CNN Photos

The life of India's street kids

“Why doesn’t that child have any shoes?”
“Why is he so dirty?”
“Why is she asking for money?”

These are questions that gnawed at photojournalist Lana Slezic in her first two years of living in India. When her two children became old enough to start wondering the same, she knew she had to find answers.

“They were everywhere,” she said. “The street kids, they would come up to the car and knock on the windows and beg. You could hardly drive two blocks without seeing them.”

India faces an overpopulation problem and, with it, widespread poverty. The country has the second-largest population in the world at 1.35 billion people. A third live on less than $1.25 (U.S.) a day, according to the World Bank.

Often, families too poor to raise their children send them away to fend for themselves, something Slezic discovered while visiting a large slum of abandoned children.

Conflicted as ever, and heightened by maternal instinct, Slezic spent the entire year of 2012 following a community of street kids, camera in hand. She wanted to get to know them, document their daily lives and listen to their harrowing tales.

“When I listened to them, it pushed me to walk out my door and go to this place that is one of the most disturbing places I’ve ever been,” she said.

“The smell that accompanied these kids, I don’t even know how to describe that scent: decay of life, complete hopelessness. It was like ‘The Walking Dead.’ And I wanted to tell their story.”

And telling that story is the hardest project she has ever taken on.

Slezic said there is no future, no life, no opportunity for these children. It’s not like they didn’t play or laugh, but the knowledge of what they had to endure day in and day out was difficult for her.

But she did say the time she spent with them was lovely and rewarding and “an education in humanity.”

The children were extremely open and excited to showcase their sparse living quarters to Slezic and her translator.

For once, someone was paying attention to them — and they loved it. Slezic described it as an “injection of excitement” every time she arrived.

Slezic not only took documentary-style photos, but she also set up a makeshift studio to take formal portraits of the children and showcase who they are as individuals away from the streets.

As if the subject matter alone wasn’t difficult enough, just getting their stories out of them was a tough task.

Besides the language barrier, the children were completely uneducated, mostly illiterate, and they had developed their own street dialect that even the interpreter could not understand.

Slezic recalled that sometimes she didn’t even get the full interview, because the child disappeared and never came back.

Looking back, Slezic said she feels hopeless when it comes to these children. There are organizations that help kids one at a time, but she said the problem is “impossibly, overwhelmingly large.”

“How will a country progress beyond its current state if it doesn’t take care of its children?” she said.

- Michelle Cohan, CNN