In June the Internet Society sent me to Sri Lanka to take some scenic shots around Colombo for their website. I could not have asked for a more enjoyable assignment!
In May of this year I spent a week covering the Rescue Foundation/Free a Girl efforts in Mumbai. I was expecting the organization to be rather small, but was happily surprised to find Rescue Foundation to be very organized, with two campuses, a legal department, and many resources for the rescued girls. A frequent criticism of these NGOs, whose focus is to rescue girls, is that the girls are often brought home without any education, skill set, or job prospects, which is often the reason for them leaving home in the first place. Rescue Foundation not only provides basic schooling, yoga, karate, sessions with social workers, but also skills training in which the girls learn crafts, jewelry making, and hair and makeup skills, which may one day enable them to pursue a career working at a salon and spa.
Mumbai’s Red Light District and the “rooms” at the brothels where the girls see clients
A montage of paintings by one girl who was rescued from the brothel. The shelter/rehab offers art classes to the girls.
One option offered by the Rescue Foundation/Free a Girl is a home provided a home for those rescued girls who are not able to go home and live with their families again. The girls live independently, work and pay their own bills.
It was also wonderful to see a full legal department operating in the shelter, prosecuting the traffickers and brothel owners and working around the clock with the Bangladeshi and Nepalese governments to repatriate the girls. One of the most shocking things for me was learning that more than 60% of the girls were trafficked from Bangladesh . Furthermore, it can take more than two years for the Bangladeshi government to provide the necessary paperwork for the girls to return home. And by “girls,” I do mean girls. Among those whom I met at the shelter, the youngest was a divorced, 13 year-old Bangladeshi citizen.
Everyone at the shelters was extremely welcoming towards me, especially the Bengali girls, once they discovered I was (at the time) living in Bangladesh. In my broken Bangla we chatted about the Dhaka neighborhoods where they had lived and the beauty of the countryside where they grew up.
The women in the center is the amazing Triveni Acharya, who founded the Rescue Foundation with her husband while she was still working as a journalist in Bombay. For the first ten years they rescued and sheltered girls in their own home. She is one of the most inspiring women I have ever had the privilege of meeting.
One afternoon I heard loud cries coming from the dorms and went in to find a dozen of the Bangladeshi girls broken down, sobbing. They had just had learned that their travel permits to go home were denied, yet again, by the Bangladesh government. Some of them had been waiting for more than two years to return home. It was heartbreaking to see them sitting on their beds or on the floor of the dorm, in shock, crying and defeated. The staff pulled them into the office, where they sat together and discussed how they would re-apply to the Bangladesh government to try for the travel permits once more. The rest of the evening we sat together; they played Bangla pop songs on my iPhone as they scrolled through my photos, looking at my snapshots from my work and travels through Bangladesh, clearly longing for their country. One girl from Jessore who had two children back home asked me when I would be returning to Bangladesh. I told her that I was flying in a few days. She asked how long the flight was and when I told her it was three hours she got very quiet. She seemed shocked and so sad when she realized that while she had been at the shelter for almost three years, waiting for a travel permit, her home was so very close, yet so far away. It was excruciating to watch these girls be further victimized, regrettably by their own government, and to have no words, nothing to say that could comfort them.
I ended up extending my trip a few extra days when I was told that a group of girls would be repatriated to Kolkata at the end of the week. I photographed them packing up their bags and riding the bus that would take them to the train that took them home.
There was a quiet, heavy tension in the air as they traveled to the train station. Most girls sat in silence, staring out the window, lost in their own thoughts. They boarded the train to go home, putting yet another chapter behind them, but they seemed to know that real healing was yet to come.
