By Johana Bhuiyan
Singapore’s economy is booming. In a country where a new Volkswagen Golf costs over $100,000, a pair of Levis will set you back $94, and a wedge of cheese is over $10, Mila, mother of seven, lives on about $780 a month. Throughout her 33 years in this country, Mila has been, and in some cases still is, a gangster, wife, mother, and toilet cleaner, but—most importantly—she’s happy. “I wake up every morning, and I look forward to seven things,” Mila tells photographer Edwin Koo. “My children.”
Koo, also based in Singapore, met Mila when he was shooting a government brochure about social welfare in March 2012. “I met a couple of basket cases in Singapore, but Mila stood out from them, because she didn't sound downtrodden. There wasn't a hint of self pity even though she was one woman raising seven kids,” Koo says. “It was her inner strength as a mother that made me remember her.”
It is her story and others like it that The Global Institute for Tomorrow (GIFT) aims to highlight. This Hong Kong-based think tank works to educate and prepare “current and future leaders” to be successful in a globalized world through “experiential executive learning programs.” Their most recent venture, “The Other Hundred Project,” was launched to reveal how people from variety of financial backgrounds actually live. For GIFT, its decision to publish a book of photo essays is a critique of the tendency of international publications to focus only on the extremely rich or the extremely poor. By exposing this greater range of stories, GIFT says it is trying to account for the underrepresented “other” that make up a majority of the world’s population and present a more realistic perspective on “the global village.”
When GIFT held an open call for photographers to submit pictures for this photo-book in early March, Koo went straight to Mila.
“A year later, I called her up for [The] Other Hundred [Project], and she said, ‘No problem, just come and I’ll help you in whatever way I can,’” Koo says. “She was living below the poverty line in one of the most expensive cities in the world, raising seven kids singlehandedly.”
Tingting Peng, project manager of The Other Hundred Project, says the company wanted to challenge the conventional portrayal of the rich and the poor. “The way that success is portrayed on front covers of magazines is having a lot of money or a lot of material goods. On the other hand, mainstream media has portrayed those people who are in the vast majority of the world’s population who are living in poverty as people living in desperation or despair, and we should pity those people or feel guilty. It’s a very stereotypical way of viewing the rich or poor and what it means to be either,” Peng says.
Chandran Nair, the CEO of GIFT, blames the “international” media for this portrayal of the rich and the poor. “I was always a bit puzzled by the rich lists and lists of the most beautiful and the sexiest. Coming from the world I lived in, it seemed to me that none of these people looked like anyone I knew. It seemed to suggest that these are unreachable things or most of us could not be like that,” Nair says.
It is for the media’s black-and-white portrayal of the rich and the poor, and the lack of dimension in portraying everyday people that Nair wants to fix. By enhancing an understanding of the way most of the world lives, GIFT is providing the intellectual ammunition for students, leaders, and citizens of the world to be successful in the face of globalization. As the world becomes more interconnected, it becomes increasingly important to provide a three-dimensional perspective of, as Nair calls it, the “global norm,” in order to ensure the needs of the majority of the world are addressed.
The world needs new narratives, Nair says. Globalization, he argues, should offer an abundance of knowledge. But while the Internet is allowing more access to information, the perspectives being presented are narrowing. “What would an image of Africa look like that is not focused on the wealthiest people there, or the military, or the government, that would not include a child eating out of a tin plate on a dirt floor? This is what the book is about, encouraging people to search and look deeper into countries and cultures, because we now live in this, sort of, snapshot world,” Nair says.
Although the aim of the book is to represent the world’s population that is neither extremely rich nor extremely poor, it is not meant to deny that destitute conditions do exist, Nair says. “We’re not in any way suggesting that there aren’t people who suffer great misfortune. There are few examples [in the book] in fact. The opposite of what we’re often told by the media to celebrate is not stark poverty,” he says. The opposite, he suggests is nuance and context.
The book will include 100 photographs from approximately 91 countries, according to Peng, alongside back-stories of the images. Koo’s image, in particular, captures Mila in a moment of delight surrounded by her children as they cheer on their brother while he blows out the candles on his brightly lit birthday cake. This black-and-white image offsets the commonly held notions of the extravagance of living in financially booming Singapore. Though living below the poverty line, Mila and her family bring color into each other’s lives and to this image effectively piquing the audience’s curiosity and drawing them into their story.
Koo still speaks to Mila and her family and hopes to try to help them as much as he can. “Her kids would sometimes give me a missed call, and I'm planning to put together some hand-me-down schoolbags and computer stuff for them. Frankly, she's really got a backbone; the only thing she asked me for was a job. I told her I’m a photographer and don’t have many assignments to begin with,” Koo explains.
Nair says he hopes to continue this project annually, changing the theme for each publication. Next year, he says, the company is considering highlighting “the Other Hundred” entrepreneurs.” For now, GIFT is solidifying the place of these one hundred underrepresented voices in the global spectrum, giving them the chance to, as Mila says, “be somebody.”
"You know what keeps me going? Because I know one day, I will be somebody. Just like how I always remind Anjana [her eldest daughter],” Mila says to Koo. “Now she wants to be like me. Be somebody.”
Photographer, Jia Han Dong captures Megan from Montana, United States in her trailer packed with her collection of riding gear. She is happy with her simple, cowgirl lifestyle she tells Dong.
Hong Wang and Yun Nie pose for free wedding photos taken by photographer, Jia Daitengfei, in a factory in Shanghai. Many young factory workers marry young and aren't able to afford a wedding photographer. Daitengfei offered to take these photos for free for this and several other couples.
An elderly woman tends to her urban farm in Busan, South Korea's second largest city.
Photographer, Valerie Leonard captures one among many laborers in Mali that face difficult working conditions everyday. Leonard seeked to highlight the courage and bravery of these men and women in her photo essay entitled, "The Labors of Hercules."
Johana Bhuiyan is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photos courtesy of The Other Hundred Project]