Blog

REEL

I’ve put together a reel featuring some of my work from the US, Uganda, Iceland and India. If you’ve got a couple of minutes to spare, I hope you’ll take a look.

If you like the reel, please share and check out a selection of my video stories here.

 

TEA PARTY ENVIRONMENTALIST

The Guardian have just published my short video on Debbie Dooley’s efforts to promote rooftop solar-power in Florida.

Dooley is a grass-roots activist who chanllenges the way conservatives think about the environment. Most environmentalists preach to the liberal choir. But when Dooley talks about sustainable-energy, libertarian free-marketeers, Christian conservatives and the Republican voter-base sit up and listen.

Debbie Dooley of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and founder of the Tea Party is a campaigner working to promote rooftop solar in Florida. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Tallahassee, Florida USA November 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Debbie Dooley at a Tallahassee luncheon to raise awareness about the influence of money on the political process. A still image from my  Guardian video. Tallahassee, Florida. USA ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

Initially inspired by a Bill McKibben story I had read in the New Yorker that detailed efforts to advance solar in Vermont and Arizona, I became increasingly aware that solar-power expansion in the US was being thwarted by a determined and very wealthy cartel of fossil fuel interests. Dooley’s name quickly emerged as an unlikely figure among those pro-solar activists who have responded to this powerful lobby.

Dooley is co-founder of the Tea Party and sits on the board of directors of the national Tea Party Patriots. She argues that promoting solar energy is entirely consistent with conservatism. She says that solar introduces competition into the energy market, allows consumers to exercise their free market choice and challenges the monopoly of energy companies that are subsidised by the government. Dooley also insists that the threat of a terrorist attack makes it imperative that the country move to a more decentralised energy-grid.

Debbie Dooley of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and founder of the Tea Party is a campaigner working to promote rooftop solar in Florida. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Atlanta, Georgia USA November 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Debbie Dooley interviewed at home. A still image from my Guardian video. Atlanta, Georgia. USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015 

Dooley has a successful record of forging unlikely partnerships to promote sustainable energy and this year shared a stage with Al Gore. In 2013, she joined forces with the Sierra Club to successfully defeat an effort by Georgia Power to impose large fees on customers with rooftop solar systems.

Dooley is now a leading figure in an alliance called Floridians for Solar Choice. This broad coalition of conservative free-marketeers like Conservatives for Energy Freedom and liberal-minded environmentalists including The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, have come together to challenge the monopoly of Florida’s big private power utilities.

To sustain their unity while maximising their appeal to Florida’s notoriously divided electorate, Floridians for Solar Choice have made a strategic decision not to mention climate change (even as Florida’s largest city, Miami suffers from the effects of sea-level rise).

Stephen Smith heads the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and is working to promote rooftop solar in Florida as part of the Floridians for Solar Choice ballot intiative. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Tallahassee, Florida USA November 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is one of Dooley’s liberal-partners fighting to promote solar energy in Florida. A still image from my video. Tallahasse, Florida. USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015 

Floridians for Solar Choice are collecting signatures as part of a ballot initiative to amend the state’s constitution (for an excellent explainer, listen to Susan Glickman on WMNF’s Oct 19th show here.) This amendment will allow solar installation companies to offer financing for Florida residents interested in rooftop solar panels in much the same way a car-dealership might offer monthly payment-plans for those looking to purchase a new vehicle. The amendment will also allow those who have installed rooftop solar to sell the power that they generate directly to their neighbours. Current law permits only utility companies to sell electricity.

Debbie Dooley of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and founder of the Tea Party is a campaigner working to promote rooftop solar in Florida. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Georgia USA November 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Debbie Dooley en-route to Tallahasse to lend her voice to pro-solar events hosted by Floridians for Solar Choice. A still image from my video. Georgia. USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015 

The Solar Choice initiative is on a mission to collect 683,000 signatures by February 2016. If the ballot initiative is successful, all Floridians will be able to vote on the measure in November 2016 and decide whether they want to see rooftop solar compete for energy production with the giant private utility monopolies.

Tom Pietrasik filming Debbie Dooley. Dooley is a member of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and founder of the Tea Party. She is campaigning to promote rooftop solar in Florida. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Tallahassee, Florida USA November1 2015 (Tom Pietrasik) Me filming Dooley outside Florida’s Capitol Building in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. 

The battle for solar in Florida offers a revealing insight into the blatant means by which democracy in America can be subverted. Florida’s big energy utilities along with the Koch Brothers have responded to the Solar Choice ballot by ploughing $1.9m into conservative front-groups. These groups have in-turn pushed an alternative ballot amendment called Floridians for Smart Solar. With such a positive name, it is difficult to imagine that this fossil-fuel backed amendment in fact amounts to nothing more than a ruse to shore up the existing utilities’ exclusive right to sell solar power. The Smart Solar amendment does not seek to promote solar power but to undermine it. This duplicitous strategy is intended to confuse the the electorate and threaten the success of Floridians for Solar Choice.

