Author / Maielin van Eilum
The injured World
An interview with Alea Horst
Dear Alea Horst, you said you were always daydreaming in your English classes. So how do you communicate worldwide?
(laughs) My English, it serves me well enough because the people I interview speak the same basic English as I do. They wouldn’t understand me if I had an Oxford accent.
You describe yourself as a scaredy-cat. Maybe my definition is different, but I wouldn’t describe a woman who travels to Syria in 2019 as a scaredy-cat.
I wasn’t in the war zone. Damascus, Aleppo and Tartus were already pacified.
That's true, but bombs fell on Damascus even after you were there. And terrorist attacks, kidnappings, a collapsed credit card system and a closed German embassy are not among the characteristics of a safe travel destination.
Of course, it was dangerous, but the last few years have changed me a lot. I'm not an adventurer, I never wanted to see the world, a walk in the woods is enough for me. When I went to the refugee camp in Lesbos for I AM YOU in 2016, I travelled alone for the first time.
I also had children very early on, and when I became a freelance wedding photographer, the work was endless.
You remind me of the little hobbit who really wanted to stay at home, but then set out to save the world.
(Laughs) Yes, that fits. I would never have thought it possible that I would travel to 15 countries in four years and do around 100 projects. It wasn't planned, I just wanted to help feed the refugees in Lesbos.
You have been to the worst places in the world, but describe Bangladesh as your saddest experience. What happened?
(Her eyes well up with tears) The suffering was no different, but my role was. I usually work on behalf of charities that help the very people I photograph.
Bangladesh's most famous photographer, GMB Akash, whom I very much admire, took me to the factories where children work. They were slaving away right before my eyes and there was nothing I could do for them.
It was clear that I would give the pictures to SOS Children's Villages, but they didn't know whether they could really use them because they weren't children from their projects. That blew me away. Seeing child labour was the hardest thing I've ever photographed.
It affects one in ten children in the country.
They dream of school, but their families can’t afford it.
Even if both parents work themselves to exhaustion, their wages are still not enough to pay the rent.
I interviewed a mother for SOS Children's Villages. She made something like $ 1.90 a day and paid $ 350 a month rent for a scruffy room with no electricity. She shared it with her two grown children. It was so small that only two could lie next to each other on the raised bunk, one person had to sleep on the floor. They took turns doing this. Twelve other families used the toilet, bathroom and kitchen, all of which they had to queue for. Food is also not cheap. The children have to help so that they all have something to eat.
The children start at 6 in the morning and come home at 8 in the evening. If they are sick or want to take a break, they are not paid. Not even if there are accidents at work. That's brutal.
The children work so hard, and the people in Bangladesh work nonstop, like crazy. In all that noise and dirt, with bad or no food. Most of them only have two children because they cannot afford to feed any more.
They look for a new place and start over.
And under such working conditions! I always had to make several attempts to enter the plastic factories. The hot, acrid, stinking air hit me so badly that I had to protect my face. I kept having to run out, gasping for air. The air inside is rotten and filled with fine plastic, you can't breathe there.
People work there all day, which they can’t do for long either. Allegedly life expectancy is around 62 years, but I think poor people die much earlier than that. When you drive through Dakar, you see over the top luxury shopping streets. There’s a big divide between rich and poor.
Somebody owns the factories.
Yes, and this is where you buy the products.
How do you deal with these experiences?
Sometimes better, sometimes worse. Sometimes I come home and have to stare out into my garden first. It takes me a week to even start writing and editing. Sometimes it is really difficult to have to revisit the cruelty again and again that is experienced.
On location I’m focussed, I hold on to the fact that I’m doing something for people. That motivates me. My horror at the hellish situation keeps growing, but it also grounds me. I am learning to appreciate what I have. When we asked this boy his name, he angrily replied that he no longer remembered it. He has been homeless at the train station for five years. When we asked about his parents, he yelled at us:
"I hate my parents for doing this to me!"
You become humble, more mindful and understanding, and of course the people inspire me too. I ask myself so often, if I were in a situation like this, wouldn't I just give up? But these people don't do that, they get up again and again and that inspires me. They are my role models.
Where do the residents of the railroad tracks come from?
Homelessness follows the same principle all over the world. People build a house out of two boards and a plastic bag. One day the police come to clear the slum and the residents take to the streets.
Then they are moved on again and have to start afresh somewhere else, but are also driven away from there ...
They have to look for the places where nobody would live or work voluntarily.
Officially, children in Bangladesh aren’t allowed to start working until they are 14, but that is far from the truth.
Are you becoming desensitised?
No, on the contrary, I also refuse to be. I am no longer so surprised by the suffering, but it still touches me deeply in the same way.
Compassion is also part of my work. The more I open up to people, the better my texts and pictures become, and in turn they can then be of help to them. It goes hand in hand.
Do the people consent to you showing their suffering?
They trust me, I think they can see that I have a serious interest in them and that I am on their side and that I come to try and improve their situation. I don't just want to report on them, get a glimpse of something, take photos. I come with the intention of doing something for them. People feel that.
I almost get a little aggressive when people say:
"Alea, I can't look at your pictures, they make me so sad."
I always think, next time I'm in hell, I'll tell the kids:
"I'm sorry, nobody is coming to help you, because the sight of you is too sad for Europeans."
We are privileged to only be observers. It is our responsibility to help.
Thank you for letting us see through your eyes and heart. Soon we would like to know why refugee camps in Bangladesh are more humane than in Europe.
Portrait and reportage photographer
Interview: Maielin van Eilum
Translator: Artemis Meereis
Proofreading: Ada Delsolco & Patrick Alfter