Keeping housemaids at a ‘close distance’


Check out this project and all those photos.

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The two women sit in close proximity, but they remain worlds apart. 
It’s a reflection of life in urban Bangladesh, where domestic maids are commonly employed but often hidden from view. 
 For her illuminating series, “Close Distance,” photographer Jannatul Mawa took portraits of maids and the women who employ them in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. 
With the simple act of putting the women side by side on the same couch, Mawa disrupted social rules. She found that sometimes, the maid would choose to sit on the floor rather than sit on the same couch as her employer. 
“Every day, maidservants take care of the bed and sofa with their hands, but they are neither allowed to sit nor to sleep on them once,” Mawa said. “With their domestic roles, they are close to the middle-class women and distant at the same time.” Mawa chose maids as a documentary subject after she hired two of them to help her after the birth of her child. 
“Despite my conscience and work on women’s rights, I am not out of the societal system,” she said. “Within women, there is class difference depending on the economic and professional position of individuals, which I want to show here.” 
In the photos, the body language of the two seated women is markedly different, presenting both the formal distance and the class division between the women. 
Mawa said that before each portrait, she had to persuade the women to have the picture made. All of the women she approached for portraits were reluctant; they worried about who might see the images. But Mawa eventually convinced them by reminding them that the social problems that created the conditions for maids were larger than the individual. 
The exact number of domestic maids in Bangladesh is unclear, but some nongovernmental organizations have estimated there are approximately 500,000 in Dhaka, according to a paper presented by the scholar Nasrin Akter at the 2006 meeting of the International Studies Association. Mawa said that traditionally in Dhaka, the maids are given two meals a day for their labor and make about $15 a month. 
These women are extremely vulnerable, according to the abstract of Akter’s report. “They are usually very young and work long hours for little pay and often face abuses,” it said. “The destiny of these maids rests largely on the mercy of their employers. As their parents or close relatives primarily live in rural areas and usually are unable to afford to visit Dhaka regularly to oversee the condition, they are exposed to a wide range of maltreatment.” 
The plain, consistent lighting and frontal angle used by Mawa in her portraits seems to underscore the images as a social survey. She plans to shoot next in homes in different districts outside of Dhaka, to compare the capital with regional attitudes toward domestic help. 
While using the tools of the anthropologist, Mawa never forgets to show the humanity of her subjects. Her portraits display the faces of women who are normally secluded and invisible, and render them unforgettable.
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