If efforts to promote solar in Florida stumble, it will be testament yet again to the ability of those with money to influence public policy and undermine efforts to reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuel.

The view across Tallahassee from Florida's Capitol building. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Tallahassee, Florida USA November 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)A scene over Tallahasse, Florida in a still image taken from my video. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015 

PHOTOGRAPHING OXFAM’S ANNUAL REPORT

Farzana demonstrates hand-washing to adolescent girls and young children in 36 Bari Colony. Farzana, age 15, is multi-talented. She sews. She’s a keen dancer and is learning karate. She also volunteers for NGO forum, Oxfam’s partner and leads hygiene promotion sessions. Having grown up in the slum, Farzana was inspired to share her knowledge of disaster preparedness and personal hygiene with others. “When I was 16, I attended sessions like these myself. That’s my inspiration: They taught me a lot and told me to share what I know. I’m exploring my potential. Maybe others have strong potential too but because of lack of resources they don’t reach their potential.” Farzana is a resident of 36 Bari Colony, a slum in Mymensingh. Oxfam are working with partners NGO Forum to support residents. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 17th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)My photograph of a hand-washing demonstration in Bangladesh, appears on the front cover of Oxfam’s latest annual report (see below).  Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

The cover of Oxfam’s latest Annual Report features a photograph I took last year in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. I have photographed and filmed for Oxfam on many occasions in south Asia and Africa. This work then appears in Oxfam campaigns and reports.

 (Tom Pietrasik)The same photograph above (cropped and reversed) as its appeared on the front of the latest Oxfam Annual Report. Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

For this particular trip I spent two weeks in Bangladesh, documenting the lives of women whose lives are affected by climate change. Bangladesh is situated on a river delta and is already suffering the consequences of rising sea-levels. Frequent flooding makes farming in some areas unsustainable. In turn, rural populations migrate look for a better life in the cities.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Children play morning games in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Urban infrastructure that was inadequate at the best of times becomes completely overwhelmed by the influx of new arrivals. Sewers overflow, congested roads pollute the air and the increased demand on power lines presents a fire-hazard.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 18th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Sunny Basfur, age 8, with family and neighbours outside his house in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

On this particular trip, I visited the northern district of Gaibandha where rural communities live a tenuous life farming alongside rivers that pose a constant flood-risk. I then travelled to the congested town of Mymensingh where these photographs were taken. Here I spent time with a minority Dalit (untouchable) community who must endure both physical hardship and the psychological burden imposed on them by caste-discrimination; though a majority-Muslim country, caste-hierarchy endures in Bangladeshi society.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 18th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Neighbours gather in the small network of lanes that run through Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

These sort of assignments can be a logistical challenge. The trip was commissioned by Luke Henrion of the Oxfam communications unit in Oxford, I was here in New York and Oxfam’s Bangladesh media team, led by Abdul Quayyum, were of course in Dhaka.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 18th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Alo Basfur (bottom right) cleans kitchen utensils with outside her home in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Taking on photography work almost always involves some compromise between the photographer and the commissioning client. Ahead of a trip I’m usually in the position of managing expectations or at least shaping a schedule so that it better accommodates my demands while making sure that the client gets what they need.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 19th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik) Jahanara Akhter signs up for a micro credit scheme with an agent. Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

I usually insist that I stay in accommodation close to the location in which I am photographing/filming. As well as avoiding wasted time on (often bumpy) roads, this means that I am much more likely to be able to work during the hours of dusk and dawn when the light is at its softest.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Jhumur Das and her daughter Shobnam Das (age 7) walk through their neighbourhood of Horijon Polli. Jhumur is employed as a cleaner. Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

I also insist that I am accompanied by a person who has a relationship of trust with the community I am photographing. What is nice about working for development agencies like Oxfam is that this connection is often easy to establish – either directly through local Oxfam field-staff or via a partner-organisation. Not only does this help open doors for me but it is more respectful to those in front of the camera.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Children play morning games in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

I also like to be able to spend as much time as possible with those I am filming or photographing. Again, this affords the subject proper respect and usually allows people to relax in front of the camera. Sufficient time also opens up the potential for defining – and often serendipitous – moments that can make a photograph special.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Chidlren from 36 Bari Colony, a slum in Mymensingh. Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Confronting human climate change requires action on many fronts. Photography can play a small role by illustrating the lives of those already affected by climate change and helping to humanise an issue that otherwise might appear remote to those who are in a position to take action.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 17th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik) Rani Basfur, age 13 with a pot of water outside her house in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

Unfortunately powerful institutions and governments have demonstrated little interest in the very-real threat climate change presents to the future of our planet. As well being incredibly short-sighted, this ultimately represents a snub to people like those I photographed in Bangladesh.

