Happy Valentine’s Day! “Too Young to Wed” photojournalism exhibit at Bronx Documentary Center

Happy Valentine’s Day weekend, everybody!

Valentine’s Day is not without its controversy, as with many holidays. It IS a holiday taken over by capitalism and can often feel hollow and kitsch as opposed to a real celebration of love. I know lots of Valentine’s Day scrooges, and it’s not because they’re single. I personally have always felt social pressure around this holiday, when I’ve been single AND when I’ve been in a relationship. So I always tend to dread Valentine’s Day, and many of my friends as well. However, I remember when I was living in New Delhi in 2012, Valentine’s Day was a huge deal. Some people celebrate it for an entire week. I was receiving tons of messages wishing me ‘Happy bear day!’, ‘Happy flower day!’ etc days before and even after Valentine’s Day. What was with the incredible (and creative!) enthusiasm about this arbitrary holiday?

Valentine’s Day and what it represents is actually pretty complex. I quote from an International Business Times article,  “The celebration of Valentine’s Day is increasingly popular in many non-western countries, particularly in India, where a surging middle class and the breakdown of traditional cultural mores is allowing more and more young people to observe such western holidays. As in New York and London, young lovers in Calcutta, Mumbai and Delhi exchange flowers, gifts and cards on February 14.Valentine’s Day is especially popular among young well-educated urbanites — the same people who have also become enamored with TV reality programs, nightclubs, wine and champagne.” However, just as there are people who zealously celebrate Valentine’s Day in contexts and cultures where it was previously not celebrated, there is also significant backlash at the idea of ‘free love’. “Indeed, every year at this time of year, members of India’s opposition party, the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stage rallies protesting the observation of Valentine’s Day. More strident groups, like the extremist pro-Hindu Shiv Sena and others, have attacked and burned down shops selling Valentine’s Day cards as well as destroyed florists who sent flowers on the holiday,”quotes the same article. Recently, the Indian Parliament passed a law banning gay marriage. Cultural conservatives simply do not believe that just ANYONE can be together. Valentine’s Day to these conservatives can represent globalization and unwanted Western culturally hegemonic values.

Ultimately, it comes down to culture. Different cultures have different values, and cultures can change, but that is never without a struggle. I don’t believe in cultural evolution towards an ideal, either. Nevertheless, I think many of us take for granted the relatively recent phenomenon in some cultures of being able to choose our partner. Whether that partner is or is not of the opposite sex, or a similar (or higher) socioeconomic class, or simply, approved by our parents.

There are some people who are not able to choose who they will marry – they are unable to protest or refuse being married at all. And there are some people who will be married when they are still children, before they have even grown up to understand their bodies, finish their education, work, begin to know themselves.

Stephanie Sinclair is an American photographer and journalist who first began working on documenting child marriage when she went to Afghanistan to report on a story in the burn ward of a hospital. Many women had set themselves on fire, and she wanted to know why. She learned that most of them had been married at very young ages, and had set themselves on fire because they were fearful of retribution by their husbands about very small mistakes: burning the food or breaking the TV set. Sinclair resolved to learn more about child marriage and document it where she could. She has been reporting stories and photographing child marriage in Afghanistan, Yemen, India, Nepal, and more countries for more than a decade now. She recently teamed up with the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and Premier Photo Agency II to create a traveling photography exhibit called ‘Too Young to Wed’, which is currently on display until March 16th, 2014 at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City.

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It is a tiny, but powerful exhibit in a gallery space known for its dedication to journalism and social issues in the international sphere. Sinclair selected some of her newest, as well as most known work, and most powerful stories to be highlighted in this exhibit. You all have probably seen Sinclair’s work in the iconic National Geographic story, ‘The Secret World of Child Brides’, focusing on the perspectives and stories of child brides in Yemen and Afghanistan. At this exhibit, I learned more about Sinclair’s other work. The story of how a female Afghan police officer named Malalai Kakar helped Sinclair access child brides and witness the actual marriage ceremony was incredibly touching. Kakar was probably Sinclair’s most important contact, helping her to make those first contacts. She was also a “powerhouse”, brave and fearless, as Sinclair describes her in a speech. Kakar arrested a man who had stabbed his 15 year old child bride, Jamila, after she had disobeyed him, even though she knew that he would not face any real penalties or punishment for his crime. She was eventually murdered by members of the Taliban.

Photography is as powerful as the story it conveys, and Sinclair truly focuses on the story in each interaction she has had. She interviews and photographs boys who are forced to marry early, as well. Although she began her journey as a photojournalist, she eventually learned enough about child marriage and the social/cultural factors that enable it that she decided that she had to become involved as an activist. She perceives this particular role through the lens of a photographer, and works to spread awareness of this issue around the world, not just to a Western audience. ‘Too Young to Wed’ is traveling to Norway, Morocco, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Finland. The abridged exhibit at Morocco is in development to travel to more North African countries. Currently, Sinclair is in Ethiopia working on a soap opera about child marriage, which will make this often difficult, marginalized issue easier to talk about in the mainstream public. Check out Too Young to Wed’s website to learn more about the issue, the exhibit’s schedule, and how to get involved!

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