Jon Collins has traveled to South Asia on a number of occasions, each time experiencing the sights, smells and sounds of the region differently. In this two-part photo essay series, he describes his various journeys candidly, beginning with an account of his time in Bangladesh. There, as a 21-year old student, he researched how environmental change could impact rural or isolated minorities in the developing world, and challenged himself to consider his own impact on the village he was living in.
Jon shares: “The interaction [with locals] in developing countries is definitely more fragile, as without question, you are a much wealthier foreigner (even if traveling on a budget) and possess an ability to come and go as you choose…[Yes], travel is about connecting with a foreign place and thriving in a scenario that is new and exciting, [but] that doesn’t mean you can disregard the fragility of the interaction…”
Read on for more of Jon’s insights and observations, and be sure to check out Part II of this series.
You’ve spent significant amounts of time in South Asia – Bangladesh, India and Nepal. What were your expectations before you ever stepped foot in the region, and how were those met or subverted?
It is overwhelming to see an area on a map and to think that 1.5 billion people could fit in such a space. I was expecting my immersion in South Asia to be exactly as it was, like getting caught in a rough wave and being taken along and thrown around, before eventually accepting the rhythm and hoping it takes you in the right direction. You know in those first moments as you walk from air-conditioned walls and are approached by a thick, humid air; with taxi and rickshaw drivers in your face, and an array of curious stares. You know as you walk from guesthouse to guesthouse, with leaking taps and hollow walls, with prices being shouted at you on every corner. You know as you navigate through a crowded street market, as people shift in every direction. You are just one tiny person in the roughest wave that you have ever been caught in. This is South Asia. It is a populated melting pot, where in each region of every country, the cuisine, language, culture, and people change. It is a place where Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Sikhism are united by self-discipline and faith. It is a region rapidly developing, where some youth tag you in Facebook profile pictures while others only know their more isolated rural lifestyles. It is everything I expected, and nothing I expected. Food was spicier, mountains were higher, villages were more disconnected, smells were stronger, festivals were beyond imagination, and limits were tested. Each moment was extraordinary.
Your first experience in the region was in Bangladesh – you lived and studied there for three months. What drew you to that experience?
At the center of my thesis was the question of how environmental change could impact rural or isolated minorities in the developing world. It was a study that aimed to look at science through a more human-focused approach; to understand how the most vulnerable people on Earth would respond to rising sea levels, glacial melt and increased tropical storm events, and how this could then impact social, economic and political structures in society. It has been predicted that Bangladesh will be the most susceptible country to climate change in coming decades, as it acts as a low-lying drainage basin for some of the world’s largest rivers, is exposed to the coast and monsoonal rain, and is densely populated and developing in urban and rural areas. I felt like I only understood the problem from an academic ‘outsider’ perspective – from reading papers and books – but never truly understanding how rural people coped. My own curiosity led me to a village known as Panpatti, a 24-hour boat ride from the capital of Dhaka where I interviewed, studied and photographed life in the rural South during the rainy season. I charged my camera battery on a single solar panel and spent nights scribing the day’s interviews with a head torch. I walked bare feet on muddy pathways wearing a lungi, was invited into houses for jackfruit and tea, and took photos of people who had never seen their portrait on a screen before. I was a 21-year old city kid and had absolutely no idea what hardship or vulnerability was. It was the first time I was given insight into the strength and resilience of people facing such a multitude of problems. Bangladesh was the first time I finally opened my eyes to the strength of the human spirit.
How were you viewed or welcomed by those in the village? Had they had much contact with travelers or researchers before?
Panpatti was a very remote and secluded part of the world. A man in the local teashop had said that the only foreigners to set foot near the village did so in the town of Galachipa, at least thirty minutes away by motorbike. They were UN delegates who arrived to see the damage after Cyclone Aila in 2009 and provided funding and emergency relief (rice staples) to the local council to distribute among some of the families in need. The delegates stayed for a few hours and left by helicopter the same day.
For me, it was an honour to stay within the village and was an essential part of understanding how people in Panpatti lived each day. In order to conceive their circumstance and vulnerability, it was necessary to immerse myself into the ‘everyday’ and understand each component of their livelihoods, income generating activity, social relationships, and networks. People were beyond receptive to having a foreign researcher in the village. At first, the constant staring was very confronting, but it was completely inquisitive and harmless, and is found in most areas of Bangladesh as there is a limited market for tourism and few expats. Many people were excited to have their story told or to simply have their photograph taken and see their face on a screen. It was my first experience communicating through a translator, and while it was frustrating in many circumstances, it led to very emotional and sentimental interactions with people. My translator, Hassan, was key to breaking the barrier, and the longer I stayed, the less I felt like a ‘bides hi’ (foreigner) and the more I was able to adapt to village life.
What did you discover through your hands-on research?
At the end of my study, I wanted to answer a single question: did those living in the most susceptible regions of the world possess the ability to adapt at the onset of further stress? This is often best answered through a famous livelihood framework which considers every human as an agent of change in any context. It suggests that even the most vulnerable people – whether that vulnerability be financial insecurity, political or cultural oppression, social challenges, or another circumstance – can still use whatever limited resources and assets they have to contest and ascend from their vulnerability.