Jahanara with her two sons Jahidul Islam, age 9 and Jahirul Islam, age 5, outside their home in 36 Bari Colony. Jahanara works as a tailor to supplement her husband’s income as a construction worker. She volunteers for NGO forum as a health and hygiene promoter working with female adolescents in the slum. A passionate advocate of hand-washing to both adults and children, she’s seeing the result of her efforts: “I like doing the work that I do, the fact that people can stay healthy. I like the result of my work.” She’s also involved in promoting drain clearing. “Before, the latrines and drains were very dirty. Now, it’s a lot better but there’s so much more to do.” Jahanara Akhter, age 27, is a resident of 36 Bari Colony, a slum in Mymensingh. Oxfam are working with partners NGO Forum to support residents of 36 Bari Colony in health promotion and disaster preparedness. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik) Jahanara Akhter with her two sons Jahidul Islam, age 9 and Jahirul Islam, age 5, outside their home in 36 Bari Colony, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

As diplomats gear up for the COP21 summit in Paris next month, lets hope that the lives of ordinary people in places like Mymensingh take precedence over the short-term interests of corporations and their friends in government.

Photo: Tom Pietrasik Mymensingh, Bangladesh November 20th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)Children on their way to school in Horijon Polli, a slum in Mymensingh, Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

BROOKLYN STORE FACES EVICTION

When Brooklyn-based advertising creatives Doug Cameron and Tommy Noonan discovered that their local convenience store was facing closure, they began a campaign to help save it. My video – above – examining Cameron and Noonan’s satirical campaign in the context of gentrification in New York City was recently published by the Guardian here.

Jesse's Deli video stills, Brooklyn. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Brooklyn, NY USA 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Video-still of Jesse’s storefront plastered with posters advertising satirical products at inflated prices.

Jesse’s store, run by Palestinian-American Jesse Itayim, has been an institution in Boerum Hill for over 26 years. Itayim has worked in the area for even longer. In 1986, long before Boerum Hill became the salubrious neighbourhood it is today, Itayim caught the headlines by foiling the attempted robbery of one of his neighbours.

Jesse's Deli video stills, Brooklyn. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Brooklyn, NY USA 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Video-still of Jesse Itayim who has been running his store in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill for over 25 years.

The staff at Jesse’s store offer a valuable service to residents. They walk the elderly home with their produce, accept deliveries on behalf of neighbours and remain open during the worst of New York’s weather. But like many other small businesses, Jesse’s has no negotiating power when it comes to agreeing a reasonable rent  with the landlady. Legislation to protect commercial tenants is now slowly working its way through the New York City council. But there will be strong resistance from the real-estate and building lobbies should any of its provisions look likely to pass.

Jesse's Deli video stills, Brooklyn. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Brooklyn, NY USA 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Video-still of Doug Cameron talking to advertising partner Tommy Noonan at their Manhattan office.

By launching a satirical “rent-hike sale” with posters advertising artisanal products in-line with the rent-increase, Cameron and Noonan have used humour to help expose the vulnerability of small business tenants like Itayim. And a complimentary social media campaign (#BillDeBodega) broadens the campaign-reach, building awareness of tenants rights among those who might be unaware just how vulnerable New York’s small businesses are.

Cameron and Noonan have now launched the second phase of their campaign to save Jesse’s store. You can read details here. 

Jesse's Deli video stills, Brooklyn. Photo: Tom Pietrasik Brooklyn, NY USA 2015 (Tom Pietrasik)Video-still of Jesse’s storefront plastered with posters advertising satirical products at inflated prices.

CLIMATE-CHANGE STORIES FOR THE GUARDIAN

I have been managing a climate-change video project for the Guardian and recently travelled with my cameras to New Mexico and Iceland.  Here I found scientists exposing the catastrophic effect climate-change will wreak on the natural world.

 (Tom Pietrasik)A scene I shot from a drone in my video on Iceland’s puffins. Heimaey, Iceland.  ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

On the Westman Islands of Iceland, I met Erpur Hansen who leads a team trying to understand the reason puffins why have experienced what he calls, “complete reproductive failure.”

 (Tom Pietrasik)Erpur Snær Hansen talks about his research on puffins in Iceland. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

Puffins abstain from breeding in lean years when the supply of fish is low, so avoiding the necessary-burden of raising chicks. For these long-lived birds, skipping a single breeding season has little impact on population levels. But when puffins must skip multiple, consecutive breeding seasons, the very survival of the population is threatened. And, as I discovered, this is exactly what is happening on the Westman Islands today.

 (Tom Pietrasik)An image from my video on puffins in Iceland. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

Hansen has tracked the puffins’ demise since 2007. It appears that the warming of sub-Arctic seas has caused a collapse in the puffin’s main prey, the sand eel. It has not been established if this current warming-phenomenon is the result of human-induced climate-change or because of a 70-year oscillation in surface sea-temperature called AMO (Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation), or both. Whatever the explanation, global warming caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions will only accelerate the puffin’s demise. 

In Los Alamos, New Mexico, I filmed Nate McDowell who spends most of his time “torturing” trees to identify the threshold of their mortality. By denying trees water and exposing them to increased temperatures, McDowell mimics projected climate conditions in northern New Mexico.