Donate to Free a Girl and read more about their operations here; https://www.freeagirl.nl/en/help/become-donor/
This was a super fun shoot. It was awesome to spend a few days in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, and cover the activities of this awesome NGO. Huffington Post picked up a few articles with my photos about their activities, check it out here
In April I worked on this story with Ellen Barry about the effect of the barbaric political violence on ordinary Bangladeshis and the garment industry. Having lived in Dhaka for almost two years, through the severe 2013 violence, this quote stuck out at me;
“I saw the agonies of the burned people, their maimed bodies, the smell of burning flesh,” acknowledged Mahbubur Rahman, a retired army general and member of the B.N.P.’s national standing committee. “But what we say is that the government is not allowing us to talk. Not allowing us to assemble. Not allowing us to protest, to make our news. In this situation, where the democratic rights are denied, what else can we do?”
For years we’ve all been seeing the front pages here with the photos of the hartal victims, but nothing could have prepared me for stepping foot inside the burn unit. As we pulled up to the hospital there was a woman collapsed on the ground outside, wailing. Her husband had just succumbed to his injuries from a firebomb attack on a truck he was driving. Upstairs almost every bed in the unit was full. All the men had the same stories, they were just trying to make a living, support their families. Some were so badly burnt, bandages covering almost their entire bodies, I wasn’t sure if they were still alive. How can a human being throw a petrol bomb inside a truck and murder innocent, hardworking people in the name of politics? It’s beyond my understanding.
Read the story, with a slideshow of my images, here
We also worked on a story about the transgender woman who caught the suspected killers of blogger Oyasiqur Rhaman. After three days of searching, literally going door to door in a run-down Dhaka neighborhood, and dozens of phone calls, the reporter and I were ready to give up. He had been on the phone the night before with the head “guru” of the Hijra group, gently explaining to her that the brave woman who caught the attackers didn’t have to show her face in the pictures or reveal her last name, that this was an incredible thing that she did. But they were scared, and rightly so. It was 1:00 in the afternoon, “I don’t think this is going to happen. At least we gave it a shot” I said. He agreed. Not more than 5 minutes later he got the call from the Guru to come to her house and meet them at 4:00. We were ecstatic.
So a few hours later, a box of sweets to gift in hand, we passed through the bustling chicken and meat market into their tiny alleyway, up a few flights of dusty, unfinished stairs and into the Guru’s home. She greeted us with giant hugs and offers of tea, and told us that she chose to give interviews with us because the reporter, Manik, was so genuine and sincere with her. She also told me that as an American, I am a guest in Bangladesh, and she wanted to show me the same hospitality that she would like if she were to visit my country. That was so touching to hear.
As other Hijras came into the room they silently greeted her and sat on the floor facing her. It was a really interesting dynamic to see. Their community is so marginalized, and when they come out to their families as Hijras they are generally cast out, so they form little communities of their own, with a Guru as the head.
Over an hour later Labannya arrived. I hurried, with a looming deadline and fading light to make her portrait. As I led her into the previously empty room where I planned one of the shots, I found it was full of dozens of Hijra, sleeping, smoking cigarettes, gossiping and doing each others hair. Apparently they meet there for a meeting with Guru every night, to talk and divide up the days wages. I improvised and photographed her in the corner of the room, on the stairway, roof, a few other places, trying to find a creative way to conceal her identity with her scarf, the light, and her hands.
The reporter finished up the interview and we tried to rush out to file, we were way past deadline at the point with Labannya arriving so late. But we were blocked by the Hijra, “Guru-ma says your can’t leave until the meeting is finished.” The common space was still occupied by around 25 Hijra sitting in the circle around Guru, talking animatedly with her disciples. 30 minutes later we were released, and I thought the reporter would have a heart attack as he blasted down the street, trying to find a rickshaw and talking notes over the phone to the bureau chief, trying to make deadline.
This was such a special assignment, it was fascinating to catch a glimpse into the life of Dhaka’s Hijra community, and I really hope that Labannya’s brave and courageous act can help change the public perception of the Hijra.
Read the story here
I did this fun lifestyle/product shoot a few months ago for Basha ( http://bashaboutique.com/ ), they’re a boutique that employs victims of sex trafficking. I’d been keeping up with their organization for a long time and was excited to finally get to contribute in a small way to the fantastic work that they do. It was also fun to work with a stylist, Erik Otterman, who’s beautiful apartment we used. It looks like something just out of an Ikea catalogue!
