Yesterday morning Wired published an article highlighting the photo series of photographer Sebastian Keitel: The Chaotic, Colorful Slums of the World’s Most Overcrowded City. (see: http://www.wired.com/rawfile/2014/03/dhaka-slums-sebastian-keitel)
The images are stunning in their appreciation of the magnificent color found in the private homes of people living the in the poorest areas of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. But the tag line of the article referencing these people’s lives as dwellers of a ‘slum’ stayed with me all day – in a disturbing way.
Slum is a word we seem okay about using, a kind of short-hand, quickly conjuring up images of filth, poverty, desperation. And, of course, Dhaka qualifies as a city that boasts these attributes in abundance. I suppose this was the point of the article – to contrast the ordinary mental image that leaps up when we think of a ‘slum’ with the colorful imagery Keitel captured.
But there was something diminishing about the word ‘slum’ – especially as the tag line to lead the story that allowed us the privilege to glimpse into the very private world of the families who opened their homes to the photographer, and then to us.
When you study the images you mostly see the careful storing and organizing of each family’s possessions, the hanging of clothing and treasures where they belong, things in their places, albeit not in an IKEA cabinet. The images showcase perhaps everything in the world that belongs to the people who granted us access.
Imagine the busy tidying that went on before the photographer arrived! The sweeping and fussing to spruce the place up before their appointment with the cameraman from some far away wealthy land.
I have been honored to visit such places myself, in fact. I’ve been welcomed into the homes of people in the poor rural and urban areas of Bangkok, Harare, Bulawayo, and Soweto whose housing and circumstances would, by this definition, write them up as dwellers of a ‘slum’. I have eaten wonderful meals in these ‘slum’ homes, prepared lovingly and generously with a few simple ingredients by the families who make their lives in such a ‘slum’. And while the circumstances of our lives might be very different – unjust and tragic in the disparity between us – the shared humanity over a laugh and meal made me wish to think of these folks as my friends.
It seems a flagrant betrayal to write about the people in the images this way, about the place they call their home, leading the reader to adopt a kind of ‘view from the castle to the peasants below’. ‘Slum’ is a word that stinks of the most outdated ideas of colonization. Language is powerful and words strike hard.
I’m not sure the people of Dhaka would have opened their lives and treasures up to the photographer with the grace that was shown him, if they knew we were all about to write them up as fascinating examples of slum dwellers. I wonder how they would feel about the world gaping at their homes and families, our jaws dropping at the colorful embrace of ‘slum’ life. Because really, what else do they have to offer?