 (Tom Pietrasik)Scientist Nate McDowell outside his home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

McDowell has discovered that trees, when exposed to dryer, hotter weather, close tiny surface pores on their leaves called stomata. This strategy reduces dehydration but significantly, it also prevents the tree from absorbing CO2, required for photosynthesis. This natural response is sustainable for short periods but, during long hot droughts, the strategy is doomed. Unable to photosynthesise, trees effectively starve to death. 

  (Tom Pietrasik)Lunch with the McDowell family at their home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

Both Hansen and McDowell concluded their interviews with depressing prognoses for the planet. Both are frustrated by the failure of governments to challenge powerful business interests and to properly confront the very grave threat global warming presents to the ecosystems in which they work.

 (Tom Pietrasik)A landscape scarred by forest fire – the result of poor land management and global warming – in the Jemez Mountain range of New Mexico, USA. ©Tom Pietrasik 2015

“I’M TIRED ALL THE TIME”

Sabrina Jonson commutes to work. My short video on the Fight for $15 campaign among low-paid workers.

In the United States, wages for some workers are so low that they must work 70 hours a week just to pay the bills. That is the reality of life for Edith Figueroa, a grandmother from Boston whom I met while making a video for The Guardian on the Fight for $15, a campaign among fast food workers for union rights and a living wage.

The Fight for $15 is part of a wider labour-movement that is developing across the United States where the number of unionised workers has tumbled since the 1970s. In New York City, workers are building confidence under the banner of groups like the Laundry Workers Center (LWC). The LWC challenge businesses that use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to criminalise legitimate protest. And in Seattle, legislators are responding to worker-demands by increasing the minimum wage to $15.

The struggle by America’s fast food workers is an important chapter in the movement to challenge US income inequality which stands at an all time high. Incensed by the injustice of corporate chief executives earning 300 times the average worker, Sabrina Johnson, who also features in my video, is motivated by the bond she shares with fellow low-paid workers, many of whom, like her, are black women. So, while despair might be a feature of their daily routine, Johnson and Figueroa, both expressed optimism that their fight for a decent wage can be won.

 

 

HAVANA, CUBA

Havana streetscene. Photo: Tom Pietrasik May 2014 Havana, Cuba (Tom Pietrasik)Havana, Cuba ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Havana, Cuba last year. I was there to make a short film – about which I will write more soon – but was able to take a little time out to photograph too.

My visit took place just a few months before President Obama announced that his administration would begin talks to end the US’ economic blockade of Cuba. The 50 year-old blockade is still in place and continues despite condemnation by all but two countries (the US and Israel) at the UN.

Havana streetscenes. Photo: Tom Pietrasik May 2014 Havana, Cuba (Tom Pietrasik) Havana, Cuba ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

The coming years will be a test for Cuba as money begins to favour particular parts of the economy over others. Many taxi drivers in Havana already earn more than doctors and such disparities are only likely to increase pressure on Cuba’s socialist economy.

It would be nice to think that a thawing in Washington’s attitude towards Havana might signal a period of bonhomie. Cubans, for example, could learn a lot from US technological expertise and in return provide Americans advice on building an exemplary healthcare system. Such hopes will likely seem naive given recent history but ordinary Cubans will take some comfort from a recent poll that shows almost two-thirds of American voters support a lifting of the blockade.

Havana streetscenes. Photo: Tom Pietrasik May 2014 Havana, Cuba (Tom Pietrasik) Havana, Cuba ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

TEN YEARS SINCE THE ASIAN TSUNAMI

On Diwali Day, Krishnamurthy visits the beach with three of his daughters and a cousin close to their old home in Pudupettai. This is the first time the sisters had visited the beach since the tsunami. LtoR: Jayapriya, Bhanpriya and Sivaranjini. These photographs encompass four years in the lives of two families of children from South India who lost their mothers to the Asian tsunami. Following that momentous event in 2004, the five Krishnamurthy sisters from Puddupettai went to live in the Cuddalore Government Special Home for Tsunami Children. And Vijitha and Vijyashree Viswanathan, after an initial brief spell at the same home, now live with their father and his new wife in the nearby fishing village of Thalanguda.  Each child affected by the tsunami had to adapt to changed circumstances and cope with emotions no one in their family could have possibly anticipated. The younger children seemed to adjust more quickly than their older siblings. And, while grief rendered some silent, in others it provoked a real sense of anger. Some became withdrawn while others craved attention and resorted to disruptive behavior. For all of the children, the experience of losing a parent seemed to strengthen the bond they shared with their brothers and sisters.  The loss of a parent meant that some of the children photographed in this project inherited responsibilities that, while often a burden, provided a distraction from their own painful emotions. Sivaranjini Krishnamurthy lost her mother to the tsunami and then, together with her four younger sisters was abandoned by her father. At eleven years of age she took on the role of a mother to her younger sisters. Though she attends school and receives the support of orphanage staff, Sivaranjini has sacrificed much of her own childhood to take care of them.  For Sivaranjini and the other children whose experiences are presented here, the tsunami is a defining event in their lives; the terrible personal upheaval they have suffered (Tom Pietrasik)Sisters Bhanpriya and Sivaranjini Krishnamurthy who lost their mother to the tsunami, play on the beach at Pudupettai. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2006

It is difficult to believe that it is already ten years since the Boxing Day tsunami destroyed thousands of lives across coastal south and south east Asia. Indonesia bore the brunt of the waves but many lives were also lost in Sri Lanka and south India.

