Documenting global hope through image: Photojournalist shares experience

Turjoy Chowdhury with Lys Anzia – WNN Features

Girl drawing in Dhaka slum
A young girl child in the Kawran Bazar slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh draws the image of a flower as she sits on a train track in April 2014. Image: Turjoy Chowdhury

(WNN) Dhaka, BANGLADESH, SOUTHERN ASIA: Bangladeshi photojournalist Turjoy Chowdhury has a great love of humanity. He also has a love of of using the power of image itself to change society and document those who are too often trapped at the very bottom of their world.

The use of photography working in hope for society is a constant thread that can be seen in many photojournalists’ documentary images. Chowdhury’s images of the slums in Bangladesh, and the children that live, there are no exception.

“By capturing images of individuals, photojournalists demonstrate that they care. In essence, a photograph is a symbol of hope,” said photographer Lindsay Maizland in her winning 2013 report for Writer as Witness: Student Writer Competition at American University in Washington D.C.

The Lenses of Truth: Photographers’ Moral Responsibility to Document Injustice in Most Situations” by Maizland highlights the responsibility of photographers who document social injustice and atrocity everyday.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh is a city of slums. Dhaka is also the location for photojournalist Turjoy Chowdhury.

A total of 3.5 million people are living in what may be considered the most dense pocket of slums in the world; 5,000 slums in the Dhaka metropolitan area. And in most of the cases people migrate from different remote areas of the country to Dhaka, its capital city, with the hope for a better job, facilities or just a better future. Each person or family who comes to Dhaka hopes for an all over ‘better life’.

But their hopes are not what they experience. Almost all of them live in very limited and measurable situations, in terms of their day-to-day life, their health, their socio-economic and environmental conditions.

As I worked I saw in personal histories the outlines of a collective history,” said photojournalist Donna DeCesare during a May 2013 interview with FotoEvidence publisher Svetlana Bachevanova as the two spoke together about DeCesare’s work to chronicle children and conditions for immigrants in Central America. In addition to her work that has been highlighted by FotoEvidence, DeCesare has worked with UNICEF documenting stories. She also works as an Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a consultant for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

“Some of the major slums in Dhaka are Kawran Bazar Slum, Korail Slum, Begunbari Slum and the Kallayanpur Slum,” says Chowdhury who has used photo-image to document injustice in Bangladesh since 2011.

Dhaka slum mother bathes baby
A mother in Dhaka’s Kawran Bazar slum bathes her baby with ‘dirty’ water from a red pail. Image: Turjoy Chowdhury

“More than half of the population of city slums is children. They face hardship on a daily basis that includes hunger, poor access to clean water, electricity, health care, insufficient education and protection,” he continues.

Only 18 percent of the children in the slums of Dhaka go to informal schools, while 82 percent of them languish without any education. According to a survey by UNICEF (2012), 9.5 percent of slum children in Bangladesh die before they reach the age-of-five.

Most of the Dhaka slums are obvious places for prostitution, drug dealing, robbery and different types of crime.

It’s the kids right now in the slums of Bangladesh who are in most vulnerable situations. This is because when children grow up in this kind of environment all of the colors of who they are start to fade out gradually. In the end some of these youth turn into something that has no color, no spirit, no drive, no hope.

The color of their spirit has turned into black and white. But is this image the image of the photographer or the viewer? And what happens to a photojournalist who stands apart from his own suffering subject?

Numerous photographers work first from the ground of their own experience at home first. With work to share conditions that cannot be disputed an image can tell the story of suffering, often better than anything else.

“Journalists who cut themselves off from their emotions do so at their own peril,” continued DeCesare in her interview with FotoEvidence.

“When I look back on my own history and the things I witnessed, and reflect on the intuitive feelings that drew me time and time again back to Latin America, I don’t think it would have been possible, or even desirable, to do this work if I wasn’t searching for something greater than facts. If I didn’t see my own family story paralleled in the places I visited, I doubt I could have made any of these photographs,” she added.

A majority of parents who live in the slums of Dhaka want to provide a better future for their children instead of a life of extreme poverty. But some kids divert toward wrong directions easily. Sometimes even their guardians themselves insist that their children be involved in different illegal businesses, such as prostitution or drug dealing, to earn some extra money for the family.

These are just hard facts. As some kids get older they become professional criminals with no options left in turning back.

Boy stands between train tracks in Dhaka slum
A young boy stands alone facing the camera as his feet show the grey dust between garbage strewn train tracks in the Kawran Bazar slum of Dhaka, Bangladesh April 2014. Image: Turjoy Chowdhury

But is the documentation of an obstacle, as it is perceived in a photo image, part of a sacrifice offered to the world by the act of exposure from the photographer themselves?

“Photographers sacrifice their mental sanity and well being to help the public understand the horrors that permeate this world,” said Lindsay Maizland in her report for American University.

“They form relationships with individuals who rarely receive any human sympathy and might not survive the night, and they place themselves in life-threatening situations,” continued Maizland.

While life in the slums can bring degradation and suffering, there are also opposite stories that exist today. Some kids still dream of being a doctor or an engineer. Some kids still want to be a teacher so they can teach other kids who live in the slums like themselves.

It is a field that is full of flowers and possible future heroes.

Though these kids live lives full of obstacles, somehow they do find entertainment, joy, sports and other needs that can fulfill the hunger of a child’s mind. In the slums a child can often find a way to substitute their needs in their own way.

It’s up to a photojournalist to capture the joy as well as the tears. So there are lots of possibilities.

“Photographs have changed not only people’s perception but, in some cases, altered the course of history,” says FotoEvidence in their mission statement.

If these beautiful flowers, the children in the slums of Dhaka, get sufficient sunlight they can continue to grow and bloom, outlines Chowdhury. A photographer’s work is to show the possibilities as well as the harsh realities.

“These children deserve proper attention and initiatives that can ensure them a better future, a better life,” Chowdhury adds.

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This video shows the critical vastness of slums along the train tracks in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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For more information on this topic:

The Lenses of Truth: Photographers’ Moral Responsibility to Document Injustice in Most Situations,” Lindsay Maizland, American University publications, Washington D.C.;

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, and the Documentary Tradition” Picturing America, NEH.gov;

Mitigating socio-economic inequalities to accelerate poverty reduction: Investing in Vulnerable Children,” UNICEF.

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Turjoy Chowdhury is a March 2014 awardee of the Sony World Photography Awards in Environment for a photograph that many say is unforgettable. He has been working in the field of photography since 2008. “Documentary Photography attracts me most because of the opportunity to capture the truth,” he says. As a Peace Ambassador (2008) for the Asian-Pacific Children Convention (APCC) organized by BRIDGE Club International Organization (BCIO-Japan), Chowdhury is currently in his fourth year of college level studies in Architecture at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Human rights and social justice journalist Lys Anzia is the founder of international award-winning WNN – Women News Network.

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