“When handling children, you need to be a kid with them and respect them. They will respect you back eventually.”
The year was 1992. Dario Mitidieri came across a 12-year-old girl in the red light area of Mumbai (then Bombay). “You could see that she wanted to get out but did not know how.” He promised that he would return and get her out of the place. He went the next day and kept waiting but she never came back. “I really regret not helping her while I could.”
Going the Extra Mile
This brief encounter with the girl is one of many instances that have become part of Dario’s collective memory of his Mumbai journey. But there is a lot more that instances like these reveal. There are photographers who only go as far as capturing the moment. Then you have Dario Mitidieri who does not just stop at freezing the moment but pushes one step further. While some of his images are haunting juxtapositions, he lets the viewer sink deeper into the visual till they understand the message he is trying to convey.
Getting Past Hurdles
Mumbai was one such photographic mission. Every day was a new experience.“When I would leave my hotel room, I would not know where to go but I would just go out there and follow my instinct.” He befriended a former street kid, Mahendra, who became his mouthpiece and helped him understand the street kids on a personal level. But this journey was not going to be a simple one. “Photographing subjects like street children is not the most commercially valuable thing.”
He also realised that this project is not going to be something that he could complete in a few weeks time. Dario had to win the W Eugene Smith Award in Humanistic Photography in order to begin the Mumbai project. This allowed him to spend a year in the city. However, the problems did not end right there. Even after the project came to an end, getting a publisher was hard. He goes on to mention how it was necessary for him to win awards in order to receive grants to fund his projects.
Balancing it Out
But there is much more to Dario Mitidieri, other than Mumbai. In 1989, he won the British Press Photographer of the Year Award for covering the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Besides this, he has also documented conflicts in Ethiopia and Iraq, including the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, amongst many others. For someone who has captured poverty and conflict through the eyes of its sufferers and inflictors, it raises an important question. How does he deal with his emotions while still being objective? “I have seen horrible things in my life. But I have no regrets.” He explains how it is important to be emotional if you are undertaking a project of this nature; otherwise it is too difficult to keep a clear mind. His images are a reflection of a man who did not treat his work like a job but as someone who wanted to make a difference.
“My generation of photographers used to go on foreign assignments and send films back by courier. Everybody is a photographer these days.”
The Common Thread
His will to bring about a change along with his ability to get down to the subject’s level, made it possible for him to have a special connection with children. “There is a strong inner child in me. Having grown up in a little village in Italy, I had a fantastic childhood.” More than photographs, Dario creates narratives of these young innocent beings, ravaged by war and poverty. By photographing them in their natural element, he captures the resilience of these children; a thread he thinks binds kids like them together, across the world.
“I have seen horrible things in my life. But I have no regrets.”
Hopes and Memories
He goes on to mention that if given an opportunity, he would always prefer to take up assignments with a social cause. “The truth is that I am not busy enough to choose the assignments I would like to undertake, so sometimes I have to compromise.” However, amongst the wide plethora of photographic work, he documented the issue of teenage pregnancy in the UK. Coming back to the Mumbai project, Dario fondly remembers the kids calling him ‘uncle.’
“The one year that I spent in Mumbai with these kids was a great eye opener for me.”
Eventually, he even earned the nickname of “Dario mujhko mat dekho” referring to his constant advice to the kids, “don’t look into the camera.” For someone whose photographic reportage has spanned over three decades, Dario Mitidieri has evolved from a photographer to a humanitarian. “I want to do something right with my photography.” He has, indeed.
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Better Photography.Tags: Child Labour, Conchita Fernandes, Dario Mitidieri, ethopia, Great Masters, kids, legendary photographer, Mumbai, Perspectives