What's it like to collect news footage in a brothel while wearing full PPE in 93ºF (34ºC) heat and 90% humidity? During the pandemic, Bangladeshi video-journalist Salman Saeed has been taking on the near impossible to bring the news you need to the safety and comfort of your air conditioned living room.
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Kelley Lynch: 0:01Hey, Tanvir How are you?
Cindy Sealls: 0:02Hey Tanvir. So, how's the weather over there today?
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 0:06Hot as usual. It's almost nine here in the evening. Still , it feels like 34 degrees and we have a humidity of 90%.
Cindy Sealls: 0:16What's 34, Kelley?
Kelley Lynch: 0:18Uh, let me, I'm going to Google that right now. Okay, Ooh, 93.2 degrees Fahrenheit. 90% humidity. And it's not raining.
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 0:31No, it's not raining.
Cindy Sealls: 0:32That's like you're living in soup.
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 0:36lt feels like that. And imagine I see people in the street walking, wearing PPE.
Kelley Lynch: 0:44Like full PPE?
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 0:46The whole thing - the cap, the shoe cases, too . And the , you know, it's kind of a jumpsuit kind of thing. So they be , and in this, in this temperature.
Kelley Lynch: 1:00That's impossible to imagine. I mean, obviously that's not required, but is there some sort of PPE that is required like a mask or anything?
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 1:13A mask is mandatory. Two days back government health officials said that anybody going out has to wear a mask and if they don't, they will be fined. Something like a hundred thousand Dhaka, which would be like something like $1,200.
Speaker 1: 1:31Oh my God . So you never saw anybody without a mask.
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 1:34You do see people without masks , but if they catch you, you're doomed.
Cindy Sealls: 1:40Who in the world can pay $1,200?
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 1:45For most of the people in walking in the street, that's like your salary.
Cindy Sealls: 1:49But you just said, there are people with no masks.
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 1:53Yes. Bangladeshi people are true believers in freedom. And when government imposes a fine or anything, they challenge it by not doing it.
Kelley Lynch: 2:04I remember very well, your explanation that Bangladesh was the only truly free country on earth.
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 2:10Yeah.
Cindy Sealls: 2:12I think we have some Bangladeshis here. I'm just saying that folks don't want to wear a mask. They will not wear a mask. I love that. That's interesting because you know, we always think that we have a monopoly on freedom over here. Our US folk, you know, everybody else's is tied down, but here we have individually celebrate individual freedom. So it'd be, I think it would be good for them to know that other people feel the same way about individual freedom, that we don't have any kind of monopoly on that mindset.
Kelley Lynch & Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 2:56Hi I'm Kelly Lynch. Hi , I'm Tanvir.
Kelley Lynch: 3:00Welcome to a new normal a podcast about how we're adapting to the pandemic and where we go from here. Our guest today is someone site. Someone is a freelance video journalist. He works for BBC, CNN, PBS, and most of the networks you're likely to see on your television screen. Whenever you see reports from places like Bangladesh, it's people like Salman who are going out to get those images to help you make sense of the world from the comfort of your living room. Hey Salmon, welcome to the podcast.
Salman Saeed: 3:35Thanks . Thanks Kelly
Kelley Lynch: 3:38I guess it's been about three months now, since we saw you at that coffee shop in Dhaka. And at that point, I think you were just hanging around, waiting for work to come in. And , um , nobody knew what was going to happen. Life has changed a lot for you since then.
