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TEDx Danubia Talk: Photos and Tales of Unseen Worlds by Balázs Gárdi

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Hello. One of the reasons why I am here tonight is to learn from other speakers. This morning I had a horrible experience: I saw the future. I listened to Mr Barabási and I saw myself pacing up and down here. And I thought to myself: this is horrible since it is predictable and I hate to be predictable. And then I also thought, if only we are lucky enough to see the future, we can change it. If only... Right? (suddenly sitting down) Then I wanted to change the title as well. The original is: photos and tales of unseen worlds. And I thought I should rather say “stories” instead of “tales” because stories contain truth. But then I realized that even tales have truth in them. (referring to a previous presentation) I will just say that these are photos and real life tales, which have real characters. I have to apologize because the tales and the related pictures will not be the happiest ones. This is so, because I usually take photos of conflicts and concourses. Actually today I would like to talk about why it is important to know of the existence of conflicts so that we can learn from the events that are happening around us. The first severe conflict situation I experienced as a photographer was the war in Afghanistan. My first trip there was followed by a dozen others. As a matter of fact, I witnessed the initial euphoria and how it turned into desperation in Afghanistan with the years going by. Aid was not arriving and it still does not arrive to those in need. The country is run by militant tribal leaders and drug lords. There is proliferating corruption which makes people’s lives impossible. The security in the country has been deteriorating and the Southern and Eastern parts of the country has been submerged in war for years. Actually, my work received international publicity when I accompanied a US Army unit. For those who do not know what such military operation feels like, I will show you now. During the week-long military action three US soldiers and at least 7 villagers lost their lives and very many other people were wounded. For example, the little boy on this picture is the victim of an American rocket attack. They are only mentioned as "collateral damage" in military jargon, which phrase was unfortunately adopted by the media as well. It is no coincidence that these photos became my most published work so far. War is the most easy to understand and convincing form of human tragedy. However, there are many other forms of conflict happening around us, and war is only one of them. We do not even take notice of most conflicts around us. These (conflicts) are too ordinary, too small and too unimportant to pay attention to them. If we look at the value of Afghanistan, it is basically defined by its central location. Today, we have talked about oil… I mean other speakers talked about oil before me and you know how important oil is to certain countries and to certain people. As a result of its central position Afghanistan not only borders on several nations, but also separates countries and valuable oil resources. No wonder that we have seen and will continue to see the world’s largest powers fighting for the possession of this place. However, think about... What if neither oil nor geopolitical interests are the source of conflicts? What would happen if our mere survival is at stake? For a while now I have been taking pictures of water or rather I have been searching for and trying to show conflicts arising around water. When two years ago I took the picture of this pile of water on the frontline I realized that somehow this water needed to be shipped here. Lots of questions occurred to me including, how did all this water reach this place? This was next to the Pakistani mountains, on the frontline, 5-10 kilometers from the border. Who drinks this water? How much of it is being consumed? What environmental effects does transporting this water here have? And so on and so on. During my travels, many questions like this arose and led me to this topic. When I took these pictures I still did not know that that I will end up living in the country from where this vast amount of water originates. Around 2004, almost all bottled water arriving here came from Dubai. Imagine 100,000 soldiers and another 100,000 serving them, all drinking bottled water every day, consuming around 5-10 liters a day. Dubai, where I currently live, is a desert city. Everyone knows, even those who haven’t been there, that a few weeks ago the world’s highest skyscraper was unveiled to the public. Without artificial lakes and lagoons nothing is built and there would be no new parts of the city. If someone feels like skiing they can go at any time to a shopping center to do so. or if someone pays for a trip on a helicopter, then while flying around over Dubai... ...they can see that actually this desert city is green from a range of golf courses. We have also heard today (from other speakers) why it is good to travel on public roads. I travel a lot by helicopter, for other reasons as well, but what I