Friday, June 11, 2010

Domestic workers behind the uniform

Domestic workers behind the uniform
US photojournalist Matthew Cassel exhibits ‘Unseen Lives’
Friday, June 11, 2010 - Simona Sikimic - Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Art can be at its most powerful when it incorporates a clear political or social message. The world’s injustices have certainly served as an inspiration to many.

One such injustice spurred Beirut-based photojournalist Matthew Cassel to embark on a project uncovering the real lives of those perhaps most forgotten by society, resulting in the photography exhibition “Unseen Lives: Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon” at Hamra’s Masrah al-Madina.

Theresa Seda, a 28-year-old Filipino maid, jumped from the 7th floor balcony of her employer’s apartment on January 4. The mother of three, who suffered both physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her employers, had been in Beirut for only two months prior to her suicide.

Chicago-born Cassel, who holds a degree in photography, stood witness as her body lay in the street for hours before medical services came to take away the bloodstained corpse. Cassel photographed the corpse to capture the chilling incident and later posted the images on his blog. Here they caught the attention of Lebanese human rights group KAFA, committed to overcoming gender discrimination.

Stirred by the photos and the reaction they received from readers, KAFA approached Cassel to put on an exhibition addressing the daily lives of domestic workers.
The project is part of a wider KAFA awareness-raising campaign which seeks to engage the public and eradicate all forms of gender-based violence.

“What this work is trying to show is the sides of these women that we are not used to seeing,” Cassel said. “To show them clearly as what they are – human beings.”

While the largely unseen and little understood lives of the domestic workers, who come to Lebanon from as far afield as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Nepal, have increasingly caught the attention of artists and writers, Cassel’s work tackles the issue from a refreshingly personal angle.

Spending time with foreign domestic workers and slowly gaining their trust, Cassel photographed the women at work in their uniforms and in their small, often windowless quarters. As the viewer makes their way through the collection of images they become privy to aspects of these women’s lives that few have any idea about.

In an illustration of the dislocation of these women from local society, Cassel also produced a series of stills taken from a distance that depict them as barely-visible figures obscured by hanging laundry or the sun’s glare reflecting off freshly cleaned windows.

But, the migrant workers are also captured laughing, drinking tea with friends on their days off or enjoying national festivities such as the Sri Lankan New Year.

“It is really interesting to see that they have their own cultures and this is an experience they want to share with others with whom they share a common experience and background,” Cassel explained. “I was surprised at the level of organization which exists, but it’s there. The lives of these women are not one-sided – there is much more to them than just work.”

Perhaps the most surprising photographs are those taken behind the scenes of Lebanon’s first Ethiopian beauty pageant, where women are seen dressing and frantically putting on makeup in preparation for the competition, before posing for their victory photo.

“There are only two public images of migrant workers,” said Rola Abimourched, project coordinator for KAFA’s [anti-]exploitation and trafficking of women unit. “One impression is just work, that they are here to work and that, that is all their life is or should be.

“The other is of victims without any control,” she said. “But this is dangerous, when you see an individual just like a victim you deny them agency and this means that you do not treat them as a person.”

“Unseen Lives: Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon” can be viewed at Masrah al-Madina until June 11. To contact KAFA call their hotline on 03 018 019.

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