My dad owned and managed a shoe store. My grandfather and great-grandfather did too. It was a family business, a town’s family store where everyone could go to find a pair of shoes. We were proud of the store—I loved working there one summer and all three of my brothers worked there throughout high school. It was fun to help people find the shoe they wanted or needed and serve them. Because of this experience, feet have always been fascinating to me—their peculiarities are striking—and I like to photograph them in all sorts of ways.
Feet mean something entirely different in India. They are considered quite offensive. I remember having an Indian anatomy professor in college that yelled and publicly humiliated one of my classmates because his feet were up on the chair and pointing at the professor. Feet are an insult—they are dirty, unclean—and they represent the station in life of half the population. The Sudhras are the caste of people that “come from the feet.” The Dalits are even lower than the Sudhra’s and most of them go barefoot or wear thin flip flops. If a Dalit wants to walk through a higher caste part of a village, he has to remove his shoes because they would make the village unclean.
The Dalits are the “shoe men” of India. Because shoes are made out of leather, and leather comes from tanning the skin of a dead animal, the “leatherworkers” are Dalit. You see, the caste system is based on a person’s profession, and all the professions that work with “dirty” things are relegated to the Outcastes, the Untouchables, the Dalits. They butcher meat, tan leather, sweep streets, cremate bodies, pick up human and animal excrement: all the jobs that are unclean. Just “above” the Dalits are the Sudhra’s or the low caste—they come from the feet off the god’s body.
I can’t imagine identifying myself with a part of the body that everyone hated. How damaging to my soul it would be to look at a foot and think how horrible and unclean it is, and then to subconsciously think the same about myself.
A couple years ago I was involved in a ceremony where Christian leaders apologized to other religious leaders for past disharmony. Part of the ceremony included a time to wash the feet of the other leaders in a show of servant solidarity with them. I was asked to wash the feet of my activist friend, a beautiful Dalit woman who has sacrificed much of her life to be a voice for the poor and oppressed in India. She walks miles and miles to stir up a grassroots social justice effort. As she came up on stage and realized what was about to happen, she protested and would not let me touch her feet. I told her how much I respected her and how grateful I was for her work. I told her I wanted to humbly work alongside her and that washing her feet was a symbol of my commitment to her.
As I knelt in front of her, she continued to refuse, saying that her feet were horrible and that I would not want to touch them. She was a Dalit—a woman beneath the feet in the caste hierarchy. What were her internal voices telling her about what she was worth?
My dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all “shoemen.” If I had been born in India, I would have been Dalit. There is a very thin line that separates us.