An Afternoon with MARTI

People walk past her, but MARTI’s eyes are fixed on something in front of her. The Chobi Mela V posters of Nelson Mandela behind her flutter in the breeze. It has been a slow, languid day. Suddenly her attention shifts and almost, in the flash of an instant, the shutter is pressed and the film rolls.

A smiling victorious MARTI turns to face me.

“It’s not always easy to capture the perfect candid shot,” the photographer from Paris replies, while fumbling with her numerous memory sticks.

“Oh come on, MARTI, if you are using a super-cool, expensive camera, doesn’t that do half the job for you?” I argue.

“Ah, my dear, I don’t think it’s about camera equipment at all. Good photography is about observation. Having a creative eye that picks up something unusual, strange, ironic, beautiful, joyful, tragic, or different. The important thing is to have the courage to get out there and do it. The courage to observe and interact with our surroundings, and to shoot lots of pictures and select only a few.  Courage is what is essential. It doesn’t matter what equipment you’re using. It’s about an expression of the soul, which can be captured in many ways.”

“But that makes all of us photographers, doesn’t it?”

“Well of course, in the digital world, everybody is a photographer. We have cell phones. We can record any moment as it unfolds. I think what makes each of us different is how we choose to portray what we see,” she explains as we walk down a narrow Dhaka alley. The midday sun is hidden by the boarding houses and the hustling of the market place begins to slow down. “If you want to be original, look at a small neighborhood as an entire universe and choose a well-defined subject that really interests you. Then, comes the hard part. Say something no one else has ever said. Gradually you will emerge as a fine photographer.”

“But what if I’m really not good enough?” My obstinate allele kicks in and I look deep into MARTI’s hazel eyes to make my point. “I think if I start believing I’m very good, I will sound arrogant and over-confident!”

“I think when you are truly an artist; you don’t care about what other people think. You are compelled by your own deep passion and inspiration. When you are on a real path, each step you take transports you further along that path. Photography is a great adventure and we are each discoverers, pathfinders. Forging ahead is the most important thing,” MARTI replies with patience and smiling. “I don’t think you can ever say you’re not good enough.”

“When I photographed in Cambodia, I wanted to tell the story of the survivors of one of the most terrible genocides we have ever known. I was driven into the battlefields where mortar rounds were exploding everywhere. When the bombs exploded around me they didn’t ask if I were Cambodian or French. Bombs can’t read pieces of paper that says “PRESS”. Bombs simply hit and they hit indiscriminately. Sadly, they often take the lives of women and children who have never carried a weapon in their lives. While I was shooting, I never once thought about whether I was good enough. If I was the only photographer allowed into restricted areas, it was because I persisted, not because I was better than anyone else. Today my work is part of the Cambodian National Cultural Heritage Centre. I have ceded the rights to the work to the Cambodian people because it is their story.”

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We walk past houses painted in shades of orange and white. An intersection between the market and the residences leads to the river. As MARTI and I walk in the direction of the watery wastelands, my eyes suddenly stop at the sight of a group of teenage boys sitting in a circle taking drugs in broad daylight.

I look at MARTI and grumble.
“What I hate about being a struggling female photographer is that I just can’t go everywhere and photograph the most interesting subjects, largely because of my sex and for reasons of personal safety. That’s why I sometimes feel it’s unfair that the boys get to go to all the exciting places!”

MARTI stops and turns to look at me. Her face has resumed its tranquility and she smiles back at me.

“Yes, it is unfortunate that photography is still seen in many parts of the world as a man’s profession, but that is changing.  It is true that women cannot, for example, go to the park at night in Dhaka without being accompanied and take photographs of drug addicts taking narcotics. But hey, look at the bright side! As a woman, you have the gift of entering into intimate situations more easily. Besides, the scenario has been changing over the last fifteen years. When I was in Cambodia, I was the only woman photographer around. Today there are many courageous women out there.”

