Babita Patel

The Photographer Traveling the World to Work with Nonprofits

Even when she’s not behind the lens, Babita Patel puts her camera to good use. She founded the KIOO Project, a foundation that fights the gender gap by teaching girls photography and allowing them to teach boys globally. Through activations and workshops, the girls learn a skill they can feel confident about and proud of, and in turn, boys learn to value the knowledge they can be taught from girls. But that’s not all this humanitarian has up her sleeve.

When did you realize what you wanted to do in your life?

“I was on the cusp of my 30th birthday, and my life was in shambles. My career as an art director was not the glitter and glam I had imagined. I was struggling financially, and my love life was covered in cobwebs. That’s when the panic attacks started. Scary ones where I couldn’t breathe. Travel was the only remedy I could think of. If I was going to have a meltdown, I might as well do it on the other side of the world without any witnesses. Which is how I found myself trekking to 19,500 feet up a holy Tibetan mountain frantically looking for divine intervention. Someone who would miraculously fix me. No questions asked.

“I walked off that mountain with zilch. Apparently, God is like love. She doesn’t appear when you’re searching for Her. She smelled the desperation on me and stayed away. Weeks later, though, I had my moment. Sitting with my feet in the Ganges, eyes closed, hands together, sun on my face, I got it: I needed to get over myself. If I stopped obsessing about me, stopped dumping on myself, stopped hating myself, the panic attacks would stop.

“But my slightly OCD brain needed something to obsess about. If it’s not about me, is it about others? I came back to New York to try ‘giving not taking.’ Somewhere along the way, I threw in things that excite me: travel, international affairs and photography. And that’s how my reason for existing smacked me on the head.”

What is your biggest accomplishment to date?

“My biggest accomplishment is coming in early 2019. I’m writing and photographing a book about the cradle-to-prison pipeline, one of the causes of mass incarceration in the U.S. The statistics about our criminal justice system—2.2 million currently incarcerated with a disproportion of them being African American or Latino—are overwhelming. Yet, fully grasping the extent of the issue is hard since the numbers are so overwhelming. This book will put human faces to the numbers and start to change the conversation.”

In today’s Instagram world, how do you stay original?

“Years ago, I was photographing an assignment in Cité Soleil, a slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with another photographer friend whose work I love and admire. We stood side by side—or rather, I crouched while he stood up—photographing kids flying a kite they made from a paper plate. Months later, my friend bought the print of the image I took of those kids. I asked why would he do that, considering he had the same exact image in his archives. He said, ‘No, we captured two vastly different images,’ and he preferred what I saw through my lens than his own.

“That taught me that I have a unique voice formed by my experiences, values and aesthetics. Holding true to that will set my work apart. Mimicking another’s style would put me in their shadow rather than standing in my own light.”

Snack food you can’t live without?

“Nutella. I would swim in a vat of it if I could.”

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Whom do you admire more than anyone else?

“When my grandmother was young, her brother wanted her to become a doctor. This way, no matter what happened in the world, she would be able to support herself without the help of a man. However, medical schools in India during the 1930s did not accept female applicants. Instead, she became a teacher, for the world would always need teachers. My grandmother was the only female math teacher in Mombasa during the 1950s. My grandfather was an accountant. But as an Indian in Kenya at the time, he could not find anyone to hire a foreigner. So the family survived on one income—my grandmother’s.

“It is rare today for an immigrant family of four to live on just the mother’s paycheck. It was completely unfathomable for an Indian family back then to rely solely on the wife’s income. My great-uncle’s prediction came true: an educated woman could support herself—and her family—if she needed to. She might not need the financial support of a man, but she could use the emotional support of a man. My grandfather recognized my grandmother’s value and realized the shine of her light in no way diminished his own.

“These two progressive humans raised my father to understand equality starts at home and spreads through the work done outside the home. I grew up with a father who made our school lunches, bathed us and checked our homework. To this day, my father washes the dishes, sweeps the floors and does the laundry. My ancestors are the reason why I settle for nothing less than absolute equality. It is why I have earned my own paycheck since I was 14 years old. I am not only financially independent but also financially literate. It is why I let myself shine, to lead by example rather than diminishing myself in order for others to feel better about their own selves. It is why I started a nonprofit that changes gender dynamics by teaching photography to girls who then teach boys. Girls shine with self-confidence, and boys see their value while recognizing their light. I am who I am because my grandmother was who she was.”

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