[Breath Of Life] In Memory Of

On the­ stuffy journey back to Phnom Penh this morning, I found my mind drifting off, my way of whiling away the time in this really poorly ventilated bus. 

It’s been 15 days in Cambodia. Today marks the end of my third visit here to work on an ongoing photo-documentary series about maternal and neonatal heath (and healthcare) in the country. What a ride it has been (has it really been 16 months? Really?)!! 

Just like many other documentary photographers, this project kind of fell into my lap. Or maybe not entirely. In 2012, I was very fortunate to have been selected to be part of the 8th Angkor Photo Workshop. At 24, very new to the scene, hardly any portfolio or experience to show, I can only thank my lucky stars for that golden opportunity. It was my virgin attendance at a photo workshop, and I was obviously very excited. Few weeks before going to Cambodia, I began researching for interesting stories I could take on, but was very discouraged as I ploughed through the web and found nothing. Was I really gonna show up without an idea? 

Many sleepless nights later, I found –that- perfect project. It was gonna be tricky navigating and negotiating for access to hospitals and villages to see how life really was like for pregnant women, the delivery process and also the health complications that faced both neonates and mothers. But I was convinced that the more difficult the project is, the more valuable the output would be. Naïve– maybe? 

 ***

I remember watching my first delivery in Bangladesh in mid 2012. The hospital in Nilphamari, north of Bangladesh, smelled of death. The walls were grimy, there were patients sprawled on the floor due to the shortage of beds, the air was stale. Upon stepping in, I felt sick. 

I stood at the far corner in the delivery room, turning my eyes away whenever I felt a knot in my stomach. I was really afraid. I kept looking at my watch; it took forever. So when the baby finally came out, I was relieved. 

I walked out of the room and the patients’ family looked over at me, waiting for my assessment. I thought all was fine, so I gave an ‘okay’ sign and smiled. Immediately after, the hospital plunged into complete darkness. It was quite a common occurrence, these blackouts. Then, I saw the nurses rush the baby over to another room, guided by the weak beam from their handphone lights. I scrambled after. They were trying to operate the oxygen tank to resuscitate the baby, but, there was no electricity and they had not switched on the generator yet. I didn’t know what to do; I did not want to get in anybody’s way so I stood rooted to the ground. Minutes later, the junior doctor glanced at me and said coldy, “birth asphyxia”. It was a strange turn of events. I teared in my sleep that night. 

 ** 

On my second trip to Cambodia in Sept 2013, I was granted access to a couple of health centres in Kampong Cham, Stung Treng and Kratie province. In our 17 days there, we only managed to watch 1 delivery. One. But that is another story for another time. 

However, while watching that one delivery, I was reminded of a distant memory. Not of that episode in Bangladesh. But, of my secondary school E-Maths teacher who died from child birth. When news of it broke to me, I was baffled. I was in Junior College at that time, and was holding my plate of roti prata in the canteen. “You mean people will die of child birth one meh?”, I recalled thinking to myself. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. But watching this particular childbirth and seeing the woman wince in pain, it hit home hard. That maternal, and neonatal, mortality is very real, especially so in developing country where access and education is limited.

I don’t think Mrs Ng had a very good impression of me. Not with those poor scores and stinky attitude. But these days, I think of her alot. She’s one of my motivations when it gets awfully lonely and trying to carry on doing this project. I hope she’s finally proud of me.


[Breath of Life] God’s miracle.

The woman was severely anaemic and hemorrhaging badly. The doctors hesitated for awhile before deciding to go ahead - it was a risk they were ready to take. It did seem like it was all or nothing at all. They slit her swiftly, took the baby out, but it never made a sound. It was pale, slightly greyish. It looked like death. And for the next hour, I stood outside the theatre with the team of medical staff who were trying to resuscitate the baby. It was intense. They were trying all means - inserting oxygen tubes, tapping and massaging the limbs and chest, sucking out liquid from the nose and throat. As an observer standing by the side, it felt like I was watching a foreign film with no subtitles. I obviously did not know what they were saying, and had absolutely no clue whether the baby was getting better until the nurse placed the stethoscope to my ear and I heard a faint heartbeat. This is God’s little miracle. 


Today, I have new found respect for all the medical staff toiling endlessly and for making it count. I sure hope the baby and mother will pull through the next few crucial weeks and be in the pink of health again. This, really, also is an affirmation for me to keep working on this series, not only to bring more attention to healthcare and the need for better facilities, more training and education in Cambodia, but also to celebrate these medical personnels whom I’ve come to befriend and think deserve better.


Kaka goes home.

I still remember the first time I met Koka. It was when the band was invited to play at the Global Social Innovation Forum on 20 Oct 2012. Koka was tasked to replace Jahangir, our tabla maestro, who returned back to Bangladesh after a long spell of being in limbo in Singapore, while waiting for his workman injury compensation. “This guy is tabla master”, said Jahangir rather excitedly when he first introduced Koka to me by name. I thought to myself, “wow, if our tabla maestro can recognise someone else as a master, this guy must be really good.” And he sure was. 