 A fishermen returns with his catch on the coast that runs behind Samanthanpettai village on the northern outskirts of Nagapattinam. This area saw the greatest devastation in India by the Asian Tsunami of 2004. ..Photo: Tom Pietrasik.Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, India..October 18th 2006 (Tom Pietrasik)A fishermen returns with his catch on the coast near Nagapattinam. This area saw the greatest devastation in India by the Asian tsunami of 2004. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2006

I was living in New Delhi at the time and arrived on the Sri Lankan coast 24 hours after the first waves hit the shore. It was difficult for anyone to comprehend the scale of the disaster and it took many months and years for those affected to recover. While the destructive force of the tsunami itself generated significant international interest, it was the slower process of rehabilitation that provided insight into just how individuals and institutions cope with and respond to calamity and grief.

 Vijyashree (left, age 7) and Vijitha Viswanathan (age 9) with their maternal grandmother Govindammal (age 70) at her home in the Pudhupattinam tsunami temporary relief camp. These photographs encompass four years in the lives of two families of children from South India who lost their mothers to the Asian tsunami. Following that momentous event in 2004, the five Krishnamurthy sisters from Puddupettai went to live in the Cuddalore Government Special Home for Tsunami Children. And Vijitha and Vijyashree Viswanathan, after an initial brief spell at the same home, now live with their father and his new wife in the nearby fishing village of Thalanguda.  Each child affected by the tsunami had to adapt to changed circumstances and cope with emotions no one in their family could have possibly anticipated. The younger children seemed to adjust more quickly than their older siblings. And, while grief rendered some silent, in others it provoked a real sense of anger. Some became withdrawn while others craved attention and resorted to disruptive behavior. For all of the children, the experience of losing a parent seemed to strengthen the bond they shared with their brothers and sisters.  The loss of a parent meant that some of the children photographed in this project inherited responsibilities that, while often a burden, provided a distraction from their own painful emotions. Sivaranjini Krishnamurthy lost her mother to the tsunami and then, together with her four younger sisters was abandoned by her father. At eleven years of age she took on the role of a mother to her younger sisters. Though she attends school and receives the support of orphanage staff, Sivaranjini has sacrificed much of her own childhood to take care of them.  For Sivaranjini and the other children whose experiences are presented here, the tsunami is a defining event in their lives; the terrible personal upheaval they have suffered will inevitably shape all of their futures.  Photo: Tom Pietrasik Tami (Tom Pietrasik)Vijyashree & Vijita Viswanathan with their mathernal grandmother Govindamma at her home in the Pudhupattinam tsunami temporary relief camp, six moths after the tsunami. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2005

Working initially with The Times Magazine in London and later with UNICEF, I followed the lives of children from south India who lost parents in the tsunami. My photographs, taken over a period of four years focussed on the lives of two families of children from Tamil Nadu state who lost at least one of their parents to the tsunami.

 Anjalakshi, age 9, (in red) visits a temple in Pudupettai to mark the Hindu festival of Diwali. She is accompanied by their sisters and maternal grandmother Chitra (yellow sari). The Krishnamurthy sisters spent the Diwali weekend visiting relatives while staying with their father in their home town of Puddupettai.  The five Krishnamurthy sisters from Pudupettai in Tamil Nadu lost their mother to the 2004 Asian Tsunami. Their father declared himself unable to raise his daughters and, like many other tsunami widowers, placed them in the care of a government orphanage. He has since remarried. The sisters, now aged between 6 and 14, have lived with 120 other orphaned children in Cuddalore's Government Home for Tsunami Children since January 2005. Though of course the detail of their lives is unique, the Krishnamurthy sisters share many experiences with other tsunami-orphans in Tamil Nadu and across the tsunami-affected region.  According to staff at the government home, Sivaranjini, age 14, has begun to loose interest in her studies. She fared badly in recent examinations which staff attribute to the poor education she received before the tsunami. The other four sisters are doing well at school. Sivaranjini continues to be a very committed elder sister, undertaking many of a tasks for which a mother would normally be responsible. Sivaranjini washes her sisters' clothes, helps with their studies, offers affection and, when appropriate, administers punishment.  Krishnamurthy, the sisters father, visits the orphange once or twice a month. His sister Kamasala visits more regularly but reserves most of her attention for Sivapriya, age 12. Sivapriya used to live with her paternal aunt before the tsunami. Like other children at the orphange, the five sisters also spend religious festivals and the annual school holidays with their father and extended family. During these periods the Krishnamurthy sisters are treated to gifts and lavished attention from family and friends in (Tom Pietrasik)Anjalakshi Krishnamurthy, age 9, (in red) visits a temple in Pudupettai with relatives during the Hindu festival of Diwali. Anjalakshi lost her mother to the tsunami. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007

Each child had to adapt to changed circumstances and cope with emotions no one in their family could have possibly anticipated. The younger children seemed to adjust more quickly than their older siblings. And, while grief rendered some silent, in others it provoked a real sense of anger. Some children became withdrawn while others craved attention and resorted to disruptive behaviour. For all of the children, the experience of losing a parent seemed to strengthen the bond they shared with their brothers and sisters.

