Mackenzie Berg

Mackenzie Berg (Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group): MacKenzie received her undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology. She then traveled and worked in several developing countries before entering the graduate program at University of Denver. After her fellowship, Mackenzie wrote: "The various opportunities that I had to actually meet, talk to and interact with the waste pickers in their communities were the best for me—this was the most real, the most valuable in terms of information gathered [not just data, but the chance to make observations about sights, smells, emotions, etc, involved with their lives that helped me to understand their points of view and experience]."

Reflections, returns.

15 Aug

I’ve come home from my last day in the office, and sit now listening to Dylan croon while the monsoon empties sheets of water onto the roof overhead. The wind blows water in through the kitchen screen door, and I don’t both to close the outer one because I’m hoping the growing puddle will quell the manic ants that never get tired of searching for crumbs.

I figure its time to reflect now, while I’m still easing out of work mode and not yet into a celebratory mindset for our Independence Day gathering tomorrow. August 15th commemorates the birth of India as a nation separate and free from British rule, and we’re hosting some multicultural festivities on our shared terrace with the brothers that live in the flat next door. We occupy the top floor of the building, and so get to use the roof as well—perfect for flying kites [and especially on Independence Day, trying to cut the strings of other kites.. a skill which kids practice for, for months], and for watching the pollution-derived pastels of early evening melt into nighttime while the lights of south Delhi glitter in all directions. Our flat has no furniture save for our mattresses, a small table that’s only one foot high off the ground, and a rusted metal and vinyl chair which has seen more use as our doorstop than for sitting in—yet when we moved in, this lack of décor was of no matter to Paul and I, as we spent most of our time at the office, and after living for two months in a guest house downtown, were happy just for a clean, locked place of our own where we could use our comfy mattress from ChooseMattress to sleep and leave our belongings. I was especially pleased to be able to use the toilet without having a snoring man on a cot outside the door—this referring to my former situation at the guest house. Good riddance. Anyways, the roof view and our friendly neighbors were a bonus.

So with the speakers we bought for 5 dollars, Paul and I are both shaking off the final workday with some Zeppelin, and I’m going to attempt to make some sense of what’s gone down here all summer.

I should start by saying that actually for me, it’s still not even over. Paul takes off early Saturday morning, while I don’t leave until Sunday—Saturday for me will consist of setting up and staffing Chintan’s booth and India’s first ever International Recycling and Waste Management Conference. Government representatives, NGOs, private industry companies, and speakers from all over the world will be in attendance, discussing [obviously] waste management, and various strategies of waste-to-energy, recycling, and related environmental issues.

Designing Chintan’s booth for this and future exhibitions has been one of my main projects during the last three months. I was assigned to come up a scheme of transportable materials that could easily be used in a variety of public venues, informing attendees who Chintan is, what they do, and bringing to light both the struggle and value of the waste pickers in an attention-grabbing style. It’s been a bit daunting, as I have no graphic design or marketing experience in terms of creating something along these lines, nor had I worked with vendors like the printer who eventually turned my design into the life-size panels that we’ll be displaying on Saturday.

The last couple weeks consisted of finishing the designs, getting them proofed and having to make changes, and then finally getting the [extremely large] files, which nearly crashed my overworked laptop, to the printer. Needless to say, I’ve been pretty worn out and stressed about getting it all completed in time, and having them turn out OK. When they finally arrived to the office this morning and Puran came to get me so I could sign the invoice, it felt a bit like running to open my presents under the Christmas tree. Silly as that sounds, I was really excited to see how they looked after such a messy week..

Not to toot my own horn, but… the panels look awesome. I couldn’t be happier about how they turned out, considering I had never used Photoshop for anything but simple fixes before, and truly it’s a really cumbersome program to be designing in.. but since I don’t have any fancy design software, it was all I had to work with. Overall, I’m so pleased, and eager for these to debut at Saturday’s expo. Seeing my design go from scribbles on notebook pages to computer files [which I’d worked on so long I couldn’t stand to look at them anymore], to finally 7 foot tall crisp, professionally mounted panels was so satisfying.

It’s exciting to see the images of these people I’ve met over the summer now blown up to larger-than-life, and I’m wondering if its because I already know their stories and personalities that I find the portraits to be so beautiful—but I’m hoping that visitors to the booth will be able to extract these qualities from the images, even as they don’t know the names and personal struggles behind them.

