Portraits of Commitment: New face of HIV/AIDS in Asia

Sabina Yeasmin Putul, photo by Shahidul Alam

Today, 1 December, is World AIDS Day — and this is the new face of HIV/AIDS in Asia.

Well, at least one of 50 faces that my friend Shahidul Alam captured during this year for a UNAIDS-published book titled ‘Portraits of Commitment: Why people become leaders in the AIDS response’.

It profiles men and women who are confronting HIV/AIDS in their lives, professions, work places and families in a variety of ways, each of them remarkable and courageous.

In August 2007, Shahidul held an exhibition in Colombo that featured the South Asians who were photographed for the book. Adorning the cover of the exhibition brochure was this 17-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Sabina Yeasmin Putul.

And this is what Karen Yap Lih Huey of Inter Press Service/TerraViva wrote about her and the exhibition:

Sabina Yeasmin Putul has a silent, determined look with her left fist clenched tight in front of her face – a vision of strength, grace, and resilience all in one.

The 17-year-old Bangladeshi has a lot going for her. Mature beyond her age, she had a good understanding of what she has been through, as a daughter of a sex worker, and of how society sees and judges her. And she probably doesn’t know this – that her struggles inspired respected Bangladeshi photographer, writer and activist Shahidul Alam.

“The way she tackles issues regarding her mother and the people around her is powerful. Of course, among other things, she did martial arts and I thought rather than showing child of a sex worker, I photographed her as this powerful woman who came across with powerful ideas,” said Alam, managing director and founder of the Dhaka-based Drik Photo Library.

Posters of her in a martial arts pose was the face for Shahidul’s photography exhibition, a project produced by a team from Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography which is the education wing of the award-winning agency Drik.

Read the article in full on IPS/TerraViva

Read my Aug 2007 blog post on another Portrait of Courage: Rajiv Kafle of Nepal

Photograph by Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld

“Hands up who is poor, speaks English – and looks good on TV!”

“Hands up who is poor, speaks English – and looks good on TV!”

With that title, I opened my panel remarks to the 8th Annual Symposium on Poverty Research in Sri Lanka on the morning of 30 November 2007.

Sri Lanka’s Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) had invited me to speak during a session on ‘Taking it off the page: Alternative mediums of communication to influence change’. The theme of the overall symposium was ‘Communicating research and influencing change’.

Part of my talk was on challenges in using moving images to communicate development related research. The other part was on how most sections of the mainstream media covers stories of the poor — or those living at the bottom of the income pyramid.

I noted that as Asia’s billions strive for a better today and better tomorrow, there are millions of stories at the bottom of the pyramid. But most mainstream media manage to miss these stories due to their ignorance, or arrogance, or both.

But reporting from the bottom of the pyramid need not be all about doom, gloom and alarm. In fact, so much is happening there that a well informed story-teller won’t have much time to spend on negativity (while acknowledging a great deal of suffering that remains).


In my remarks, I emphasised that to discover these stories and tell them with empathy and accuracy, we as story-tellers need to recognise a few basic realities:
• The poor are not another species to be treated as if they were endangered! They are living and loving human beings as complex and nuanced as anyone in this room.
• Nor are the poor a ‘sub-human species’ with a simpler set of needs and aspirations. They have as many primary, secondary and tertiary needs – just like anyone else!
• When it comes to information, they have not only survival and practical information needs (which many development projects try to provide), but also what I call ‘information wants’ – cultural and social information – which many development projects completely ignore.
• The poor have opinions too — and are often more articulate and expressive when someone cares to listen and capture these.

So telling media stories from the Bottom of Pyramid needs the knowledge base, socio-cultural understanding and ethical framework in which to gather and process these stories. We at TVE Asia Pacific don’t claim to have got everything right, here are our basic rules of engagement:
• We treat the rich, middle class and poor alike – extending the same courtesy and respect (including obtaining personal clearances for interviews).
• We caption everyone on-screen by name and location, irrespective of their social and economic status.
• We film people – for interviews or generic footage – only with informed consent.
• Wherever possible, we take our the finished TV products back to where they were filmed and share with those who told us their stories. (We are not alone in this: I have written blog posts about Earthcare Films of India and the Brock Initiative of the UK who are also doing this.)

Our industry of broadcast TV is not always known for its class-less treatment of every human being with respect and dignity. In fact, the poor often become ‘Canon-fodder’ for camera crews looking for dramatic images of human suffering.

from-mediachannelorg.jpg from-mediachannelorg.jpg

The globalised media continue to use stereotyped images of the global South – captured mostly by northern photographers and camera crews. As my friend Shahidul Alam, founder of Drik Picture Library in Bangladesh, says: “Invariably, films about the plight of people in developing countries show how desperate and helpless they are…. Wide angle black and white shots, grainy, high contrast images characterise the typical third world helpless victim.”

This explained my title: “Hands up who is poor, speaks English and looks good on TV!” It’s a caricature of how some camera crews go looking for that convenient sound-bite with some doom-and-gloom visuals to match.

But it’s not just the northern media who sensationalise and oversimplify life at the bottom of the pyramid in the South. Many of our own media outlets, rooted in the cities and obsessed with middle class life styles, are also good (or bad) in this game!

