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Eye-opening images of care

- Featured Image

The first moment of life. An infant, its skin blotchy red and white, eyes screwed shut, mouth wide open, yelling out that first breath.

It’s an image that doesn’t fail to move you despite the familiarity. The photographer, Sarika Gupta, is no ordinary “snapper”, however.

She’s a medic by training, who has spent the past three years gaining experience in clinical outposts in India, Burma and Papua New Guinea.

In PNG, Ms Gupta worked as part of a Rotary International program undertaking family planning missions in an effort to target rapid population growth, rising maternal mortality and rising adolescent birth rates.

In northern India, she was part of a Vision Beyond Australia project, operated as part of the World Health Organisation’s 2020 program, treating cataract blindness, while in Raxaul (on the Nepal/India border), Ms Gupta worked in the large maternal and child health department of Emmanuel Hospital.

Her intimate portraits are a result of the unprecedented access she has had to the lives of the patients and doctors she got to know during her placements.

Working initially in an ophthalmic clinic in Rajasthan, Ms Gupta said she was shocked by the severity of the diseases people presented with.

“The vision problems were so acute, so far advanced from anything I’d seen in Australia,” she said. “As a volunteer, I felt quite disempowered at first. I kept thinking, ‘why didn’t they seek help earlier?’ But many people travel for days to reach the small clinic. We would operate 25 surgeries a day; at best maybe 300 a week, but there were thousands in need. It was quite overwhelming.”

For Ms Gupta, photography has been a way of thinking about such experiences.

“It helps me to reflect on what I’ve done and what I’ve seen. It’s important that the composition tells a story of people’s lives, and that I put what I’ve seen into context,” she said.

Since late 2012, Ms Gupta has focussed on obstetrics, working as a volunteer travelling abroad up to three or four times a year while she completes her training.

“The photograph I took of the newborn baby was taken at a Christian-based missionary hospital on the border of Nepal that has a large maternal health department,” she said. “The head of the unit was a general surgeon, so they were very pleased to have someone there with an interest in obstetrics, even though I was quite junior!”

But soon after arrival, Ms Gupta faced the realities of childbirth for women who came to the hospital. She was called on to help care for a lot of premature babies and mothers suffering from symptoms of uterine rupture or eclampsia.

Coming from a background where women are empowered, Ms Gupta said cultural differences around gender was something that she found particularly challenging.

“It’s not always easy to accept,” she said. “Women are spoken for by their husbands and, in some cases, their fathers-in-law. Without a man’s approval to initiate treatment, we are unable to intervene, despite knowing how necessary it might be.”

For Ms Gupta, these kind of experiences have helped her to shape her goals: “I want to be in a position where my documenting can gain support for women in developing countries, bring their stories into the foreground and advocate for women’s rights.”

At the same time, Ms Gupta hopes that she can act as a role model for some of the women she meets.

“They see that I’m a woman working in a traditionally male role. I want to encourage as many women as I can to pursue education where it’s available, so that future generations can take control of their own lives.”

An exhibition featuring 48 photographs taken by Ms Gupta during her work abroad will be held at the Queens Street Gallery, 28 Queen St, Woollahra.

The exhibition runs from 18 September to 5 October, and will be open from 11am to 5pm, Tuesday to Saturday.

All proceeds from sales of the images will be donated to Rotary International, Vision Beyond Australia and the Duncan Emmanuel Hospital, Raxaul, India.

For more information, visit: http://www.sarikaguptaphotography.com.au/