A trip to the Kathmandu Valley to photograph the human and animal workforce in brick kilns.
Mules are bred in India and purchased there to work in Nepal’s brick kilns. If they survive in reasonable condition they can be sold on as mountain pack animals at the end of the season. The mule owners bring with them boys to drive the mules back and forth, from the brick drying stacks to the kiln itself. Many of these children are classed as bonded labour. Their families are paid upfront for the child’s season of work. They can rapidly become trapped in a cycle of debt.
Conditions are even worse for adult workers. The safe working load for a mule is a third of its bodyweight. I saw adults carrying as many as 32 two-kilo bricks – effectively their entire bodyweight.
If you want to know more about this issue have a look at ‘Brick by Brick’. This excellent report links environment, human labour and animal welfare.
With thanks to all the photographers of the Displaces project
On previous ‘participatory photography’ projects, we’d give people good compact cameras, and some practical and conceptual training. Then they’d return to their families, communities or neighbourhoods, and take pictures.
The results could be revelatory; expressive as well as documentary, giving insights into lives and identities which might not be apparent to a professional photojournalist.
But working in the Calais ‘Jungle’ challenged this process.
I’ve been working in the camp with Dr Marie Godin, from the University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute, on the ‘Displaces’ photo project. We wanted to take a critical look at the use of participatory photography there.
We met people living in temporary conditions, in a place which they do NOT own – culturally, legally, socially or visually. The camp represents everything they want to escape from. Handing cameras to refugees and demanding they document their lives there, risked producing images reinforcing their sense of abjection.
This is compounded by not being able to show most people’s faces.
Those who want to come to the UK need to stay invisible.
They must not make any trace of their existence in Calais and risk compromising their asylum claim, if and when they get here.
So they often choose to anonymise themselves.
But anonymity is also part of their oppression, and is continually imposed. Those who want to keep them out of the UK de-humanise them as a ‘swarm’. Those who want to help get them into the UK also anonymise them, albeit with best intention.
Both are dispiriting and undermining. Rubbing out someone’s face does not feel good. Asking them to do it themselves is even worse. They have to turn themselves into non-people. Collude in their own oppression. A photo project makes it all very literal and obvious.
Pixellated pictures appear to criminalise refugees and the right to seek asylum.
Many participants were even more aware than us, of this problem of identity and representation. They responded in various ways, perhaps the most interesting being aspiration.
In particular, people took pictures of themselves not as refugees but as individual citizens. Participants portrayed themselves as human beings (teachers, engineers, mothers and fathers, cousins) with aspirations to have a better life.
An engineer from Darfur keeps his suit hanging in his shelter.
Some photographed themselves standing outside bourgeois houses. One group posed in front of Rodin’s ‘The Burghers of Calais’ (a sculpture about self-sacrifice in the face of arbitrary power).
These photos were often taken not for the project, but for their families back home, with no attempt to hide themselves. I find these bland touristic photos more interesting and telling than the images taken in the camp.
But how can they be shared more widely?
I’ve anonymised this set of ‘aspirational’ images using a different cultural, visual code; by ‘ghosting’ whole bodies, not just pixillating faces. I hope the results question the way settled citizens ignore or look right through refugees – without criminalising or victimising them.
Yvonne’s family live without piped water or sanitation but they own three Smartphones, one tablet, a laptop and a TV. Far from being luxuries these devices are likely to be their way out of poverty. Her two oldest daughters are very clever and technologically able.
Yvonne works at the Gugu Dlemini AIDS Foundation. She says:
It took me a long time to come out of that shell that made me less confident, but eventually I thought to myself that it was something I had to do. In my community many people suffer from these situations. It’s also because we are less educated, so we see no reason, or feel ashamed to speak about these kinds of things. We still live in a community that is dominated by men, making women feel less adequate.
As a woman this also affects me. I am also HIV positive, and I am deaf too. This has brought a lot of misunderstandings and difficulties for myself and other people. People find it hard to communicate with me. Some people think that there is something wrong with me. I misinterpret what they are saying. This causes me to distance myself from people. It has also caused problems with my relationships with men in my life as they take advantage of me.
I’m just back from working on the final chapter of this international arts and advocacy project, in which HIV+ve participants photograph their lives to combat stigma.
I teach photography, and co-edit the work with the participants, alongside Gideon Mendel and Prof. David Gere’s team from the Art and Global Health Centre at UCLA.
A major exhibition featuring work from all ten cities has just opened in Durban to coincide with the 21st International AIDS Conference, which begins on the 18th July. The HIV+ve photographers will work as guides and speakers at the show.
