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What Matters

The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time

Sterling. 2008. 335p. ed. by David Elliot Cohen. photogs. index. ISBN 978-1-4027-5834-8. $27.95. POL SCI

An ice cave on the edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont on Anvers Island,

Cover photo by GARY BRAASCH: An ice cave on the edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont on Anvers Island,

PHOTOGRAPHY EXPOSES TRUTHS, advances the public discourse, and demands action. In What Matters, eighteen important stories by today’s preeminent photojournalists and thinkers poignantly address the big issues of our time—global warming, environmental degradation, AIDS, malaria, the global jihad, genocide in
Darfur, the inequitable distribution of global wealth and others. A “What You Can Do” section offers 193 ways to learn more and get involved.

A four-year-old girl in Ghana walks two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) twice each day to fetch buckets of water for her family.

Back cover inset by BRENT STIRTON: A four-year-old girl in Ghana walks two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) twice each day to fetch buckets of water for her family

Photographed by:

Shahidul AlamThe Associated PressGary BraaschMarcus BleasdaleRaymond DepardonPaul FuscoLauren GreenfieldMaggie HallahanEd KashiGerd LudwigMagnumSusan MeiselasJames NachtweyShehzad NooraniGilles PeressSebastião SalgadoStephanie SinclairBrent StirtonTom StoddartAnthony SuauStephen Voss

SATHI’S FACE is covered with carbon dust from recycled batteries. She is eight years old and works in a battery recycling factory in Korar Ghat, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

SATHI’S FACE is covered with carbon dust from recycled batteries. She is eight years old and works in a battery recycling factory in Korar Ghat, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. © Shehzad Noorani/Drik/Majority World

Commentary by:

Omer Bartov • Judith Bruce • Awa Marie Coll-Seck • Richard Covington • Elizabeth C. Economy • Helen Epstein • Fawaz A. Gerges • Peter H. Gleick • Gary Kamiya • Paul Knox • David R. Marples • Douglas S. Massey • Bill McKibben • Samantha Power • John Prendergast • Jeffrey D. Sachs • Juliet B. Schor •
Michael Watts

A MEMORIAL to the 1994 Rwanda genocide at the Church of Ntarama, in Kigali Province. Photograph by Raymond Depardon

A MEMORIAL to the 1994 Rwanda genocide at the Church of Ntarama, in Kigali Province. © Raymond Depardon

What Matters—an audacious undertaking by best-selling editor and author David Elliot Cohen—challenges us to consider how socially conscious photography can spark public discourse, spur reform, and shift the way we think. For 150 years, photographs have not only documented human events, but also changed their course—from Jacob Riis’s exposé of brutal New York tenements to Lewis Hine’s child labor investigations to snapshots of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. In this vein, What Matters presents eighteen powerful stories by this generation’s foremost photojournalists. These stories cover essential issues confronting us and our planet: from climate change and environmental degradation to global jihad, AIDS, and genocide in Darfur to the consequences of the Iraq war, oil addiction, and the inequitable distribution of global wealth. The pictures in What Matters are personal and specific, but still convey universal concepts. These images are rendered even more compelling by trenchant commentary. Cohen asked the foremost writers, thinkers, and experts in their fields to elucidate issues raised by the photographs.

A WOMAN TAKEN to an emergency feeding center in Somalia established by the Irish charity CONCERN waits for food and medical attention. Photography by James Nachtwey.

A WOMAN TAKEN to an emergency feeding center in Somalia established by the Irish charity CONCERN waits for food and medical attention. © James Nachtwey.

Some stories in What Matters will make you cry; others will make you angry; and that is the intent. What Matters is meant to inspire action. And to facilitate that action, the book includes an extensive “What You Can Do” section——a menu of resources, web links, and effective actions you can take now.

A PIPELINE carrying drinking water to more prosperous districts of India’s largest city, Mumbai (population 20 million), passes through the shantytown of Mahim, where it serves as an impromptu thoroughfare. Photography by Sebastião Salgado.

A PIPELINE carrying drinking water to more prosperous districts of India’s largest city, Mumbai (population 20 million), passes through the shantytown of Mahim, where it serves as an impromptu thoroughfare. © Sebastião Salgado.