really enjoy is driving... I can pass through different landscapes and go wherever I want to. This was the case a couple of years ago when I decided to go to San Diego... and I wanted to drive through the desert to Las Vegas to see what it looks like. I was very surprised to find little or no desert there but rather green agricultural areas. I had never been to Las Vegas before. so I was also surprised to find that as I went up to the first floor in the casinos, I simply found a lagoon invoking Venice-scenery with young lovers and newly married couples on gondolas. Unlike in Dubai, where basically all the water is a result of salt distillation... ...since they do not have this mineral there (in Dubai) and they cannot mine it out... the water of the Colorado River is used for irrigation and to satisfy the thirst of cities. However if you look at this photo: this is the largest man-made reservoir in the USA. which supplies Las Vegas with water. Their supplies were only half-full years ago. Scientists predict that if neither the weather.. ...nor the rate of water usage changes then this lake could dry out completely in the near future. I saw the most extreme example of drought while visiting central India last year, where... there is no rain. It had not rained for 5-6 years. The monsoon rain is supposed to recharge underground aquifers. People here live mainly from agriculture. Yet, these days they are digging ever deeper in vain as there is no water to be found there. When there is no water the crops fail, the animals perish and it simply leads to famine. Because of the famine, people have no choice but to migrate to large cities... ...trying to make a living in another way. Most of them are plunged into poverty and end up homeless. The man you see on the picture was a ‘farm hand’. He has no land, but since even people with land fail to grow crops without water... ...he has no work and no money either. He lives in paralyzing poverty. One day his wife came home and he realized that she had a piece of soap. That piece of soap is an essential thing. They use it to wash themselves, clothes and dishes. Yet, the man could not allow his wife to buy this piece of soap since they had no money at all. When he asked her where the soap was from, she said she had swiped it from the neighbor. He asked her to return it but his wife responded by packing up... ...and running away with their children. She left her man. He hung himself the next day. I could take a picture of him only because his life was saved by his sister, who cut the suffocating man from the rope. Had she arrived late, this man would now be... of the thousands of Indian farmers to commit suicide because of water shortage. On a different continent with a totally different social structure... in certain parts of Australia the situation is exactly the same. There is no water at all. The lakes, rivers and water tanks dry out. I have talked to farmers in a sheep market in New South Wales, who said they are forced to sell livestock that would otherwise starve or die of thirst. Farmers who buy these animals from them do not purchase the animals to use their meat... ...but to graze them on failed crops completely unsuited for harvesting. Thus farmers minimize their losses. These farmers are unable to lead their normal lifestyles and simply fall into depression. Many of them meet the same tragic end as their distressed counterparts in India. I guess many of you already know that more than half of the world population lives in cities. However, probably not many think about the actual living conditions that people live in. Today, about one billion people are estimated to live in slums in inhumane conditions. This number is likely to double in the next ten years. Slums are characterized by a number of features. One of them, as apparent on this picture from Rio, is that slums are incredibly overcrowded. I took the next photo in an unregistered slum, where 700,000 people live in Pakistan. These people are not even registered. They are not on the map. There is no infrastructure at all. The following picture shows that the untreated sewage water runs through open canals... ...from which the city’s sewage flows into the sea. The reason why you actually cannot see the sewage is that it is covered by trash. Several black stripes are visible on the right. These are basically plastic water pipes. The fact is that there is no network built for drinking water. People live totally illegally here and some of them drill holes in nearby main water pipes. Through this trash carpet, they directly connect to the drinking water system. They collect the water in hidden underground tanks to be sold later on to those who live here. The problem is that when the amount of trash becomes intolerable they usually set it on fire. At such times, the plastic pipes melt and the drinking water gets mixed with the sewage. Those who live here are forced to buy this drinking water even if they know that.. ...their children get seriously ill on a daily basis because of it. It is important to highlight that today in the world more people die of causes related to water... ...than as a result of all the armed conflicts combines. Of course, we