Salman Saeed: 3:57It's been crazy. Normally, you know, when these big crises or any great emergency takes off , you know, in the region, I'm very busy or people like me really like , um , we are like newsman you, whatever you say, VJ News ninjas or in, in terms of some people call us like vultures. You know, there is a crisis, you know, we are like, like vultures going around after that. But this time it was not like that. You know, this is something different, different kind of crisis where you're not allowed to get out of your house where you're not allowed to go in public. You're supposed to stay in social distancing. And then you worry about your families when you come back home and you're putting up your family in dangerous, because I don't stay alone. I have a mother staying with me in the same flat and then, you know, talking to different networks, being a freelancer for the last two years, been crazy. The networks I work with are all international ones who are like BBC, CNN, PBS, ABC. Most of them what happened is they're all focused on the stories , um , in their domain, right, in their part of the world. So Bangladesh was not like, you know, badly affected in terms of global context. I do understand, but we still have lot of issues to think about. How will we manage the big economic recession that's coming. We are going to check how the people, you know, not everyone has the savings, you know, people living under the poverty line, like the garments workers, like the sex workers, and then, you know, migrant workers who sell all their land and everything, just to earn a bit of money, to have a better future for their families. So it's difficult, you know, these people go and work abroad and now they don't have any job. They don't know how to come back.
Kelley Lynch: 6:10Tell us about some of those. I mean, because I saw you did a story on remittances and that, that is such a huge part of the economy for Bangladesh. What were some of the stories that you were seeing there ?
Salman Saeed: 6:26It was interesting this time. The network I was filing , that story was CNN and then their strict restriction was you can't go out of the home. They have a travel ban still now going on. So CNN doesn't let any of their freelancers go out in the field unless it's like absolutely needed. And so, because I needed to talk to these people and we, I have to make it look visual. So it was very difficult. You know, when I figured out a way to communicate with these people who are living in the Gulf countries, like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. I spoke to a couple of people who were stuck in a jail in Kuwait. These are called detention camps. So one guy was very smart. He had a s martphone and he uses some kind of app. And he communicates with his family or he communicates with the journalist in Bangladesh. So I reached out to him and he was telling me all these stories, the problems they are facing. They were protesting this camp in Kuwait and then police were firing at them with tear s hells and rubber bullets. And then they were not in any kind of social distancing. T hey were 26 people living in the middle of nowhere in the desert, in these detention camps waiting to go back to their home. But t hey're like 26 people sitting in one small container type homes. And, you know, it's unbelievable. I'm sitting in Bangladesh in my flat and I can see everything that they're going through. They don't have a proper washroom or a hygiene place to sleep. So it's difficult when you see all these things and you feel like you're helpless. You can't even do anything other than just convince them to talk with you and tell get their stories out in the world. So there were people from Libya, Egypt, India, Nepal. People were there in that camp. They were not positive, but, who knows, there was not enough testing. But one story I still remember and I'll remember for the rest of my life while interviewing those people in that camp was a worker from from Bangladesh. He was a diabetic patient and he couldn't go for his dialysis f or days or weeks. When I was talking with him, he was like crying. And then he was telling me "Brother I'm I'm from a very good family. My family are like member of parliament in Bangladesh." And he gave me the address. I did make some communication with them and told them about his situation. But, t wo days before the story published he didn't make it. He passed away. Bangladesh's economy depends on two things, right? Number one, it's the garments e xport. Number two, it's the remittance owner who sends back his hard earned money. They do in these countries in Europe, middle East Gulf countries.
Kelley Lynch: 10:03I saw 7 million Bangladeshis work outside Bangladesh. And I think the remittance totals in 2019 were like $18.3 billion.
Salman Saeed: 10:14It's huge. You know, I was talking to a mother whose son is jobless now in Bernheim . And he's a young guy, you know, maybe in his mid twenties. So he was telling me,"Brother, I cannot send my parents money. They're old and they cannot buy their medicine and stuff like that. But my mother she loves me so much. She doesn't even want to ask me for money because she knows that I don't have work. I can't eat here."
Kelley Lynch: 10:46So, I mean, there's two kinds of impacts. So you're staying at home and doing stories like that. I mean, that's a psychological impact. I presume, because I've seen footage that you did of garment workers and other people on the streets and there there's the psychological impact, but also a potential for infection. How do you manage all of that?
