06 Jun 2017
12 min read
Arjun Shah’s calendar presents seven women with burn histories as survivors, not victims
When she was 20, Sunita burned herself when the kerosene stove she was cooking with exploded. By the time her brothers rushed to her rescue, the fire had already done the damage, changing her whole life. For over two years, she received treatments and skin grafts at Sushma Koirala Memorial (SKM) Hospital for her injuries. The pain subsided gradually as her body healed, but the scars remained. “It was difficult to come to terms with what had happened to my body,” she says. “The pain I had felt would always come rushing back when people on the streets looked at me and asked what had happened. It just made more sense to cover my scars whenever I left the house.”
To get over the unfortunate incident, to put it all in the past and to try to move on with her life has not been easy for her, as is the case with many other burn survivors. Every time she goes out of her house, the stares make her feel different from everyone else.
So Arjun’s burn survivors calendar, in which she is featured, has come as a much-needed push, she says. The message that Arjun is trying to spread with the calendar resonated with Sunita and Sita Bhandari, another burn survivor whom Arjun has photographed for the calendar. After having been called ‘bichara’ countless times, the women know that they, and other burn survivors, need to ‘say no to sympathy’. And they feel they are saying that through the calendar. Through the calendar, Arjun, a famous Nepali fashion photographer, is also attempting to spread awareness among people about burn survivors.
“When I started the project in January 2016, I had no idea how I would execute it,” says Arjun. For him, the calendar’s aim was to give the survivors dignity. “Initially I had thought that through my calendar I would give them a ‘one-day’ life, present them in situations in which they envisioned themselves and would perhaps be accepted,” he says. “But later I realised there was no point in presenting them in the way society wanted to see them. That would defeat the purpose.”Arjun hoped that when the women were modelling for the calendar, they would be able to push past their fears and face the camera. But he knew that the confidence that he so wanted for the survivors was not going to come easily. It took some convincing to get the seven women to get on board and get comfortable with the way Arjun wanted to present them—without hiding what they had always believed were their flaws. “We have lived half our lives wearing scarves and masks to avoid people’s gaze,” says Sunita. “People are sometimes frightened or disgusted when they see us because what they are not used to seeing they deem unusual or ugly.” It is people’s lingering, scrutinising stares that make people like Sunita feel ostracised. “We knew that it was going to take some time to shed the masks and with that to overcome our fears.”
The coordinator for the calendar project was Radha Shrestha. A burn survivor herself, and also a model for the calendar, she could understand their nervousness. She is the founder of Help Society Nepal, and she knew most of the survivors through her involvement in SKM Hospital. Radha and Arjun’s mutual acquaintance, Dr Jaswan Shakya, Medical Director at SKM, brought them together for the project. He was also a constant source of support for the women. With the help of Radha and Dr Shakya, Arjun made sure that the survivors were comfortable with the photoshoot. They told the women that their coming out to a larger public would encourage others like them to find the courage to come out of their shell.
The inspiration for the calendar came from a cover shoot that Arjun had done for the Wave magazine in 2015 that featured Jayatri Tamang. Jayatri is also featured in the calendar. It was easier for Arjun to convince the women because they had seen the cover and seen the impact that it had had on them as viewers.
“When I saw the cover I felt like I could be of some use too,” says Sunita, who draws her confidence from Jayatri’s courage. “And I was excited about the project.” After an initial two-day workshop to understand their stories better and help them feel comfortable, Arjun began the photoshoot. By then it was very clear what direction he wanted to take with the calendar. He wanted to provide people a window into the survivors’ personalities—their ambitions and their present lives.
In the calendar, Sunita stands smiling beside a mannequin’s shadow, with a measuring tape in her hand. After her accident, Sunita received training in tailoring, and she currently works at Ekadeshma: Tales of Nepali Craft, a garment workshop. Sunita also recently participated in a sewing competition in France. In another photo, Sunita has been photographed emerging out of a cloud of smoke in the background, to signify that her dark past is now behind her.
Another burn survivor, Sita Bhandari, a Taekwondo black-belt holder, sits on a stool in her workout clothes, looking straight into the camera. Arjun has managed to capture the strength that Sita embodies, her resilience. In her second photo, Sita stands holding a paintbrush in her hand—Sita is also an avid painter, who finds meaning in art.Rasta Khagdi, who had always dreamed of becoming a doctor, is dressed in a lab coat, holding a patient’s medical record. In another photograph, she is seated beside a sewing machine, presented as a tailor, her actual profession. The contrast in the photos are to show that although she didn’t become a doctor, her taking charge of her life is an achievement.
The calendar is, thus, a celebration of the women’s overcoming their struggles to become who they are today. The calendar now sells for Rs 350, out of which Rs 50 goes into a fund for burn survivors. The initial idea was to distribute for free all the calendars, printed with the help of Interplast Germany, a non-profit organisation supporting SKM Hospital in burn treatment and reconstruction surgery. But everyone involved realised that the money raised could go toward the treatment of some burn patient, and the team now sell the calendars in Nepal and in other parts of the world.
“Because the calendars represent a bold move for a good cause, people have been buying them,” says Arjun.
“It will still take some time for most people, to regard the burn survivors as survivors and not victims,” says Arjun. “For change can only come gradually.” But as for the women, the calendar has already helped them overcome the fear of showing themselves as who they are.
Sunita still sometimes finds herself thinking about how a man had once said to her that she no longer had a face. But whenever she looks at her photo in the calendar, she says to herself: “I think I look really pretty in that yellow dress.”