commentary, photography

magnum expression award: yvonne venegas

A bit of old news, but just going through old files and came across this post, which I meant to put up quite a while ago.

The winner of Magnum’s Expression Award this year, announced a few months ago, is Yvonne Venegas, a photographer from California.  Her work that claimed the Expression Award, entitled Maria Elvia de Hank, is very quiet, very thoughtful – and very compelling.  She describes it as:

…a view into the life, family and environment of eccentric millionaire and former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rohn…a work that reflect[s] on identity and a way of thinking, a state of mind that the couple of Mr. and Mrs. Hank have created together.

One of the things that struck the most about her work was not the images itself, but rather the way she speaks about them.  Her entire artist statement is fascinating, but the words that struck me the most were these:

I understand that the intimate will consist only of the instants that I can locate behind those that are camera ready.

There are countless times that I’ve found myself, or other photographer friends have said that they’ve found themselves caught in a situation that seems far too cliched, to known to photograph. They can be varied in content, from formal wedding portraits, to a news conference, to even the release of Durga Puja statues into a river in Bangladesh, but they are similar in that they appear unoriginal, insincere – seen before.  As Venegas says, to be able to look beyond and underneath these photo-ready moments is the job of the photographer, to convey emotions and content that extend beyond the actual edge of the frame.

It’s wonderful that Magnum’s award, designed to allow for the creation of a body of work that is purely the expression of a photographer, went to a woman who does that so beautifully – a photographer who can not only find striking moments within timelines, but who can also articulate why they are so.  I hope to be able to take a few pointers from her.

For those interested, see more of Venegas’ work here.

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research

women warriors: muktir gan

The orange light bounces off the harmonium cover as it falls to the ground next to the instrument.  Dalia pulls up a stool next to Shaheen, who now sits cross legged in front of the harmonium on the ground.  They exchange a few words in Bangla, interspersing laughs with lyrics and remembrances, recalling song titles with memories from days of 1971 along the Indian border.

These two women, Dalia Nausheen and Shaheen Samad, both were part of the singing troupe who traveled around to Freedom Fighter and refugee camps in India, singing songs of freedom, or muktir gaan, for the women and men training for the war, providing medical and logistical support, and sheltering themselves and their families.

I recently spoke to them both about their experiences serving in the musical troupe, and at the end of the conversation they offered to sing a few songs that they carried with them during those nine months of war.  Above, you find a short clip of one of the songs, Janater Sangram Cholbe Cholbe, by Sikander Abu Zafar.  They were as articulate as their voices are stunning – as soon as I have some of the transcript transcribed, I’ll be sure to share some of the conversation here.  For now, a little portrait of Dalia from before the song session.

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commentary

what do your days look like in Dhaka?

This, the most frequently asked question I’ve received in the past seven months, is the one that I often feel the most hesitant writing home about.  It’s not because there’s not much to tell about or because I think my projects are particularly dull to others (hope not!), but rather because of a slight aversion that I’ve developed to day-to-day recounting of events from ‘far away’.  Back when I started the first iteration of this blog from Paris in 2008, I made a small pact with myself that I’d try to avoid ‘travel blogging’ as much as possible, convinced that such posts were boring or too self-indulgent, something that would drive friends, family, and readers to the mouse faster than I could finish a whole post.  But after hearing about the wide-spread popularity of my Mama’s blog, and considering how much I often crave to hear little details of friends’ days – of how distance makes knowing even just the mundane seem like little treasures – my opinions are slowly changing.

So I thought it was high time to write a little bit about what I actually do in this water-logged, people-packed, and lovely little nation I now fairly readily call home – or at least part of my conception of what constitutes it.

A quick note before I do – this doesn’t mean that this space will become a diary of sorts, I’m not good at doing what my Mom or other Fulbrighters in the past have done so well, in giving full-on accounts on what days and nights look like over here.  (Seriously, check out this one American in Dhaka’s blog, it’s incredible – a true log of all his daily activities, a treasure trove of memories.  And makes quite a bit of sense coming from him given his research, which chronicled the number of riders and timing of each and every bus route in Dhaka.  No easy task when they look like this.)  But I think I too often write in the abstract, and knowing details of what’s what is not only helpful in stitching together an image of what Bangladesh looks like (at least with the lens through which I see it), but also key in providing background and context for those other, more off-in-space pieces.

Afternoon traffic in Dhaka.

So. What am I working on in Bangladesh?  The first three months, I mainly focused on learning the language – Bangla, or Bengali (the former being the Bangla name, the latter the English translation – think Deutschland and Germany), taking classes five days a week, four hours a day, plus 10 hours of one-on-one with a language partner to practice conversational Bangla each week.  While the classes were only from 9 to 1 each day, between the conversation practice and the homework and the test prep (we had one every Monday!) and the courses, it ended up eating up quite a bit of my days and nights those first three Dhakan months.

But around the second week in I started feeling little ancy (didn’t take long…!) about not making any progress on my research during the classwork.  So, with the help of my affiliate here in Bangladesh, the Power and Participaiton Research Center run by Hossain Zillur Rahman, I found a research assistant to help me begin to sort through the archives at the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, the agency that regulates textbook revision and publication in Bangladesh.  Mizan, my RA (I know, weeeird), would go down to the NCTB three to four times a week to dig through the shelves, identify textbooks of relevance from 1960 to the present, and note the appropriate pages.  I would join two or three days after class to go through those stack of books and photograph large portions of them, as I wasn’t allowed to take any of them from the building.

CNG central.

