You Set The Scenes

A new project


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So I’d like to take the opportunity to use this somewhat older (hmmm, let’s say more ‘mature’) platform of communication to tell you about a new project I’ve started working on.

I say I, but it is in fact ‘we’ – my good friend Rich and I. We know each other from our days in Prague when we both completed the same TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and have remained good friends ever since.

Rich still lives and works in the Czech Republic in a town called Podebrady, and he came up with the idea of creating a Vlog (video log) in which we both contribute regular videos offering a little glimpse into our individual experiences in the Czech Republic and Bangladesh respectively.

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The slight twist is that in doing so, we will set each other various challenges. We will also seek input from our viewers (who will hopefully exist!) and ask for suggestions for challenges they would like to see us complete, hence the name of the vlog – You Set The Scenes. Also, crucially, whoever receives the most thumbs up on youtube for their video wins the challenge.

*The name of the vlog is also a little nod to one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands.*

The main aims of this new project are as follows:

  1. For Rich and I to keep in touch!
  2. To hopefully offer viewers a little glimpse into what our lives are like as expats.
  3. To offer a positive look into the culture and environment of both Bangladesh and the Czech Republic.
  4. To motivate Rich and I to explore our locations further and hopefully create a richer personal understanding of our surroundings.
  5. To do things we may not have previously considered, which will no doubt at some points make us appear awkward and uncomfortable…perhaps much to the amusement of our viewers (again, if we have any)!

So that’s it really. I’m sure it will be a challenge at times, but also worthwhile, rewarding and fun. We both love exploring and getting away from the ‘tourist track’ and hope that this new vlog will reflect that.

Check out the trailer…

Our first challenge was to learn and recite a tongue twister in the native language of our countries.  So I learned a tongue twister in Bangla, and Rich learned one in Czech. You can see how we got on below.

Rich’s Czech Tongue Twister

and

John’s Bangla Tongue Twister

Please like our facebook page and subscribe to our youtube channel. We are also on Twitter and you can follow us at @YouSetTheScenes.

We hope you enjoy our future videos, and please comment below with any suggestions you would like us to try!


 

Four Years Through a Lens


Almost four years ago to the day I began my random musings on this blog. In that time it has evolved from a predominantly word-based account of travels and the daily life of living internationally, to (I hope) an increasingly image-focused reflection upon the diverse, distinct, and unique environments I am lucky enough to find myself in.



Two years ago I marked the second full year of this blog with a selection of images that captured the essence of that period.

https://johnstanlake.com/2013/04/09/two-years-through-a-lens/

Two years on again, I would like to repeat this exercise with ten carefully selected images from the period April 2013 to April 2015, which are collectively some of my favorites from this time and provide a small glimpse into another two years of travel, exploration, and life as an expat.


1. December 28th, 2013 – Angkor Wat, Cambodia

An incredible sunrise at one of the world’s most ancient and mysterious archeological sites. It is moments like this that make the cramped buses, early mornings, and days of unwashed clothes completely worth it.

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2. December 18th, 2013 – Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Taken as I stood on a bridge with the city of Yangon sprawled around me, this image sticks in my mind as the famous Shwedagon Pagoda seemed to be visible across the whole city.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

3. July 2013 – Prague, Czech Republic

I’ve never actually written about Prague in this blog, but it’s where my teaching life began in 2009, so it holds a special place in my heart. Visiting again in 2013 reminded me just how wonderful the city is. One of Europe’s finest.


4. Georgetown, Guyana

My home for one year until June 2013, Georgetown (and Guyana) has a vibrancy that’s hard to explain in words. You really have to experience it to realize how the diverse cultures fuse together to create an intriguing country.


5.  December 2013 – Bagan, Myanmar

Sunrise over the ancient pagodas in Bagan. It’s hard to put into words quite how beautiful this morning was, so hopefully the photo provides some idea.


