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DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHS TELL THE STORIES OF CHILDREN IN DANGER

Caring about others

PHOTOGRAPHER Martin Bandžák, 27, and psychologist Denisa Augustínová, 25, have travelled thousands of kilometres across six Asian countries and shot 420 rolls of film to document the situation of children in that troubled region. The result of their work can now be seen in an exhibition entitled Focus on Children.
The choice of venue for the exhibition, Bratislava's Polus City Center shopping mall, comes as a surprise, considering the subject matter of the project. However, it will probably help the exhibit fulfil its mission: to make the largest number of people possible aware of the suffering these children experience in their homelands or as refugees.
"We hope that out of the 26,000 visitors who come to Polus daily, we can address a few hundred. That might be enough to start with," say organisers.


STREET children in Hanoi, Vietnam.
photo: Martin Bandžák

PHOTOGRAPHER Martin Bandžák, 27, and psychologist Denisa Augustínová, 25, have travelled thousands of kilometres across six Asian countries and shot 420 rolls of film to document the situation of children in that troubled region. The result of their work can now be seen in an exhibition entitled Focus on Children.

The choice of venue for the exhibition, Bratislava's Polus City Center shopping mall, comes as a surprise, considering the subject matter of the project. However, it will probably help the exhibit fulfil its mission: to make the largest number of people possible aware of the suffering these children experience in their homelands or as refugees.

"We hope that out of the 26,000 visitors who come to Polus daily, we can address a few hundred. That might be enough to start with," say organisers.

Bandžák and Augustínová, the founders of the non-profit organisation Magna, which is putting on this exhibition, spent several months in Thailand with refugees from Myanmar (Burma), in Nepal and India with Tibetan asylum seekers, in Vietnam with street children and in Cambodia with child victims of field mines.

Bandžák and Augustínová stayed in each location they visited for more than a few days, because they wanted to get to know the countries and the people they were taking pictures of.

"We are not press photographers; we want to tell a story with our photos. And that means staying in one place for at least a week, making contacts and meeting people," says Bandžák. "We had an interpreter who helped us communicate with people and often took us to locations that were not accessible without locals."


REFUGEE twins born in different countries.
photo: Martin Bandžák

All the countries they focused on are facing social and economic change, as an increasing number of people move from the countryside to the big cities. Families that fail to find work in the cities usually descend into extreme poverty.

When parents are not able to provide for their children, the children often end up on the streets, earning money as beggars, shoe shiners, or newspaper sellers. Later they can enter a vicious circle of drug abuse and prostitution.

"The humanitarian organisations we cooperated with, like, Médecins Sans Frontieres, welcome initiatives that promote the problems of refugees. But they prefer [to work with] people who come and stay longer and have the project prepared in advance," says Bandžák.

This project focuses on the fate of refugees, street children, and children suffering from exposure to Agent Orange (a herbicide widely used as a defoliant in the Vietnam War, containing dioxin which causes cancer and other diseases) or from injuries caused by land mines.

Even though these problems might seem a long way from central Europe, the project also has a dimension that relates to Slovakia.

"We had 9,743 asylum seekers in Slovakia last year but only 20 people were granted refugee status. These people came from countries like China, Afghanistan, India, Iraq, and Bangladesh, and we shouldn't be indifferent to their stories," says Mária Čierna, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees branch office in Bratislava.

"With the improvement of socioeconomic conditions, Slovakia is expected to accept more refugees and increase their chances of integrating into society," she said, adding that she thought the display at Polus had a role to play in changing people's attitudes.

"An exhibition like Focus on Children can improve the climate in society and lead to a better understanding of the issue among the people," she said.

What: Focus on Children exhibition.
Where: Polus City Center, Vajnorská Street, Bratislava.
When: Monday to Saturday 7:00-22:30 and Sundays 8:00-22:30 until March 3.
Admission: free.

While the exhibition is on, a documentary movie about the project will be shown before the usual screenings at the Ster Century Cinemas. For more information on the project visit www.focus-on.org.

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