‘Exploited for Profit’ – short version of Amnesty International’s film

Last month I posted a film I shot for Amnesty International called Exploited for Profit. The film looks at how Indonesian migrant domestic workers are trafficked for labour exploitation to Hong Kong. Well, below is the short version of this film, predominantly designed for use on social media sites like Facebook as an entry point to finding out more about Amnesty’s campaign.

English version

Chinese (Traditional) version

Bahasa Indonesia version

‘Exploited for Profit, Failed by Governments’

This blog has been largely quiet of late. This is mainly due to me trying to focus on actually making photographs and films rather than just comment on them. It has been a steep learning curb, particularly moving to video, and not doubt will continue to be so. Below is one such product for Amnesty International’s work on the labour exploitation of Indonesian migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. The interviews were shot in Java in March 2013, with additional footage and one more interview (with Elizabeth Tang, coordinator of the International Domestic Workers Federation) shot in Hong Kong. Since then I have been upgrading equipment and technical knowledge in response to my experience in Java (and another project in South Korea), but the greatest challenge remains actually telling a compelling story to your audience.

 

 

Of less of a challenge but still a significant part of the process is making sure your product will engage your target audience and work as a mechanism to inform and take action. This short film fits within a wider campaign strategy that looks to engage a local Hong Kong Chinese population (prospective or current employers of domestic workers) in regard to how local laws are being flagrantly violated by recruitment agencies. This disregard for the rule of law no only results in abuses of migrant domestic workers but also is an annoyance to employers who are cheated and inconvenienced by these agencies. It is thought that this constituency will have more leverage with the government authorities than the NGOs and trade unions alone, and only a united voice will bring about policy reforms. The short film will be accompanied very soon by a 60 second version for use on social media, and this will be used to encourage people to move to Amnesty International Hong Kong’s website where there will be a simple call to action. Below is the Chinese language version.

 

‘Passion, determination & commitment’ – an interview with Stephen Kelly

A mother holds her child in the courtyard of their home within the Qi Lihe district in Lanzhou city, Gansu Province, northwestern China. Copyright Stephen Kelly.

Stephen Kelly’s work came to my attention a couple of months ago when he dropped me an email. In particular, his work ‘Qi Lihe‘ that looks at Muslim minority groups in China’s industrial north stood out. It was obvious that this was not a project shot in a couple of weeks; Stephen likes to take his time. His website only features four major pieces of work, and one of those is still in progress. That methodical approach is fuelled by a deep interest in the social and political issues at work in the communities and situations he photographs. Below is an interview with Stephen (SK) for The Rights Exposure Project (REP) where he reveals a bit more about his methodology, motivations and aims.

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REP: As a young photographer how have you adapted to the shrinking media space for photographic work?

SK: I am very independent when it comes to working on my personal projects and I haven’t changed the way I approach my working practice. The majority of my work is self-funded, so whatever money I make, usually goes straight back into working on my projects. I also apply for grants for certain projects in order to assist me financially in completing the work. Then I try to find different ways of showing and distributing the work; pushing the work to magazines to publish editorially or printing and presenting my work as an exhibition installation, which is a relatively new path I am only beginning to explore. I’ve also recently begun to run a number of workshops and I have found this to be incredibly rewarding whilst also being a solid way of being able to finance my upcoming projects.

A pole dancer performs to a small crowd of tourists inside the Greek Mythology casino in Taipa, Macau. Visa restrictions on mainland Chinese tourists are beginning to take it’s toll on the economy of Macau, as revenue growth is slowing for the first time in years. Copyright Stephen Kelly.

REP: Much of your work focuses on China (incl. Macau and Hong Kong). How easy has access been?

SK: Access has been difficult when working on a number of my projects. In Macau, my aim was to document the huge casino boom that has taken the region by storm. In order to do this, I felt that it was imperative that I photographed spontaneously inside the casinos. However, this is completely forbidden, so I had to be very patient, spending day after day wandering around, finding particular scenes that I knew I wanted to capture, returning time and time again until I got the image I was after and being very discreet with my approach. I had a few shady moments with security but generally I was able to make the images I needed with sensitivity and tact.

