Grameen on Three Continents – Portraits of Dignity and Determination: A Collection of Photos

September 28, 2009 | 1:02 PM


Last summer, photographer Gabriel Cooney mounted an exhibit of photos that he took of Grameen activities. Greg Eberl visited the exhibit and describes it below:

The exhibited photos were taken in 2007 in Quito, Ecuador covering Grameen Bank for Wild River Review, an international reporting and arts website, then in 2008 in New York for Grameen America, then in Bangledesh for Grameen Bank. Grameen Bank is the creation of Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize (2006) winning economist, Muhammad Yunus, who took his education, ideas, and skills back to his native Bangladesh, providing a banking formula to provide a living and perhaps prosperity for the people. Grameen Bank microfinance is a proven idea and methodology to provide small, individual, sustainable investment in personal business enterprises with very successful repayment strategies. The idea and methods have spread regionally and worldwide to other organizations.

So much went into the making of the photographic exhibit of Grameen Bank on Three Continents, it was well worth the trek to Massachusett’s Deerfield Institute Reed Center of the Arts’ Charles Russell Gallery. I left buoyed by the beautiful and moving images, all adding up to a story, a work in progress, of microfinance addressing Bangledeshi, and now world poverty with dignity and sustainability.

My interests in visiting the exhibit were rooted in my photography, facilitated by a friend’s involvement, but more broadly because of my world interest and this unique success story and its potential. Having traveled to and photographed parts of the asian world with conspicuous poverty with conspicuous consequences, I must note it has been equally impressive in these countries how people so spiritedly make personal businesses a way of life and a way to stay above the worst of poverty. When there is opportunity.

Seeing the exhibit in its last day, I was left with three hopes: that the images find another exhibition venue - for the value of the images and the microfinance story, that people learn and contribute to solving grassroots poverty and education issues worldwide, and that Grameen Bank microfinance idea, methods, and sustainability success story continues to grow. This really is one hope.

The exhibit is a collection united around the story. The story justifies, even necessitates mixed photographic media and styles: color and black and white, portraiture, photojournalism, and environmental/landscape portraiture. There are even a few architectural details contrasting euro-catholic Ecuador from Bangladesh. The beautiful prints of stunning images of El Salvadoreans, Bangladeshis, and Americans(African-Americans) are truly images worth seeing in an exhibit or a book. Many are in beautiful black and white, but the rich color really helps us appreciate the colorful Bangladeshi experience, and the subtle touches, meeting of world traditions. It seems that humanity, poverty, the microfinance idea, its methods, and the determination to get the job done to help those in need better one’s self and family can be universal.

The choices in photographed moments and environments help to put a face on the organization, the hard work, and the quality of their spirit, the pleasure of being a part of a good and successful thing, and yes, spontaneous humor. Many of the images document Muhammad Yunus and a selection of Grameen Bank and Grameen America principals and historic occasions. In a larger way the images show the many facets necessary – like formal speaking and presentation, press coverage, meeting with the public. The bank’s culture and hard work is apparent through the individual, group, and supporting images, including a moment of the levity between Yunus and the group – presumably a break in working discussions while waiting for (another) plane. A story of the details that make it work, a professional organization, a bank, international - inner workings towards the success of an idea.

Beyond the bank, the images are of faces of the population, glowing with dignity, a diverse mix, distinct cultural information, universal humanness, beauty, emotive possibility, hope, and determination. Microfinance can be seen to apply across cultural, ethnic, geographical, modern/primitive, physical/intellectual boundaries, enabling scholarships, purchase of seed, livestock, tools, transportation, ovens, washing machines, improved water for example.

Key images to complete the story are of work and work objects, objects of Grameen banking work…work details, disciplined repetition, again and again, as in stacks of Grameen Bank log books worn from use, wall charts managing activity, and importantly, of the “customers”: an enthusiastic young Ecuadorian audience applauding the microfinance idea, a Bangladeshi woman threading long flower string decorations/necklaces/altar pieces, an Ecuadorian man plowing rows, a Bangledeshi man carrying heavy stripped wood cane, arrayed old tools for grimy motorcycle maintenance, the young woman on scholarship with a book in hand and a few more on the shelf, a beaming group of African-American women celebrating each other’s success, you get the picture…

Through the images we see a story of how individuals, in their work, are touching on each other’s lives with hope and hard work. The individuals making the difference are successful people using microfinance and naturally the individuals organized around the idea and methods of the bank(s) who have found the ways and made it possible. Of course, the story begins with the source of the idea, methods, and opportunities, Muhammad Yunus and the support he has cultivated.

The photographic sources of this visual and social awareness, conscience have influenced generations to recognize the world beyond personal surroundings, and hopefully spark an interest and even action where history, larger political, and corporate roles have not provided the healing touch to poverty. It is common and important to monitor the trouble spots of the world from our relative comfort, but even more importantly it helps to learn what works, and to celebrate, support successes. Or innovate the next success.

The photographic roots to the story telling partly stem from social photojournalism which in part came of age in America in the Depression, with a photography project of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration/Resettlement Administration’s “introduction of America to Americans” through sponsorship of photographers to put the real face of American poverty problems to enable policy as well as to document, inform. Some of these photographers would be among the most famous of the coming era for journalism and more purely art photography. Subsequently, international poverty and human condition social photojournalism broadened in magazines such as Look and beyond, and for those who chose to look further, Edward Steichen’s famous 1960’s colossal multi-photographer exhibit and resultant book “A Family of Man” and later individual photographers such as Sebastiao Salgado.

In this context, the exhibit is not photojournalistic of the countries or of poverty, which can be found elsewhere including on the web (even Flickr). The exhibit is of “Dignity and Determination, Grameen on Three Continents.”


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