acid attack niraj gera photography

Meet The Man Behind These Powerful Images Of Acid Attack Survivors, Winning Hearts On The Internet

niraj gera photographer
Niraj Gera

They have walked the ramp at international fashion shows. They have been asked to tell their stories over and over again. They have been spoken about widely in the media. But rarely has anyone captured their transformative journeys through authoritative images that do not put them on an unrelatable pedestal of being exclusively steely. Because let’s face it, it is the journey they took from not knowing how to live with this pain and trauma of having been physically and mentally assaulted to learning to live graciously with their past, independently and confidently, that makes them who they are.

They are like us in that they breathe, they talk, they love, they live and yet they are anything like us in their stupendous courage to have had their lives brought to a standstill by a tragedy and yet winning over them in the unlikeliest of ways.

Award winning social documentary photographer, motivational speaker, and a meditation teacher- Niraj Gera, through his very well received Sacred Transformation series, has captured the emotional transformation of acid attack survivors on the canvas, presenting them in various shades of life with an aim to let people in on the most difficult part of the acid attack survivors’ journeys and also their most beautiful moments – a rekindling that words or speech could never do justice to.

We spoke to Niraj about his own experience as a photographer in taking up an emotionally difficult and also rewarding project like Sacred Transformations, role of empathy for a photographer, how he managed to balance sensitivity and disclosure, the toughest bits of the project and why the exhibition has had such a huge impact on so many people, among many other questions.

acid attack niraj gera photography
A Struggle to Break Free  Coming to terms with the reality wasn’t easy, but accepting to live with it is even more torturing. The emotional upheaval which keeps resurfacing pushes against the heart the desire to break free.

How important is empathy for a photographer?

Niraj: Empathy is very essential for any artist to establish a connection with their subjects because unless and until you connect with your subject it is nearly impossible to understand their emotions and perception in depth. And that lack of understanding will definitely reflect on your work. As a photographer, I try to do justice to my work. I try to depict their story with as much sincerity and sensitivity possible. And I think, my involvement in spiritual practices (be it meditation or yoga) has given me an edge on acquiring that bit of sensitivity which has helped me not just in strengthening my skills but also exploring and embracing the emotions of my subjects as they are.

acid attack niraj gera photography
Make a Wish – The photograph depicts the beauty of a survivor and how, just like any of us, she too has a beautiful world of her dreams full of wonders which nobody could, and nobody can ever snatch away, not even her perpetrators.

What inspired you to capture the faces of acid victims on your canvas? What did you want to tell through this project? How long did the project take? What has the response been like?

Niraj: My first interaction with the survivors was at a protest march held at the Jantar Mantar(Delhi) in the year 2014. This is where it all started. I traveled that extra mile to get to know them.  The concept of ‘Sheroes Hangout’( a café run by acid attack survivors) impressed me, as I saw them trying to establish their own entrepreneurial independence.

acid attack niraj gera photography
Flames of Injustice – The photograph shows how a spark of revenge or anger can burn down somebody’s life to ashes by the inhumane act of acid attack.

But my choice to work for them was an instinctive decision. And I’m glad I went on to execute it. This has helped me evolve as a person and made me a more sensitive person. We have had some lovely as well as some emotional moments during the shoot and otherwise too. They have become my family now. I had some 12 to 13 sessions of photography with them in a span of 28 months. It was not at a stretch though. It took a long time because I was traveling too. We had developed a familial bond after a few sessions of shooting and they would share their problems, joys, and feelings with me.

acid attack niraj gera photography
A Token of Love – The photograph shows the irony of love and its expression. On the one hand, we have lovers like Emperor Shahjahan who created memorial like the beautiful Taj Mahal as an expression of an everlasting love for their beloved, while, on the other hand, we have fanatics who mistook their desire for love and tried to attack and disfigure the identity of their ‘beloved’ by throwing acid upon them. This was his token of love for her.