In Gansu Province when working on my ‘Qi Lihe’ series, I had a lot of problems with the police. I was working in the countryside attempting to document where the migrants had come from and why. The police interrogated me, followed me tirelessly and tried to stop me from doing my work. An example of this is when I visited a mosque one evening to make portraits of a group of Islamic students inside their dormitory. I knew one of the teachers, who I had met on a number of occasions and he had invited me to visit. While inside, the police rang the mosque’s office telephone and told the imam not to cooperate with me and warned him not to let me take any pictures. It became too difficult to work, knowing that the police were following my every move and were making it quite clear that they were going to stop me from trying to photograph.

A shepherd grazes his sheep on the hills above the Qi Lihe district. Although thousands of families have migrated into the city from their remote villages in the surrounding countryside, they still strive to hold onto their rural way of life. Copyright Stephen Kelly.

REP: What do you think are the pros and cons of foreign vs. local photographers? Is there a way to balance the outsider’s eye vs. the cultural reading of a local?

SK: Foreign and local photographers may approach their work in a different way and from a different angle. A local photographer will be more familiar with the setting and cultural environment, having always lived there but may also lack the broader perspective of an outsider looking in. They may also be restricted in their approach to a certain extent by limitations arising from their customs, religion and laws.

With my projects in China, I obviously have the eye of an outsider and this will never change when working in a foreign context. I believe you have to embrace this and strive to be honest, truthful and respectful when photographing and representing the people and places you are documenting.

The most important approach to take is to understand and appreciate the people and place I am documenting. I attempt to immerse myself within their environment, build relationships with the people I am photographing and try to understand their situation as much as is possible. I aim to stay for a prolonged period of time and return repeatedly, so even though I am a foreigner, I am able to culturally read their story to the best of my ability.

REP: Your latest work focuses on the Hui and Dongxiang Muslim minorities in Qi Lihe district in northwestern China. Can you tell us a bit about the origins of that project?

SK: This project came about due to information gained by a friend of mine who worked for Oxfam Hong Kong at the time. She told me about the situation of many internal Muslim migrant’s in Gansu Province who were arriving into the provincial capital, Lanzhou, as they were unable to survive anymore by living off their land in the countryside (in Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture). Extreme poverty and desertification forced their flight. My friend informed me that Oxfam Hong Kong were part-funding a school for the Muslim migrant children in the Qi Lihe district of Lanzhou. I was given the contact details of the headmistress of the school and shortly after that I was on a plane from Shenzhen to Lanzhou to research a possible project. I visited the school and began teaching English a few mornings a week and that is how my connection to this project began. One or two of the students would take me to visit their homes and meet their parents in the afternoon after teaching and then from there I would meet more families and return time and time again to strengthen my connection with and knowledge of the community.

REP: In the end you decided not to go back to Qi Lihe for the security of the people you were working with. What precautions do you take to try and protect those you photograph?

SK: It wasn’t that I decided not to go back. I did return in July 2012 but decided to leave early. I had planned to be there for one month but after two weeks it was just too difficult and I felt it was getting too dangerous, not only for myself but more importantly for the families I wanted to photograph and for my interpreter.

As for precautions, I followed the experience and intuition of my guide who is from Gansu and as soon as I knew that the police didn’t want me to be there and were following me and my guide felt it wasn’t safe to proceed, I stopped and left the province. The most important aspect for me is the safety of those who I photograph and for my guide and I didn’t want to take any risks or put anyone in danger.

A boy waits patiently for the lights to go out in one of the two communal dormitories in the centre. The boys follow a strict daily regime which begins at 6am when they are awoken and finishes at 10pm when the lights go out and they are locked in the rooms. Copyright Stephen Kelly.

REP: When you shoot a social piece like ‘Qi Lihe’ or ‘The Boys of Zheng Sheng‘ (youth rehabilitation centre on Lantau island, Hong Kong) how do you hope your work will contribute towards improving those peoples’ lives? Is it just a case of ‘getting their story out there’ or do you think there are other interventions that photographers can make with their work?

