Sometimes a story behind a photo really stays with you. While sifting through our images from Udaipur (a terrific town in the Indian state of Rajasthan), I came across this photo of a girl we'd met in the market there. In some ways, it looks like so many of our other photos of children and people in India – colorful, human, evocative. But to me, this image carried a story — and a lesson.
She was a garbage scavenger, one of many making a living from finding spare scraps of metal and other discarded bits and pieces that could be sold or recycled. She walked through the winding streets of the main market in Udaipur. She was dressed in simple clothes that bordered on rags, a contrast to the school kids passing us in bright, pressed uniforms with shirts so white they almost glowed.
As we made our way through the market, she followed us through the labyrinth of streets, a woven plastic bag slung over her shoulder, half-filled from the fruits of her morning’s labor. But she kept her distance. Each time we would stop to speak with a vendor or explore a market stall, she would hover just a few meters away. The expression on her face: pure curiosity. Perhaps she wanted to know what it was that two foreigners found interesting at her market, what we talked about with vendors and why we took all those photos.
Each time we would emerge from an interaction, I’d turn around and give her a smile. In response, she’d put her head down in shyness. When we’d begin moving again, she’d continue following us, keeping the distance that made her just comfortable.
She wasn’t begging. She didn’t appear interested in getting money from us.
After about twenty minutes, I approached her and asked her name and a few other simple questions. She didn’t speak any English — not surprising considering that she'd probably never attended school. So verbal communication didn’t really work.
As a way to connect, I pointed to the camera, smiled and motioned to her so as to communicate, “Can I take your photo?”
She nodded excitedly. She was thrilled. Then she broke into a smile.
After our interaction, she picked up her sack and headed on down the road to continue her day. Perhaps her curiosity had been satisfied. Perhaps she just wanted us to take her photo the whole time – to give her the same attention and care we'd given others at the market – but she was too shy to ask. We’ll never know for certain.
As I looked at the photo and thought about her, I was reminded how easy it is to keep walking and never turn around to acknowledge the people around us. We’re busy, we’re tired; there's to-do lists to check off, places to go, people to see, events to fill in the white spaces. There are so many reasons to keep moving.
And sometimes in the midst of all this, opportunities are missed. The littlest of opportunities that we'll never know. And it's those opportunities that can enhance one's life and make a difference, however small.
In this case, I did turn around. I don't kid myself that this was a life changing experience for either of us. But, my life is enriched for the experience; I can only hope that perhaps hers was, too.
So on this New Year's day, I'm reminded of this girl, our brief encounter on the streets of Udaipur and what it all means.