Photographing Migration

My Dissertation in Photos.

“I just wish I had a photo version of my dissertation.”

It began with an offhand comment to a friend – who happened to be an excellent photographer. We were catching up via Skype just after I had successfully defended my dissertation, a study of how and why Cambodians migrate to Thailand.

Despite the fact that I was now officially done with my PhD, our conversation must have started with a discussion of how anti-climactic it felt to graduate. Rather than feeling accomplished and inspired, I was just tired – tired of thinking about Cambodia, tired of writing in formulaic ways, and disillusioned at how much time and energy had been expended on something that would reach relatively few eyes.

The latter issue was particularly frustrating. People in the rural Cambodian community where I did my research had been incredibly generous in sharing their migration experiences with me. They told me about crossing the border without documentation–how they were stacked like animals in the back of trucks while the middleman navigated bumpy roads. How their migrations were driven by overwhelming indebtedness and the difficulty of making ends meet in the village. How their children were compelled to drop out of secondary school so they could go work abroad. How proud they felt to contribute to their family’s well-being through work in Thailand.

These stories were personal and compelling, and many of my respondents clearly wanted them to be told in Cambodia and beyond. They hoped that if more people understood their circumstances it might promote change–either in terms of the kinds of opportunities available to stay in the village and make a decent living, or in the kinds of rights and protections they enjoyed in Thailand. I wasn’t very sure my dissertation (or anything that was planned to come out of it) would effectively either share or promote change in a meaningful way.

Still, my comment to my photographer friend was wistful and not particularly serious. “I just wish I had a photo version of my dissertation.” His reply caught me off guard. “Why don’t we do it?”

So began Borders and Margins – a collaborative project with photographer Emmanuel Maillard that culminated in several exhibitions and the publication of a photobook in Cambodia late last year. While the initial goal was to use photos to share some of the themes that came out of my dissertation, in the end the project took on its own creative life, mostly driven by Emmanuel. We spent two weeks photographing “migration” on both sides of the border, and constructed an exhibition and book that drew on these photos, the lives of those we met, and themes from my dissertation interviews.

While no small amount of work, the process of co-creating Borders and Margins has been both personally and professionally inspiring. Personally, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the new kinds of discussions that these photos opened up with family members, friends and colleagues. Though most people in my life knew I studied “migration in Cambodia,” often our conversations stopped with that statement. Photos offered a new way of making my research known to non-academic friends and those in other disciplines.

Professionally, the book asked me engage creatively and visually with migration. This not only helped me see some of the dynamics I had been writing about in a slightly new way, but also offered me an opportunity to see the power of visual arts as a sociological tool. I now regularly use photography in my classroom as a way to explain sociological concepts and challenge my students to apply their sociological imagination to the world.

Perhaps most importantly, there is little doubt that the photographs we’ve taken have shared the realities of migration in a way that my written work would struggle to match. Conversations about migration in Southeast Asia all too often become oversimplified into pessimistic discussions of exploitation and trafficking, or optimistic predictions of the poverty reducing power of remittances. While both relevant, such conversations miss out on the reality of most people’s migration experiences – which are full of ambivalence and can include tremendous fear, insecurity, and exploitation at the same time as they offer socio-economic mobility, independence and security. Those who attended our exhibitions noted how many smiles they saw in the photos, and at the same time how they highlighted the vulnerability of migrant workers. This complexity was exactly what we hoped to get across.

Moreover, our photos have made their way into the mainstream in a way that academic articles rarely do. We were able to publish a photo essay in the Phnom Penh Post, and run exhibitions in two major cities in Cambodia, both of which were reported in major newspapers. Beyond Cambodia, photos from the project have shown in Bangkok at an ILO exhibition showcasing the contribution of migrant workers, and in publications by COMPAS, (Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society) and Contexts. While it isn’t clear that Borders and Margins is going to shape policy on migration in Cambodia, or alleviate any of the concerns my respondents noted, it certainly has offered opportunities to give voice and support to the lives of migrant workers. In addition, we’ve organized for proceeds from book sales in Southeast Asia to support Friends International, an international non-governmental organization working with migrants in Cambodia and Thailand.

I am enormously indebted to Emmanuel for bringing action and talent to an idea. Our work together has been professionally inspiring, enormously fun, and offered me a clearer way to contribute to conversations on migration and development in Southeast Asia. For those of you with a similar desire to bring your dissertation to life, my best advice is to find yourself a creative collaborator and make it happen. Whether that means joining the Dance your PhD contest, making a graphic novel about your research, or putting on a photo exhibition, stepping back with a creative eye and making the effort to share your work in a new way is well worth the effort.

Maryann Bylander
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Lewis and Clark College
bylander@lclark.edu

Image: Photograph by Emmanuel Maillard.

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