DARBIE ANGELL - BANGLADESH

I guess you could say I’ve been uninspired. Uninspired to jot my thoughts, uninspired to inspire others and tired of the grind. Authoring a post of length equal to the impact in my life can be arduous and exhausting. I suppose it’s been a mountain I had no yearn to climb, until today... one year later.

In 2018 I decided to take a deep breath to focus on my craft, my photography and grow my business, which at a stage of change. A change for the better. I’ve introduced a lot of personal and reportage work into my portfolio, which had attracted clientele such as A&E Networks, TIME and W Magazine. I suppose I’ve become less inspired by the fantasy of the fashion industry and more inspired by real people making a real impact. There wasn’t a switch or trigger, just an itch that started in Africa leading up to this particular project in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2017.

*Due to the sensitivity of this project some names, dates and locations have been changed in order to protect the lives of those involved.

I returned from Iraq with a newfound sense of strength. I was high on the confidence and power I felt from accomplishing such an important and dangerous initiative in a conflict zone. So, when I first heard of this project for entrepreneur Darbie Angell just days later, I was thrilled to get back into that part of the Eastern hemisphere, but boldly self-assured that it would all be a breeze.

The project would focus on establishing content and collateral for Darbie Angell who had created a custom line of modern dinnerware which is now distributed in Bed Bath and Beyond, Macy’s and Dillard’s. Her path to success started from square one as lawyer and no industry experience. Her love for the culture of Bangladesh came from a visit while establishing the manufacturing side in a textile plant outside of Dhaka. With the help of Nadus Films and I, Darbie wanted to tell her story and “why” Bangladesh. Our focus was not water, war or poverty, but the empowerment of women and beauty of the country.

The People’s Republic of Bangladesh sits on the Indian Ocean to the right of the India border and to the left of the Myanmar. It is the most densely-populated country in the world and still developing. Believe it or not, Bangladesh can be very dangerous for an American. Similar to the religious climate of Iraq, we would be exposed to kidnapping and terrorist action. Fortunately, we were experinced with working under the radar.

Soon, I received word from Coury Deeb of Nadus Films, that we would be traveling with security, but a special kind of security. You don't know them, but you know of them: Seal Team Six, the most elite military force in the world. Ben and Sam, two freshly retired Navy Seals had recently started a private security firm working with high-level clientele all over the world. We were fortunate enough to lock them down for this project. Although, their main focus was the safety of Darbie and her team, I felt extremely safe with these men watching our backs from afar.

After a long 24 hours in flight we landed in Dhaka to met Darbie, her assistant Rebekah, Ben and Sam as well as out personalized escort, which provided comfort in such a new environment.

 © Clay Cook 2018

We landed late, very late, so photography was not an option. The weather was hot, humid and very wet. As we arrived to our hotel, exhausted from the travel, we were welcomed by a metal entry gate and armed security force. But, the inside was modern, sleek and the service was prompt, unlike many foreign hospitality establishments. Once we settled into our rooms, we immediately started to break out gear and prepare for the early morning call time. From this point on, sleep would be few and far between.

I remember jarring awake as my alarm blared at sunrise. The 3 hours just wasn’t enough, but I strapped on my boots and buckled up my camera for our first day on the ground in Bangladesh.

As I brushed the sleep out of my eyes, I made my way to the rooftop for a cityscape-view, camera in hand. I was suddenly hit with a wall of humidity and heat as the elevator doors opened to the deck of the rooftop. Slowly, I made my way across the deck parallel to the beautiful infinity pool to a windowed ledge. An incredible view. Our hotel looked as if it was one of the highest structures in Dhaka, towering over the city street. The golden sun raked the buildings leaving long shadows on the ground below. I snapped a few photographs and made my way down to the lobby to connect with the crew.

Our first stop was a local village and into the home of a loyal employee of Darbie. Just like many developing counties we’ve worked in, we were all welcomed like celebrities, except this time we were followed by nearly 30 police officers who acted as extra security. While I greatly appreciated their service and security, it actually created more chaos and more confusion. At that point, our low-profile was blown.

Despite the chaos, the people and children were nervous, quiet and curious. I found myself pausing often to scan the scene and noticed people behind people: the people in the shadows. Although those people had no desire to be photographed, there curiously brought them out of the shadows. I did my best to capture them or attempt to speak with them before they were gone.

While the people of Bangladesh initially seemed similar to the demographic of people in India, the more I analyzed and mingled with the people the more I felt a deep desire to hold their own against all odds, a strength I didn’t feel during my time in India.