As a woman, even in an abaya and hijab, this was a real challenge to cover. Women generally aren’t allowed onto the prayer grounds and are forced outside onto the pavement to pray. Every time I went inside I had work quickly and was constantly chased out by guards with sticks, but I generally don’t take “no” for an answer and I’m pretty happy with what I got.
“The Bishwa Ijtema in Tongi, Bangladesh, is the second largest gathering of Muslims in the world, after the Hajj, and is organized by World Tablig Council, which preaches teachings of Islam and prophet Mohammad.”
This was so much fun to cover. It was the first every Hijra pride event in Bangladesh, and people came from all over the country to celebrate in Dhaka. You could really feel the happiness and excitement.
“Hijras (transgenders) participate in the first ever Hijra Pride celebration in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In 2013 Bangladesh officially recognized Hijras as a third gender, though homosexuality still remains illegal. Despite these strides Hijras continue to face violence and harassment as part of their daily life in Bangladesh.”
Last year I got these two assignments for Bloomberg in India. It’s so shocking that things like this still happen in 2014. Both of these ended up being included in the series that won the Asia Society Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia
What’s Killing the Children in Jadugora, India?
“For years, these desperately poor people living in scattered villages in the shadow of these mines have been tormented by a mystery: What’s causing the wasting diseases that are deforming and killing so many of their children?”
Check out the full report by by Rakteem Katakey, Rajesh Kumar Singh and Tom Lasseter here
Toxic Pool Creeping Across India Kills Thousands of Kids Day by Day
“One by one, children began to die, often in agony and exhibiting similar symptoms: convulsions, burning pain in the extremities, nausea, vomiting, fever and diarrhea. By the end of 2011, parents buried 53 of them in this forested hill country village.”
Full report by Rakteem Katakey and Rajesh Kumar Singh here
I stopped taking my “real” cameras out with me when I’m not on assignment long ago and the past few years Instagram has been a sort of diary for me. I find writing almost as fun as a root canal, so Instagram has been a great quick and fun tool to document my daily life. Here’s a few highlights from May onwards of this year.
May in Dhaka was a bit slow with work but pretty busy with friends and goodbye parties. This town is almost as transient as New York was. I got a last minute assignment in India for Bloomberg and it led to almost 6 weeks of wandering around India and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was a breathtakingly beautiful, fun and epic 4 weeks. Met lots of old and new friends and got one shit show failure of an assignment that I hope to be able to talk about publicly one day.. Then back to Dhaka. Right back to work and signed a lease on a new apartment with 3 awesome new flatmates. Spent a good two weeks around Manikganj and Pabna, one failed Bede story turned into a pretty successful 10 days covering mental health. I hope to publish that story soon. Child marriage, Pabna, then back to India for an assignment from Cosmopolitan magazine and a (finally) successful visa run. Some snapshots of flooding in the north of Bangladesh, the surf girls, camera repair, a fire in Gulshan and 1/2 of my Frenchie flatmates My cameras drowned in an assignment up north so I took the opportunity while they were being repaired to go down to Coxs Bazar to hang out with Venessa, Rashed and the surf girls. Hadn’t seen them since April and it was awesome to get to spend time with them again. A different dynamic not to have my cameras on me!
A family shelters from the rain under their roof while they move their home that is threatened by river erosion in the Kalashuna village in Gaibandha district of Bangladesh. In the past month Kalashuna village has had 600 homes washed away due to river erosion. In August severe flooding displaced hundreds of thousands of people and led to rapid and severe river erosion which continues to wipe away hundreds of homes each week. The country’s inter-agency joint needs assessment described the situation as ‘the most severe floods the country has faced since the mega-flood of 2007’. The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society recently put out a report asking the international community for 2.3 million dollars for relief aid.
Women who lost their homes during flooding sit outside their temporary tents in the Karpasia village in Gaibandha district of Bangladesh.