6.  January 1st, 2014 – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Spending the first day of 2014 in Ho Chi Minh City was a nice way to kick off a year that involved more travel and exploration. It was my first time in the south of Vietnam and I plan to return one day.


7. March 2014 – Sandwip, Bangladesh

The photo may speak for itself, but Sandwip (a small island west of Chittagong) was a total joy to experience when I stayed there for a few days with a colleague’s family. This photo was taken one early evening, and it’s one of my personal favorites from any of my travels.


8. August 2015 – Dartmoor, Devon, UK

It’s always nice to go home. Sights like this make it all the more worth it…


9. July 2014 – Huye, Rwanda

This is less about the actual image and more about the significance of the location. Fours years after leaving Rwanda, July 2014 was the first time I set foot once again in the Land of a Thousand Hills. It was a special feeling to be back there, even if just for a week.


10. March 2015 – Jessore, Bangladesh

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”

– Robert Frost

Jessore, Bangladesh

Heigh-Ho!


In my previous blog I presented the photographic evidence of copious tea shop visits and interactions with the owners and clientele. During those photo walks I also captured a few images of people at work.

I found that it was quite fascinating to sit and photograph people going about their daily work and trades. I wanted to post this blog simply to present the images that reflect daily life here as I see it through my lens.

This is what I enjoy most about engaging in one of my favourite hobbies here in Chittagong. Through photography I extract so much joy from being able to view and explore this fascinating city and country and to view sights that perhaps seem ordinary or even mundane to one set of eyes, yet to others tell a story.

So, here are the results. Some of the photos were taken some months/years ago, but all are from Bangladesh. Also you may notice that there are few women featured. This was obviously not a conscious decision of mine, but rather reflective of the trades I photographed, and crucially, my location.


The Welders

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The CNG driver

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The Rickshawalah

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Rickshawalahs


The man who fixes the rickshawalah’s wheels…

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The Boatmen

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The Tailors

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The Fishermen

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Bangladesh faces


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…and the man who transports their catch to market

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to the man who sells them at the market…


The Farmer

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The Produce Sellers

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The Butcher


The Ice Cream Man

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The Jeweller


The Carpenter

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The Cooks

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Bangladesh faces


The Load Carriers and Goods Transporters

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And finally, the metalsmith

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All images © John Stanlake

 

In the Full Blossomed Paddy Fields…


Sandwip


Pronounced ‘Shon-deep’ (or Shun-deef depending on who you talk to) the island of Sandwip sits at an estuary of the Meghna River on the Bay of Bengal. Open precariously to the elements, the residents of the island are no strangers to the carnage and chaos extreme weather can bring. On April 29, 1991 it is estimated that 40,000 people were killed by an unforgiving cyclone that tore through the island leaving thousands dead and even more homeless.


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Almost 23 years on from that day, the island was a perfect picture of calm and serenity when I visited last week to spend a couple of days with a colleague who was born and raised on Sandwip, and whose family still reside there. The memories of that fateful day in 1991 still haunt people though, and as my colleague introduced me to one family member the immediate response was to enquire somewhat confusedly as to why I had come, and was I not scared of the threat of a cyclone? The fear still grips residents of this community and as water levels rise, shores slowly creep towards homes, and extreme weather becomes even more unpredictable, it’s easy to understand why.


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However, apart from one short, sharp thunder storm my visit was largely undramatic in terms of weather. The rumbles of thunder and the patter of raindrops on the tin roofs only added to the charm of this place. You see Sandwip proved to be an experience of some contrast to my regular, everyday experience of Bangladesh. In Chittagong (my home for the entire two year duration of my life here so far) the noise of trucks, buses, cars, and CNGs penetrates and pollutes the air almost everywhere you go. It’s a city of 6 million people and thus it is hard to find a place to escape that hustle. I appreciate Chittagong for so many reasons, but the noise can take its toll at times.


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When I returned from Sandwip I told a friend quite proudly and perhaps even a little smugly that I had seen only one lone car during my time on the island. His response was to point out that I had in fact been rather unfortunate as most visitors don’t see any!

