Photographer Interviews

Picture Story: Karen Dias Explores Indian Schoolgirls’ Soccer Dreams

December 5, 2017

By David Walker

The enthusiasm of Indian-born girls for soccer has been known worldwide since Bend It like Beckham. But so have the social and financial obstacles that girls growing up in India must overcome to play. Though soccer programs for girls in the country have grown since the 2002 film, the barriers linger.

Karen Dias, a Mumbai-based photographer, documented a school soccer program for girls in a small Indian town in “A League of their Own,’’ published recently by Roads & Kingdoms. It was her first story for the online magazine.

“I was first struck by the esthetic of Karen’s work. It’s clearly documentary photography, but it has a very specific mood and look,’’ Pauline Eiferman, director of photography for Roads & Kingdoms, says in an e-mail. “The landscapes look a bit menacing but the subjects are shot in an intimate way, as if the photos themselves expressed the weight of society on these women. I have seen stories about women battling the odds in India before, but this one just had this added esthetic layer that really conveyed a mood.”

Dias shot the story in Mangali, a poor agricultural town in India’s Haryana state, outside the capital of Delhi. The soccer players of the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Mangali have overcome family disapproval, a shoestring budget and heavy workloads at home to become a successful team that has won prestigious tournaments.

Dias made two trips to the town and spent a week interviewing coaches, girls and their families, most of them poor and low-caste. A fan of street photography, she brought an informal approach to Mangali, using a Canon 5D Mark II with 35mm prime and 70-200 lenses.

“I would just hang around in the mornings and evenings on the football ground and photograph the little things; the girls interacting, chatting while tying their shoelaces, their time-outs, cleaning the [soccer] ground, getting into fights,’’ she tells PDN in an e-mail. “To not have the pressure of trying to get an image that ‘describes’ your story too obviously or trying to stick to a certain list of things to shoot eases some of the stress of ‘getting the story’.’’

She had little trouble gaining entrée—the girls were just as curious about her as she was about them. “I was amazed by how dedicated they were to their game and nothing would come in the way of them playing football, whether they had to tend to their cows after practice or go home and help their mothers cook the family meals; they would do it all.’’

The story is part of a larger project, “Play Like A Girl.’’ Dias launched the project after winning a grant last year from the International Women’s Media Foundation to portray “young, inspiring sportswomen” in Haryana.

© Karen Dias

Among her subjects were 19-year-old twins whose soccer winnings paid for their mother’s cancer treatment. © Karen Dias

Dias was attracted to a dichotomy in Haryana: In 2015, its rates of gang rape, stalking and dowry death were among the highest in India. The male-female ratio is the most lopsided in the country­—877 women per 1,000 men—due to abortion on the basis of sex, though a recent government campaign has improved the ratio among young children.

Yet at the same time, Haryana produces star women athletes, including Olympic medalists in badminton and wrestling. When India’s women’s field hockey team qualified for the 2016 Olympics for the first time in 26 years, most of its players were from Haryana.

“I wondered what is pushing women to take up sports in such a patriarchal state,’’ Dias says. “How does a young girl growing up in such an environment facing poverty and limitations based on her gender, excel at sports and become an international professional?”

Dias often portrays women’s lives and the challenges they face. She has photographed survivors of acid attacks, as well as the women-only cars of Mumbai commuter trains, instituted to spare working women from sexual harassment while traveling. Dias, who is from Mumbai but has also worked in the United Arab Emirates, faces risks herself traveling solo as a photographer.

“India can be quite unsafe to work in as a lone woman depending on where you are, and more so in Haryana,’’ she says. “I had to make sure that everything was planned: where I would stay, who would drive me, who I was meeting and how I would get there.’’ It’s more time-consuming than difficult, she says. “I just had to make a lot of phone calls and arrange my logistics.’’

For her “Play Like a Girl” project, Dias photographed young women wrestlers, archers and field hockey players, then pitched her work to Eiferman at Roads & Kingdoms. Eiferman asked her to narrow the story to one location or sport, “to give a more intimate insight on what was going on at a smaller scale,’’ Eiferman explains. As a result, the editing was minimal. Dias sent in nine images, culled from “hundreds,’’ and Roads & Kingdoms published eight, along with text that Dias wrote.

“I was really happy with how it turned out,’’ the photographer says. “Until then, I was looking at this project as one big project but … I realized it also worked as smaller, more focused stories.’’

The photo Eiferman chose as a header on the story is a wide shot of girls stretching on the soccer pitch. Pink uniform shirts echo the rosy color of an ornate temple in the distance. “There is a really nice juxtaposition between the eerie, cloudy sky and the grass filled with these young soccer players,’’ she says. “Their pink uniforms are a nod to what the piece is about, and overall there’s a strong atmosphere to it. You want to know who these girls are and how they got there.’’

Success on the field, including monetary prizes, means the Mangali girls’ program has grown to 130 players. They have better equipment now: They no longer have to sew up their single soccer ball, as they used to, although they still fill in divots and water the soccer pitch themselves. It has also brought the girls wider prospects, Dias says. Some of them have become their family’s main source of income, thanks to cash prizes from soccer tournaments. One of Dias’ photographs is of Anju and Manju, 19-year-old identical twins with cropped hair, whose winnings paid for their mother’s cancer treatment. Another shows Monica Mehle, the first university student in her family, with her mother, an agricultural laborer, in their one-room home.

“What surprised me the most was some of the girls openly talking about wanting to pursue their careers or being adamant of postponing their marriage to when they wanted to,’’ Dias says. “Sport can be a great way to empower girls in India and this story is a case study for that. Sports cannot abolish all these deep-seated issues but it builds the kind of confidence and determination young girls in rural India need.’’

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