Daughters of Bangladesh: why who is behind the lens matters

by Dalia Abu Yassien

The debate around sweatshops, ethical fashion, and cycles of poverty in developing countries is common currency in contemporary liberal dialogue. But what does giving young girls in Bangladesh film workshops have do with it?

As part of my internship with Lensational, I helped to organise the first London screening of Ami, Amar Ma, a documentary made by five young daughters of Bangladeshi garment workers in Dhaka, facilitated by Lensational and docu producer Rainbow Collective. The girls are part of a local media training scheme offering children a route into further education. Their brilliant, innocent visuals, shared with a packed audience at the Frontline Club, were a light-hearted depiction of difficult young lives layered with responsibilities — and hopes.

Photography is part of the age-old human endeavour of record-keeping, documentation and history-making — and it is no secret that these fields have been historically dominated by men. Who is behind the lens matters, now more than ever in a world where the products we use daily can be traced across hegemonic supply chains, and often to exploited female workers — mothers and daughters like the ones in the film.

“Photography is part of the age-old human endeavour of record-keeping, documentation and history-making — and it is no secret that these fields have been historically dominated by men”
The girls cast and shot their friends to create a film about their own lives in the slums of Dhaka

Ami, Amar, Ma is a celebration of creative flair and subjectivities within marginalised populations. It is also, however, an acknowledgement of the challenge of mobilising resources in an international development industry, where creative empowerment takes second place to top-down and prescribed development schemes.

Lensational’s flagship video-journalism project takes us into the heart of the daily lives of five daughters, aged 7 to 15, of Bangladeshi garment factory workers. The girls, using film techniques taught in a specialised workshop, unspool and design the fabric of their storylines, select the angles and the focus of their shots, and finally stitch the finished scenes together, on their own terms and under their own direction.

The short films do not explicitly address damaging work environments or tiring employment conditions. We do not see factory interiors, or glossy clothes headed towards Western clothing racks. Instead, we experience the very intimate yet very different motions of five girls’ daily lives: it is the shot of the hands pushing a piece of material through a greedy sewing machine at home, the camaraderie of one young girl taking care of her younger brother as her sick mother (deafened by a factory machine) rests, of a mother and daughter twisting their fingers around braided belts to make ends meet, that reflect the uncompromising manner in which their lives are molded by the garment industry they are dependent on.

“The short films do not explicitly address damaging work environments or tiring employment conditions. We do not see factory interiors, or glossy clothes headed towards Western clothing racks.”

In the panel debate following the screening, we heard from Bonnie Chiu, Lensational’s founder, Max Houghton, convener of one of the country’s top photo-journalism courses, and Richard Yorke, partner at Rainbow Collective. Analysing female underrepresentation through different lenses, they re-established Lensational’s fundamental recognition of the linkages between creative empowerment and unjust supply chain practices/ economic freedom. Bonnie highlighted ‘Some narratives get lost within the debate around global supply chains.’ We should avoid replacing one type of imposing narrative with another, and this is why it is crucial that female representation is a key aspect of brand and industry change in garment factory conditions.

The film is made more poignant by the fact that there remain solid glass ceilings to equal female representation in photo-journalism not just for those in less well-off countries.

The panel discussion blurred questions about the participation of marginalised women in developing countries into explorations about the demand for more photographic and journalistic diversity among high-profile firms and brands globally. This is spurred by incidents like Nikon only this month choosing 32 photographers to promote a camera, all of whom were men. The panel was thus a reminder of the need for a joined-together global movement conscious of the power that it really wields: Max Houghton showcases the potential of this in her new book featuring ‘Firecracker’ female photographers.

Ansel Adams, late American photographer and environmentalist, has said that ‘there are always two people in every photograph: the photographer and the viewer.’ It’s up to us to empower the would-be photographers by becoming more conscious viewers: we must seek out and support such initiatives; and we must challenge, share and expand the artistic spaces we exist in so that others can freely inhabit them.

Join the conversation and meet the daughters of Bangladesh. Book your tickets to the upcoming Asia House screening of Ami, Amar, Ma here