Allard's anguish: Illuminating the 'untouchables'

Bill Allard spent a morning with a proud man slathered in human excrement. The man, resigned to his life as sewer-cleaner, was born as one of India's "untouchables," the subject of Allard's photographs in the latest issue of National Geographic.

"I consider it one of the most important stories I've ever worked on," says Allard. "Everyone has heard the word 'untouchables,' but I don't think people really, actually, understand what this means. There are still atrocities being done to these people."

What emerges in Allard's images is horror but also strength– and beauty. For instance, he portrays an attractive eighth grader leading her class in a patriotic song.

"These can be beautiful people," says Allard. "They're not running around with deformities or covered with big scabs. They just happen to be born out of the caste system."

On two visits totaling eight weeks to the former British colony, Afton-based Allard returned with a disturbing message: While Gandhi ousted the British in 1947, he couldn't undo the Hindu caste system.

The 1,500-year-old hierarchy offers no rights to untouchables, who constitute one sixth of the population. While the caste system is officially outlawed, Allard brought evidence that it's all too alive.

He shows a man who lost his legs to a beating by upper caste villagers, women picking through restaurant trash for chicken scraps, and a matted-hair girl consigned to a life of scrubbing clothes "polluted" by blood or human waste.

Perhaps most horrific of all is the melted face and scarred torso of two men disfigured in an acid attack. They made the mistake of taking fish from a pond used by upper caste villagers. "That was a difficult picture to make," says Allard.

Indeed, as Allard and writer Tom O'Neill showed the layout to top editors at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, they worried their work might be too intense for the venerable yellow-bordered monthly.

The package survived the scrutiny, but Allard himself almost didn't.

"I got to that picture," says Allard, "and I just about lost it. I'm 65, and I've been doing this for 39 years, but it's an emotional thing."

Allard's no stranger to the highs and lows of humanity. His photographic career has included stints for Life and Look and taken him to nearly 30 nations. Two years ago, the Society published a collection of his domestic work, Portraits of America.

A few days ago, his daughter, noted musician Terri Allard, found her father's Indian effort on her coffee table when the June Geographic arrived.

"I can't believe we live in a world where this is still going on," she says.

Will her father's photographs do any good?

"It's hard to change things that have gone on so long," she answers, "but change has to start somewhere."