For someone who chose to narrate stories through pictures, being a photographer never featured in Cheena Kapoor's agenda. An engineering graduate, her first job was with Infosys as a Senior Systems Engineer. “I was recruited through campus placement. To congratulate me on getting the job, my uncle bought me a camera as a gift!" she recollects.
Once she joined Infosys, Delhi-based Cheena moved to Mysore for a while to attend her training with the company. "I used to go around the Infosys campus during my free time, clicking pictures and trying out different things I could do with my new camera. There were others too who identified themselves as hobby-photographers. So we got together and started going for photo walks, clicking pictures, and sharing it on the company intranet for everyone to see and comment," says Cheena.
This constant sharing and feedback for her work got her more engaged in photography, especially with encouragement from her peers and seniors in the company as well as her friends. " I've had two mentors in the company whom I would show my pictures to and get regular feedback. The practice continues to this day," she explains as she continues her 'origin story.'
For Cheena, the transition from considering photography as a hobby to taking it on as a full-time passion began when she quit her job at Infosys and moved back to Delhi. She started to go around Old Delhi and capture street scenes. “I’d leave home early in the morning, head to Chandni Chowk and other locations; finish taking my pictures and get back home by around 10-10.30 am. The rest of my family would just be beginning their day by this time,” she chuckles as she goes on, “Things got more serious after a lot of people began suggesting that I attend a photography course to hone my skills.” This was when she heard of Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines, which was offering a photography course. “I applied with whatever portfolio I had managed to build at that time and I got accepted! It was a batch of eight and I was among the only two Indians who were accepted.”
Halfway through the course, she saw an opportunity with a daily newspaper as a photojournalist. “It was at this time I found out about women who were abandoned in mental asylums. Some of them were brought in because they displayed small traits of psychotic symptoms. Some of the others were picked up from the streets, and have been living in the institute ever since. Not all women who reside there are mentally unwell. Some of them have recovered, but have nowhere to go, or have been abandoned by their families,” she says.
This moved Cheena so much that she decided to focus on their stories as part of her final assignment for the course. Later she took up the cause of spreading awareness on the plight of these women.
As a photojournalist, she has spent time with women involved in commercial surrogacy, women in the red-light districts, and young female drug addicts. At this point, she realized that as much as she loved telling stories through her lens, she needed the power of the written word to accompany her pictures to have the kind of reach she expected. “I realized I had to start writing to fully express the stories that went with the pictures. So I quit my full-time media job to focus more on my personal projects.”
Since then, Cheena has been working as a freelance journalist and photographer, mainly focusing on health and gender-related issues.
Cheena’s work on topics ranging from the plight of tea plantation workers in West Bengal to the changing face of madrasas in rural Uttar Pradesh has appeared in Reuters, Al Jazeera, BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Vice, among many other publications. She has also been featured in exhibitions in Europe.
Cheena is a regular at TED Talks, where she shares her experiences. She is particular about gathering data at an institutional level so that her stories are backed by facts and numbers, which can bring about a real change. She is the recipient of the India Photo Archive grant, and was a nominee at Joopswart Masterclass World Press Photo 2017.
Currently, Cheena is working on exploring the condition of patients in faith-based asylums in rural towns. “The stories of these patients must be told. A lot of them are still living in deplorable conditions, often being chained up.” She then refers to the Erwadi fire incident from 2001, when 28 inmates of a faith-based mental asylum died in the fire because they were bound by chains and could not save themselves.
“Despite the Supreme Court order against using chains on inmates after this incident, a lot of faith-based mental asylums still continue the practice,” she explains. “I am trying to bring about awareness about what’s happening in these asylums, but for that I would need a lot of support, for which I’m seeking sponsors. I have been trying to get the World Health Organisation (WHO) involved, so that this gets tackled at an organisational level,” she says.