SK: In relation to these two projects, the most important aspect of my approach is to illustrate and highlight what is happening to these particular communities and why. I’m very much interested in documenting issues that are under-reported and by producing these bodies of work I hope to bring the stories of these people to a wider audience and shed light on communities living on the periphery of society. I aim to inform and bring a sense of awareness and understanding from the audience having viewed my work.

Awaiting order’s for the daily labouring. The centre is slowly expanding into the surrounding jungle and each day the boy’s are made to carry out particular building jobs including brickworking, plumbing, gardening and electrical networking. The staff at the centre believe it is good vocational training for when the boys re-enter Hong Kong society. Enabling them to apply for jobs, attempting to make a new life free from drugs and crime.

REP: Any tips for young photographers try to build a career?

SK: Have a strong passion, dedication and commitment to the issues that you are interested in exploring and documenting. Be determined, patient and find a way to complete the project even when faced with financial restraints. It’s important to continually make meaningful work and have a distinct voice and approach.

REP: What are you working on now?

SK: I’ve just begun working on a new project exploring Finland’s experiences with increasing migration flows to the country. I was in Helsinki for two weeks in November doing some research, making initial images and having meetings, so I’m looking forward to returning in the New Year and immersing myself in the project. I will also deliver a number of workshops in the coming months and will continue to work on commissions. If possible, I also plan to return to China later in the year.

Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati – “I was just interested in telling stories.”

I first met Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati when I was exploring participatory photography in Nepal in 2009. Since then we have worked together on the issue of human rights abuses committed during the conflict in Nepal (1996-2006) on a number of occasions. I chose to work with Nayantara because she is a good photographer, plain and simple. I saw some photos she had taken of vulnerable women in the entertainment industry in Nepal. It was evident from these images, as well as her manner, that she was able to gain people’s trust. And in doing so could bring intimate stories to her audience. I also came to experience her deep understanding of her country and her ability to notice cultural nuances that were lost on me despite living in Nepal for a couple of years. I doubt most foreign photographers would have brought that depth.

When I made a trip to Nepal last December Nayantara gave me a copy of ‘The Constant Change‘ – photo.circle‘s latest book. It contained the type of images of Nepal that I had been searching for – no sadhus, no temples, no Himalayas. Just real people, real lives, taken by young local photographers. Oh, and its great! It was then that I wondered why I had never interviewed Nayantara for the Rights Exposure Project? A bit of an oversight on my part, so eventually I got round to mailing her some questions. She kindly sent me back the responses below.

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REP: “Documentary photography is an emerging field in Nepal. The profession is very male dominated, so how did you get into it?”

NGK: “I actually got into it while I was in college in the US – it was an all women’s college. I was just interested in telling stories. In Nepal, I can count the number of working female photographers on my right hand – there are less than 5 of us here.”

REP: “You and your partner started photo.circle in 2007, what’s it all about?”

NGK: “We started photo.circle because we felt Nepali photographers needed to be stronger as a community in order to become better photographers. Although not a photographer himself, Bhushan had worked as a designer and web master for a leading Nepali media house for many years. He had worked with a lot of Nepali photographers and realized their limitations and needs. I was just starting out with photography. Since 2007, we have definitely seen many developments – we are seeing the emergence of more engaged photography and photographers. But there is still a lot to do. Once interesting work is produced, we need strong channels of distribution, we need to develop and access markets to keep photography going as a profession. These are things we are trying to figure out now.”


REP: “Photo.circle has promoted and supported local photographers. Where do you personally stand on the debate of local vs. foreign photographers covering issues in the developing world? With such a huge UN and INGO presence in Nepal many European photographers come there looking for work. How does that impact on domestic photographers?”

NGK: “I have nothing against people working trans-nationally. This is now the way of the world. But it is a lot more difficult for a photographer from Nepal to go work in the West, than for a photographer from the West to come work in Nepal. As any other profession, photography needs a market to survive and I feel only a local market can sustain careers in the long run. UN agencies and INGOs still choose to fly in photographers for short-term assignments. Why do this when there are now Nepali photographers who can deliver comparable services? In the past, the reasoning was that local photographers did not have the skills and that they were not ‘professional’ enough – but now that is changing. And local photographers offer the added advantage of knowing the local language/s, culture and socio-political context. But local photographers also have to become more professional, stop undercutting each other about rates for example – they have to gear up or be ready to get left behind.

