Melanie Dornier Documents “Balaknama”: A Newspaper Started by Slum Kids in Delhi

French photographer Melanie Dornier received her first Kodak camera from her grand uncle when she was five years old. “He owned a family studio and I was one of his favourite models,” she says. “So I got introduced to the practice at a very young age. Growing up, I put photography aside and in 2004, graduated in the social science field. After that, I worked as an employment advisor, and started to love the element of human contact. In 2008, when I started to live in Asia, photography came back into my life.”

At first, Melanie was captivated by the daily life and colour of India. By 2011, she had begun a professional career, documenting projects in both India and China. She has been particularly interested in the notion of “identity”, which she has explored through a number of series on gender issues, female empowerment, the memory of old buildings in a rapidly developing economy. Photography, she asserts, supports her “activist” behaviour.


Melanie Dornier


One of Melanie’s most interesting projects is “Slum Kids Reporters” shot in Delhi, India. About ten years ago, a couple of street children working and living in the city came together to form an organisation called Badhte Khadam (“Walking Forward”). Aware of the fact that their voices were not being taken into consideration in the wider society, they created their own newspaper to express themselves loudly and clearly. In their efforts, they were supported by Chetna, an NGO for street children. Today, the enterprise has generated a federation of 10,000 members in north India and the fiftieth edition of Balaknama (“Children’s Voices”) will be out very soon.

Every quarter, the black and white tabloid format newspaper of 8 pages is arranged by slum reporters between the ages of 12 and 17, who study in makeshift schools. About 25,000 copies are published, costing 2 rupees or two cents. The newspaper is a powerful way through which the kids mobilise their cause. “I want my work to contribute to a positive change,” writes Melanie. “I was very impressed with the time and the energy the children put into this initiative.” She has captured the entire process – the planning, writing, typing, editing, printing, distribution.

She continues on her practice: “I mainly use an art medium to tell a story. When I was younger, I was a big fan of Salvador Dali, Kandinsky, Picasso. I was never too enthusiastic about classical art but my rules of composition are pretty traditional. Today, my influences are a mix of Europe and Asia, where I have spent more than eight years. In China, I admire the simplicity of calligraphy and in India, the precision and repetition of the Pichhwai design.

“In the realm of photography, I am inspired mainly by women like Padilla Darcy, Claudine Doury, Viviane Dalles, Olivia Arthur, Alexandra Boulat…they are all from the ‘new generation’, and all have worked/are working in the documentary world with a strong sensibility. The Hungarian photographer Robert Capa said, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’. These women follow that advice.”

Melanie’s projects have been published worldwide – in The Sunday Times magazine (UK), Nouvel Obs (France), Lancet (US), Global Business (China) and other outlets. Also, in a book called Niepcebook released in France in 2016. In 2014, her work was part of a group exhibition curated by the Head of Alliance Francaise Jean-Philippe Bottin in Galerie Romain Rolland in Delhi. Most recently, she has presented her photography in Lyon and Paris.

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Images used with permission.