I think this is probably one of the first projects I’ve had, throughout both my college and internship experiences, where the final result was something tangible that I could see and touch and show to others—rather than a paper, or an exam, where the value is sort of intrinsic in what was learned, and not as easily shared with others. That’s one aspect of the summer that I hadn’t anticipated feeling so good about when I began.

The second aspect is that because these panels are finished and so easily transportable, I know that Chintan can use them in the upcoming events they have marked for the rest of the year’s calendar—which means that the work I’ve done here is sustainable. It wont die or be forgotten, tossed into a drawer, once I leave to go home on Sunday. This is an especially satisfying fact.

* * * * *

With all these points of satisfaction and accomplishment being addressed, I also want to delve into the areas where this internship has caused discomfort, frustration—as these are naturally part of any cross-cultural experience, and of the development field, and are equally important to reflect upon. Yet it is also crucial to keep in mind that while I’m describing these as ‘negative’ points, I actually view them as positive in that they’ve undoubtedly expanded my understanding of areas such as the development field, of Indian society, of poverty, and of barriers to change.

What might be most striking to hear from me is that overall, I think my time here has even caused my interest in both photojournalism and photography in general to diminish considerably. Maybe not forever, but at least for right now…

That may sound strange, considering the fact that I’m really pleased with many of the images I was able to produce during my meetings with waste pickers and their families. I know from the comments and praise I’ve received that viewers are reacting strongly to them, and of course I’m both appreciative for the support and equally glad that I was able to draw attention to the story I’ve been immersed in here, using such an emotive and creative manner.

However, as I think I touched on most in the landfill blog, I had to really adjust the style of how I’d initially imagined carrying out this project. I spent the last year of school generating a sincere concern for documentaries and journalism that seeks to involve “subjects” [typically the marginalized, whose realities don’t often otherwise gain exposure to the mainstream media/information channels] either in the editing and selection process of which images get used, or even in the production process itself [where subjects are given use of cameras to photography/film their lives in their own perspectives]. Whereas the results that have come from these types of projects in the last decade, and even way before then, are an inspiration for how a privileged producer can negotiate the space between herself and her documentees in a more truly empowering manner, they were simply not on Chintan’s radar.

These matters of representation and authority—such as, who has the right to represent the voices of the marginalized, and should these “subjects” of documentary photography and film, of marketing materials, of news reports, be able to decide whether an image that someone like me has taken can be reproduced for audiences who exist outside of their reality?—were guiding my work as I came upon this internship in early spring. The opportunity that was first explained to me in my interview sounded like it was tailor-made for me: I would be carrying out a project called “Images for Change” in which I would be both producing images for Chintan to use in future media, but also [and more importantly and attractive to me] teaching waste pickers how to use cameras so they could share a role in documenting their lives and realities for the members of their society, and the outside world, who had no context for their situation.

To summarize what happened: due to miscommunication between the director of Chintan and AP, this project as it was offered to me didn’t really exist at all. Rather I found when I arrived, that my main tasks were to produce these exhibition materials and other outreach materials [including an entirely new brochure, some smaller handouts and postcards for various audiences/donors, and a PowerPoint presentation], in addition to organizing Chintan’s news clippings and finally [this is the ‘Images for Change’ part], sorting through the thousands of photos they had saved on their computers, and organizing them into a better filing system—while adding any of my own that I took during the documentation I would carry out in the field.

Needless to say, this discrepancy was more than a mild disappointment.

I will readily admit that even while I adjusted my mindset and resolved to produce the best work that I could based on what Chintan really wanted, I’ve been a little green with envy over the work that my colleague and close friend Hillary Prag has been doing in Haiti all summer with the MCC [she’s been carrying out a similarly designed photo-documentary project, including workshops where she taught photography basics]. As I followed her stunning progress over the last three months, it was hard not to be disappointed that I lacked the resources to develop the relationships I’d thought I also would be building with the waste pickers in the project.

But even despite this envy, I am well aware that I’ve been fortunate in my own way to have access to experiences here that many will never have—so I carry no bitterness about the way things turned out [I just suggest that the internship descriptions be worked out more clearly for the next Fellow!]. Again, I view even the hard parts as extremely valuable to my own growth as a student, a professional, and as a citizen of the world. And I hope that through my blogs, you were all able to hear my enthusiasm for this… I’ve had an incredibly enriching, priceless experience here, and will never forget it.

Look for photos and reflections from the IIRWM Conference, posted soon!

Posted By Mackenzie Berg

Posted Aug 15th, 2008

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