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Interview: Migrants ‘need to tell their story’

Photographer John Hulme at the opening of his exhibition "Beyond Tolerance: Living Together with Migrants" at Rangoon's Deitta Gallery on 28 October 2016. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

“Beyond Tolerance: Living Together with Migrants” is an exhibition of the work of photographer John Hulme that gives a revealing glimpse into the lives of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. The exhibition — a collaboration with the Mekong Migrant Network, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to promote awareness of issues affecting migrants in the Greater Mekong Subregion — opened on Friday at Rangoon’s Deitta Gallery following showings earlier this month in Bangkok and Phnom Penh. DVB spoke to Hulme at the gallery about what he has learned about the lives of migrants from the many years that he has spent photographing them.

(All photos by John Hulme unless otherwise stated.)

Question: How did you gain access to the migrant communities that you feature in your photographs?

Answer: I started to develop contacts with NGOs, which is really a crucial element for documentary work, where you want to get into the community and you can’t just get out of a taxi and wander around. One reason is you don’t know what’s going on. And people there don’t know who you are. So I always make a point of working with people who know the community, to connect with those there before going to the area to take photographs.

Q: Some of the scenes you’ve photographed are in the seafood industry, construction and factories. Why were you attracted to these scenes?

A: In the ’90s I was doing a lot of work in and around Mae Sot documenting the refugee situation, and spending so long in Mae Sot I became aware of the huge issues of migrants in the town. So I started following a few groups around [and] hung out at a few factories. After a short while I began to develop more of an interest in the migrant story. I spent several weeks in Ranong, the fish port and dry docks [in southern Thailand] and also documented the lives of migrant workers doing construction work in Chiang Mai. So all these started to form a bigger picture of migrant workers in Thailand.

Q: Did you have an aim when you started documenting migrant workers?

A: The reason I followed it up was because I felt the topic of migrant workers and their conditions was going to become more pertinent. So 10 years ago I started to [take notice of] this issue, and not just as something in Southeast Asia. Now in 2016 we see a big problem in the Americas and Europe, with migrants trying to escape the same kind of issues of impoverishment and persecution. I was aware it was going to be an issue that was going to unfold.

Q: Have you seen conditions change over the years for migrant workers in Southeast Asia?

A: Conditions haven’t improved at all. Nothing has changed for the migrant situation and the conditions are much the same as what I saw 13 years ago. The conditions in factories may have improved slightly, but migrant workers are still paid very poorly and are susceptible to exploitation.

Q: Was there any one story that really stood out for you over the years?

A: One of my earliest experiences was in about 2004 in Mae Sot … in one particular factory, the Nasawant apparel factory. The 360 workers there hadn’t been paid in something like three months, so they were taking their case to the owners and nothing was happening. So they took the only industrial action they could, which was demonstrating in the town. I followed them, and when they went back to the factory they were locked out by the owners. They couldn’t get back in, and some of the mothers had their young children sleeping inside under the machines, and [none of the workers could] get their personal belongings. They were completely shut off and took refuge in a temple. I spent three days with them, trying to give them some coverage; I got one story published on the Internet. After a few days, the immigration and police arrived and it was pandemonium, and they were taken away.

Q: Are there some moments or faces that have really stayed with you long after you photographed them?

A: There was one woman with a newborn baby who went out to the docks to meet her husband, and he wasn’t on the boat. He was shot and had been thrown overboard. He’d had an argument with the skipper and the skipper and first mate were Thai and the rest of the workers were Burmese with no papers. So they just did away with him — that was a really shocking tragedy that brought home to me the realities that they face.

Q: In those moments do you sometimes choose not to photograph?

A: It depends on the situation. I am compelled to make the images with the intent that I am responsible for trying to make a historical record. Photography is very important and can give a visual truth to the situation. I’m not ruthless, but [I will take photos] if people are comfortable with me, and I try to be as non-intrusive as possible. I am very aware of how people are reacting.

One thing that people tend to overlook is that migrants or refugees don’t live in a vacuum. They might have access to TVs, radios; they certainly have communication with the external world, and they are aware that stories get out. With the situation they are confronting every day, they need to tell their story.

Q: What can you tell me about this exhibition?

Mekong Migrant Network invited me to take on this project, looking at four countries — two countries where migrants migrate from and two destination countries. This experience over the last six months has given me a really clear indication of the legal developments, how governments respond, and what NGOs might do in the community.