While her step-mother makes breakfast, Vijyashree Viswanathan cares for her brother at home in Thalanguda. Vijyashree lost her mother and first brother to the Tsunami. Since then her father has remarried and now has two children by his second wife. Vijitha and Vijyashree Viswanathan, now age 12 and 10, lost their mother and younger brother to the 2004 Asian Tsunami. The sisters continue to live with their father Viswanathan in a small house in the fishing village of Thalanguda, 5km from Cuddalore. The house does not have a toilet and water is supplied for only a short period of the day. Viswanathan married Kayalvizhi just over a year after the tsunami and the couple now have a son born in December 2006. Of the two sisters it was the elder Vijitha who initially appeared more distressed at her mother's death. But in the subsequent three years she has come to terms with her loss and seems better equipped to face the challenges of growing up without the support of her mother. In contrast Vijyashree, whos younger age may have insulated her from some of the grief experience by her sister, has fallen back in her studies becoming moody, withdrawn and reticent. Vijyashree has suffered fits for a number of years but in the past twelve months these have become more frequent. Viswanathan blames the drugs prescribed to treat his daughter's condition for her moodiness. Another explanation could be the arrival of Vijyashree's half-brother Sanjay with whom she must now compete for the affections of her father. Kayalvizhi does not appear particularly sensitive to the needs of her adopted daughters though her position cannot be easy, particularly when burdened with the task of raising a baby. Viswanathan's sister-in-law Shanthi is especially scathing of Kayalvizhi's indifference to Vijitha and Vijyashree and questions whether the girls should be expected to clean the house, clean utensils and prepare themselves for school. Shanthi complains that the girls must come to her for affect (Tom Pietrasik)Vijyashree Viswanathan, age 10, cares for her brother at home in Thalanguda. Vijyashree lost her mother and first brother to the Tsunami. Since then her father has remarried and now has two children by his second wife. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007

The loss of a parent meant that some children I photographed inherited responsibilities that provided distraction from their own painful emotions. Sivaranjini Krishnamurthy lost her mother to the tsunami. She and her four younger sisters were then placed in an orphanage by their father. At twelve years old, Sivaranjini took on the role of a mother to her younger sisters. Though she continued to attend school and received the support of orphanage staff, she sacrificed much of her own childhood to take care of her siblings.

For Sivaranjini and the other children whose experiences I photographed, the tsunami of 2004 was a defining event in their lives and the terrible personal upheaval they suffered shaped all of their futures. I will be thinking of them today.

Vijitha places flowers in the sand on the beach close to the location of her mother's death in the tsunami.  These photographs encompass four years in the lives of two families of children from South India who lost their mothers to the Asian tsunami. Following that momentous event in 2004, the five Krishnamurthy sisters from Puddupettai went to live in the Cuddalore Government Special Home for Tsunami Children. And Vijitha and Vijyashree Viswanathan, after an initial brief spell at the same home, now live with their father and his new wife in the nearby fishing village of Thalanguda.  Each child affected by the tsunami had to adapt to changed circumstances and cope with emotions no one in their family could have possibly anticipated. The younger children seemed to adjust more quickly than their older siblings. And, while grief rendered some silent, in others it provoked a real sense of anger. Some became withdrawn while others craved attention and resorted to disruptive behavior. For all of the children, the experience of losing a parent seemed to strengthen the bond they shared with their brothers and sisters.  The loss of a parent meant that some of the children photographed in this project inherited responsibilities that, while often a burden, provided a distraction from their own painful emotions. Sivaranjini Krishnamurthy lost her mother to the tsunami and then, together with her four younger sisters was abandoned by her father. At eleven years of age she took on the role of a mother to her younger sisters. Though she attends school and receives the support of orphanage staff, Sivaranjini has sacrificed much of her own childhood to take care of them.  For Sivaranjini and the other children whose experiences are presented here, the tsunami is a defining event in their lives; the terrible personal upheaval they have suffered will inevitably shape all of their futures.  Photo: Tom Pietrasik Tamil Nadu, India December 2008 THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS THE COPYRIGHT OF (Tom Pietrasik)Vijitha Viswanathan places flowers in the sand on the beach close to where her mother died in the 2004 Asian tsunami. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008

SURVEY ON THE ETHICS OF PHOTOGRAPHY

A couple at a Kolkata market. Photo: Tom Pietrasik April 14th 2014 Kolkata, India (Tom Pietrasik)Posing for a portrait usually indicates consent to be photographed. A young couple out shopping on a busy weekend in Kolkata. India ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

The British Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) are working with The School for International Development at UEA to conduct a survey on the ethics of photographing development issues. I’d been directed to this survey by Duckrabbit who frequently discuss such issues on their blog.

