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A Tale of Two Pictures – Don’t Just Look: Help!


Picture of an India Street Kid

from NPR Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

The premise was almost too horrible to contemplate. The marketing promo promises a tour of New Delhi India unlike any you’ve ever seen. It’s a tour through the bowels of the city, the back alley path that even in India, where the ocean-sized gulf between the rich and the poor is ever present, is swept behind the skyscrapers, Pepsi’s corporate park. This is the land of the Indian street kid, made infamous in the Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire but explained better in the tragic reality of Born into Brothels a documentary about Calcutta street children whose mothers are prostitutes.
The tour shows one Indian reality, the stark, harsh truth of the millions of children who wander the streets throughout India begging for money, rifling through trash, living in tents and trying to survive. There are enough Indian street children roaming about the nation to populate New York City – twice!
More than half of these children are said to suffer sexual abuse; girls following their mothers into prostitution, boys being sold to wealthy European tourists.
The stories are appalling not just because the horrible acts of violence, sexual abuse, assault, homelessness, and starvation affects people not old enough to dress themselves properly but also because no one seems to care.
So here comes The City Walk Tour. For a mere $4.40 you can get a personal guided tour of everything India is trying to hide.
Billed as a way to make the story of the children of the street heard and to give us a view of their world through their eye this walking tour takes you through the nether parts of Delhi to see how the street kids live. The tour, sponsored by Salaam Baalak Trust, is led by a former (or current one can’t tell) street kid who tells you his or her story as they walk past their old haunts of under railway stations, in alleyways, on streets and trash dumps giving you an up-close and personal view of children sifting through trash, selling liquor bottles for cash and surviving in some of the worse conditions imaginable. Presumably, they leave the sexual abuse, assaults and violence to rhetoric, this is a family tour after all. The tour ends at the offices of the Salaam Baalak Trust where you can meet children and see the help the trust supposedly provides.
There is a school, but, according to an article on NPR.com, the children do not have to attend. There is food but they don’t have to eat it. There is water but they do not have to take a bath. It’s Romper Room ran by fans of Nietzsche – do nothing and see what happens. But maybe I’m being too harsh, I haven’t heard of Salaam Baalak (which means Hello Street Kid) before so I could be wrong but this City Walk tour tells me something is rotten in Denmark.
It’s not clear what good Salaam Bank is doing. It seems their shelter is just the streets with a roof. And the organization also has a group home but houses only a few children.
As a person who has visited India on behalf of organizations that actually gets them off the streets I am dumbfounded at two parties – the people who created this tour and the people who take it.
Surely there is an easier way to make $5 from people? The children have no choice but to be on display like some animal in a zoo. It is disgusting.
To hear that the idea for the tour came from a foreigner, a British volunteer, made it even worse. Did no one think this was wrong? Did know one say “We must preserve the dignity of the people we serve, we must show the reality but protect their soul?”
Reality tours are not new – even to those who work with the poor. But most of them include REPLICAS, huts and tents like the ones kids must live in, video stories of street children now saved. I have never heard of a tour that features no connection between the foreigner and the child in need, that is just a visual raping of the child’s dignity.
Sure Salaam asks for donation at the end of the tour and many people who took the tour felt “uplifted,” by the tour (a feeling I just am flummoxed to explain) but there is no long-term connection, no transformative action. The pictures on the tour blend in with the Taj Mahal and photos of street vendors.
I saw all I needed to see in the photos taken on the tour. A photo of a white man with black socks shooting children crowded in a small room with his long lens camera. I don’t know it made me cry.
Because it’s the visual representation of the intangible condition of slavery – the moment when a human ceases to be seen as such. Would you allow strangers to come in and shoot photos of your child dying of cancer? Or to tour your child’s hospital room? Would you allow strangers to see your worst moment of your childhood, the day after your parents got divorce, the date rape that occurred, the moment your boyfriend popped you in the nose?
Viewing poverty with no context leads to the dehumanization of the individual. Seeing poverty with no personal connection leads to hallow help. It is the visual equivalent of just writing a check. It is this voyeuristic venting, spewed in national magazines, online and quick 30-second sound bites that has led to the word-picture of Africa as babies with bloated fly covered bellies, with countries ravaged by tragedy, disease, abuse and never-ending horror among her people.
Ironically, this sort of reality tour can end up stripping the subjects of their realism. Seeing poverty is important but helping to transform lives is more important. People need to see the fruits of their labor to truly create change.
India is a beautiful country, with lovely, intelligent and loving people, many of whom are suffering terribly under the crushing grip of poverty. But if you want to understand the plight of a street kid, why not sponsor one through Compassion International, or do a mission trip or give to a trusted organization that actually can show progress in their programs. Don’t just go and snap a picture. Don’t just look – Help. And when you do you’ll see a joy that was never found in the photos taken at Salaam on that City Walk tour.

Photo of children in India

These children in Chennai are overcome with joy after receiving gifts from a non-profit group in the United States

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