girl. She is using a pump to fill up a balloon to later sell on the street. I found myself getting a bit emotional while looking at this image. She was so sweet-looking but even more than that she reminded me of my little cousin. How is it that one person can be so lucky to be born in to a family that is financially and emotionally stable with all the love and support around her, not wanting for anything while another little girl is born into what appears to be the complete opposite. One with every chance provided to her to succeed having essentially won the lottery on life and one not even having enough money to buy a ticket for that lottery #thebirthlottery.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 12.48.44 PM

So many of us are annoyed when a beggar comes up to us and asks for money or is trying to sell some knickknack. I know I was like this but after meeting these people I have a new understanding for these kids. Certainly it’s not their choice to be in this situation. There are many reasons they are there. The obvious of course to make some money but there is also organized crime that manages these people.

I think a society can be judged on how well it takes care of it’s people and unfortunately in the case of what is going on with these De-Notified tribes there is a great failure going on. Nobody should go without education or basic necessities. Growing up without them almost guarantees that the cycle will continue.

There is hope though! With organizations like what Ruchira Gupta at Apne Aap have created bringing attention to these people and their at risk children is imperative to helping to make a change. To force the government to recognize these people, help them to get their Indian identites so that they can qualify for social services. Make them aware of what is theirs to help create a sweeping change

This little girl is getting an education thanks to the work of Apneaap.

This little girl is getting an education thanks to the work of Apneaap.


Two parts down, One big one to go!

In Documentary work, India, Migrant Sugarcane Workers on February 17, 2015 at 5:07 pm

It was my birthday last week, Feb 10. I turned 45! I know, I can’t believe it either. People say to me all the time, they say David you don’t look 45 and then I say but I am, I am 45 only I used to say 44 and before that 43. I think you get the point. I always kind of take it as a bit of a backhanded compliment. Like WOW 45 is totally old but at least you don’t look it. Maybe so but the numbers are the numbers and they don’t tell lies.

The point of me bringing up my birthday is simply that I’ve been home for about as long as I was away in India now. Just yesterday I finally finished going through all the stills, audio recordings and motion footage from the Migrant Sugarcane Project. It really does take a long time to do. Sure, I could have finished it up sooner but with the amount of files I came home with I just needed time to absorb it all. Fully absorbed in photos now I’m starting to consider the narrative. Truth be told I’ve been considering the narrative for some time. As I think I’ve mentioned before, when I first was made aware of these sugarcane workers I felt that they were being commoditized and exploited, underpaid and overworked. That view is not untrue however, it’s not as simple as coming in and making a sweeping statement like that. My hope is to point out some of the nuances of this kind of life and of the challenges and rewards that these very hard working people face on a daily basis.

I am so lucky to have been born in Canada, raised by a loving family and then when it was time for me to go in search of what inspired me I had the freedom to do it. I simply packed up my car, my dog and my mountain bike and headed to California. Nobody told me I couldn’t do it. It just seemed my right and I took it. It has not been lost on me that I won the lottery. I pretty much do what I want every day of my life. Certainly there are consequences if I don’t work but every day I wake up and face the day as if I’m capable of just about anything I set my mind to. WOW what a luxury!

Like many of you out there I take my coffee with sugar. Like many of you out there I had never really thought about where sugar came from beyond the most rudimentary perspective. I’m going to show you where that sugar comes from and tell you about the people that are harvesting the sugarcane then taking it to factories to be ground up, boiled down and spun around in order to turn into that yummy white sugar we are so addicted to. Helping to give us diabetes, cancer, obesity and who knows what else.

 A sign at a bus rest stop on the 12 hour ride back to Bangalore from Mudhol, India.

A sign at a bus rest stop on the 12 hour ride back to Bangalore from Mudhol, India.

Setting up camp.

Setting up camp.

A migrant sugarcane worker.

A migrant sugarcane worker.

A cart with tons of Sugarcane has flipped over.

A cart with tons of Sugarcane has flipped over because it was overpacked and broke an axel.

The story is coming soon, the images are getting pushed and pulled into different sizes, styles and other descriptive things that I can’t remember what are called. Video will soon be edited and words will be written. Don’t worry someone else will do the proof reading. I’m excited about switching gears from creating the work to curating it. Stand by and don’t forget to check out my Instagram link as well as my Facebook page for outtakes and images that I simply can’t wait for you to see.