I’m simply overwhelmed by the response. When I see people getting affected by the images, sometimes even getting emotional, while viewing the photographs, there is a sense of satisfaction in me. Because I feel, I have been successful at touching the chord of their emotion and I see that as an important step towards bringing the required change in society.

acid attack niraj gera photography
Enflamed Uproar – The photograph is only an attempt to express the unimaginable intensity of inflammation and excruciating pain that a survivor goes through when attacked by acid. It not only causes the skin tissues to melt but also sometimes can dissolve the bones too. The severe damage which is caused can also pose a great risk of death.

Why did you think the project has impacted people so much?

Niraj: My intention was to enable the masses to connect with the survivors at a meaningful level. Emotions and feelings are a pretty universal phenomenon that connects us as humans and this is what I have tried to explore as a means to ignite the sense of relatability. People are moved because they can live that transformation through these photographs at the level of emotions and that I think is the reason for the project being so impactful.

acid attack niraj gera photography
The Unrobable Joy – The photograph displays the joy and enthusiasm of the survivor, which she realized, is her very nature and nobody can rob her of what exclusively belongs to her.

What was the most challenging part personally for you in this project?

Niraj: As an artist, I had a vision of what I wanted, and getting that was not easy. I really wanted the audience to be able to understand the depth of their emotions, and hence a lot of time and effort was put into the entire shoot as I wanted to do justice with something which was in a way meant to represent them. To arrive at a satisfactory shot was not easy and so I had to re-do it many times. However, every time I would see them(subjects), I would feel like it was all absolutely worth the effort.

acid attack niraj gera photography
Bars of Stigmatization! – The photograph shows that because of the stigmatization and insensitive treatment by the society the survivor not only loses her self-confidence but is also fettered and victimized by notions which the world builds against her.

You also taught them meditation. What was the difference you saw in them?

Niraj: Yes, I did introduce them to meditation because I felt that they needed to attend to their spiritual and mental healing just as much as they did to their physical healing and being an Art of Living faculty, the least I could do was to introduce them to this spiritual knowledge inspired by my Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. This course helped them enormously in connecting with their inner self and the feedback was very promising. It helped them overcome their fears and inhibitions, and this course was special because they had had deep-seated trauma from the accident that only spiritual practices could help get rid of.

acid attack niraj gera photography
Tears of Nostalgia – The photograph depicts a moment where the survivor nostalgically looks at an old picture of her and wishes to rewind time. There are also survivors who don’t even have a picture to share how they used to look prior to the attack.

Sometimes, as photographers, you are witness to both positive and negative raw realities of life, death, sadness, vulnerability etc. It may be easier to deal with the positive ones, how do you deal with the negative moments in front of you(like capturing portraits in Uttarakhand when they had just been through unspeakable loss?)

Niraj: I think my inclination and participation in spirituality and spiritual practices such as meditation and Sudarshan Kriya has played a major role in helping me effectively deal with such situations and has brought more equanimity in my life irrespective of the circumstances, however, I have now gained more sensitivity towards other’s pain and agony.

acid attack niraj gera photography
Veil of Reluctance – It is not very easy to face the world, knowing that the world is not going to look at you the same way as it used to. The photograph shows a survivor resorting to veil by compulsion because of the stares and insensitivity which instills reluctance in them.

As a social documentary photographer, we are in the role of a story teller and it becomes our responsibility to capture the real emotions and present them through impactful photographs, with all its rawness, without using a word to narrate their story. I usually get along with people very easily and make them feel at home on and off the shoot, this helps me in bringing out the best in them.

What life advice do you have for aspiring photographers who want to take photography up professionally?

