Saturday, October 24, 2009

So, I've finally realised that the colour setting for Photoshop don't match Mozilla -- something about plugins that I don't quite get -- and I'm too tired to do research online now to fix this. This is just a convoluted way of me explaining why the reds and greens may look washed out.

I may have neglected to mention that both my camera and lens has miraculously been brought back to life after two weeks in the dehumidifier room. This was not a case of Jess freaking out, assuming the worse case scenario, and then demanding sympathy. My camera was, for a brief period of time, a water receptacle -- my doomsday rants were only to be expected.

I know I'm not the most regular photographer these days, but during those two weeks when I believed myself to be camera-less, I felt an unexpected sense of loss. Not in the financial or material sense, but something akin to losing an opportunity or a chance.

On to the photos.

Comilla Rest Stop

A rest stop en route to Chittagong, just before Comilla. They told me around a hundred buses full of hungry passengers stop here a night -- that's a lot of rice and parathas.

Gas Station

Early morning in Bandarban. The dogs there are a lot healthier than the ones in Dhaka.

Lantern Workshop

A makeshift workshop where a group of young boys made paper lanterns for the upcoming Purnima festival.


I can't remember her name, but we called her Didi -- the local term for "sister". She runs a small shop at the top of the hill in Nilachol, selling snacks and cigarettes to the constant stream of tourists who come to ooh and aah at the scenery. I spent many, many joyfully drunk hours here, with my legs curled under me on the bamboo platform.

Bandarban by Moonlight




I had to scramble down an impossibly steep, muddy slope to get to where she was. By the time I reached the bottom, she was done with her chores and waiting for me to get out of the way so that she could go up.

Anyone who thinks I may have inherited my mother's fitness gene should see me on my hands and knees, struggling to keep up with this girl floated up the slope while carrying two bottles of water. Gravity and friction. I had too much of the first, and none of the latter.

Something died in here

You know your work week is off to a bad start when you step into office and realise that you're going to have to spend most of your day finding out WHAT died and WHERE it died.

On a happier note, winter is on its way. I know this because I woke up four times last night to scratch at mosquito bites. I'm not too sure why bugs come out during winter, but my house is now home to an assortment of grasshoppers, moths and little green (fuckers) bugs that bite.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I found out last night what smells worse than a dead body. As a person who has been to a 3-day old mass grave to see bodies getting dug out, I don't make this assertion lightly.

Came back from work at 11.30 pm last night, exhausted but very, very hungry. I decided to not skip dinner, as I usually would when I'm tired, and gathered up all the energy I had left to whip up something nice. Cabbage? Chopped! Garlic? Smashed! Noodles? Ready to go! Prawns? Sauteed!

Everything was going great. I don't suck at making fried noodles.

I always leave the eggs to the last, right after adding all sauces and letting it simmer for a bit. I fished around the fridge -- great, two eggs left. I'll have to buy more tomorrow.

Ladies and gents, you should've been there to see my face when I broke open the second egg over my almost-ready noodles. Black goo where yellow should have been, seeping into the noodles and making it impossible to rescue what I had been looking forward to eating.

And oh, that smell.

A stench so overpoweringly nauseating that I had to leave the kitchen immediately. Like a mass graves, topped up with a mountain of feces collected from the diarrhea hospital, distilled into a concentrate.

I'm sure if Guiqing had been there we would have managed to laugh at the tragedy of the situation rather than to wallow in it.

Ah well. Thank god for instant noodles. But I'm not sure I want to have eggs again anytime soon.

Friday, October 16, 2009


During dinner with Tanzim tonight, I revisited the topic of Sufia - the only "story" that I had successfully completed here in Bangladesh, way back in 2005.

I explained to him that since my return two years ago, I had been avoiding seeing her again. There was a lot of miscommunication after my return to Singapore, and I feared that she no longer thought kindly of me.

Before I left, I had given her 6,000 takas - the most that I could afford at that time. I had somehow given her the impression that more money was headed her way, and I had been told by my friends in Dhaka that she was upset I had not followed up on my promise - a promise I may have made accidentally by nodding to a sentence I did not understand. Throughout my six months there, she never asked for money.

So I have been back for two years, and I never went to see her. I did see both her and Yasmine, from a rickshaw or a CNG as I passed by the same stretch of road, but never had the guts to visit. But it was important for me to see that she was still there.

While I spoke about her, it was clear to me that this was something that I needed to do. On a whim, I dragged Tanzim along with me as a translator.