And the media are not alone. When development agencies and ‘pro-poor’ activists presume – in their middle class arrogance – that the poor only need survival or sustenance related information, the latter is immediately reduced to sub-human status.

Nov 2005 op ed: Communication rights and communication wrongs

Nov 2006 op ed: Ethical news gathering: Al Jazeera’s biggest challenge

Aug 2007 blog post: Wanted: Ethical sourcing of international TV News

Moving images moving research…beyond academic circles!

Although I’ve dabbled in some media research at times, I don’t think of myself as a researcher. So when Sri Lanka’s Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) invited me to speak at their 8th Annual Symposium on Poverty Research in Sri Lanka, I spoke on what I know a little bit about — communicating research using the audio-visual media.

My panel remarks, delivered on the morning of 30 November 2007, were on ‘alternative mediums of communication to influence change’. I opened with the provocative title “Hands up who is poor, speaks English – and looks good on TV!” (see separate blog post on media related aspects of my talk).

These days, so much of research in physical, biological and social sciences is justified in the name of poverty reduction. Yes, studying and understanding development problems is the essential first step of solving them. But without properly communicating this research, the results won’t help the poor — or anyone else.

We at TVE Asia Pacific are committed to covering Asia’s development issues using TV, video and web. Our small challenge is to capture the many and varied facets of how Asians are working for a better today and better tomorrow. Reducing and eventually eliminating poverty is a significant part of that process.

As Asia’s billions strive for better lives, there are millions of stories at the bottom of the income pyramid. But most mainstream media manage to miss these stories due to their ignorance, or arrogance, or both.

For us, one key source of information and analysis is researchers – people who study trends and conditions, and keep reflecting on how and why. Their knowledge and insights are invaluable for us to tell stories from and about the bottom of the pyramid.


As I told the researchers in my audience: “Part of our challenge is to know what you are studying — and then figure out the public interest and human interest angles of your work. As communicating research to those outside the scientific or research communities is more an art than a science.”

I cited three recent examples where we had produced engaging TV/video content to communicate research directly relevant or related to the poor.

was our attempt to understand and document how information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing the way Asians live, work and play. We covered technologies such as Internet, computers, mobile phones and satellite communications applied in education, healthcare and rural business development. The knowledge base for this 2006 series came from IDRC’s Pan Asia programme which supports action research that addresses specific problems.

Also in 2006, we produced The Greenbelt Reports to take a close look at the environmental lessons of the Indian Ocean tsunami. We visited a dozen locations in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand to find out how community and conservation interests can be balanced in relation to coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes. In telling these stories, we worked with researchers from global agencies like IUCN the World Conservation Union and UNEP as well as national organisations like the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in India.

The Greenbelt Reports

Living Labs is our most recent series, released in March 2007. Filmed in 9 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, it looked at how researchers are addressing different aspects of a major challenge in agriculture: how to grow more food with less water. We worked with a global action research project called the CGIAR Challenge Programme on Water and Food, which gave us exclusive access to their on-going field work and emerging findings in nine major river basins of the developing world.


In telling these and other stories, we work within a certain framework we have defined for ourselves. Among its salient points:
• We don’t set out trying to communicate messages; we just want to tell good stories and development communication is a by-product.
• We look for under-reported/ignored development issues, or a less covered angle in a widely reported story.
• We don’t just talk to technical experts but to many other individuals involved or affected – women, men and children from all walks of life.
• We seek and accommodate different points of view, not allowing single-issue activists or one source to dominate/monopolise a story.
• Our finished products are informed by science but never immersed in science – we always keep in mind that our audience is non-specialsits.

All our stories cover real people dealing with real world issues and challenges. And since Asia has more people living in poverty than anywhere else in the world, most of the time our stories concern what’s happening at the bottom of the pyramid – or what can directly impact people living there.

And without exception, all these TV series and individuals films are available free of any license fees for broadcast, civil society and educational use. They are also available for online viewing at TVE Asia Pacific’s channel on YouTube.

Communicating research through moving images is not easy. Packing years of hard work into a few mins of engaging visuals and narration involves ruthless condensation which sometimes leaves some researcher egos bruised. When covering the work of large research organisations, we’ve also had deal with internal politics and hierarchies: for example, what to do when a junior researcher is more authentic and articulate than her supervisor?

Producing Living Labs based on filming in 9 countries on 3 continents in just 5 months during 2006 was a challenge in both logistics and political negotiations. As editor-in-chief, I had to balance the public accessibility of our end product with researchers’ keenness to pack their stories with facts and figures.


We didn’t please everyone. One senior researcher told us that his multi-faceted, multi-year nad multi-million dollar was like an elephant — and we’d only glimpsed just one part of that big creature!

That’s just the point: we can never cover the whole elephant in a media product intended for non-specialists. So we choose which part of the elephant is most interesting and present it in a way that will make viewers realise — and hopefully, appreciate — that there’s a lot more that’s worth finding out.

Moving image products often act only as ‘teasers’ — communicating highlights of research, and directing those interested to online or offline sources that offer more information.

Because they act as a/v versions of executive summaries, these ‘teasers’ by themselves are a powerful way of reaching out those who are unlikely to look up the details: that includes many policy makers, government officials and business people.

Winston Churchill used to ask his staff to give him everything ‘on one page’. These days, he might have asked for everything to be summed up in a five minute video — as we often do.