 That said, Koka not only won me over with how musically inclined he is (he can play many instruments and is a damn fine singer, I hasten to add!), but also with his personality. He is very thoughtful. When we were setting up for our drama production in Little India earlier last year, he hurried over to help me with my load. He told me I should be very careful lest I hurt my back. He is a funny guy too. He tells me lots of jokes, and shares stories about life in Bangladesh. Above all, he is a romantic. He speaks ever-so-fondly of his lover, Shona, whom for the longest time I mistook as his legally-wedded wife. Well, only because that’s what he calls her - “my wife”. It was only after 15 months of friendship, today, that I realised that they’re not married. Only when he mentioned something about having a small, private ceremony on 1st February. “Huh, then why you always say she’s your wife?”, I questioned. “We not married, but in my heart… she will always be my wife.”, he swiftly responded. I melted. 

 So today, my dear friend is going back. I can’t help but feel sad, of course. No more random dim sum dinners, no more conversations about religion or love, no more music gigs with him. He’ll be sorely missed, but I’m hopeful, that our paths will cross again. 

 Barlo tako, amar bondhu.


Hello 2014

We’re already twenty days into 2014. ‘tis too fast to be true, how did three weeks just zip by like that? 2013 flew by too, really. That said, it was a rad year with so many opportunities from everywhere (thank you lucky stars!!!). I’ve been blessed by far and I will continue to work hard to tell the stories of people who deserve to be told. The marginalized; the underprivileged; those that have fallen through the cracks. The inspiring ones; the dreamers; and of course the hopefuls. Going to be working doubly hard on “1 out of 33” this year, follow up on my work with the migrant men in Singapore, give more school talks and doing other interesting commissioned projects. 

 On another note, just two days ago, I was engaged to photograph for Mr Lee Khoon Choy’s 90th birthday. Mr Lee is one of the stalwarts of Singapore; one of the few PAP old guards left here. Do some research online and you will find out that he’s a prolific writer (still writing even at 90!), led an illustrious political career, a master of calligraphy and painting, and a linguist - he can even speak Arabic. A man of calibre, for sure. But what was heartwarming was to hear the speeches and sharing from his children - they spoke of how wonderful a father he is.

I think when we think of politicians, we often tend to see them in one mould, typecasted as public figures and nothing more. That evening was a sobering reminder that whatever our political inclinations, religion, nationality, caste/class; we’re all father, son, wife, daughter, friend to someone out there. And this is why I love my job (can I even call it a job?) because it teaches me important lessons in life. Like this. 

 Blessed 2014, y’all.


Rista and big dreams.

Meet Rista.

She worked in Singapore as a domestic helper for ten years before going back home to set up a library in her house for the village kids. Yiqin, Grace and I went to Madiun, East Java for 5 days to follow the story of Rista and her library project. ‘Ceria’ was officially opened by Rista and Noviyanti on the fourth of July, 2013, in the presence of friends and relatives. It was a very proud moment for Ristanti to see this dream come to fruition with the love and support of different ones. We were very privileged to be able to document her journey in setting up the library. For me, she’s a living example and inspiration of how dreams and small actions can go a long way not only in self-gratification but also making a change in your own community.

We are well aware that stories like Rista’s are rather rare in Singapore, and not representative of the other foreign domestic workers here. And that much credit has to be given to the good working relationship and trust she shares with her employer. But let’s remember this is also a story of how Rista stood up to the occasion and opportunities presented to her, her resilience and heart of gold, and all these definitely merits recognition, cheer and celebration. To some it may seem like a far-fetched dream, but to others, this is a beautiful story of small actions and the power of change.


Jahangir

Starting Beyond the Border, Behind the Men (an art platform to share stories of the migrant workers in our midst) has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in years. It has opened my eyes to a whole new world. I am truly humbled. So we made the trip to Bangladesh again in Sep ‘13. I was going to Bangladesh to be part of a conference on child marriage organized by Plan Bangladesh, and thought that I should pay Jahangir a visit since I was gonna be there and because his wife, Shumi, had just given birth.

*** 

So, I’ve known Jahangir for slightly under two years. I first met him at Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)’s soup kitchen in Rowell Road for the Special Pass men. Although Jahangir was one of the many recipients of the soup kitchen, we got along quickly because he was such a cheeky fella. One evening, he invited me to their nightly music sessions at Dibashram, a migrant recreational space just above the soup kitchen project, and boy was I charmed. Not only by the buoyant and rousing atmosphere with the guys singing and clapping along, but also as Dani had most aptly articulated, how Jahangir had a “special look while playing the tablas. He looks straight at you in the eyes, daring you to feel, let loose and sway.” I was won over. 

 But behind this tabla master facade lay another side of him that not many knew of. That Jahangir - this hopeless romantic -was pining for his wife, Shumi, whom he had not met in awhile since their secret marriage that took place in Dhaka months back.