A lot of time has past since this project, the days seem to have blurred together and the timeline skewed. Nevertheless, I remember much of our time was spent in the textile factory where Darbie has her dinnerware manufactured and produced. As soon as we walked into the factory I quickly realized, as a male, I was the minority. Darbie proudly employ’s mostly women at an above-average salary in this particular factory. And, It was our job to show that the best way we know how.

Our first day in the factory was spent walking around and scouting the area for unique and interesting-looking corners to take our time to document and photograph portraits of both women employees as well as Darbie, herself. There was a lot of beauty in this factory, from the light to the product itself, it was hard to focus on one composition at the time. There was moments crossing with other moments that I just couldn’t capture. I couldn’t shoot fast enough. We made our way around the factory steadily and quickly, while we all discussed options with our fixer, translator and driver Mosheul Alam who also happened to be an marketing executive at the factory.

Eventually, we locked in a shot list with locations and jumped in the van to head back to the hotel. Even with a police escort, the drive to and from various locations in Bangladesh can be grossly time-consuming and due to security we needed to get back and settled before sunset. I don’t remember much from the remainder of the day, I just remember our dinner: a bourbon neat, and a Chicken Tikka Masala that was just out of this world.

The entire production had a fairly ambitious shot list and while the motion side of the production was a priority, I had to knock out at least a portrait of Darbie and a portrait collection of the women. 

We used our go-to run-and-gun light setup; a Profoto B2 Location Kit attached to a Manfrotto 026 Swivel Umbrella Adapter which is coupled to a Benro ProAngel Monopod for complete mobility. The Profoto B2 head is modified with a 39" Rotalux Deep Octabox. It allows us to move from location to location with maximum efficiency.

Our first set was controlled chaos. Any size camera crew tends to attract a lot of attention anywhere in the world, especially in a developing country. It was difficult to ask the employees to not look at the camera or dramatically stare at Darbie. Not too mention, generally, women do not like to be photographed and will hide or cover their face as soon as they make eye contact with a camera lens. So, it was important to build relationships with the women who would be on camera and explain our goal with the content.

I just wasn’t getting what I wanted. It was extremely hot (like an oven), it was loud and there were a dozen people hovering around the camera. Fortunately, Ryan from Nadus Films jumped in to be my lighting assistant and it instantly provided a bit of backup I needed in the moment. The set wasn’t perfect, but it was a good start. Darbie was a trooper and we more than willing to adhere to our small creative decisions on the fly.

After a break for lunch, it was time for the big show: a ambitious aerial shot of all the women who worked in the factory. At a coordinating time, all the women would convene into the center street for further direction. Just like clockwork nearly 1,000 colorful-clothed women flowed into the center of the entire manufacturing plant. It was an overwhelming sight to see. Not only did I have to play crowd control, but I also had to play an assistant director and the photographer. Once again, controlled chaos. After 6-8 cinematic aerial maneuvers with the DJI Inspire, the crowd of women began to disperse with a celebration. I shot frantically, attempting to capture the moment, which was pure beauty.

The evening was met with a small celebration. Bourbon and beer was shared and once again I went for the Chicken Tikka Masala. This is where we began to learn about our security team Ben and Sam. We listened to stories and began to unravel the mystery of who these men truly were. They had changed the world during their time in the military and it was fascinating. As an avid reader of military history, I was starstruck. But, ultimately decided to keep my gray sharpie stowed.

The transportation was tiring, on occasion we would be stuck in the van for up to 6 hours a day just en route to a village, factory or particular location. However, this also allowed time for me to truly soak in the beauty that was Bangladesh. You would often see a dozen fisherman scouring river for a catch or a low sun highlighting the dome of a massive mosque. Then there is the artwork on the back of the every Rickshaw that consumes the road. It’s all beauty to me.

Despite the beauty at its core, Bangladesh has its rough edges, which we saw first hand. Darbie, with her mission to support women in struggle, wanted to visit an orphanage and brothel in the poorest area of Dhaka to see how she could offer a helping hand. The brothel was known as the top domain for sex trafficking and prositution. While our security team advised against it, we all were curious to explore of what we feared the most.

The trip required a hour ferry ride to a different region of Bangladesh. It was refreshing to get on the open sea and suck in some fresh saltwater air compared to the thick smog of Dhaka.

