When photojournalist J. Sangma visits remote Compassion centres in Bangladesh, it’s often the first time children meet someone from outside their village. He listens to their stories with care and respect. And he sees that your support is returning dignity and hope to children in poverty.

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Have you ever wondered who is capturing the incredible stories of children and families in Compassion’s programs? J. Sangma is our local photojournalist in Bangladesh. He was born and raised in Bangladesh, and he has a deep personal understanding of how to connect with children and sensitively share their stories.

Could you introduce yourself and share where you're from and where you're based at the moment?

J. Sangma: My name is J. Sangma. By looking at me, you can easily figure out that I belong to a minority community here in Bangladesh. That community is called Garo. It's been a privilege to work with Compassion since 2012—I've been working with children and a great team. I'm based in the city at the moment. It is pretty central to everything, so it’s easy to travel from here to anywhere else in the country.

How did you start working with Compassion?

J. Sangma: When Compassion was launched in Bangladesh in 2004 for the first time, my village had one of the very first Compassion centres. So I've known Compassion since then. The reason why I was able to connect to Compassion from the very beginning was because I grew up in a school myself which had a similar sponsorship model to Compassion. This is why I could relate.

Can you tell us what you do in your role with Compassion?

J. Sangma: As a photojournalist, I feel really privileged to play this role. All the centre staff are very engaged in making many reports, which includes numbers and very specific statements.

But as a photojournalist, we have that liberty to tell stories with emotions—the everyday challenges that people go through and are able to overcome only due to the support we give through Compassion.

And these stories are really inspiring for me personally. With social media, it’s unlimited where the stories can reach out to. It really feels great that somewhere, somehow there is someone in this world who is being inspired by this story.

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How has your life and work has been impacted by COVID-19?

J. Sangma: Well, during COVID-19, I became a dad! For me personally, the pandemic has also been a blessing for me because I've been able to stay with my family. But the other side to that is with respect to work. It hasn’t been easy.

Because sometimes I had to make the call to go out or stay with my family in the house. In a way, I have to provide for my family. It's only three of us at home. I couldn't let my wife go out during pregnancy. With the hospital visits, we were literally exposing ourselves to COVID-19. But, with the grace of God, we have been protected. We haven't tested positive. So it's been a great blessing for us. God has been protecting me and my family.

I was able to make field visits on a very low profile within the city and I could visit a few Compassion centres near my village. That was an advantage because the people know me and they would accommodate me. In the beginning of the pandemic, it was really difficult because if a particular house had someone positive, then that entire area would be under lockdown. The family would be shamed for being COVID positive. They were like ‘untouchables’. This was what it was like for the first three to five months of the pandemic. It was really scary.

But after five or six months of the pandemic, gradually things began to get a bit more lenient, and that was really good. It was refreshing for me! For the first six months, I didn't move out of the house at all. It was a challenge; I had to really keep a very low profile. But you know, the beautiful thing about these low-profile visits was that people still wanted to be heard. There was a taboo about not letting people into the village who are coming from the city because it was the epicentre of the pandemic in our country. But people were still willing to let me in, so that's really special.

I did have to request Compassion’s partners to cover stories and photos while I didn't travel. Despite the pandemic, I would say the demand [from fundraising Partners] for quality stories and photos was really high. In the beginning, I think there were quite a number of stories that I managed to cover over the phone and I received photos [from staff members]. But then I realised that someone is taking these photos and risking being exposed to the virus. So if they can do it, why can't I?

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What is the journey of capturing a story for Compassion? How does it begin?

J. Sangma: The first step is that one of the global partners requests a story. Then, the photojournalist captures the story. Next is the publishing of the story. That's a very simplified version of the process.

I’ll start with the first point—the selection of the story topic. These are usually shared with us quarterly or half yearly and we know which stories we are going to do in which month. We also have the opportunity to do ‘photojournalist's choice’ stories. This gives us the opportunity to talk about poverty or the challenges of a country from a country's perspective.

Sometimes the topics we receive from other countries are very Western. They are topics that people in the West would understand, but there are many other challenges or topics which are a bigger concern for us.

Depending on the sensitivity of the story, we make very early communications with the Centre Director and the Partnership Facilitators (PFs). That way, we can inform and prepare the parents and the children. There is administration required to get approvals, which might take between three to four days. We need preparation time for selecting and charging cameras—that's a very important process!

And then comes the centre visit. I'm so used to getting lost that I'm not scared of getting lost anymore! This is because on the majority of my visits we have to visit new places. We have travelled on so many different modes of transport: air, ferries, cars, buses, boats and hiking. There are some visits to very remote places. We have to be prepared to sleep on the floor. Whenever I meet another photojournalist, it’s really nice to share these experiences! And I really love this because I am an adventure lover myself.

There are also some centres where we have to walk across slushy rivers. There are some rivers that have mud up to the thigh level. You can only imagine how difficult it is to walk there!

