Welcome Home: A Look at Living in Slums
“In 2008, for the first time in human history, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. One third of these urban dwellers resided in slums.” That statistic serves as the launching point for ‘The Places We Live,’ a multimedia exhibition from Norwegian photographer Jonas Bendiksen, currently on display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Between 2005 and 2007, Bendiksen documented the experiences of families living in unplanned, off-the-grid slums in Nairobi, Mumbai, Caracas and Jakarta.
The result is an intimate series of photo and audio portraits of 20 families from around the world that confronts how more affluent Westerners perceive poverty abroad. Panoramic photos wrapped around the walls place visitors in the homes of the families, whose voices are also heard in translated interviews.
“Life in a shantytown is full of challenges and hardship,” Bendiksen writes, “but shanties are homes, where conversations take place over dinner, children do homework and neighbors live next door.”
The most startling of Bendiksen’s images show unflappable subjects: A woman sits in an upholstered armchair between two train tracks. A naked boy jumps off a bridge into polluted water, with a McDonald’s visible behind him. A girl walks along a pipeline between a tented, commercial corridor. Bendiksen is careful to capture the varying textures and patterns within each home, from ceramic tiles to plastic bags to corrugated tin. “Here,” he writes, “the improvised wallpapers, self-built furniture, knickknacks, and memorabilia form clues to what it means to be an urban citizen in the twenty-first century.”
Bendiksen’s 2006 book, “Satellites,” which depicted life on the outskirts of the former Soviet Union, marked his emergence in the world of photography. His photos have appeared in National Geographic, Newsweek and TIME magazines. His photographs of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, which appeared in the Paris Review, won a National Magazine Award in 2007.
Art Beat talked to Bendiksen via e-mail this week:
How did the idea for this project emerge?
In 2002, I became a father. I continued my work as a photographer as usual, but as my son got to be a few years old I started wondering intensely about what sort of world he will face when he’s my age. I was struck by the fact that when my father was born, there were about 2.5 billion people on the planet. When I was born, around 4.5 [billion people]. When my son was born we numbered 6.5 billion, and if I have a grandchild, he’ll probably be one of around 8 billion humans.
Right around 2004, whilst thinking about this, I came across a few statistics from the U.N.: In 2008, the world’s urban population would for the first time outnumber the rural. At almost the exact same time, the number of slum-dwellers would pass the 1 billion mark. That 1 billion is predicted to double over the next couple of decades, meaning that slums are, in many ways, the fastest growing human habitats on the planet.
From this I quickly realized that there is no way to imagine what the future world looks like for my son, without getting to know the slums better, to understand more about what these places are, and how they work.
Why did you choose these four cities? What were your previous experiences with these disparate cities, and how aware were you of what the project was going to be like? How did it change as you began to photograph them and live in the communities there?
In terms of sheer numbers, one could choose from thousands of cities to photograph a project like this. So in some way, the selection had to be somewhat arbitrary. But for me it was important to get a wide geographical spread among the continents, as well as to show four very different types of slums. Even the United Nations’ definition of a slum is an amalgam of many different factors, so I wanted to explore a wide range of slums.
I’d worked in both Nairobi and Mumbai before on other projects, and had briefly visited both Kibera and Dharavi on other trips. But it was a very different experience to immerse myself in them. I think I was not prepared for the intricacies and wide range of stories and variety within these slums. I think in the West, we easily typecast these areas as monolithic dens of poverty, crime, misery and destitution. These things obviously exist in the slums in vast numbers, but I quickly came to learn that they are much more than that. The great majority of slum-dwellers do manage to squeeze out normalcy despite these truly difficult conditions. And I was both extremely humbled and inspired by that.
Can you describe your experiences living with and interacting with families in these communities?
The first slum I moved into, Kibera outside Nairobi, is a huge slum numbering close to a million people, and has enormous issue in terms of sanitation, population density and extreme poverty. The very first room I photographed there belonged to a young couple named Andrea and Ann. It was a tiny room densely furnished with second-hand couches and a small kitchen. I took my pictures and got my audio-recorder out to record Andrew talking about life in Kibera. To my surprise, he didn’t talk much about all the problems around them — the garbage outside his door, the overflowing sewer or lack of jobs. What he wanted to talk about was…interior design. About how much work he had put into his room, how they’d taken care to make it as nice a home as they possibly could.
For me it was a huge eye-opener. I realized that of course 1 billion slum-dwellers can’t go through every day of their lives just thinking about how horrible everything is. It’s human nature to try to create normalcy and a dignified human daily life out of any situation. This really inspired me, and I decided to make “The Places We Live” a quest, not for the negative extremes inside the slums, but for how people create value and dignity out of the most difficult situations.
If I learned one thing in the course of the project, it is that the gamut of experience, social status and worldview, is just as large inside each of these slums as it is in New York or London.
What kinds of community organizing did you observe?