When she saw me, her eyes did not widen with surprise, as I had expected. Neither did she did fly in a rage, as I had feared. She got up and came towards me, as if I had been there to see her the day before.

"Yasmine is dead," she said. Tanzim had to translate those words for me, and, momentarily confused, I could not believe what she said.

Yasmine was killed two months ago by a hit-and-run at 5am in the morning along the street she called home. She was brought to the Dhaka Medical Hospital, but it was too late. She is now buried in the same Azimpur graveyard as her brother.

Sazzad, the grandson, is now seven years old and attends a free school down the road. He claims to remember me, but I somehow doubt it.

They brought out the photo album I had given to them before I left.

"You print a new photo of Yasmine for me. And frame it."

It would be the least I could do.

I went back and dug out all I had written about Sufia in 2005. Sufia's story was something my instinct told me to continue, but my head needed to justify it first. I am now so judgmental of photographers who do nothing for their subjects, that I simply could not continue with the work until I figured out what the hell it meant.

And then I realised, that there really wasn't more to it. I want to photograph Sufia not because I have some great moral lesson to share with society, not because I want to raise awareness about her plight or to show how the homeless live. I don't know who will see the pictures, or what I will do with them.

I want to photograph Sufia because I don't want her to disappear. In a city where the homeless are not seen, where you could be here one day and gone the next, I want to make sure that she is immortalised.

I re-read the post I wrote about her in 2005, and came across an anonymous comment I do not remember reading:

But, again, just because you're working in a 'third world' country, which by many has been defined as 'poor' or 'lacking access to resources,' does it always mean people there are discontent and unhappy?

I'm sorry to be harsh, but that is a really stupid question.

When the NTU team came last month, one student had asked me a similar series of questions, all of which were egging me to tell him that he had just arrived in a country where the people are "poor but happy".

What is with this obsession to find a silver lining in the lives of the poor? Is it guilt? Do we feel better about ourselves if we could at least believe that they were happy?

I had told Sufia something similar in 2005. Sure you're poor, but I spent so much time with you and there is so much happiness here. Those rich people passing you on the streets? They don't seem to have as much joy as you do.

Sufia cocked her head to one side with a pitying gaze, and asked me a question I will never forget.

"Who wants to be poor?"

Sufia and Grandson

Sazzad is even more adorable now.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wrapped up

in work.

Today we had to search for picture request -- haors in Sumanganj, the highest peak of Bangladesh, caves in Bandarban, pretty landscape photos to do with climate change, the six seasons of Bangladesh... the list goes on. Calendar season is clearly here.

I like the work if only because it gives me a chance to explore the archives -- something I would have preferred to do at a leisurely pace, but for an organisation that can put together a 50-photo exhibition in one week, time is not something we're used to.

The news photo agency which had previously existed outside of the organisation structure is now being (suddenly) incorporated into my department. Which means I now effectively run both a photo agency that does news, stock and editorial. In over my head? You don't say. But Joo once said, "Better me than anyone else." -- this applies in this situation because, well, there really isn't anyone else.

I had really enjoyed Brenda Ann Kenneally's photo essay on the Lens Blog, if only because this was one photographer who gave as much as she took. I have grown extremely uncomfortable with photography that does nothing for the subject, other than to put their faces on the walls of galleries and on the covers of pretty brochures and in heavy coffee table books.

Special Branch came today to check up on me for my visa extension application. I had not anticipated how angry it would make me to have to be nice and cordial to a man that was not only rude and arrogant, but corrupt. The sudden visits are thinly-disguised trips to collect bribe money, without which the application process is made very painful (ie having to submit the same letter over and over) till we wise up to the idea that he isn't going away without a little sumthing sumthing in his pocket.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Dear October,

I'm afraid I have to be blunt. You have been a spectacular pain-in-the-ass so far, and god help you if you don't change your ways soon. I know shit happens, but the broken air-conditioner today was the last straw. I mean, how much more of this can we take?

I'll play fair. I won't mention the earthquakes and typhoons if you lower the targeted accident-count. So far we've had to put up with crap such as high fever, a bad arm, one twisted ankle, five stitches, a bad tumble down a hill, jaundice, a motorbike crash, and, oh, you just had to play dirty and throw in diarrhea for good measure, didn't you?

But you know what hurts the most? My water-logged, water-filled, water-everything camera. I can only hope you will one day find out how it feels to see water pouring out of your camera - your two-year-old, bought-with-hard-earned-money camera. You fucking bastard.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

It seems I aimed a little too low in wishing for a pair of steel pants.