While it wasn’t a particularly difficult task, it ended up being fairly challenging in some unexpected ways; as classes didn’t end until 1 pm, that meant that I had to grab a quick lunch as soon as it ended, hail down and hop into a CNG (or, cage on wheels, as pictured above), and make the hour-plus trek in post-school traffic (many schools in the city let off around that time, and the route I was taking was always a particularly popular one) down to Motijheel, the part of the city in which NCTB is, to try to squeeze in two and a half hours of work before the institute closed at 5pm.  The NCTB library itself was an interesting workspace – a dusty, ill-kept room – but worth every sneeze.  A treasure trove of information, well-supplied with textbooks from all subjects in the years since the country’s inception (and sometimes, even before that).  It was without an AC, with a fan that worked when the power was on, which was only occasionally.  That also meant we were often sifting through and photographing books by candle/flashlight, as the room was windowless.  And who says archival work is dull?

That portion of the work wrapped up a few weeks after my classes ended, at which point I began the next stage of the project – speaking with policy makers, educators, and historians about the political and educational structures of Bangladesh.  This was less about the main research question itself (how do politics influence education?) and instead more about trying to draw a clear diagram of the inner-workings and mechanisms of the Bangladeshi state.  While there have been a number of previous studies done on educational infrastructure within the country, as a fairly politically volatile state, it is highly subject to swings and shifts in its priorities and policies.  I wanted to get a picture of the institutions themselves and visualize how various agencies fit together, in order to try to isolate precisely at which decision-making levels political dynamics filter into and influence curriculum and textbook development.

This meant many phone calls, office runs, contact snowballing, flakey appointment-makers – and a whole lot more CNG riding.  I got through 200 pages or so of Infinite Jest mostly from within the confines of the green bars of those baby taxis.  That portion of the research is now just beginning to slow down – although, it’s likely that it won’t ever really feel complete.  But that’s actually quite a great feeling (if it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t have any work to do!).

In the belly of the beast.

And I’m now in the planning stages for what is, by far, the most intimidating portion of the research – the school visits.  Meaning heading out to all corners of the country to visit schools and speak with teachers, students, parents, and educational administrators about the ways in which they use textbooks in their classrooms and homes.  While it would be ideal to just take off and show up on school stoops, it’s been far more complicated than I originally imagined, from getting permissions, to arranging transportation, to finding a research assistant/translator who can travel outside of the city for a couple of weeks on end, to structuring the visits themselves.

Not to make it more confusing, but I’m also trying to double up on the site visits, so to speak, to look for women who were involved in the Liberation War in each location that beckons for educational research.  It’s part of a separate, but related project on the Liberation War that I’ve been piddling away at since arriving, slowly gathering information on the role that women who took up arms, or served as spies, nurses, caretakers, and so on, in Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971.  Women Warriors, as the project is called, is an oral history and photography project born out of a similar work I did during the VII/Exposure workshop in Hue, Vietnam this past summer, which focused on the post-conflict experiences of women who fought for the North Vietnamese Army in the war against the United States.  The Bangladeshi component of this project proved far more challenging than the work in Hue had been in the beginning; locating women and finding their contact information in Dhaka always felt just a couple degrees out of reach.  But with the help of a few fantastic women from three organizations – Nijera Kori (We Do It Ourselves), Mohila Parishad (Women’s Council), and Naripokkho (Women’s Society) – this incredible network of female Freedom Fighters began to emerge.  Many are still close friends with each other, meeting often to share memories and meals and family.  And a few have been kind enough to share some of their time with me.

Maleka Khan, a social worker who directed centers for women raped during the Liberation War, at her village home.

The next challenge of the project as it is emerging is to find women outside of this circle – and outside of Dhaka.  The women that I’ve spoken with thus far are incredible, with beautifully strong voices, speaking often about the importance of recognizing the plethora of roles women played in the Liberation War, of creating a narrative that extends beyond that of woman as victim, which remains the most common in the country still.  But there are many other lesser known voices of the Liberation War, many belonging to housewives and farmers residing in the rural areas of the country.  Yet much like arranging school visits, finding them has proved startlingly difficult while in Dhaka.  This most likely means that it will simply involve picking up and heading out to villages, to walk around and talk to people about their lives as they were in 1971.  There are all sorts of challenges associated with that, from the cultural taboos surrounding women that fought and families’ subsequent hesitancy to speak about it, to – again – the language barrier that is much higher for me outside of Dhaka city.  But it’s an exciting challenge, and the enthusiasm that I’ve received from those within the city thus far has been incredibly encouraging.

Taken together, this basically means that my days are open to scheduling as I see fit – both a rather overwhelming and simply fantastic prospect.  In a city that can wear you down quite quickly, having the ability to swap a dedicated workday from Wednesday to Saturday, granting yourself some time off in the middle of the week to decompress and re-evaluate, is simply invaluable.  It also means that it’s afforded a flexibility in the work that has allowed it to go off in all sorts of directions, linking with a plethora of people and organizations that I never could have anticipated when writing this proposal.  It’s meant that I’ve seen first hand the importance of long-term, on-the-ground research, the power of actually researching where your research is.  That I now realize how vital learning the language of where you’re working is, even if just at a basic level.  The kindness extended, and especially after individuals find out that I know even just a little conversational Bangla, has been astonishing and heartwarming.

These past few months have taught me a great deal, about living and operating in an entirely new culture and mentality, about learning how to pick my battles and what is in fact worth fighting for, about planning and organizing my own schedule and deadlines, about not being a student.  Thinking back to September 2010, it never ceases to amaze me that I knew no one in Bangladesh other than a few fellow Americans and a handful of contacts passed along by friends and family.  When my phone got nabbed a few weeks ago, it was saddening not because of the loss of that junky $5 handset, but rather because of the potentially unrecoverable contacts, of all the numbers saved to that little limegreen Samsung.  And something in that frustration was simply wonderful – that there was a community here, in this place that all of a year a go was just be a dot on a map in my mind, for me to fear losing.

 

Sonargon, Bangladesh.

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