It’s hard to list because essentially, in these slums, everything [that] people have, they’ve had to create themselves, from neighborhood to neighborhood: policing, schools, washing water, drinking water, electricity, building materials. The list goes on. If one is looking for communities of “self-made men and women,” the slums are the place to look.
What, as far as you are aware, does the future spell for some of these places? Are there development initiatives underway? How these different nations view the slums and how do residents react to the any plans for development?
Clearly, it’s hard to generalize here, as slums exist in thousands of cities across the planet, and they spring up for many different reasons in different countries. Dharavi in Mumbai, where I stayed for two-and-a-half months, is very much in the crosshairs for redevelopment, as it occupies a very prime piece of real estate in that congested city. Traditionally, the way many countries like India deal with slums is the bulldozer. “Clearing slums” often means quick destruction of whole communities that then simply spring up further out on the margins of the city.
If I have a point to make in “The Places We Live” in this regard, it is this: Look at the enormous value — human, economic and cultural — that the inhabitants have built in these slums. Everyone in the slum wants to develop their area for the better, to improve living conditions. Municipalities should work together with the slum-dwellers to do this, not use an across-the-board policy of destruction.
How did you go about shooting many of these images? One of the most widely circulated of your photographs is of a girl walking along pipeline in Dharavi, a slum at the center of Mumbai. Was that a spontaneous moment that you were able to shoot? How close were you to the people you photographed?
Photographically I work quite simply, and one of the biggest ingredients in my recipe is time. In these places, it was important that I had enough time to work slowly, to have time to talk to people, hear their stories, to get to know the places and people. All the exterior images are shot spontaneously, whereas the interior panoramas are a sort of collaboration with the residents where we together took the pictures and did the sound recordings.
What considerations arise in trying to create portraits that tell a story and are artful? How do you negotiate a medium between romanticizing poverty by creating images that are beautiful, and overlooking the dignity with which they live their lives by focusing on the marginalization of these communities?
I’m very practical when it comes to photography. If I want to talk about something, I sit down and think about how best I can do so using the language of photography. I don’t see a problem in the fact that many of the images of people’s houses are beautiful. They are beautiful. The residents living there have spent a great deal of energy and time in order to make it beautiful. Just like me and you did in our living rooms.
If people want all the images of poor people in the slums to look grim, gritty and desperate, it’s in my view a grave disrespect to the people who live there, who have created so much of value. Some people don’t seem to accord poor people there the dignity of being an individual — they almost prefer the black-and-white grim cliched portrait of poverty we normally carry.
For me the question isn’t if the images are beautiful or not. To me the question is, “Is the work we’re doing helping humanize the community we’re photographing, to actually show individuals above old stereotypes?”
At the same time, I was acutely aware that I was walking a tightrope between not wanting to overly focus on the garbage, pollution and despair, and painting too rosy a picture of what life is like there. I tried to strike a balance between showing the challenges that exist there, and the individuals who rise up to them.
The documentarian Errol Morris and others photographers have discussed the persuasiveness of photography — that it doesn’t necessarily indicate any absolute truth but that we are willing to take it as such. What do you think about this, as a foreign visitor to these communities who is portraying them for an international audience? What sort of cultural negotiations did you undergo working abroad? To what extent did you worry about how people in Europe and the United States would read your photographs?
In this project, I’m not concerned with trying to show a general “truth” of what slum life is like. I saw my role as trying to bend our stereotypes of these communities a bit. Instead of giving a final answer to anything, I wanted to raise questions about how we normally depict poor people and their problems. To ask how valid our often-held, one-dimensional stereotypes are.
I tried not to impose my own expectations on my subjects too much. I don’t speak Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Marathi or Indonesian. When we audio-recorded the families stories for the project, I would ask, “Tell me about life here.” They would start talking into the microphone in their native language. My rule of thumb was: As long as the interviewee was talking, I would not interrupt to get a translation or to ask questions. I wanted them to talk about whatever aspect of slum life they wanted.
I actually didn’t know the entire contents of what they were talking about until I got translated transcripts weeks later. I was astonished at the range of stories, and the topics they covered. I think it in that way it became a more honest range of stories then if I was sitting there saying, “Tell me about your sanitation problems,” or something like that.
The exhibit employs interesting multimedia; could you discuss some of the decisions surrounding the exhibit?
What I wanted was to create less of an exhibition and more of an “experience,” to try as much as possible to make this about seeing the individuals I photographed. Sometimes walking down a row of framed photo prints on a wall can get pretty noncommittal and anonymous. Together with the audio of the slum-dwellers talking about their own houses, I wanted the viewer to feel more like they really had to engage with the subject a bit more.
Editor’s note: Visit theplaceswelive.com to see more of Bendiksen’s images. For an in-depth lesson plan on this subject for use in the classroom, visit NewsHour Extra. “The Places We Live” at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is on display through Nov. 15, 2009.