Shehab Uddin | Pavement Dwellers
Country of origin: Bangladesh
Project location: Bangladesh
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Dhaka, the largest city in Bangladesh and one of the most densely populated in the world, currently listed at 13 million and expected to rise to 20 million in coming years, is home to approximately 20,000 pavement dwellers. These pavement dwellers are treated like outcasts and undesirables by fellow citizens. Without protection, they are also the most vulnerable to the crimes in the city. Men often robbed and beaten during the nights and females are often kidnapped and sold. It is estimated that approximately 400 females fall victim to trafficking in Bangladesh each month.
In the recent campaign for pavement dwellers in Dhaka, Amrao manush, a Bangla phrase meaning ‘we are human too,’ reminds all residing in Dhaka the humanity of the city’s homeless. AKM Shehab Uddin documents the inner life of the homeless in Dhaka, giving voice to the voiceless, and reifying their human dignity.
CONVERSATION WITH SHEHAB UDDIN AND SHAHIDUL ALAM
Shahidul Alam is a photographer, writer, and activist working in the Dhaka city area. Alam studied at the London University and returned to his native city, Dhaka, in 1984. In 1989 he foundedThe Drik Picture Libraryand throughout the last two decades has actively developed and shaped the institution. His own work has been shown internationally, including MOMA in New York, George Pompidou Centre in Paris, and the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Tehran. He is currently director of Drik Picture Library.
The Drik Picture Library was founded in 1989 by Shahidul Alam with the intention of providing a platform for local photographers in what they call the "majority world." The institution has since expanded, adding Pathshala, a new media academy and Chobi Mela, the first photography festival in Asia, to its repertoire. The Drik Picture Library continues to develop young talent, promote citizen's journalism, and foster a unique vision for photojournalism and new media for the Global South.
Concern Worldwide is an international organization that works with the "world's poorest people to transform their lives." In 2008, Shehab Uddin teamed with Concern Worldwide to photograph Dhaka's poorest population, the pavement dwellers. The Amrao Manush Project roughly translates to "we are people too," reminding the viewers that extreme poverty never eliminates humanity. Concern Worldwide has expanded to other areas in Bangladesh continuing their work on health, education, and HIV/AIDS awareness.
UDDIN: I'm a freelance photographer in Bangladesh and I first met Shahidul in 1998. At that time I was in my hometown in Khulna. Shahidul, who also moved to Bangladesh a few years earlier was organizing all the photographers here. So it was a great moment for me to meet him.
I came to Dhaka in 1990 and I joined a newspaper here. In 2005 I decided that work in the newspaper was not right for me, and I had the opportunity to join Drik and work directly with Shahidul. So I took the opportunity and worked there as a photographer. It was really a milestone, and a breakthrough for me.
ALAM: The agency [Drik] was set up primarily because we were very concerned that countries like Bangladesh, which some have called "third-world countries" and we choose to call "majority-world countries," have been portrayed almost invariably through a very narrow lens. It worries me that Bangladesh has become in the eyes of many, an icon of poverty. The reality is something we cannot ignore. Shehab shows it through his work and I have no intention of wallpapering over the problems we have. What I do have a serious problem with is when people are denied their humanity and become icons of poverty; they become lesser human beings.
The agency was set up because we wanted to tell stories that got across the richness and the diversity of people's lives and we realized the story had to be told by people who had empathy for the subject. So it was a platform for local practitioners. And that's the birth of Drik. But when we started, we realized that a lot of the photography infrastructure a Western agency has access to, was not available to us. So we started creating some of that infrastructure here. Later on we also began developing educational structures that could foster new talents. We are one of the few agencies in the world that has two galleries of its own, runs a school of photography, and runs its own photography festival; I do not know of a single other agency in the world that does anything of this type. But all of that is really part and parcel of Drik's photography-philosophy--in telling rich and diverse stories without compromising the subject's humanity--we just had to create a whole space for ourselves. And now we are telling our own stories.
UDDIN: I want to know how you feel about my work and my representations as an indigenous photographer from a majority-world. In other words, what is your general feeling about my work?
ALAM: When I look at the work you've done for the Magnum Foundation there are two things that strike me: you have entered people's personal space at a very direct level. Physically, you're extremely close; yet you've managed to be able to avoid having a threatening, imposing, or certainly dominating influence upon that space and that's a very tricky balance to keep. We need to be able to get close enough to smell what's happening; we need to be able to feel the tension and the energy; yet, at the same time, we need to be able to give breathing space. I think that combination is a difficult one to acquire and you've done it not merely because you're technically very proficient but also because as a human being you've been able to give that space and that dignity, and I find that very, very impressive.
UDDIN: Well I think I want to let you know how I actually progressed to that, and how I got access to these people's lives and gained their trust. When I started, this project was actually commissioned by Drik and Concern Worldwide. At that time the project target was simply to raise some money for them, and Concern World Wide wanted to start a project about the pavement dwellers to improve their lives. I published a book and used the money generated with additional support from Concern to build an eleven-day-stay shelter for the pregnant dwellers in Dhaka and now they are starting to use it as a night shelter.
And now when they use the day shelter or the medical facility and actually save money, they then feel: "okay, these guys actually are not outsiders. These guys a part of us, fighting for us, and thinking about us." I think that helped me a lot to breakdown the barrier. And this time, I had some family friends over there. Some of the families I personally knew would depend on me, not in terms of money, but would occasionally ask me to help make an important decisions and give advice. For example, if a family friend had a medical problem, from time to time I would visit them, discussing their illness, talk to the doctors for them, follow up, and so on. This process helped me to actually be there.
