Envision Empowerment: Kolkata through the Lens of Sarah Annay

As a young woman, you don’t know who you are yet. Traveling allows you to feel you can be anyone.
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Travel became part of my life at 18.  I grew up in Vermont, rarely leaving the Green Mountain State, except for visits to Montreal, Canada or a family trip to North Carolina. When I was 18, I took 6 months off before college and moved to Cape Town, South Africa. I just wanted to get as far away as I could from Vermont. Eat new food and be whoever I wanted to be. 

Six years later, when I met Sarah Symons, the founder of Her Future Coalition (HFC), I knew there was a reason I was so eager to have lunch with her. I didn’t know we’d end up sharing a studio space together and her daughter would end up going to college in my hometown, but this is life. Things like this happen all the time. It’s fate, it’s synchronicity - it’s magic.

Now, as the photography project manager of HFC, I spend 6 weeks every year in Kolkata, India teaching photography workshops called “Vision for Empowerment” to young women. I work with women who are predominately from the Muslim slums and red light areas of Kolkata and live very difficult lives.

A workshop that focuses on the technical aspects of photography, Vision for Empowerment also creates a space for women from all backgrounds to come together and share their visual stories: women who are from the Muslim slums and the Hindu red light areas; women who are illiterate or starting college; women who have been trafficked or grew up in shelter homes under lock and key for protection. 

The first week of class is always interesting getting to know one another, but by the end we are all holding hands, sharing intimate details regarding self-portraits and learning deeply from one another what our dreams are—and more importantly, taking steps to getting there. 


The best part of the workshop is the final exhibition, where we display the work of every student and invite their families and NGO partners. I was extremely moved this year when one of my students, Fatma, stood up in front of every guest and said, “We are powerful women and we want to show this with our images.”

My favorite photos are the portraits of the girls enjoying photography and laughing. There is a strong image of Saba in Park Street Cemetery (a British cemetery that is crumbling in the central part of the city) that I took this year. I also love all the street photography I took during our photo walks, particularly in North Kolkata, the oldest and most beautiful part of Kolkata, full of winding lanes and shops.

Photography is what brings us together but the class is so much for than an arts workshop. It’s a foundation for relationships that will provide opportunities to these young women who have so many dreams. We are also exploring job opportunities in the photography field in Kolkata for those who are interested.

Two years ago, when I asked about getting involved with HFC, Sarah Symons told me that she does not believe in short-term solutions. Once you start something and the relationships are made—it’s hard to walk away from that. Now I know what she meant. Kolkata is part of my life now.  Working with the girls I have taught will continue to hold importance in my life. 


Traveling brings me joy because I am a migratory creature. I see myself as a woman without roots, but instead strong nests around the globe. This brings me joy because I can have intense and amazing relationships with people who live completely different lives than me. I learn from them. Learning, loving and teaching brings me joy. Travel incorporates all these things.

View more of Sarah's travel photography in our July 2017 Issue.

Blog & Photographs by Sarah Annay.
Sarah is a wedding photographer, educator, and world traveler. Her newest project is Vision for Empowerment, a photography workshop that provides art therapy and training to disadvantaged women in Kolkata, India. Connect with her at @sarahannayphotography.