If you are a photographer and/or filmmaker, please consider offering your thoughts too. It should not require too much time to answer the nine questions – though I certainly spent more than the five minutes Duckrabbit suggested it would take!

I’ve listed my lightly-edited response to the main questions in the survey below. My answers are not intended to be all-encompassing but they do summarise my thoughts, particularly on the subject of consent about which I’ve written before.

At home Vasanti (centre) and daughters Shrudha, 10 (HIV positive, in pink), Shubhada, 11 (HIV negative, foreground) and Vrinda, 8 (status not known). Vasanti Shinde, 26, works for the Save Foundation.  Like many of the women who work for and with UNDP partners the Save Foundation, Vasanti Shinde, age 26, only found out that she was HIV positive after her husband became seriously ill with an AIDS-related illness five years ago. Vasanti's husband subsequently died. Vasanti now lives with her two younger daughters Shrudha, age 10, and Vrinda, 8, in the one-room home of her brother in Sangli city. Vasanti's elder daughter, eleven year old Shubhada is being brought up by her paternal grandmother and sees her mother during holidays. Vasanti knows that Shubhada is HIV negative and Shruda is positive but anxiety over the result means that she refuses to have Vrinda tested for HIV. For a monthly income of Rs.3500, Vasanti works as a field officer and counselor for the Save Foundation. She works in the positive-people's pharmacy for no pay. Her work with the Save Foundation entitles her access to a credit union which provides low interest loans covering medical expenses. Though first-line drugs and homeopathic medicine keep Vasanti healthy, she is prone to infection and recently suffered a bout of influenza. Vasanti is completely open about her HIV status and most of her neighbours know that she is HIV positive. Vasanti says that "I used to feel like I was going to die. Now, because of the Save Foundation, I feel like I'm going to live."  Photo: Tom Pietrasik Sangli, Maharashtra. India August 28th 2008 (Tom Pietrasik)Vasanti Shinde provided me written consent to photograph her at home with her daughters. Shinde works for an HIV-positive network called the Save Foundation and is open about her HIV-positive status. Maharashtra, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008

What are the ways you collect consent for ethical usage of images ? e.g. written, audio, video, other. Explain. If I am photographing a sensitive subject like HIV/AIDS I will get written consent (as with the photograph above). If I am photographing any other situation that involves me going into someone’s private space, I will ask for consent but this is almost always aural and I rarely record this consent. If people decline then of course I do not photograph them.

While it is incredibly important to respect the people you photograph I have worked extensively in India and I sometimes wonder what value a consent form has when presented to an illiterate person who has little understanding of the world beyond their village. In India (and perhaps other countries too), there is a reluctance to sign your name to anything. Many families have lost land or relinquished rights because they have signed their name on a piece of paper. In this context, the logical response to someone holding out a consent form is to ask: what do they want to take from me?

 Market traders and busy traffic during evening rush hour in Dhaka.      Photo: Tom Pietrasik Dhaka, Bangladesh November 9th 2014 (Tom Pietrasik)This man knew I was photographing him. He was in a public space so I did not consider that I required more formal consent. A market trader and busy traffic during evening rush hour in Dhaka. Bangladesh ©Tom Pietrasik 2014

If I am in a public area, I do not seek the consent of everyone who is depicted in the photograph because this is just not practical. I look at photographs, past and present, that have real historical or cultural value. I think it unlikely that all but a very few (whether in the Developed or Developing world) were taken with explicit consent. Yet these photographs can be incredibly valuable in expressing empathy and contributing to our understanding of each other and of the past. Some of these photographs record significant historical events. Photography that is authentic and true to a subject must be encouraged when so many photographs that do involve consent (advertising, selfies etc) are concocted images of reality.

How do you capture an ethical representation of your subject to avoid issues like cultural or stereotypical misrepresentations?  When photographing, I hope to influence my subjects as little as possible. This is of course never completely achievable but by remaining an observer, reducing my input into a scene and revealing as little of my own feelings as possible, I try to capture activity as authentically as possible. For example – without being rude – I do not respond when children play to the camera. Capturing photographs of children doing what children do when there is no camera is the outcome I seek. I also think respecting the dignity of a subject is fundamental. I ask myself: would I be happy to be photographed in this way?