“I think one issue that comes up for women, however, is that of being responsible mothers.” MARTI continues. “When I was in the Cambodian jungles, there were mines all over the place and I had to be careful. I had my small son at home and could not overlook my responsibility as a mother.”

“But isn’t that a pity, MARTI? That we are the ones who are called on to make sacrifices? If you were a man, would you have considered all that while you were photographing?”

“Perhaps not. But for me it was not a question of a sacrifice. It was a conscious choice. And that is often one of our strengths as women.  We can make conscious choices because we are the caregivers,” she replies. “A good number of the professional photographers in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, have no children.  Some of those who have families at home have financial securities, so their wives and children are taken care of if something happens to them. Yet, there are people like you and me, Diya. In spite of our situation, we go out into the streets and shoot in potentially dangerous situations. I have been arrested more times than I can count, but I try not to take unnecessary risks. I have to be true to myself on that one. A front page story in the New York Times may not be worth my life. We all struggle everyday of our lives to be ourselves.  There are always events that challenge our deepest sense of who we are. For women it’s always a particular challenge. When you have young children, there is a huge responsibility, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up photojournalism. You might need to take some colleagues or friends with you.”

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We have started walking again towards a trash dump along the Buriganga. MARTI tells me about Uma, a child that she has been photographing in India. Uma is a young 8 year-old girl who lives on the edge of a toxic waste dump near Pondicherry. Uma and her family hunt for metal in the smoldering burning plastic. MARTI has spent time learning about Uma’s life. What surprised her most is that while Uma lives under difficult conditions, she doesn’t complain. On the contrary, she is a happy child. The families there are gypsies and there is a strong bond between them. MARTI told me how she has seen really miserable children in Cambodia because so many of them are orphans and they suffer from extreme solitude. No one cares about them.

“Say MARTI, is there any formula for being a good photographer?” I blurt out the question. It’s been playing inside me for a while, and considering how MARTI has been to many places and worked extensively on varying projects, I had a feeling she would have some advice for me.

“None, except one, and that is absolute integrity. Our photographs should portray the truth, not lies. I always feel I need to be respectful towards my subjects.” MARTI is walking ahead of me and has to shout out the response. “If you want to photograph someone and that person isn’t very willing, something you can figure out through body language and expressions, it’s best to back off, unless you’re telling a story of socio-political importance. People have a right to their own lives and peace of mind. Stay with the truth
and your own integrity. When you meet Uma, you will see the hardship she goes through. However, that doesn’t make her unhappy. When I photograph her, I don’t make it appear as though misery is the only truth about her life. I also try to portray the small joys that make her smile!”

While I pull out my camera from the backpack, MARTI has already begun shooting the kids along the river. The Dhaka sun shines in the west and pecks a glint in the eyes of the two photographers now shooting in the same place. They may be distant through their age, experience and knowledge, but somehow, they share the same world behind the lens. I look above my viewfinder to see MARTI, playfully capturing moments of interaction with a group of kids. She is indeed the friend who has made me feel differently about myself and that is a bond we will share for a very long time.


MARTI is a photojournalist and writer based in Paris, France and in Pondicherry, India. Her photos have been exhibited in London, Paris, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Tokyo, Phenom Penh, Chennai, and Dhaka. Her work is part of permanent collections, including the Musee de Louvre in Paris and the International Museum of Photography in Switzerland.

MARTI’s work has been selected for the Angkor International Photo Festival in Cambodia, The United Nations High Commission on Refugees International Film Festival, The City of London Piccadilly Soho Show, and Rencontres Photographiques in Paris. She was recently selected for the Singapore International Festival of Photography and has just been shown at Chobi Mela V in Dhaka.

She is also a Penguin author and has published her work in books, newspapers and magazines including PHOTO Magazine, the New York Times, Washington Post, and le Monde-Guardian Weekly. She has won a Rolex citation for her environmental work and is a United Nations ECO SOC representative for NGO’s in Geneva. MARTI is particularly concerned about the dying oceans, disappearing nature, and the social conditions of children. Her book, This Earth of Ours, has a prologue by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

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