also buy water. It is a huge business. It is also a huge business in Pakistan where there is water but it is simply being stolen. It is stolen from the pipes and then sold to people with the help of corrupt government officials. Of course, there is a water business in Europe too. Here they sell bottled water to us. The advertisements try to convey the idea that only bottled water is fresh and healthy. Of course, this is not entirely true since in our larger cities, almost without exception... well monitored, healthy and remarkably good quality water flows from the taps. Recently the mayor of Venice striked back by advertising tapwater. This city has no roads, and so it could not cope with the huge amount of plastic bottles thrown away by tourists. I was very curious to know how politicians and representatives of the water trade... ...make decisions above our heads concerning water. So, I went to see the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul to study their mechanisms. This conference is held every three years and very peculiar decisions are reached there. Activists, experts and a few politicians place demands on the United Nations to declare... ...that access to safe drinking water is a basic human right. Naturally, if water was declared a basic human right, then sanctions could be imposed when... ...owners of water resources aiming for profit unfairly deny access from the thirsty. It must be noted that water will be the first commodity... ...that each and every person must buy to stay alive. I believe this makes it easier to see why ministers from 120 countries finally declared... that “access to safe drinking water is a basic human need” – and not a basic human right. I think individual thinking and responsible decisions all require information. Today we also heard (in other presentations) that a scientist’s weapon is information. I believe that information should be the weapon for all of us. We receive information mostly from the media. but this media is struggling not only with a financial but also with a serious moral crisis. Simply put, the fact is that they need to produce material that sells. I think it was only the result of my naïvete that I was surprised when a few years ago... ...I sent photos from Afghanistan to a leading US news magazine, and the photo editor said: - Balazs, please do not send depressing and gloomy photos anymore. We will simply not be able to use them, since the magazine’s policy has changed. They simply want the product to be sold. The most frustrating part of my work is that my own industry builds walls in front of me. While I was in the field working in conflict situations that I believed editors should show, they sat in their offices, continents away, and simply swept my work away... disregarded it. They did not find it "interesting" enough. Returning to Afghanistan, when in 2002 the military operations were declared successful, the press crews left the country as quickly as they showed up. They already knew that a new and larger war was being prepared in Iraq. More volumes, more audience. When years later, around 2007, they went back to Afghanistan... they labelled the situation as “the forgotten war”. This was a very hyped phrase for about a year. "The forgotten war." - a title for about a year. Of course, if they had said the “neglected war” it would have been much closer to reality. It is a horrible feeling for a person to be a part of this, even if unintended. I was a part of this and had no idea how to solve this problem. I could not break through these walls. Nowadays, instead of trying to break through them, I simply go around them. I have created my own online publication. I am trying to act with my publication, where besides compiling my photos and stories... ...I also ask experts who are more knowledgeable with the topics... share their ideas with you, the readers. I am trying to act by raising awareness and by asking you to visit this site not only to look at it, but also to comment and discuss the topics and share your opinion and your experiences. One of the main reasons I came here was that I believed in you being a receptive audience. The TED audience is known for being inquisitive and... ... TED is characterized not only by wanting to act but also being able to act. You do not need to think of very big things. I think we initiate small steps for things to change, if we talk about them first, and if we consciously pay attention to conflicts shaping up around us and we learn from them. Be it the question of water, oil, our politicians or any issue, even the smallest conflicts. The problem with conflicts is that they tend to add up and may lead to catastrophic situations. I am asking you to discuss conflicts to consciously learn from them: Let’s try to avoid running into disastrous situations that could have been prevented. Thank you very much. (...applause...)

Video Details

Duration: 19 minutes and 1 second
Year: 2010
Country: Hungary
Language: Hungarian
Genre: None
Views: 1,378
Posted by: kriszta on Mar 17, 2010

TEDx Danubia Talk: Photos and Tales of Unseen Worlds by Balázs Gárdi (27 January 2010, Budapest, Hungary)

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