With the interview, I usually do the interviews at the homes and at the centre. When you take the interviews at the homes, they’re able to open up more about how they have been able to manage and tackle poverty with a bit of support. There's one more place where I get a lot of information, which is while walking to their homes. Children and parents open up a lot by walking. And that's a really fun way to speak to them.

The writing part can sometimes get a bit overwhelming trying to recollect the time that we spent together. But we are sure to remember the emotions that are spoken. Sometimes, the words that are shared are very relevant and very powerful in local languages but trying to translate that into English—it doesn't give the same emotional punch. I try to translate that as effectively as possible.

The toughest part of the editing is selection of the photos. Sometimes I let someone else select the photos because it’s so difficult! I know how hard I worked for each of those photos. We give around 10 to 12 photos on every assignment. It is true that we don't always get all our photos right, so in those cases there may only be five or six photos.

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You must sometimes find yourself connecting with children, families and staff about personal or sensitive topics. How do you build relationships and safe spaces for families to share? What works well and what can be challenging?

J. Sangma: With my physical features, there are many parts of Bangladesh that are not familiar with us minorities. So those are the spaces where they sometimes consider me a foreigner. But when I introduce myself to them as a Bangladeshi, they get a bit more comfortable. It has something to do with giving the feeling that this this guy is not too different from us. That’s a beautiful thing about this country—there are many, many minority communities. That’s what makes our society so special, because it's not only a single majority community, there are so many cultures.

One thing I always keep in mind while visiting them is that these are people who are already vulnerable and oppressed due to their economic status. So I speak in a relaxed way and just try to be like them; it helps a lot. Just sitting on the floor with them or sitting and chatting.

There have been many visits where children’s families have never had a visitor from outside the village in their home before. Maybe they’ve never had someone wearing shoes come to their home.

Sometimes, those of us living in cities take things for granted. We don't really appreciate the things that we have. There are so many places that still don't have basic facilities like toilets and electricity. The best thing we can do for them is to just get down to that level and listen. The key is just listening to them and not commenting on it, just listen.

What do you wish supporters in Australia knew about Compassion and poverty in Bangladesh?

J. Sangma: I need to explain the context. When it comes to poverty, there has been so many NGOs working in Bangladesh, which is very good. Due to this support, the literacy rate has increased a lot, which is a very good thing. In the past, some people were so used to getting housemaids, janitors and chauffeurs. But over the last two decades, it has been a challenge to get people to work in these positions. This is a positive side. But on the other hand, there's also a flip side where a lot of children are dropping out of school and there are still a lot of child marriages taking place in the post-COVID situation.

In terms of poverty in Bangladesh, in all these cases I feel personally that there's something common in them. No matter their economic situation, they’re looking to get their dignity.

No matter how poor they are, dignity is first and foremost the most important thing for them. Everyone in the world is trying to make their tomorrow better than today. And Compassion is helping build up these dreams of these children.

This doesn't happen in schools, because in schools here in Bangladesh, people are more concerned about academic degrees. But it is also important that children learn social skills to develop themselves. So to understand poverty, you need to know that if you can help boost people to get their dignity, it's a lifetime investment on their character’s foundation.

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What is the impact of sponsorship in your experience?

J. Sangma: I would say that in the beginning, people were very resistant to sending the children to the program. But what matters in any community is the actions.

I would say that Compassion is like this: you know when we have a leaking tub or bowl, for example, Compassion is like the plug which doesn't let these people in poverty go backwards. We help them go up.

The reason I tell you this is that while visiting the field, I can see that we aren’t able to do everything for the children. But at the same time, the things that we do are things which the participants can’t live without. When children get toiletries, like shampoo or sanitary pads, these are really helpful. I’m really glad these items are provided for them.

These are the things which parents would totally neglect because of their level of poverty. I know children who have spent the entire year only with two sets of clothes and one set of shoes. One set being the school uniform. It's extremely difficult for them to spare some money, even if it's only a small amount to us.

In the years I’ve worked with Compassion, one thing I've noticed is that there are children with major medical problems who wouldn't have survived if it wasn't for Compassion’s support. I would say there are over 100 children that I can think of who have faced major problems like cancer or eye surgery. When I look at this support, I think to myself that even me and my family wouldn't have been able to afford that. And these children, they're getting the support, which is why the Child Sponsorship Program is so special.

What would you say to an Australian supporter who is hesitant about starting a sponsorship with Compassion?

J. Sangma: I would say to look at our stories. That's the simplest thing that I can tell them because poverty is something very complex which you and I wouldn't understand just by looking at it. Even in my country, there are so many levels of poverty which even I don't understand. On my last visit, I saw a poor community where they were having a wedding ceremony and they celebrated big with so many decorations and different foods. They’re poor and yet they had taken a loan or saved up for this special day despite their daily struggles in life. It is very complex.

For new sponsors, I would say that you can try to get a firsthand experience by starting with the stories. If you can visit, it will be a life changing to experience to walk through poverty and know that sometimes small support helps a long way for every child in Compassion. All we need to do is start somewhere.


Words and photography by J. Sangma. Interview by Rachel Howlett.