Without wanting to sound patronising or to belittle Sandwip in any way, I would sum up my time there as taking a step back in time. I mean this in the most positive way. At night the stars filled the sky and were as bright as I’d ever seen them. In the day the local market bustled with traders and large numbers of cattle ready to be sold.

Agriculture drives the local economy it seems and manual labour appears to be the catalyst for this. There are countless tea shops, and each and every one seemed to be the centre of discussion and socialising amongst the islanders.


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There are few roads on Sandwip. In more developed areas paved paths allow bicycles and rickshaws to pass easily, and if you go ‘off road’ you will find more basic, dusty paths that make it more complex for anything on wheels to pass. Bathing is also a distinctly communal affair for many.

I bathed in the pond close to the house where I was staying. This essentially entailed tying a lunghi around my waist and diving into the pond. It all went fine until I dropped the soap and it sank beneath the murky water, causing much amusement to the onlookers who had gathered to watch me bathe. Sandwip does not receive a vast number of foreign visitors, so my half naked presence in the pond drew a crowd!


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Life is visibly tough though for many people here, and it was evident everywhere I visited on the island. Manual labour dominates as I mentioned, and this comes in a variety of forms. For example, as we left the island to return to the urban sprawl of Chittagong, we had to board a speedboat. At the time we and around ten other people wished to travel, the tide was out and thus the channel sat far out in the distance, and before us lay a mass of deep, dense, and unsympathetic wet sand. The solution was to herd us into a nearby wooden boat, and it soon became apparent that 10 men would drag us out to where the speedboat was waiting.

For the next 25 minutes they heaved and used every muscle in their bodies to get us to the water. When the boat became trapped assigned men would leap into action and strategically dig away the offending sand and we’d continue on our way. At some points they would chant in unison to motivate each other and it was apparent that teamwork was paramount. We arrived at the speedboat and 25 minutes later we were back on mainland Bangladesh. Well, not quite. The process was repeated and once again we were dragged across the sand. By the end I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach.


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My time in Sandwip was short, but I caught a glimpse of something I felt it was possible for me to connect with. Of course life on the island is very different to my previous personal life experiences, but there is something about rural Bangladesh which intrigues me. The people were so welcoming and despite my still very limited Bangla skills, I was able to converse and bond with a number of people. My colleague and his family were the perfect hosts and I am already planning on when I can return for a longer visit.

For my full album of photos from Sandwip follow the link below;

Sandwip photo gallery


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Finally, the title of this blog post is the English translation of a lyric from the national anthem of Bangladesh, Amar Sonar Bangla, by Rabrindranath Tagore. Today marks Bangladesh’s 43rd year of independence. Here is a wonderful rendition of the song,

Amar Sonar Bangla


All images © John Stanlake

Sir, why do you always take photos of…


…poor people?  This was a question posed to me by a student a few days ago. It stopped me in my tracks a little, and I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. In actual fact, her exact question was why do foreigners always take photos of poor people? I presumed however, given the nature of some of my recent photos, that I most probably fell firmly into this bracket and was the inspiration for her pressing question.

I thought for a second or two and my response was simple. “I don’t take photos of poor people, I take photos of people.” That’s all I could think to say when put on the spot like that. However, after contemplating it a little further, I realised that my initial response had been fairly accurate. I never actively or purposefully set out to capture images of so-called ‘poor people’ but maybe I am naively guilty of it appearing this way.


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The whole question though makes me uncomfortable. One of my favourite weekend activities here in Chittagong is to wander somewhat aimlessly with my camera capturing anything that makes for an interesting shot. This pastime has earned a pronounced regularity since I returned to Bangladesh, but a simple question posed by one student has made me question every aspect of it.

My photography subject of choice here is predominantly people, so I am certainly in the right place. I cannot deny though that this does weigh heavy on my conscience at times. For example, a couple of weeks ago I visited one of the railroad communities, and as I peered down from the bridge above, I felt a certain amount of embarrassment.  Why is this interesting to me? Why do I presume it’ll be interesting to the people I eventually share the photos with? All I can say is that it is different. That is all. Different in so many ways.


