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Supporting charity through art

INTERVIEW! Ahead of his new exhibition, we hear about photographer Dietmar Eckell’s quest to raise money for girls’ education by selling portraits taken in India.

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Raising money for girls’ education in India, Dietmar Eckell’s Faces of India exhibition opens at Erstererster Galerie on June 10. (Photo supplied by the artist.)

German photographer Dietmar Eckell is back in Berlin with a very different exhibition. Self-described as a nature explorer – as opposed to an urban explorer – Eckell has mainly focused on lost objects abandoned in the wilderness. His 2015 and 2016 exhibits Restwert – Forgotten in Nowhere showcased prints of several of his photo projects, including the eerily beautiful Happy End collection, which depicted the remnants of aircrafts forced to make emergency landings in remote areas (the common link being that every passenger lived to tell their tale of survival), and Space Junk, which showed in absorbing detail abandoned assemblage and fuelling halls for space shuttles.

Interested in immortalising the ephemeral, his charity exhibition focuses on Indian faces. The portraits in Faces of India were taken on several trips to India between 2005 and 2008 in Varanasi, Pushkar and the Kumbh Mela, the world’s biggest pilgrimage and festival in Hinduism, uniting over 30 million people.

“I was never a big portrait guy, but these people were so interesting, open and strong,” Eckell says. “They looked into the camera and because they were not used to them. They were authentic and natural. After I saw the results, I went back and decided to start this 100 Faces of India project.”

It all started with a young girl called Anita. “She was the first girl I photographed,”  Eckell says. “Her dad was a street musician in a Pushkar market, surrounded by all his kids. We got talking, and in Indian culture, they want a son. He had nine daughters and they have to pay the dowry later on in life… It’s a tradition that can seem crazy, but it’s still a reality. In big cities, this can lead to abortions upon sex identification, but in rural areas, this is not an option. He told me that he would never get all of his daughters married, because he was a musician and didn’t have the money to pay the dowry. We kept in contact. The picture of Anita was so strong – I called it Unwanted Girl – and I ended up paying her dowry. I told him: ‘Find her a good guy, and I’ll pay the dowry.’ It was my way of helping in this case.”

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Anita, a young girl with nine sisters, inspired Dietmar Eckell to launch the project. (Photo supplied by the artist.)

This exhibition is all for a good cause, as the sale of the prints is for charity, with 100 percent of the profits going to Lift e.V., a charity that supports education for Indian girls and allows labourer families and relatives of indigenous people to find shelter, attend school and do apprenticeship courses.

“Charities are really struggling at the moment”, Eckell stresses. “A lot of initiatives have been cancelled and it’s important not to forget that the need in some countries, like India, is even bigger than normal right now. Girls are the ones who are suffering the most in India and Lift gives them access to schooling. These are doctors and teachers who don’t get any salaries from this. The idea is that you can buy a print and fully support a charity, and if that’s not enough of an incentive, there’s a tax-deduction (spendenquittung) of 80 percent.”

This collection of unposed stills is intimate and evocative, featuring stunning colours that give certain photos a mesmerising 3D quality. They’re personal and sensitive, celebrating the beauty and power of expressive faces with stories to tell. Nevertheless, talks of exploitation and accusations of poverty tourism frequently come to the fore.

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“I’m just happy to give something back,” Eckell says. (Photo supplied by the artist.)

“There’s always this discussion that if you take these pictures, you’re being exploitative,” Eckell says. “I always ask if I can take the picture. Permission is paramount. And I don’t want to get famous with these pictures, I don’t want to make money from these. Everything goes to the charity. I just have these pictures and I want to show how strong these people are. Ultimately, I feel honoured that the locals allowed me to take their pictures and I’m just happy to give something back. Especially in these times, it feels important.”

Make sure you catch Eckell’s superb set of prints at the Erstererster Galerie from June 10 to 16. The exhibit, which won’t have a classic opening but does have bar tables outside and drinks available every day, is open daily from 2pm to 8pm. As always, Eckell will be present to tell stories behind each portrait. As he once said, it’s “key to me that these photos are connected to a story, that there is a story to tell”.

Faces of India, June 10 – 16 / Erstererster Galerie, Pappelallee 69, Prenzlauer Berg, U-Bhf Eberswalder Str. Check out Dietmar Eckell’s work on his website.