Closing the gap: Jannatul Mawa highlights class differences in Dhaka in a new photo series
Bangladesh-based photographer Jannatul Mawa subtly highlights class differences between homeowners and their domestic helpers in a new series called 'Close Distance'
Growing up in Bangladesh, Jannatul Mawa wanted to be a painter. With family support for her plans less than forthcoming, she shifted her attentions to activism, before finally, realising her creative ambitions in studying photography. Working as a photographer with Unicef Bangaldesh, Mawa has covered a range of stories, but her latest project is special: Called 'Close Distance', it subtly highlights class inequalities in the country.
In a note explaining the genesis of the project, Mawa writes of how housemaids in Bangladesh work for as little as two meals a day; there are no fixed hours or a salary. "Such cheap labour is rare in the world, perhaps 15 dollars a month. Since domestic work is gendered, hence, housemaids are women," writes Mawa. She also points out that domestic work is anyway considered the sole responsibility of women — but while both women (the employer and employee) do the same household work, their 'class' creates a difference. Mawa points out other ironies — that the maids make up the beds and couches of the home but are neither allowed to sleep in, or sit on, any of them. "With their domestic roles, they are ‘close’ to the middle class women and ‘distant’ at the same time," Mawa has said. In an interview with Firstpost, Mawa talks about her project, craft and influences:
How did you think of the project? And how did you arrive at a method by which you wanted to showcase the project?
Inequality exists everywhere: in land, color, religion, economy, and women-men. Since my student life I have been dreaming of a society without discrimination and working to establish the same. The subject of my photography is also the furthering of that thought.
This photo series is about closeness and distance. Among the urban middle class in Dhaka city, hiring domestic help is common. Those who work as domestics bend down to dust for us, they give us all kinds of comfort, but do we care about them, do we worry about when they eat, when they go to bed? How humanely do we treat them? Do we, as members of the educated middle class, as progressives, mobilise public opinion so that they should have a day off, get minimum wages? The idea behind asking women house owners and domestics to sit together was to raise these questions — usually, we do not sit with them on the same sofa. Spatially we are very close, in the sense that we inhabit the same space but due to deep class divisions, house owners and housemaids maintain strict invisible boundaries -— physical and ideological. I wanted to explore that through photography.
Without doing something unrealistic, following an approach that is systematic, I have tried to document simply, so the subject is not lost in the aesthetic itself.
Over the years, artistes in various forms have tried to address the issue of class the best they can. In some way, photography has impact more immediate than any other (perhaps because it is free of hyperbole and its metaphors are visual and accessible). Do you then see a lot of scope for projects such as yours? Why aren't more of these around?
At the current stage of societal evolution, ‘capital’ acts controls and runs the society, and state. The result is severe class discrimination. Greed and consumption create result in selfishness and egotism. We are losing the depth of feeling about life. In such a situation it is obvious that the existing structures will not be able to develop culture or art, desired by the disadvantaged. More specifically, even the existence of a strong movement to establish the rights of and liberate the exploited classes is also important. And as such whatsoever emotion people have towards the labour class also fails to find appropriate language or strength. True, that throughout history artists and intellectuals, without social movements, have rarely able to shake things up. Rather when the social movement evolves, it impacts the artists. So I see scope for issues related to human rights to increasingly be the subject for artists.
A striking feature of the project is the simplicity of its execution. These are simply people sitting on a sofa in a house they together inhabit. Is that also the impact? That it is so usual, casual a context, but so unusual a calibration of privilege and class? What do the people, who have featured and looked at your photos said to you about them?
The discrimination is so severe and visible in society that after visiting/viewing ‘Close Distance’ people can easily connect to the issue of inequity. Reading the attitude, eyes, particularly the body language of the portraits of my pictures, viewers can easily grasp the difference in relations, gender and class. While the audience gives importance to the issue of differences, they are not confident or transparent about the establishment of equal rights. With discomfort or disquiet many said, “Will these differences go away from the society? How is it possible?” Many others said exhibiting in galleries will not lead to the kind of change that needs access for the masses (maybe a district level showcase). Public places, after all, are where these discourses are of most critical importance.
Another aspect of the photos here is the seamless, almost fluid transition of colours between the floor, the backgrounds, the sofa etc except in the human aspect, the faces, the eyes etc. It signifies to me a deep interest in the material as compared to that in the human by the human. As an activist documentarian, how do you see class as an issue in and around the Indian subcontinent in particular?
It’s not only South Asian countries as such, there are other countries too. Countries like ours, where treating domestic help badly is common. There is no wage structure for domestic help. Their dignity is not taken into account. Many are tortured physically and mentally. It’s due to our social system, the lack of democracy, education, socialisation, empowerment, employment, culture etc. They are all responsible. It is the result of many years of colonial rule and exploitation of the zamindari system.
But while the history of discrimination and division is quite long, the situation hasn’t remained static. It has gradually improved. Leftist parties, workers’ rights organisations, and human rights and women’s rights organisations have brought many structural changes, some rules and regulations exist, which, if enforced, can ensure that punishment be meted out. Public perceptions are also gradually changing. Education, awareness, democratisation, socialisation, culture, media influence, economic changes, the garment industry and development programmes and most importantly, changes in government policy have led to some affirmative changes. I am hopeful.
In a picture, there is a photo of Mother Teresa on the wall behind. Did you immediately register the irony of that frame, before even capturing it?
Yes, as soon as I got the opportunity, I registered the photograph of Mother Teresa.
Do you think art and its social contexts go hand in hand?
Perhaps most artists believe in ‘art for art’s sake'. An artist is not a socially-alienated human being. Class divisions exist in society, so the thoughts and creations of artists can’t stay outside of these issues. They have to take a position. Either s/he will take the side of the ruling class or with the hopes, desires, expectations of the disadvantaged will be reflected in the creations. In class-divided societies, the ruling class rules not only economically but also culturally. As such, the class position is reflected in different aspects of our life, including our behaviour, our thinking. Even then, class-conscious artists are expected to engage in the struggle of changing the stereotype about taste, culture and value of society.
Without cultural change, I think, social change is not possible. In this, artists do have particular roles. As such every artist has an important responsibility to understand struggle and social reality. This context guides the creative pathway of an artist. The way I see discrimination, as an artist, I do everything needed to address this issue, whatsoever risks are involved. Not only through the medium of photography, will I be with others who work on such issue.
We are all contributors to the systems of privilege that now exist. Is your project then among the few that are 'must-see', even for the person who cares neither about art, photography but the least about his social will? If you agree, what do you wish they go away thinking? Will there be a seat on the sofa for their maid the next day? Or is it just not that simple?
I know very well that a single photo series won’t change relations of inequality overnight. These relations, as I have said, are social and historical. People who belong to the privileged class do not want to give up their status and privileges. I took these photographs for both classes of people, but especially for those who are privileged, so that we can look at ourselves in the mirror.
‘Close Distance’ is currently on display as part of Photo Kathmandu, and has been published in the Tasveer Journal.
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