Railtrack community

I really appreciate this quote from Dorothea Lange,

 “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”


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Living in Bangladesh, I want my photos to represent life in all its forms here. So when I share them, my hope is that viewers will see beyond just the single image. I want people to be able to contemplate this country and the people of this country in a much deeper capacity.

The residents of the railroad communities, I would hazard to guess, are poor in the most simple and raw form of the word and in the sense that their single image suggests. However, who am I, or we to judge if they are poor? And how do we define poor? That is not something for me to do, and it is not something I want to do. All I want to do is take photos of people, not poor people…people.


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Therefore, here is a collection of images representing just a tiny corner of Chittagong, Bangladesh taken quite recently in the past few weeks. And here is one more quote;

“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. ”  – Richard Avedon


Tea shop kitchen


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All images © John Stanlake

Two Years Through a Lens


Today (Tuesday, 9th April 2013) is a bit of a milestone for this blog. It’s exactly two years to the day that I published my first post on this site.

Well, here we go again

It has certainly been two years packed full of discovery and adventure, and I hope my posts have given you a decent insight into some of this.

However, rather than sum up the past two years in words, I decided to choose my ten favorite photographs captured during this period, as images often have the ability to say a great deal more than words. So here goes, organized loosely in date order;


1. BaBe District, Vietnam

I chose this photo as it sums up the joy of traveling in so many ways. The new experiences, the unfamiliarity, the necessity of embracing a culture, the laughs, the friendships (old and new), the wonderful food, and often most important of all, the warmth and hospitality of the the people you encounter.


2. Hanoi, Vietnam

I love this place. I met some great people, ate some delicious food, and weaved my way precariously through the intense army of bikes and scooters that fill the roads. This photo was taken whilst I sat at a coffee shop one day. The city just felt so vibrant and full of energy.


3. Xayabouri, Laos

Taken during a homestay in Laos, many of the kids in the village had peeped timidly through the window to catch a glimpse of the strange foreigners inside the house. Fortunately this boy was braver than the rest and hung about long enough for me to capture this image.

Xayabouri, Laos

4. Chittagong, Bangladesh

One of my favorite photos from the city that became my home in Bangladesh. There is so much joy and expression in these faces, and what I appreciate most about the photo is the fact that each person is looking in a different direction, with the boy in the middle looking straight at the camera.

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5. Kolkata, India

One of the first photos I took on a lone trip to India. It’s a favorite of mine due to the contrasts. Kolkata is a city full of history and tradition, yet that little ‘m’ to the bottom right speaks volumes.


6. Darjeeling, India

Taken high up in the hills of Darjeeling, northern India, I remember being captivated by the peace and serenity of this place. Having hiked with my guide for most of the day we came across a small Hindu temple. The mist engulfed us and the area seemed deserted. It gave the impression of being so very far away from everything else in the world.


7. Banskhali, Chittagong District, Bangladesh

This was quite a day out, and I was lucky enough to capture this photo towards the end of the day which made the whole trip even more worth it. This man was the Hindu devotee at a local Charak Puja religious festival.


8. Rajshahi, Bangladesh

The waterways of Bangladesh provide a great deal to so many Bangladeshis. They are often a hive of activity, but one early evening here in Rajshahi I was taken by the tranquility of the riverside.


9. Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sunset on the beachfront in Colombo was pretty spectacular. I spent a long time watching the sun descend over the ocean and also this group of men fishing and chatting vociferously.


10. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

One of my favorite locations in Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar has provided many great moments and images. However, the afternoon spent watching the fishermen was a highlight, and this particular photo a favoorite of mine. A father and his young son working as a team to provide for the family, dipping in and out of the waves, they seemed happy to let me follow them for 10-15 minutes.