We used these images in Chobi Mela, and I think it already has had an impact on Bangladesh. But still there are a lot of people coming to Dhaka everyday and the space for them is shrinking day by day. Last year I photographed in a place called Kamalapur Station where around 500 pavement dwellers lived. But now the authorities have prohibited them [the pavement dwellers] from sleeping and dwelling here. People keep coming to Dhaka because they believe they really will have a better life. Most of the time people outside of Dhaka are paid around two dollars or less per day. In Dhaka, if they collect waste for example, they can earn up to three to four dollars a day. They hope to make a better life for themselves in Dhaka because they're more opportunities here. Unfortunately, I find that most of them do not actually make it.
So still I'm thinking, how can we photographers help change the situation, because photographers don't directly do anything. We just raise awareness. And I want to the raise awareness, but I'm wondering how much we can actually do with that.
ALAM: Well, one of the things you tried to do--even though we were unsuccessful--was to hold the show in the tunnel in Karwan Bazaar between the two pavements where they actually live. Of course this was an extension of something we've been doing every couple of years where we've taken the work to the people, particularly people who will never come to a gallery space, as opposed to only showing work in high profile galleries. And while you were unsuccessful in this particular situation because the bureaucracy, the fact that you wanted that sort of engagement will give you the answer in the future. Rather than you telling their story, you've become part of the community collectively telling the story together. It becomes much more powerful. Often, of course, we are messengers; we are witnesses. But I think you've been able to immerse yourself within this group and become part the community. Therefore, the story that you are telling is a story from within. And I find that a very important space to be talking from.
But I think you have another role; we are very privileged to be able to step back, step out, and in way distance ourselves when it's convenient. If we see it not as a convenience, but as a responsibility, we can then become ambassadors for that community. I think you've already talked about how the book has raised money and things like that, but I actually think the monetary side of it is a relatively small part of it. Why your work is important is because it has provided dignity in terms of how poor people are portrayed. Your pictures show them as human beings in a different situation. You have kids playing, you have children being born, and of course you have very difficult situations as well. But at the end you've got faces that freshens a whole lot of situations and remind us that they are all part of the human life. You have not shown these people as the exotic and I find that very important. That's important because photographers go to far away places, they've got to photograph obscure things in order to come up with a story. That fact that these stories exist in our backyard is an important realization. Photography, at least the type of photography you are talking about, is more about human relationships than about the mechanics of situation. I think it's a very important observation and you have made those observations.
Now is the time for you to use the other skills you have as a teacher, as an activist, as a well-established and respected member within the community and take this work further. I'm curating several shows in other places where I've been interested in having this work instituted. But I've also been talking with some publishers about getting your work published in mainstream and high-quality books so that it's circulated worldwide. You will know, I've also nominated you for the Singapore Signature Awards, so those will hopefully open doors for you. But I think you will open doors for other people, so you need to see yourself as a window to their lives. And provided that you can be their conduit, you're halfway there.
UDDIN: Most of the pavement dwellers are here in Dhaka. The men for most part do transportation work; they work as laborers on loading trucks or in a railway station; some of them are rickshaw pullers. The women [for the most part] are maid-servants and some of them work as a sex-workers or recycle and waste collectors. Most of the children work collecting and selling waste.
They come from villages to Dhaka because they think that's the best way to improve their living. Some of them leave because of climate difficulty, some because of poverty, and some because of loans. A number of poor people in Dhaka come to find better work and a better way of living. And in my story that I describe, I was also drawn to Dhaka like them. I think when I came to Dhaka, it was great opportunity to explore myself and somehow I managed to do it.
Now there are 20,000 pavement dwellers living in Dhaka which is a small number compared to the total population. But day by day their numbers are increasing and within a few day it will increase to the same rate as other populations are coming to Dhaka. Another problem is that the privileged people in society really look down at them [pavement dwellers] in a narrow way. People need minimum requirements from life, like food, shelter, security, and health. But these people get nothing. They even think of nothing like that; they only think for today. They think I'm I going to have food, shelter, and some clothes today? They do not even know or want to know politics or economics. Nothing. They only want a place to sleep, food to eat, and clothes to wear, that's all. But they are human just like us. So privileged members of society, like us need to do something for them. We need to actually raise their standards of living. During the last three years when I was working with them, I found out while they are poor, they have love and affection; they have their family lives; and they're really not so different from us.
Sometimes I find that they are actually much more open-minded than us. They can easily adapt, I should say, adapt to people like us, who are really strangers and not a part of the community. They welcomed me; they spoke to me like family members, and I was not only with them for one day. Sometimes I'll live with them for two to three days, and they do not feel that I'm an outsider living with them. So that was really striking for me.
There is a family I know that I followed from the villages. The woman's name is Rosina and she collects waste; the man was working as a rickshaw puller; and they have three children. Earlier they did not think about their children's future, and let their children do what they wanted to. But when I spoke with them, I said no, they should think about sending them to school and they eventually sent them to school.
ALAM: I actually see Drik and Shehab as part of the same social movement, the goal being social justice, and striving for social justice. We took on photography because it is such a powerful tool in this process. So for me, it's not about photography, but about what photography is able to achieve. And while I'm very proud of what Shehab has done, I will be quick to point out that Shehab is not the only one. There is a whole string of very fine young photographers, who are working out there today, that have come out of this space giving us challenging work; they are pushing the boundaries. They are very fine photographers and very fine people and I find it difficult to separate the two.