Niraj: My first suggestion is to explore their niche in photography. It is important to identify the particular kind of photography(portraiture, wildlife, macro, social documentary, event or any other) which distinguishes them from others and then nurture it to the fullest. Secondly, I’d suggest them to recognize the area of interest in any frame before clicking a photograph. This decides why people should take interest in their photograph and also helps them come up with an interesting composition.

acid attack niraj gera photography
The wounds heal, but the Scars remain – The survivors usually have to undergo multiple surgeries for treatment. The surgery might help them recover, but it cannot take away the scars (physical as well as mental) the incident has left upon the survivors

Apart from photography, promotion of one’s work has also become very important. Therefore, one should be acquainted with at least the basics of promotion through social media/PR and/or hiring professional for same. This ensures that your good work reaches the right people.

What has been the toughest moment at work for you(any particular person or event that you photographed)? Why was it the toughest? What kept you going?

Niraj: Toughest part of the shoot was asking them several questions regarding the acid attack they went through. I understand that it was not less than reliving the incident for those girls but I had no other option but to ask those questions, which I think ultimately helped us come closer to each other. The comfort level of survivors increased drastically after that, which is also one of the reasons why we could come up with such powerful photographs.

acid attack niraj gera photography
Untainted Love – No matter what the world throws at you, from a mother you can always expect unconditional Love. The photograph captures an intimate moment between a mother and her daughter, both of whom were attacked by her own husband. It also tries to send across the message that, love moves the world. We can be more generous by being more loving. A loving environment helps the survivors overcome and cope with the trauma soon.

One incident which I remember is when I was shooting with one of the survivors, Ritu, and she was looking at her old photograph(which was clicked before the attack). That was a very nostalgic moment, where she could not hold back her tears and cried her heart out. It was one of those extremely emotional moments which I cannot forget.

acid attack niraj gera photography
Rising from Darkness – No misery has lasted forever, and this one too had to pass. The photograph shows the growth of the survivor from hiding behind the veils to leaving the veil behind her, from fighting the darkness of reluctance, self-doubt, lack of confidence and value for the self to rising from it. None of the scars can put her to shame anymore because she is now comfortable in her skin.

A similar incident happened with another survivor, Rukaiya, who also broke down as she shared her story with me. There were times when such incidents shook me from within and being sensitive by nature, I would at times feel extremely bad, but then I would remind myself that the cause of this photo story was very important and these tears should not go in vain, rather they should be used to sensitize the society and bring about the much-needed changes in the society. To let people treat them with equal love & respect and to discourage such heinous acts.

Sacred Transformations has received an honorable mention at The International Photographer of the Year 2016.

acid attack niraj gera photography
Because I have a brother, I’ll always have a friend – It is always assuring to know that someone’s got your back. To know that you have a friend, a family whom you can trust and look forward to in times, good or bad. This is a photograph of one such assuring relationship.

India has the highest number of acid attacks victims, mostly women. Niraj Gera’s Sacred Transformation is the story behind these numbers. Artists, photographers, journalists, and storytellers are making the noise against gender crimes that have shaken our collective conscience time and again. They are showing us the mirror, the face of insensitivity that many refuse to acknowledge.

These stories are inspirational, thought provoking but more than anything else, they are evolving public opinion against such behavior as much as what leads to such behavior.

acid attack niraj gera photography
Breathing Freedom – The picture depicts the spirit of freedom and a sense of hope that is withheld in the eyes of the survivor for an ever growing and ever evolving self.

You may contact Niraj Gera via his website here.

If you think, you have an inspiring story or you know someone who does, please write to us here.

Ruchira Roy

Ruchira is a storyteller, business journalist, traveler and a spiritualist-all rolled into one. She loves telling nuanced stories of characters with extraordinary grit-the superheroes without capes. She believes it is just as important to tell a positive, life-reinforcing story as a critical one. A story must at the end of the day leave the reader feeling inspired, hopeful and willing to change for the better.

Armed with a Master’s in business journalism from New York University, she has written exclusive stories and features on topics that land on the intersection of business and human interest for digital platforms in the US and India. She has also worked with The Economic Times as a financial market correspondent for three years.

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