Faking it, Making it, and Freelance Reporting in Bangladesh
Focus, I blinked my salt-bitten eye against the wet rubber of the viewfinder. The afternoon sun tongued the back of my neck. I knew I had seconds before another wave of village children ran in front of the lens, spoiling my shot.
I stopped up one full step. Fired off another round of exposures.
In the sun-bleached crucible of the Noakhali delta one could never be too sure. I flipped my camera to inspect the preview jpegs. Sweat slid off my forehead and soaked the LCD before I could make out more than a blur of colourful cloth. The leader of the women in front of me cocked her head, asking whether her group’s posing work was done. I mopped the screen with my linen shirt. And then came the kids. D7000 a full arm’s length above my head, I waded through the sea of topless boys to present my work.
I’d been in Bangladesh less than a week before receiving my invitation to shoot the landless peoples of Noakhali. I’d been asked to visit Dhaka by a university friend interning with a local NGO focused on migration. After six months of false starts I had yet to make any substantial leads in the international journalism sphere I was so eager to shoehorn my way into and the opportunity to visit a less touristed region of the subcontinent while surrounding myself with people versed in the country’s issues seemed like the perfect environment to chase stories.
Considering its reputation as the least liveable city on earth, Dhaka felt like the place to be. Sidewalks were choked with photographic faces. Human rights issues bubbled up in even the most casual conversations. Marguerite and her two roommates worked at separate NGOs and all three were eager to share the development work that was being done in a country painted black by the majority of the outside world. Within my first few days in the smog-stained metropolis I’d met journalists and photographers and had been given the names of the diplomats and businessmen who could no doubt serve as valuable interviews once I chose a story to pursue. By the time one roommate, Em, scored me an invite along with her NGO to shoot portraits and conduct interviews with the landless groups of Noakhali, all I was missing was a buyer. I told myself that would come with time.
Unlike the majority of the western world, no one in Bangladesh denies climate change. A population quickly approaching 200 million sees its direct effects on a near daily basis. River bank erosion devours valuable agricultural lands. Monsoons crash down on the country from June until October, causing mass seasonal migration, and cyclones turn villages into burial grounds every 1.8 years. Environmental disaster, through one means or another, had stripped the peoples we planned to visit of their ancestral territories and although sea-level fluctuations had churned up new land these were often snatched up by land grabbers through violence or political tricks. Em’s NGO had been facilitating discussions with both male and female groups in the region who banded together to defend and recapture their shrinking land. I had volunteered to shoot portraits of the landless peoples for the NGO’s various media outlets. Additionally, I mentioned that I planned to pitch the story to a handful of media outlets upon my return.
As a young freelance writer I knew better than to promise anything without an actual print guarantee. I’d received enough rejection letters and more than enough flat out snuffs to understand that content delivery is only one variable in the publication formula. There’s also the pitch game itself, the gamut of editors to run, and, of course, the sheer dumb luck of capturing the right story at the right time. In Noakhali, I tried to phrase my introductions in order to make this clear—I’m working on a story I plan on pitching to x or y—but as soon as I uttered the name of a larger, glossy journal, my audience’s eyes would light up and my remaining words would be lost.
“This is Jeff McAllister, he’s working on a feature for Al Jazeera.” My role in the expedition began to snowball with each translation from English to Bangla to English again. It reminded me of a scene that had repeated itself countless times while being solicited by hoteliers on the trains through Sri Lanka:
Enter a strongly cologned man; guestbook snuggled into his armpit to free his right hand, card case palmed in his left Both items hit the aluminum tray in front of you before you have the chance to look up. The man offers his hand as he takes a seat.
“Hello. What do you do sir?”
“I’m a journalist.”
“I think you are a writer for Lonely Planet or something like that.”
“Let me share a tip: if someone tells you they work for Lonely Planet while discussing a room at your hotel, I can almost guarantee he doesn’t actually work for Lonely Planet.”
Card case snaps closed like a castanet.
“That’s too bad. I could have arranged something very special for you.”