Fast forward a year later, Jahangir is finally home. He got married and had a proper ceremony with his family and relatives gracing it. We were invited too! And in our third visit to Bangladesh, we also found out he started his own micro-finance business in the village. He offers small loans to people to pay bills or start up their own businesses and collects a 10% interest in return. This is definitely a far cry from when I first met him - a disempowered and unmotivated guy to someone who currently has his own company and is the boss of sorts.

And of course, he is now blessed with this little bundle of joy, Rup. Shumi asked me to think of a Christian name for baby Rup. We decided on Sean. So yes, presenting to you, Rup Sean. Made a pinky promise with Shumi that I’d be back next September again for his first birthday party. I sure am looking forward to that.


Happily ever after?

After four years of long distance romancing over the phone, parental disapproval and a secret marriage in Dhaka, Jahangir and Shumi are now officially husband and wife. We flew in to Dhaka and made our way down to Manikganj for their wedding ceremony some two days later. The wedding they had been waiting for. 

 For me, it was a very special moment as well. From the first time we got acquainted in Singapore, Jahangir shared that he had a lady waiting for him back home. Someone special he would speak with over the phone almost every night. Someone he couldn’t wait to go home to, to be with. But his being on a Special Pass meant that he had to wait in Singapore for an unknown period of time. For as long as it took for the Ministry of Manpower to settle his case and award him the deserved compensation for his workplace injury. This also translated into him not knowing when he would be able to return home. Neither did Shumi. It took a painful seven months of being in limbo, before he was finally allowed to return home. 

 The wedding was a very simple affair. A trip to the bazaar in the morning to get the freshest ingredients for lunch, relatives arriving with metal pots and cooking ware as wedding gifts; kids dancing and playing with the music system; an impromptu arm wrestling competition between the Singapore and Bangladeshi contingent; eating the best Briyani in town courtesy of Shumi’s dad; a short ceremony where relatives, and us too, took turns to bless the couple; and a night of song and merry making. We all had good fun. 

Definitely a moment to remember. Jahangir is still pretty much the same old joker from back then. The playful fella I remember him to be. Yet other than the few pounds he had lost, I can’t help but notice something slightly different about him. I can’t quite place a finger to it. Maybe it was the way he teased Shumi in the most childlike manner? Or those moments when he would throw cheeky glances at her just to get her attention? Whatever it is, I already imagine him to be a great father.



Going back.

Going back, nine months later, to a familiar environment and seeing the same faces stirred something inside of me. From hearing the loud exclamation of “Barnisshh” (that’s my name being mangled, by the way) in the middle of the night when we first arrived, to the incessant teasing and jokes bounced around, to the news of “my wife…baby have”, and all the ‘asho’s (come), ‘boshan’s (sit) and ‘kao’s (eat)..you can say that there were lots of love and joy in the house, existing friendships cemented, new friendships forged and a little humble reminder of why I do what I do. We had a very busy five days in Bangladesh conducting interviews, getting footages, preparing for Jahangir and Shumi’s wedding, and…networking/socializing/house-visiting, which also meant a lot of eating. It feels a little surreal to be back home to all the creature comforts - hot shower, nice bed, clean home - but those nights of cockroach spotting, talks of jinn (evil spirit) sighting, fighting the cold at night with an extremely thin blanket, cobra charmer whose ruse we quickly saw through, and the hospitality and love will never be forgotten.

Also very blessed to have worked with such a wonderful crew - my good friend and fixer, Rasel, whom I knew back when he was still a Special Pass holder in Singapore; Habib, our translator and great guy, who got along really well with us and the family too; my buddy Wilson (aka modu), who joined us and charmed many xiao mei meis (small girls); and of course, Yiqin, who has been working alongside me in this migrant worker cause.


My Guardian

It must have been some twenty years already since she left home, and well, found another home. She has two daughters, who coincidentally are the same age as my younger brother and I. It must have been very difficult for her to leave them behind at such a tender age. And I know, it will definitely be very difficult for us too, when she finally returns home where she belongs.


Let’s go.

Overseas assignments thrill me. I love meeting new people and exploring places. I also like that I live life on the edge, very often. I don’t want to romanticize danger though. I think it is more about taking calculated (though still very much unpredictable) risks. Because I believe, if you push and dig deeper, if you step out of your comfort zone, you will be rewarded with a whole new world to explore. 

 There were a couple of times during our trip to the South islands of Thailand when we had to make decisions. Should we take the 4 hour long tail boat out to sea, so that we can go together with the Moken people, or opt for the easier and faster route via speed boat? What about rowing out to sea before sunset just to grab a shot, knowing that it would be really dark and difficult to navigate once the sun sets.? Do I go closer to the kids frolicking in the sea and risk my camera getting wet? Being invited to a home with a bunch of inebriated women – stay or go? 

 But, I trust my intuition. It has never failed me, and hopefully would never. So decisions are made pretty dark quickly, and usually it’s “COME ON, LET’S GO!” I’m gungho like that :P 

 This trip to the South has been too damn rad, anyway. It’s been a week since we’ve completed the shoot, but I find myself looking at the photos a lot. And harbouring thoughts of returning soon.


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