Cohen hopes What Matters will move people to take positive steps——no matter how small——that will help change the world. As he says in his introduction, the contributors’ work is so compelling that “if we show it to you, you will react with outrage and create an uproar.” If, says Cohen, you look at these stories and think, “What’s the use? The world is irredeemably screwed up,” we should remember that, historically, outraged citizens have gotten results. “We did actually abolish slavery and child labor in the US; we abolished apartheid in South Africa; we defeated the Nazis; we pulled out of Vietnam. As the saying goes, ‘All great social change seems impossible until it is inevitable.’ ”

PHILANTHROPIST Abdul Sattar Edhi with a few of the many thousands of children he has helped. Shahidul Alam

PHILANTHROPIST Abdul Sattar Edhi with a few of the many thousands of children he has helped. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

– Michael Zajakowski, Chicago Tribune

TRANS AMADI SLAUGHTER is the largest slaughterhouse in the Niger Delta. Workers kill thousands of animals a day, roast them over burning tires and prepare the meat for sale throughout the delta. Fish was traditionally the main source of protein here, but fish stocks have dwindled due to overfishing and oil pollution. Ed Kashi

TRANS AMADI SLAUGHTER is the largest slaughterhouse in the Niger Delta. Workers kill thousands of animals a day, roast them over burning tires and prepare the meat for sale throughout the delta. Fish was traditionally the main source of protein here, but fish stocks have dwindled due to overfishing and oil pollution. © Ed Kashi

A. Newspapers and Online

1. Hard to see, impossible to turn away – Issues and images combine in ‘What Matters,’ a powerful and passionate new book
“Great documentary photojournalism, squeezed out of mainstream newspapers and magazines in an age of shrinking column inches, has had a hard time gaining traction in other venues… But nobody has told the 18 photographers in “What Matters: The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time.” These are photo essays by some of today’s best photojournalists following the great tradition begun over a hundred years ago with the exposés of New York tenement life by Jacob Riis. Through the doggedness of these photographers—who are clearly committed to stirring us out of complacency—all the power and passion of the medium is evident in this book… Some of the pieces will break your heart, some will anger you. All will make you think. To channel your thoughts and feelings into action, the book ends with an appendix “What You Can Do,” offering hundreds of ways to be a part of the solution to these problems.”

Chicago Tribune Book Review, 2 page spread

2. “Must viewing.”

San Francisco Chronicle, 2 page story

3. Photographs that Can Change the World
“David Elliot Cohen’s new book, What Matters, which hits bookshelves today, is a collection of photo essays that explore 18 distinct social issues that define our time. Shot by the world’s most renowned photojournalists, including James Nachtwey, who has contributed to V.F., the photographs explore topics ranging from genocide and global warming to oil addiction and consumerism, offering a raw view into the problems that plague our world. Each photo essay is accompanied by written commentary from an expert on the issue. Cohen hopes the book will inspire people to work toward resolving these problems. “Great photojournalism changed the world in the past, and it can do it again,” Cohen says. “I want people to see these images, get angry, and act on that anger. Compelling images by the world’s best photojournalists is the most persuasive language I have to achieve this.”
vanityfair.com

4. Book Review: What Matters

“Changing the world might sound like a lofty goal for a photo book, but that’s what the new book, What Matters, The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of our Time edited by David Elliot Cohen (Sterling Publishing, $28, 2008), hopes to do. Citing the power of socially conscious photographers over the last 150 years, the beautiful collection of 18 photo-essays by some of today’s prominent photojournalists hopes to “inform pre-election debate and inspire direct action.” Regardless of what side of the political fence you sit on, this collection of heartbreaking and powerful stories and images is guaranteed to get you thinking.”
Popular Photography

5. What Matters: The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time.
Those doubting the power of photojournalism to sway opinion and encourage action would do well to spend some time with this book. In 18 stories, each made up of photos by leading photojournalists and elucidated by short essays by public intellectuals and journalists, this book explores environmental devastation, war, disease, and the ravages of both poverty and great wealth. The photos are specific and personal in their subject matter and demonstrate how great photography can illuminate the universal by depicting the specific. Cohen has a goal beyond simply showcasing terrific photography. In his thoughtful introduction, he makes explicit his aim to connect the work compiled here with the great tradition of muckraking photography that helped to change conditions in New York tenements and to end child labor at the turn of the last century. A terrific concluding chapter directs readers to specific actions they can take if they are moved to do so by the book’s images, and it’s hard to imagine the reader who would not be moved. Highly recommended for public libraries and academic libraries supporting journalism and/or photography curricula. (a starred review in Library Journal generally means the book will be acquired by many libraries.)

