Iqbal was 4 years old when he was sold to a carpet maker. The little Pakistani boy knew he would have to repay his bond with his own little life if he escaped. At 10, he fled the loom and was murdered two years later. But Iqbal Masih must have lived — and died — in another world, since most of us believe slavery was abolished a century ago. The reality is that out of political correctness we don’t call it slavery anymore, we call it “bonded labor'” — though the U.N. recognizes bonded labor as the modern form of slavery. Of course, not all of the estimated 250 million children in the Global Village’s labor force share the same fate, but a huge part of that large number were born to bonded families, who keep a debt with their creditors up to five generations.
The story is tragic, and so are the lives of millions of children working in hazardous conditions all over the world. The children will now have a group of 11 award-winning photojournalists as spokespersons. These professionals in capturing the motion of life are about to hoist their sails, and their journey will bring them to places like the ones Iqbal used to work in. Their mission: to tell the world it is possible to change the way things are — before Iqbal’s fate sweeps his teen workmates’ plight under the rug.
The project, kicked off June 20 during a workshop in Malibu, reflects the dream Julia Dean, 43, a photographer and writer based in Venice, envisioned after witnessing a scene on a train in India. She did not capture the scene on film, but the impression remained alive inside of her.
“I had seen children working, but the one that really got me was this little boy,” Dean said. “He jumped in the train all by himself, holding a handmade broom. Soon he got upon his hands and knees and started sweeping around people’s feet, looking up and putting his hand out from time to time for a little change. And he went like that for miles and miles and miles, from train car to train car, until he changed trains and went back the other way.”
This incident wrapped Dean in a daydreaming obsession and led her to launch her project in an attempt to wrap up the century with the spirit of photographer Lewis Heine, who helped eradicate child labor in the United States in the beginning of the century. “Our objective is to educate people about the issue through visual documentation, to prompt action against abusive child labor and to applaud humanitarian efforts that are creating positive change,” Dean said. The journey’s diaries will take shape in a book, a documentary and a traveling exhibit, sponsored by UNICEF, which will tour the United States starting in New York in spring 1999 and will extend through the year 2000.
Dean picked four of her best collaborative photographers: Judy Warren, a ’94 Pulitzer winner for a series on violent rights abuses against women all over the world for the Dallas Morning News; Joel Sartore of National Geographic, a Pulitzer finalist; and Al Schaben of the Los Angeles Times, an NPPA winner; and Jon Warren, a Seattle-based photojournalist with three books published and a remarkable reputation in international editorial and documentary photography. Then she set up an international contest to reach the 11 photographers goal (mirroring Heine’s early century team composed of 11 photographers). The contest’s jury included three first-rank picture editors, Larry Armstrong with the Los Angeles Times, Kathy Ryan with the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Bert Fox, who is also the project’s director of photography, with National Geographic magazine. Out of 120 professional entries, five photographers with astounding backgrounds were selected, and out of 25 student entries, Brian Finke, a promising photographer from Brooklyn, who loves to befriend those who live in the fringe. The 11 photographers are a showcase of international awards, including 1997 Pulitzer winner Clarence Williams of the Los Angeles Times, several World Press Photo first prizes and Robert F. Kennedy award winners.
Two experienced reporters will gather and edit the work done in the field by a local reporter, sometimes going to the field themselves. They also have remarkable backgrounds: Sarah Bachman, of the San Jose Mercury News, is currently working on a book “Child Labor and the Global Economy” and on a curriculum for U.S. schools on child labor; and Nick Fleming is author of the book “In Strictest Confidence” and was UPI’s lead writer during the U.S. invasion of Grenada.
Beyond their talent, these individuals share a commitment to bringing awareness of the effects of the global economy in developing countries, letting us know what is happening underneath those stones we sometimes hesitate to lift — often because our own interests are at stake.
It is not easy work. They face all kinds of harassment by government forces in countries under conflict, and their ethics are questioned at home, including accusations of falsifying the pictures when these not only show minors working on the spot but also clearly highlight the logos of well-known Western brands. Awards and recognition cannot bring peace of mind to French photographer Marie Dorigny, 38, whose book “Les Enfants de L’ombre” (Children of the Shadows) received the UNICEF award in 1993. “Sometimes the images come back to me as flashbacks, and I keep having nightmares for weeks,” she said. Dorigny’s reportage on child labor for Life magazine in 1996 pointed a finger at American companies that employ minors at their Pakistani factories. She insists, “Child labor is not a social problem, child labor is a pure economic problem.”
Francesco Zizola, 35, an Italian photographer whose work for two years with the street children in Brazil materialized in the book “Ruas,” is a recipient of the University of Rome prize. Zizola also worked on the Brazilian slave children. “That experience was like a huge life workshop,” he said. “It was the need of finding the meaning of life which took me there.” In the frame of a personal 9-year project called “Heirs of 2000,” Zizola toured the most vulnerable corners of the world.
Some photojournalists have to open their souls before focusing their cameras. “I had to tell Theodora my darkest secrets if I wanted to be there,” said Williams when asked how he got Theodora’s family photographed for his Times documentary about children of crack-addicted parents. Others spend years looking for grants to finance their projects before gaining international recognition.
Ernesto Bazan wanted to document the lives of refugees in the world “after the lights shut down and the media is no longer interested because there has not been any massacre.” Bazan could not find any funding for the project, so he went to Cuba and fell in love with the island. Cuba brought him a rosary of major prizes, among them the Dorothea Lang prize, established in the name of one of the noted photographers who participated in the Depression-era photographic project headed by Heine.
“I don’t call myself a photojournalist,” said Gigi Cohen, a young woman of Ecuadorian origin raised in Brooklyn, currently working on a book about prisoners on death row. “I prefer to call myself a social documentary photographer. My work has a less-restricted time frame than that of a photojournalist. It is about the issue, not only about what is news today.”
Jon Warren is a Seattle-based globe trotter whose childlike face deludes you if you think he knows nothing about life. Warren has covered stories in more than 50 countries, from the handloom weaving in Bangladesh to the Mennonites in Bolivia and the homeless in Los Angeles. He is an avid photojournalist and has published three photography books.
Their assignments were revealed during the Malibu workshop. For periods of 30 days and throughout 1999, the photographers will follow the footsteps of 10-year-old girls as they get lost in the red light trails; they’ll bend their backs among the peasants’ children; they will share a joke with kid soldiers; they will try to capture an S.O.S. from enslaved domestics; they will get coal black with miners; and, after gathering the echoes of the chained little lives all around the world, including Latino kids’ pursuit of El Dorado in our backyard, they will tell the world with pictures, not only of the hazardous and strenuous jobs but also of those projects working in the shadows to free one child at a time.
The project is sponsored by New York-based NGO Media for International Development, UNICEF, the United National Association, the National Consumers League, the International Labor Rights Fund and the International Labor Office in Geneva, among others. To help with the project, send your tax-deductible donations to: JD & Associates, 1265 Electric Ave., Venice, CA 90291. Phone/Fax: (310) 581-9523.