In the village I studied, this was not the case. Households dependent on farming had their land, homes and livestock swallowed by the sea or flooding rivers. They would build homes again from mud and straw, only to have them taken during the next event. During cyclones, livelihoods dependent on fishing would be halted as storms and high seas destroyed boats and prevented activity, resulting in starvation for many families. Salt water extended further and further inland, locking access to fresh water taps and preventing crops from growing. These hazards were then coupled with the infinite issues faced in the developing rural world. The population was booming, there was no industry or market for employment outside of farming and fishing, and secondary and tertiary schools were limited or unavailable; people suffered from endless debt cycles, informal politics over land ownership, and gender inequality; and there was no donor support from international, national or local level funds specifically for climate adaptation. To make matters more complicated, when people left the village in hope for a better life in Dhaka or Chittagong, the larger urban cities, they were exposed to even greater issues and fell further into poverty. In all, it was a complex and difficult task to determine where a person’s real vulnerability began. It stemmed from so many issues, so even when rural people acted as agents of change, they could not possibly adapt or ascend from poverty. Their vulnerability was so extreme that their livelihoods could barely be sustained at present, let alone at the onset of further stress. It was a confronting and overwhelming reality that the people I shared meals and drank tea with, whose floor I slept on and whose homes I sat in for hours each day when interviewing and photographing, would face such a difficult future. It was even harder to then write the thesis as an academic, thinking of the households as a ‘study’ or the stories as mere ‘findings’, but it held such great importance as evidence. If rural people in Bangladesh could not act as an agent of change, then it was necessary to highlight the need for immediate and adequate international support.
What do you think that international support looks like? Is it in the form of dollars, or advocacy, or hands-on assistance (like opportunities for voluntourism), or something completely different?
The greatest lesson I have learnt from my research was just how important it is to break down and understand a livelihood at its core. It is necessary to see how a person lives each day, how a household responds to stress, how money, food or possessions are shared, and how important freedom and choice are to every individual on the planet. Bangladesh opened my eyes to the complexity of the human condition and the boundaries between what we ‘want’ and ‘need’. Too often, aid is delivered on a foundation that doesn’t take this factor into consideration, and focuses on rapid and sudden onset recovery. It is delivered after mass events, without evaluating sustainable, long-term solutions in the case of future stress or the same events occurring again.
I believe that the first step is developing further research to build evidence and founding support for advocates. This would allow regulatory bodies to know how to use extra resources more wisely – whether they are monetary or through hands-on assistance/volunteering – to find sustainable solutions. A person’s livelihood is dictated by a multitude of things, and far too often we put a Western ‘spin’ on what exactly is needed to help alleviate a person from vulnerability and make them an active agent of change. It is so important to consider the skills or resources that are crucial for human development in areas of extreme vulnerability. Trial, evaluate, implement. Determine the true reach of what you want to give to people.
Travel in the developing world can be fragile, particularly when you consider the physical, environmental and cultural impact travellers may have on the places they visit. What do you recommend in order to mitigate that impact?
I always spend my first few days in a country understanding the vibe, watching people, learning key conversation starters in the local language, and then talking to people while walking down a street or in a busier atmosphere. The interaction in developing countries is definitely more fragile, as without question, you are a much wealthier foreigner (even if travelling on a budget) and possess an ability to come and go as you choose. In this sense, it is important to consider and respect those with a different economic background, political situation, religion, language, or culture. Travel is about connecting with a foreign place and thriving in a scenario that is new and exciting. That doesn’t mean you can disregard the fragility of the interaction, so my advice is always to dress modestly, never ask sensitive questions, always get permission for photographs, and to read up beforehand on cultural insensitivities. Most simply, do not exploit your position as an outsider, but use it as a tool to learn from another and to develop close relationships with people in completely different contexts. That being said, it is easier to break down the barrier by understanding a person’s similarities to yourself. All people respond to the same curiosity and want to know what your life is like on the other side of the world. I like to show a photograph of my family and home, a map of Australia, or some of the pages in my travel journal, even if they cannot read it. They are simple items but reflect the same characteristics that I want to know about a person, family or culture. In remote areas like Panpatti, people were amused to see a family of four with blue eyes, or my mother without a headscarf, or were shocked when I would say the age of each person in my family. Cross-cultural interactions are some of the most surprising and beautiful moments to experience when travelling.
How did this experience – particularly coming face to face with such poverty and vulnerability as you described – shift your views on your place in the world?
After three weeks in the village I can remember making an international call to my parents. I hadn’t spoken in proper English since my arrival and had listened to so many households talk of such extreme hardship and loss each day. I walked with families near the riverbank where their land was once swallowed by rough seas, I watched as single mothers carried 20 kilograms of mud on their heads to build a road for less than US$6/month, or as families noted they could only send one of six children to primary school because of the cost. Hearing these stories had become so familiar that I had almost become accustomed to it as normality. When my mum answered the phone, it was the first time I comprehended where I was and what I was feeling. I could barely talk between tears and realised it was the first time that the reality had kicked in – I had the ability to leave and everything I had seen would be left behind. The cycle I witnessed would continue, and people would rise and fall within an inevitable poverty trap. My view of the world became very simple from this point; make use of every opportunity and every chance. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t change the fate of every household in Panpatti, nor in Bangladesh or the developing world where vulnerability was so overwhelming and extreme. I have been lucky enough to study, to earn, to travel, and to live an existence out of the poverty cycle, so I use this mentality in every place I go now; never taking for granted the ability to choose my own pathway and the power to help someone along theirs.