Library Journal

6. First of five part series about What Matters
(The first installment drew 500,000 page views)
CNN.com

7. Second part in CNN. Black Dust by Shehzad Noorani

September 28, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues, Photography, Photojournalism, Photojournalism issues, reviews, World | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘The best years of my life’. Or, remittances earned

rahnuma ahmed

Amar jiboner sreshtho shomoita dilam. Amar joubon amake ke phirie debe?
(I gave the best years of my life. Who will give me back my youth?)

A Bangladeshi migrant. Paris, 2002.

Bangladeshi workers resting in between shifts in Maldives. © Shahidul Alam / Drik / Majority World

‘The best years’. Being treated like an animal

‘I slept many nights beside the road and spent many days without food. It was a painful life. I could not explain that life,’ these are the words of a Bangladeshi migrant worker who had gone to Saudi Arabia. He was speaking to Human Rights Watch researchers who spoke to other Bangladeshi migrants, also to migrants from India and the Philippines (Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia, 2004).

But not all migrant workers were abused, not all were exploited to their bones. Somewhere else, I read about Manzur Ali who first went to Saudi Arabia in 1982, and later again in 1999. His first employment is the stuff that migrants’ dreams are made of. His Saudi employer bore the entire cost of his travels. He worked in a construction firm as a carpenter. His monthly earnings, including overtime, reached twelve to thirteen hundred riyals, in our currency, 21,000 to 23,000 taka. Food, housing and medical facilities were provided; also, a fifty-day annual leave. Manzur worked for three years, returned home and started a business. His second visit was disastrous. He had to pay a recruiting agency 80,000 taka. His monthly wages were not the promised 9,500 riyal, but only 650. He had to work three times harder than before, if he failed, he was physically tortured. Since his employer did not give him his resident permit, he was not allowed to go outside the firm premises. Eleven months later he escaped to Riyadh, and to a long spell of illegal work. Caught by the police, he was arrested and deported to Bangladesh six years later.

Contrary to common expectations, migrants who enter legally and comply with government regulations can also be cheated, overworked, underpaid, or not paid at all. Bangladeshi workers repairing underground water pipes in Tabuk municipality, Saudi Arabia, told HRW researchers that they were forced to work ten to twelve hours a day, sometimes throughout the night and without any overtime pay. They were not paid salaries for the first two months, and had to borrow money from other Bangladeshis to buy food. Another migrant, who worked as a butcher in Dammam, was forced to leave the kingdom by his employer with six months of his salary unpaid.

Women migrant workers spoke of torturous working conditions. Hundreds of low-paid Asian women, who worked as cleaners in Jeddah hospitals, had to work twelve-hour days, without any food or break. After work, they were confined to locked dormitories. Skilled seamstresses from the Philippines, who worked twelve-hour days, spoke of not being permitted to leave their workplace, of being forbidden to speak more than a few words to customers and the Saudi owners. A Filipina, who worked for a family in Dammam, was raped by her male employer. She spoke of her trauma, and how she was constantly on the lookout for the front gate to be unguarded, so that she could escape.

But not only cruel employers and unscrupulous middlemen are to be blamed. Flawed immigration policies and gaps in labour laws expose migrants to trafficking, forced labour and other terrible abuses. A twenty-three-year-old Indian tailor, while in police custody, was beaten for two days. On the third day, his interrogators gave him two pages handwritten in Arabic. He was to sign his name three times on each page. He said, ‘I was so afraid that I did not dare ask what the papers were, or what was written on them.’