When people ask what I like most about South Asian culture, my answer is always the openness and honesty of the community. From the shameless way friends speak of their affections toward one another to the questionless manner with which peoples are willing to extend their connections, there’s a celebration of humanity around the Indian subcontinent that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Over the last six months I’d been invited to weddings and treated to feasts. I’d been smoked up and put up in five star hotels. My most memorable meal was purchased for me by a taxi driver enroute to the Yangon airport after I’d told him I was skipping breakfast because I only had a few Kyat left and I wanted to use them to pay him a fair rate.
There’s a theory I’ve built up through all these increasingly personal interactions: whether it’s name-dropping, food swapping, or letting the panhandler on the side of the road wear your Ray Bans while you escape the mid-afternoon sun for a couple fingers of chai, there’s no better way to gain a man’s loyalty than presenting him with something that you value. In a region plagued by corruption, the best insurance can be purchased through trust. Show a man that you’re willing to invest yourself in him and he’ll do just about anything to reward your belief.
The concept of networking is nothing new to the West either but back home it seems like a misnomer. Beneath the overly firm handshakes, the forced smiles, and the subdued intimidation tactics, the whole practice is inherently self-absorbed. Our culture’s recent replacement of the person with the personal brand has made any social situation outside of long-term friendship feel like a labyrinth of smoke and mirrors. ‘Fake it ‘til we make it’ we’re told, and when trying to out fake a room full of fakers the hyperboles stack to impossible levels. I’d played the game before, in application forms and job interviews, but on this side of the world, where the playing field had been re-leveled, that whole act felt impossibly wrong. It was only when presented with the perfect alias of international staff reporter—a position I wanted more than anything else—that I realized how hollow the titles themselves actually are. When used out of context, the words felt stripped of their significance. I couldn’t defile the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world.
A pre-monsoon rain whipped the wooden shutters of the old two-story house in residential Mymensingh.
“Will you be blogging about your trip to Noakhali?”
“You really shouldn’t tell people that.”
The room was filled with white-bearded Bangladeshis chewing pan and grilling me on my purpose for visiting their country. Each time I attempted to explain that I didn’t actually work in Bangladesh like so many other bedeshis that had passed through their hospitality they exchanged glances of suspicion. I was in the country as a tourist, I said. I had shot some photos for a few local NGOs as a way of supporting their cause, but I certainly wasn’t affiliated with them beyond that. Yes, I planned to write a story on what I discovered in Noakhali, but if and where it would be printed I was unsure.
“If you say you are here to work with those NGOs you are helping I think that would be more fine,” one man offered before pressing a tightly wrapped package of betel-leaf into his right cheek. The red-mouthed majority nodded in agreement. It was a sentiment that had been echoed by countless mentors—throughout Sumatra, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and now Bangladesh—and one I’d deliberately disobeyed again and again.
In the same way I found it difficult to hyperbolize, I found it impossible to lie. In the presence of the people who seemed so selfless in their willingness to help me, it felt like a direct violation of Asia’s honor code. But there was a personal element to my resistance as well: perhaps selfish and foolish given the stakes, but equally important to my decision. I felt the need to say the word journalist not only because it reminded me of what I’d spent the last few years working toward but because of what I was risking my safety and going broke on the other side of the world to chase. I couldn’t rightfully stretch the truth but I also couldn’t discount the work I was doing. To lie—through either extrapolation or euphemism—would fictionalize something four years of pessimistic art school teachers, a handful of stagnant jobs, and can’t-shut-up-about-how-crippled-it-is economy had conditioned me and my peers to view of as intangible.
By the time our interviews drew to a close the sun bobbed lazily along the palm-studded horizon. The lighting was better than it had been all day but I was exhausted and knew my best work was behind me. I sat behind Em, scanning her transcriptions. Our translator fielded questions from an increasingly out-spoken crowd.
“What is the purpose of these discussions and how will they help our cause?”
Em explained the reason she had come to Bangladesh and the general scope of a paper on women’s empowerment she would submit to her university back home. The goal was to raise global awareness as to the landless people’s plight.
“It’s a slow process,” she said. “But it works.”
“And you will share our stories with the people of your country?” A leather-faced woman asked. Her amber-eyes kicked off the dying sun, despite the canopy of an emerald scarf. I held those golden eyes—did my best to project the speechless form of communication I’d spend the last six months mastering.
You have no clue how hard I am trying.