I’ll post work from the Durban group during the conference, starting with Silungile.
Silungile is a sangoma or traditional healer as well as an educator, HIV activist and grandmother. Here are a selection of her photographs.
This mysterious photograph of the Calais ‘Jungle’ is the work of 18 year-old Esyas (his name has been changed), an artist from Eritrea. He is taking part in the Displaces photo project set up by Prof. Corinne Squire.
I’ve been working alongside Gideon Mendel, teaching photography and editing the results of a two day workshop. We’ve left cameras with refugees to document their lives in the camp. I’ll post more images as the project progresses.
Esyas’ photograph conveys the atmosphere of this place which is not a place. A landfill site full of people, now partially bulldozed back into the ground. There is a stark simplicity to the landscape which makes it feel like an allegory: the camp, the fence, the road, the police, and the bulldozers. Yet everywhere there is a flickering of different lives and cultures: the scraps of possessions burnt or ploughed into the earth, the Eritrean church, the mosque, the library, the cafes and the figures playing football or just staring at the horizon.
Itinerant donkey owners working in Gujarat’s brick kilns spend 24 hours a day with their donkeys. They live, work, play and abide together. The donkeys’ welfare is entirely in the people’s hands. So who are they, and how do they live alongside their animals? I hope these photographs from MA Ambapur kiln near Ahmedabad will help show how these two societies live together.
Itinerant brick kiln workers use WhatsApp to stay in touch.
Donkey owner-drivers working in the brick kilns of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are paid every Friday, but receive a lump sum payment at the end of the brick-making season. This allows them to buy Indian-made smartphones costing about 5,000 Rupees each.
Most donkey owners are itinerant and may be away from their home villages for many months at a time. The phones allow them to stay in touch, both with family members, and friends working in other kilns. They’re also a status symbol for the young. Using WhatsApp is cheap and may be a spur to literacy for a largely unschooled workforce.
Madhupur Village near Agra, Uttar Pradesh. Virat (13) who likes to be known as ‘Brad’ with his smartphone. He good-naturedly photographs every move the UK photographer makes.
In the UK animal traction and haulage are things of the past – relegated to the heritage industry. In India draft animals play a key role in the modern economy. Aside from their use in agriculture, donkeys and mules are essential to the construction industry. The livelihoods of many thousands of marginalised families are reliant on the welfare and efficient functioning of their teams of donkeys and mules. These photo stories take a look at this industry.
India is experiencing a building boom to cope with its rapid urbanisation. Thousands of concrete-frame high rise blocks, with brick infill, can be seen rising up around Delhi and Mumbai. Almost every one of the millions of bricks involved has been transported by donkey or mule at the brick kilns where they are made. So how does it work?
Donkeys have a blind spot immediately in front of them, but can see right round to their hind legs – though not behind their head.
Simply mounting a wide angle camera on a donkey’s head won’t tell us how a donkey really ‘sees’ the world. But it can tell us something about its working life. Its movements, its height, the rhythm of its work, how it directs its attention and perhaps how it relates to people and other donkeys.
This donkey shot 2,700 photographs over a 45 minute period as it went about its repetitive work at a brick kiln in Gujarat, India. This selection of its work will tell you as much about what I think makes an interesting photograph as it does about donkey consciousness. But that would apply if I had shot them myself.
This is a male horse with his owner Rohtas. They work in a brick kiln. They both live in a house with plastered and painted walls and electric light.
This is a mule with his owner Vedpas. They also work at the brick kiln. The mule also has a nice bedroom, though not quite as nice as the horse’s bedroom.
This is a buffalo with her owner Annar Devi. The buffalo has a bedroom, though its not painted, has no electric light and is open on one side. She has a sacking blanket to keep her warm.
This is a goat, Somehow it seems to have got a plastered and painted bedroom.
These are donkeys with their owner Harish. They all work in a brick kiln with Harish. They sleep outside in the rain. Harish puts their pack saddles on in the evening to keep them warm, and to stop the crows from pecking at the saddle wounds on their backs.
This is the bedroom of Harish’s older brother Mahender – standing on the left. Mahender made a good marriage with a good dowry. The room is plastered and painted and has electricity.
This is the bedroom at the back of the house where their parents (on the right) and Mahender’s mule sleep. It’s made of brick but it’s not plastered or painted and it doesn’t have electricity.
With thanks to everyone at Khesikala and Madhupur, and to TDS India
Gurgaon, a city outside Delhi, India, is undergoing a boom in construction fuelled by the new Metro link and Delhi’s need for young professionals. Almost every brick in the country has been carried by donkeys during its manufacture. In Gurgaon they also work in lieu of cranes.