What words do South and East Asian migrant workers use to describe their migrant situation? I kept coming across metaphors of slavery, of being treated like animals. By their employers, by recruiting agents, and also by embassy officials. A Bangladeshi migrant working in a textile factory in Jordan detailed the physical and verbal abuse doled out by his employer: ‘severe beating, verbal insults, threats of deportation and forcing them to sign blank documents’. He said, five people, including two women, had been beaten over the past two days, and added, ‘They want us to work like slaves.’ Widyaningsih, a 35-year-old Indonesian woman, a would-be migrant to Malaysia, described the conditions she had faced while being recruited in Indonesia: The broker brought me to the training centre in Tanjung Pinang by ship…. they deducted my full wages for four-and-a-half months [to repay what they said were up-front costs]…. I had to spend two months at the training centre. We were never allowed outside, there was a very high gate and it was always locked. They treated us poorly, always calling us names like ‘dog’. And a Bangladeshi woman, a migrant worker who had recently returned from the Middle East, said, Bangladeshi embassy officials ignore us, they don’t even recognise our difficulties, ‘They treat us like animals.’

Objectifying migrant workers

At home, in circles of power, migration is discussed in two basic ways: in a language of absence or ‘lack’, and in the language of remittances. Never in the language of suffering, or pain, or dreams crushed, or accountability.

Men and women who go abroad as migrant workers are described in terms of what they lack, they lack education, they lack skills (at most, they are described as ‘semi’-skilled). There are deeper connotations, they seem to be lacking culture, lacking the best of what the nation has to offer. They have only their labour, and that too, menial. Their presence, and what they bring back as personal belongings (blankets, TVs, camera, mobile phones, photo frames), packed tightly in mounds of carefully sewn luggage often give rise to patronising looks of their better-off compatriots at airports.

But what migrant workers send back are not sources of embarrassment. Remittances belong to the nation. I watch experts speak at seminars and conferences with a self-congratulatory air. Migrant remittances, they say, are the ‘major source of national revenue’, they enhance ‘national economic growth’, Bangladesh is ‘a notable exporter of manpower’. I see experts look prophetically into the future, ‘From its current position Bangladesh has to increase its remittance income by 25 per cent year on year to generate remittances income of approximately US$ 30 billion in 2015.’

Sometimes, I hear them sound alarm bells. We get told, ‘The rise in remittance and overseas employment is on the verge of witnessing a downward trend’, ‘The government target of reaching fresh overseas employments to nine lakh this year is also likely to fall flat’, ‘We can’t feel the blow of the bans or cut in overseas employment immediately, but after two to three years remittance will definitely dry up if no major changes take place’.

Migrant men and women are objects to the nation’s goals. They are never spoken of as heroes.

Family ties

I sit and chat with Shireen Huq, an old friend, whose mother, poet Jaheda Khanum, passed away this March. I prod her gently, what was it khala used to say about class differences between migrant families and our families?

Well, says Shireen, she would look at her Dhanmondi neighbours, at their expatriate sons and daughters, those who are well-educated, in professions, who live abroad and insist that the family home in Dhanmondi be turned over to developers, because they need the money there. Actually someone we know quite well, he has never sent anything, in twenty long years, not a single cent. Not for his mother, or his brother, or his sister. But as I was saying, someone amma knew well, immediately after she died her children insisted that the land be sold, they need the dollars abroad. But another neighbour, her children exerted tremendous pressure on her, but can you imagine, she was still living, they said to her, go and live in a small flat. We need the dollars now. I mean, they didn’t wait, they couldn’t wait for her to pass away. And amma, she would compare them with young migrant men she met in New York, she went there once, she would say, they turn their blood into water to send money to their families in Bangladesh. And then she would say, people of our class are paying for their economic and social mobility.

As I write, I grieve for Bahraini fashion designer Sana Al Jalahma, murdered in August 2006, and Mizan Noor Al Rahman Ayoub Mia, who worked for the family, and was accused and convicted of the murder. Mizan was executed by a firing squad early June 4, 2008.

Two lives lost. Lives, and losses, that are difficult to explain.

First published in New Age on Monday 9th June 2008

Film on migration: In Search of the shade of the Banyan Tree

Website on migration:Migrant Soul

June 9, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , | 4 Comments