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Between 2005 and 2007 Jonas Bendiksen visited some of the most prominent and overwhelming slums on earth. He went to Nairobi, Mumbai, Jakarta and Caracas and recorded ordinary life. The result is this book which contains not just the photographs he took, but also stories from the lives of the people he met.
In his Introduction to the book Philip Gourevitch, well-known as an author and documentarian himself -- he is also the editor of the Paris Review -- says that it would be a mistake to regard The Places We Live as "a message book". He sees it as a far more subtle wok of reportage, blending the documents with the stories in a way that makes us think and in thinking know ourselves a little better.
Bendiksen is strongly influenced by the Magnum tradition of reportage photography. His images are both political and personal and he works with a strong eye to composition and form. These are not candid photographs, stolen snapshots or covert observations. They are carefully constructed and arranged, deliberately tinted and contrasted. Even the frequent four page fold-out format makes us pause as the images are slowly revealed. It is not possible to quickly flick through the book, halting only briefly on this image or that. We have to take a moment of deliberate action to uncover what Bendiksen wants to reveal. He manages to avoid the cold voyeuristic eye, although his richly, hyper-saturated coloured and deeply toned prints, using deep shadow and contrast can give an ambiguous beauty to what may in close reality be appalling conditions. Many of the photographs are taken at night or in the early evening and the light is flattering. The colours are rich and by and large he steers away from portraits. Often the people in the photograph are small and engaged in some activity rather than posing for the camera. Where there are exceptions the setting is usually the person's home. Some people do smile for the camera -- as we are taught, but most are neutral. There are couples and children and people living alone, but it seems Bendiksen is always seeking some elusive glimpse of dignity. It is perhaps that ambiguity and ambivalence that engages the reader; that prompts a return and re-return to a scene or a phrase in an effort to grasp more fully the lived experience.
Bendiksen tries to allow people to speak for themselves. Sample fragments of the personal statements from the section on Jakarta read that "We get evicted once a year", "My father couldn't afford to care for me, so he gave me to the person who owns the water pump", "I was twelve years old when I got married", "When the thugs come with their guns you tell them to leave -- that house over there has thirty-six bullet holes", "You see 10 year old kids with guns in their hands", "In this slum they are practically always killing", "You have to kill -- otherwise they will kill you", "Most people think trash is disgusting. We don't say no to it as long as we can feed our families".
Such insights serve to remind us that there are still lives being led -- and human stories to be found, even if they are hard to identify with at times.
The book begins with the statement that a watershed moment was reached in 2008 when for the first time more people were living in cities than in rural areas. And one third - more than a billion people -- were living in slums. These are areas that are in every sense marginal. They are in a very palpable way, non-places. Unseen, unnoticed, unrealised. Bendiksen's aim is to redress as much as he can. He tells us that "shanties are homes where conversations take place over dinner, kids do homework, and neighbours live next door".
How would any of us respond to the drive for dignity in such circumstances?
Perhaps one of the most disturbing facets of Bendiksen's book is that it would be all too easy to undertake a similar project in a score of other cities. Would we see the same stories -- different particulars, but the same themes -- in Sao Paolo or Mexico City or Kolkata or Dhaka or Lagos or Johannesburg? Most probably. But that should not in any way detract from the value and importance of the book, nor its impact or ability to make the reader soberly think of others and feel compassion.
One quote from a resident of Mumbai asks, "If we tell people about our house, will anyone believe us?" Perhaps, if no-one ever tells no-one will ever believe.
© 2009 Mark Welch
Mark Welch, British Columbia