In a collection of makeshift tents on the outskirts of a town far from anywhere I’d ever heard of lives a community of people who understand, deeply and personally, what Cornelius Plantinga calls the vandalism of shalom. The title of his book are my sentiments exactly: this is Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be.
These beautiful people live with a horrible disease that most of us probably don’t even realize still exists. But Leprosy, that bible-era skin disease, is very real for Ravanniah & the thirty, or so, families that live in his community. I first heard about them when planning for a trip I took this summer to India with East-West Ministries. As I learned more about their community and what the disease has done to them both physically and socially, I couldn’t ignore the fact that everything had been taken from them. Including their humanity.
Ravanniah, the elder of the leper colony.
The camera is an incredible tool. It has the power to put a world-view in context. It has the power to articulate an entire belief system in a way that volumes of text cannot. I don’t think that my belief system is all that unknown, but it is a bit difficult to sum up on a blog. As a man who has had his life radically transformed by Jesus’ cross, I’ve come to understand a few things about man, the vandalized shalom that plagues us and our relationship with the creator of the universe. I believe that we are created in the image of God and, taking that to it’s ultimate end, that means that these people, living in seclusion, cut off from society as untouchables, are also image bearer’s of God. In short, I believe that have great value.
Subba Rao’s hands have been deformed by leprosy.
And so I went, with two wonderful people from East-West, to make images of these people because their disease and the culture they live in has attempted to rob them of something that is theirs by birth – human dignity. My plan was fairly simple – set a light, carefully consider posture, interact, listen to their stories, earn trust, point the camera and press the shutter. My hope was that the resulting images could, in some small measure, help demonstrate that they have great value in this world.
It’s a message that runs counter to everything that they experience in daily life, nevertheless, it is more true than anything they experience in daily life. After spending an evening setting lights, posing, listening and pressing the shutter, I went back to my hotel room, processed all the images and printed them on a Polaroid Pogo. The next morning, we returned to the village and had an opportunity to give them an image of themselves.
I don’t know if the intent of what I was trying to communicate will ever be fully understood, but I do know that they smiled seeing themselves on a small strip of paper. And I hope that when they see it hanging in their home, they will be reminded to hope in the day everything will be put back to the way it’s supposed to be – a hope that is not untouchable.