So there you have it. Ten images that stood out for me and sum up two years of travel and new experience. I have no idea what the next two will bring, but I know I will be armed with my camera at all times!

Okay, I’m going to cheat a little here, but I couldn’t end this blog without choosing a favorite photo from Guyana. It was hard to choose, but I think this one edges it. Taken from the window of a small plane on the way to visit some of my volunteers in Port Kaituma (a small town in the north of the country), it really did provide me with a first view of just how uninhabited and wild parts of this country are!

Guyana

Beautiful Bangladesh – Swinging Devotees and Sunsets


As I haven’t written a new blog for a while I thought I’d add a more succinct photo blog instead. I’m working on a written one at the moment, but it’s not quite ready yet. So, here are some notable images from Bangladesh taken during the past three weeks. I’ve been lucky enough to experience some of Bangladesh’s finest natural beauty during that time.

The first few were taken in the village of Koknandi, in Banshkhali district. I attended the Hindu ceremony of Charak Puja. I have no idea how to provide a clear explanation of what happened or why exactly it happened, so I’ll just describe what I saw and noted through my own eyes.

The reason I ended up in this village to experience the festival was due to the fact our Fulbright Fellow and artist in residence, Claudio Cambon,  needed volunteers to accompany some of his photography students. In his recruitment email he provided this blurb:


“Charak Puja, Banshkali, south of Anowara. This is a village fair which culminates in a Hindu devotee getting hooks pierced into his back, hoisted by rope up into the air, and swung around a tall pole 7 times. They may also throw pigeons up at him, which he will try to catch and eat live. Yup, you heard me right the first time.”


So, just to repeat, the general purpose of the trip was to watch a man have hooks placed in his back in order to be swung around a large pole, whilst attempting to catch pigeons and eat them alive. Naturally I was instantly intrigued by the prospects of this day out.

I was also slightly alarmed, but not wanting to pass up this unique cultural experience I replied to his email within about 23 seconds. A few days later we arrived in Kokdandi, and after a timid, but warm welcome from the local people we were passed by these characters…



The excitement grew, yet anxiety levels also rose. The festival would take place in a few hours, and I was looking forward to events with a certain degree of trepidation. In the meantime though we were treated to some fine hospitality by our hosts and were free to wander about capturing images of the stunning natural beauty of rural Bangladesh and its people.





Eventually the moment came to swing the devotee around the pole. Raising the pole was not a straightforward task however, and it took the strength of around fifty men. Their job was made no easier by the thick mud that had engulfed the whole area after the recent reappearance of the trademark monsoon rains that hit Bangladesh each year. Once the pole was erected and secured in the sludge, the devotee reappeared to a rapturous reception. By this stage the crowd had swelled, and it seemed the whole village had come to witness the annual event.



The actual climax of the whole day happened very quickly. All of a sudden the devotee was airborne and there was quite a commotion as the crowd whooped, chanted, let out mild screams, and clapped sporadically. Carefully placed men launched pigeons high into the air, which added to the mystical spectacle before us. Fortunately our devotee was spinning too rapidly to have any chance of grasping any of the birds, so none were harmed.



It also became apparent afterwards that the man had not in fact been hooked during the process. We later found out that it’s an old tradition, and in recent years has been replaced by more conventional methods…in this village at least.

As I said before, I don’t possess the knowledge to explain why exactly any of this happened. However, it was a sight to behold and an authentically fascinating experience characterized by genuine warmth from our gracious hosts, who demonstrated a strong desire to ensure we were made to feel part of the experience.  I took these final two photos in the aftermath of the spectacle, once some of the crowd had dispersed, and in my opinion this second image alone made the whole day worth it.




The next weekend was spent in Cox’s Bazar, a coastal town in the south of Bangladesh. It boasts the longest natural sea beach in the world and hopefully as the following photos will demonstrate, it’s a perfect location to catch a stunning South Asian sunset.





Finally, after a host of images away from the urban bustle of Chittagong, here’s a view over the city by night.



All photos © John Stanlake