REP: “Nepal has been photographed a great deal, but the focus has either been on sadhus, temples, mountains, or more recently the armed conflict. Was the ‘Constant Change’ photo project an attempt to get away from that?”

NGK: “Yes, ‘The Constant Change’ was a project involving 12 young Nepali photographers who were looking to intimately document stories of change that surrounded their everyday lives. These were photographers not concerned about selling Nepal to travel agencies or travel magazines. They were not trying to feed into International news media either. ‘The Constant Change’ was made primarily for a Nepali audience who could connect to the stories of change in a personal way.”


REP: “Your photographic contribution to the project is very different to the photography you usually see in Nepal. How was it received?”

NGK: “Last year I submitted a story to a national photo contest and it won first place in the ‘Story’ category. It was shot in the traditional reportage style. This year, I submitted ‘Being Nepali’ to the same contest and did not win anything. So sure, people are perhaps not sure where to place this conceptual and visual approach. But I’m pretty confident that the work has been received well by ordinary people. The issues – of the Nepali identity and ethnic federalism – are really prevalent ones for every Nepali today. Literally, as I write this today, Nepal is completely shut down outside – the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities are demanding that federal state territories be names and mapped according to ethnicity. Through ‘Being Nepali’, my intention is to ask the ordinary Nepali person how different we are, how alike, and how much it really matters? Yes, discrimination as we have seen in the past must come to an end, but the Nepali people cannot afford to fall prey to power-hungry, populist, identity politics. I have been wanting to start a poster campaign using the portraits as a call for social harmony – but to be honest I have been feeling really powerless and depressed about this whole thing. The politicians are busy bartering, lobbying, negotiating and people have been left to fight each other on the streets. I have never been a defeatist but this week I really don’t know if these pictures would make a difference. I guess I have to try to get it out there and find out.”


REP: “Photo.circle run regular workshops, including with the likes of Philip Blenkinsop. How do you see the future of documentary photography developing in Nepal? Is it possible to make a living?”

NGK: “Yes, we have been very lucky to have some great photographers – the likes of Philip Blenkinsop, Munem Wasif, Mads Nissen- come and teach workshops for us. But I’m afraid it will never be easy to make a living as a documentary photographer. Here or anywhere in the world. The local editorial market is really small and Nepali photographers don’t have the network/s to plug into the regional and international editorial market, yet. Same goes for grants. I think for now, the solution will be to try and harness the local and regional I/NGO market, sell stock, sell prints, develop other skills like video, multimedia, write, consult, do workshops, design websites – do whatever it takes to keep you going, and keep the personal projects going on the side.”  

REP: “You guys are pretty friendly with Shahidul Alam from Drik. How have they supported the work of photo.circle?”

NGK: “Shahidul has been an amazing friend and mentor to photo.circle and to us personally. He is a true visionary – and is extraordinarily generous with his time, guidance and contacts. Photo.circle has had really productive collaborations with the PATHSHALA South Asian Media Academy and DRIK in Bangladesh. We have learnt a lot about photography, about how to run an organization to develop the medium, and about what kind of photographers we want to be. It is really great to have such inspiring expertise so close to home – and not have to always look to Europe or the US for expertise and inspiration.”  

REP: “What are you working on now”

NGK: “Personally, I would really like to continue with ‘Being Nepali’ – my country is so diverse (and I mean this the truest, non-cliched way) – there are many people/places I would like to cover still.  And I would like to get the poster campaign going for next week. I am sure there are people out there who don’t want to cut Nepali into little pieces and fight over them or with each other – it will be good to see the solidarity and wash some of this hopelessness away. We are also of course working to make photo.circle a more engaging and accessible platform for Nepali photographers. As an organization we are trying to figure out how to be more efficient and cost effective. There are several workshops in the pipe-line, and we are planning an exhibition showcasing the work of this 86-year-old Nepali photographer who’s work (12,000 images) we have just finished digitizing. Despite the dirty politics, it is an exciting time to live and work in Nepal, especially for someone who wants to tell stories.”