Sameer plays an evening game with his children Salina and Shabikur outside their home. The rag-picking community of Shanti Busti (literally "Peace Slum") which comprises 210 households have been living and working in Lucknow for the past twenty years. Originally from Assam, their language and culture differs from the wider population of Lucknow who speak Hindi. The low status of the rag-pickers' work together with their minority status as Muslims speaking Assamese makes them particularly vulnerable to stigma and discrimination. The rag-pickers also suffer insecurity of tenure over the land upon which Shanti Busti is built. Families pay a rent of INR100-150 (GB£1.25-GB£1.90) to a "landlord" who provides then some protection from eviction by the government. The community's status is further undermined by the fact that many in wider society falsely charge them with being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This effectively denies the rag-pickers claim to any of the rights and services afforded to other Indians including the right to vote. Without political representation the people of Shanti Busti rely on the work of Oxfam and its partners for the provision of basic services.  Sahera Khatoon is ten years old. She lives with her two parents and five of her six siblings in a small shack built of discarded plastic sacking and bamboo poles. Sahera's father Sameer and mother Zohra arrived from Barpeta district in Assam 21 years ago. They and their families were poor landless labourers suffering the financial insecurity that comes with irregular work. Like many of their neighbours in Barpeta district, they were encouraged to make the journey to Lucknow by a refuge contractor who promised a regular income in return for their labour. It is a measure of the desperate circumstances faced by Sameer and Zohra that their life in Shanti Busti is preferable to the circumstances they left behind in Barpeta district. Collecting rubbish is hazardous and as well as the health-risks o (Tom Pietrasik, Tom Pietrasik, To/Tom Pietrasik)Photographing people whose experience and culture is very different from my own requires sensitivity and respect. A man from the rag-picking community of Shanti Busti plays with his children after a day of work. Lucknow, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008

If you are given a brief which is different to your working process or may conflict with your ethical practices; how would you handle this? I would make my feelings known. I like to think people assign me because of my approach and the experience I can bring to a project and will therefor respect my opinion when planning for an assignment. There are times when I have photographed events which I’m not entirely comfortable with. For example a British celebrity in the home of a bewildered rural Indian family. I certainly would not want to photograph these situations every day (and do so rarely) but I do not consider this sufficient a conflict in my mind to warrant me declining the work.

Permission to make this video on post-conflict resolution in Uganda for Christian Aid required the payment of a fee to the head of the village in which I filmed.

Do you think people should be paid for being photographed? (e.g. cash, food, transport, given copies of photos). Consider your answer in relation to context and cultural norms. ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and please explain why. I would say no but if someone has taken a day off work to be photographed then I would compensate them for their time. I almost never pay people for being photographed or filmed. I worked in Uganda recently and the only way to film people in a particular village (see video above) was to pay the head of the village. But paying almost always influences the relationship between a photographer and a subject. Subjects are more likely to perform for the camera. They might walk to into a public street and be photographed alongside a dozen others who may also want to be paid and resent it when they are not. It is much better to arrange for copies of photos to be given as compensation.

Anoopi (with paler green paisley-design sari) And others from the Saharia community challenge a Public Distribution System (PDS or government ration system) employee (on bike) about the failure to supply forty Sahariya people a ration card renewal...Anoopi from Gopalapura's Sahariya community in Shivpuri District, has no real household. She works a domestic servant for six Sikh families for which she receives Rs.20 (£0.25) from each per month. Anoopi also collects medicinal leaves and bark from the forest which is sold on to a broker. She is not aware of how much her labour is worth to the brokers but she earns about Rs.5-10 per bundle of leaves she collects...Sahariya are an indiginous tribe who traditionally lived in and off the forest. Residing in the north Indian states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and parts of Madhya Pradesh (MP) including Shivpuri District, they have never been granted proper land-owning rights. As a result they have endured a fragile existence, working as agricultural day-wage labourers they have been unable to plan for the future or save for hard times. The community suffer from malnutrition, low levels of literacy and under-representation in the administration and government. The Indian Forest Ministry accuse the Sahariya of trespassing government land and many Sahariya have been forced to migrate in search of jobs. Recent migrants to Shivpuri District in MP, including the Sikh and higher caste Gujjar community, have been more adept at claiming land rights, often at the expense of the Sahariya. Since the mid-1990s however the Sahariya have been granted the lease of land from the government allowing them to sow crops including wheat, chick-peas and soya beans both for the market and their own needs. Over this period, the Sahariya have become more organised and confident at confronting local prejudice and official indifference to their plight. Drought and poor harvests between 2000 and 2004 set the community back but since then they have (Tom Pietrasik)The public-interest should take precedence if objections are raised to a photograph being taken. Residents of the low-caste Saharia community challenge a government employee about his failure to supply them ration cards. Madhya Pradesh, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007

What advice would you give to an inexperienced photographer about collecting consent? Make sure people understand why you are photographing them. If they raise an objection, walk away. It is wrong to photograph in such a situation (unless in the public interest: for example a public official failing to fulfil their duty as in the photograph above) and you rarely end up with decent photographs anyway. 

CNN INTERVIEW ME ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHING IN INDIA


CNN International just interviewed me about my experience of photographing in India as part of their series Parting Shots. Its a short segment in which I discuss the privilege of working in India over the past fifteen years and my thoughts on issues around the recent national election.

CNN have also recently profiled the work of photographers Arash Khamooshi and Steve McCurry as part of this series.