While Darbie stayed safely outside the brothel we, along with Ben and Sam and a crew of police and fixers walked up and down dark narrow alleys packed with people. There were a hundred eyes on us and word traveled fast that our group was passing through the area. I rapidly fired 3-shot bursts in every direction at waist level, not to arouse to much attention. Similar to a mouse in a maze, we trekked back and forth searching for a specific door that led to this seedy domain. After 15 minutes, we were unable to find the brothel and our security called for a exit, we immediately headed back to a clearing. I took a deep breath as we left the alley, heavy with anticipation for what I may of captured.

The second phase of our production was to take a two-day adventure down to Cox’s Bazaar on the coast to capture the rural part of Bangladesh and it’s ancient culture, far from the city and smog. Cox’s Bazaar is the longest unbroken sea beach in the world and remains relatively untouched from tourism and commercial gentrification.

Our plane was set to take off early. The weather was hot, humid and wet, but we were anxious to see a different part of the country. We jumped into a small aircraft for the short flight to the coast. We arrived within an hour to Cox’s Bazaar Airport and were meet by a small local team and a large bus to transport us to the hotel. 

As soon as we hit the coastline, I noticed a beautiful ancient boat sat beached under a palm tree and imagined how incredible a picture that would be. While I snapped a still, I hoped we could venture back for a closer look or better yet, a portrait of Darbie. The authentic wooden ship looked like a age-old vessel in a time-warp out of a movie. It was completely surreal to see this type of boat in use today by these Bangladeshi fisherman.

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The drive was long and bumpy. Being in a large bus, I didn’t have a full 180° view, which I didn’t like, but I made it work. After a couple of hours, we finally made it to our hotel with enough time to drop our cases. We were set to head out immediately, but were hit with some delay waiting for our transportation to arrive. In the meantime, it began to rain, so I prepared all of my equipment with plastic rain sleeves and sealed up my Outdoor Research Gortex Rain Jacket. Finally, our vehicle arrived and I was thrilled to see a SUV with an open-caged bed where I could have a 360° perspective. Even with the rain, I was the first to jump in.

The warm open air was indescribable, I would often catch a powerful smell of fire, fish, gas or saltwater as we cruised the free coastal road. It was an incredible high to be out of Dhaka and in the open air in a place such as Cox’s Bazaar.

The more time I spent with Darbie the more I understood why she is a leader. Her personality and spirit brightly radiate a beacon of energy and leadership, which makes anyone willing to follow. While I had a few moments to capture a portrait of her in the factory, I felt refreshed and engrossed in the open environment of Cox’s Bazaar. I wanted to make sure I had some time with Darbie for a more focused portrait. Remember that beached and broken down yellow wood boat stranded close to the road.? It was our first location on the ground in Cox’s Bazaar.

The boat looked as if it had been there for years. The wood had been warped from the saltwater and inconsistent weather. It was perfectly perched on a small butte of sand as if it was placed there for a photograph. Unfortunately, the sun waved in and out. One moment bright and hot, then next dark and overcast. Nevertheless, I used the erratic weather to capture a wide variety of photography with Darbie. Some with artificial light and some with just natural sunlight. One look to the next, I finally had the time I needed with her for an engaging image.

I felt confident with the pictures we captured on the beach, but every solo chance I had with Darbie I fully used, including a quick moment hanging outside the back of our SUV for right composition. I followed her relentlessly for any candid moment that could be used as a portrait. In the end, the paparazzi-guerrilla style approach of photography was worth it. Over the next 24 hours, we packed in every opportunity to see everything the coast had to offer before the long trip back to Dhaka. I wasn’t thrilled about leaving the beauty of Cox’s Bazaar. But, excited for the next phase of our trip: Home.

Back in Dhaka, with only one last group meal together, we decided to celebrate a succesful project.

 Ben, Ryan, Justin, Clay, Coury, Darbie, Sam, Rebekkah, Drew and Mosheul

Ben, Ryan, Justin, Clay, Coury, Darbie, Sam, Rebekkah, Drew and Mosheul

Our last stop before the long journey back to the United States was a local train station known for being one of the most densely populated in the world. But, to our surprise we had hit it at a moment of after-rush stillness right at dusk. We took the opportunity of isolation to snag a Nadus Films group selfie, before we captured our final shot of the project. Wrap.

As I recount this project nearly one year later, the trip feels like a distant memory, with pieces slamming my senses. The smell of hot clay. The touch of musky warm air. The sight of a hazy sunrise. The sound of blaring car horns. The taste of a watered-down americano.

I didn’t come home with a changed way of life or newly found mission, but I did return with a clearer picture of me, my character and my weaknesses as a photographer, which is the most rewarding gift I could have received.

Thank you Darbie.