Fotosynthesis – participatory photography in South London

Always nice to come across a worthwhile participatory photography initiative, even nicer to find one set up in my old manor. Fotosynthesis was established in 2010 by a group of professional photographers, and is now based out of the Lilian Baylis Old School in Kennington, South London.

They run a darkroom and studio space where they provide training in traditional b&w as well as digital photography. Private classes are available for community projects, and seminars are hosted for emerging artists to promote their work.

‘My grandmother’ by Diana Garcia.

The photo triptych above was exhibited at the British Film Institute for Refuge In Films 2012 in partnership with RefugeeYouth. Refuge In Films is a film festival curated by young refugees, who produced their own films and organise the event. It aims to raise awareness about the representation of refugees and migrants’ issues. Fotosynthesis exhibited a series of photographs at the festival that showed the life of three family members who migrated from Colombia (grandmother, mother and son).

Participants discovering their first films

Ingrid Guyon, one of the Dirctors of Fotosynthesis says,

We aim at giving a voice to marginalised people, provide educational activities and encourage community cohesion using photography. We use participatory methods to provide a supportive and inclusive environment where people can develop their critical thinking and engage with each other in a stimulating way.”

‘Forty Two’ – Lee Karan Stow & the Women of Sierra Leone

Rebecca Kamara in her village studio. Rebecca has set up her own photography business in her village in Sierra Leone.

I picked up this interesting initiative from a tweet by duckrabbit this morning. The BBC story is rather inspiring and worth a read. I won’t regurgitate it here. However, in summary – the photographer, Lee Karen Stow, was born in Hull, which happens to be twinned with Freetown in Sierra Leone. She went to the country to deliver greetings cards produced by women in Hull and organized a workshop. Fifty women turned up wanting to learn photography. It was the women’s enthusiasm that sparked off ’42’ (named after the life expectancy of a woman in Sierra Leone). The rest is history. Check out the article for more details.

The project is an example of the role participatory photography can play in engaging communities and, in some circumstances, generating income (see my article ‘Participatory Photography – Jack of all trades, master of none?‘ for more on this). As in many cases, what starts as a small scale initiative develops a life of its own. In reading about ’42’ I was reminded of Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh’s work  in Lebanon.

My favorite quote from the BBC article on Stow is this;

“Credit and publicity for the photographer doesn’t put food on the table. It is very disappointing; the whole idea for the project is to train indigenous photographers because I believe we do get a more balanced view of the world that way. Gone are the days of the wealthy Westerner taking pictures of poor people in Africa.”

If only that were true. And yes, the debate over the advantages of local over foreign photographers will no doubt run and run. However, for me the benefits of hiring locally outweigh jetting someone in. Local knowledge, language, cultural reading, not standing out, access, ability to spend lengths of time with subjects, developing local talent…not to mention less carbon footprint. There will be many variables and considerations – not least other aspects of identity such as class, ethnicity, gender and religion within countries that will also have an influence. I am open to the advantages an outsider can bring which could be described as being able to ‘see the woods for the trees’ due to the newness / uniqueness of seeing for the first time. But what ever side you come down on Stow is right for another crucial reason – the reality is that there are an increasing amount of competent and talented local photographers quite capable of delivering the goods (not to mention an avalanche of digital images from everyone else). The economic realities of that will win the day.

For more on photographing Sierra Leone see my interview ‘Sophia Spring on Sweet Salone‘.

Caravan – Amnesty Nepal campaign for Safe Migration

Each year hundreds of thousands of Nepalis go abroad for work. The money they send home makes up over 20% of the country’s GDP. Each individual has a dream of what their journey will be like. Yet many of those dreams turn into nightmares, with problems starting even before they have left their home village. Amnesty International Nepal believes that if there was political consensus across parties in the country on five safe migration policies labour and human rights would be better protected. Amnesty’s ‘migrant worker’ caravan is touring the country to mobilize support on this important issue. They are lobbying parliamentarians and collecting signatures in towns along the way. You can also contribute by signing the petition online at http://www.amnestynepal.org/appeal-for-action/

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