Salman Saeed: 11:18So being a cameraman, you know, you can't stay at home and do all these kinds of stories, right? You really need to get on the ground. And so, initially I started with these stories, then I was like, trying to figure out how best can I go and film and come back. I was doing my own online researches. Initially, it was very difficult to get proper mask PPE in Dhaka. Now we have PPEs all around the country. In the streets, those are the fake ones, but you do get some original ones. You just need to look a bit hard. I spoke to my other senior cameramen who are my mentors in BBC . And I did check with them, how are you guys maintaining these , cleaning and how do you keep your equipment clean while they're filming? Then they gave, they told me like, you know, keep on rubbing with your wet wipes or alcohol wipes. Then while filming an interview, you stay six feet away from your interviewee so that you don't put yourself at risk and also the person you're interviewing at race . The second and third part was how do I return home and then still stay safe because I have a mother who hasn't been outside for the last three months. Traveling was a big challenge. I would drive myself and go to these places. I was going in the field into these protests of garments workers. Then I was going in the garments factories that were shut down. Then there was some protests, random protests in the roads.
Kelley Lynch: 13:05What were those protests?
Salman Saeed: 13:06These were basically, you know, some orders canceled or stocks that were made by the factory owners in Bangladesh for the brands in US and UK or Europe, all these orders were canceled. And they're also going to a big financial crisis - these factory owners? So they were having difficulties to pay their workers. So that was one of the reason why these workers came on the street to protest. They wanted their full salary. Then they wanted to have their job, but factories are being closed because of Western brands or retailers just c anceled orders without m eeting any ethical laws or anything like that.
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 13:58We saw footage of somebody you were in their rally or something. And there were these government workers sitting in the street and they were yelling at you.
Salman Saeed: 14:10So, you know, these protests are very difficult to handle because right now you cannot go in the crowd and be in the middle of it. And you cannot be, you have to be invisible. But with wearing this big PPE, it's hot inside, it's fully waterproof. It's like an oven inside. But this one, the film you've seen they're having a peaceful rally and going towards the owner's house to continue this protest. T hese workers also, they want to tell, let their stories be heard and told. What happened was that they had some ring ringleaders. Any protest, there are some organizers, I went a little bit close to them, but I just softly told him I'll be here, but h e's m ake sure n o, no one comes close to me and I'll talk to you - all of you. So then when you start talking to one person, you know, someone else, some other guy becomes excited and say, Oh no, you know, I have this thing to say. You said that. You say that. It becomes chaos. And then, I raised my hand and say I'm going to stop filming and I'm going away. If you don't keep six feet or three feet distance, I'm not going to stay here. I did make some people upset with stories. You know, there is always a group who will never be happy with your stories. So I was speaking to some other workers and then that lady was shouting. And then I quickly turned my camera to her. And then she was just basically shouting at me and saying, "Government has already sanctioned a fund for the workers. Why is our factories being closed down? We have a family to run. We'll die. Government has told not a single worker will be laid off or anything like that. So why what's wrong with it?" So then the angry crowd was being controlled by the police. And then since there was no journalists there, I was also getting a bit scared because it's tough to be alone in these kinds of situation . You always go with somebody when you're covering protests.
Kelley Lynch: 16:21Garments are a huge part of Bangladesh's economy. They account for 80% of exports. Can you talk about that?
Salman Saeed: 16:30I was covering these garment worker stories since 2012, when the big building collapsed or the fire that took place in Tazri or the Rondo Plaza, that was the big building collapse where more than a thousand workers died. Since then, the whole scenario in the garment sector has changed with all these safety and sustainability eco-friendly factories. This time, this was another thing I was surprised, by everyone opened their factories to us. "Please come and film, we have no workers. We have huge investment, huge factories." Some factories where I went was there were 12,000 workers working in a single day. But look at the situation now, it's the brands that need to be taking responsibility. They can't cancel these orders. The whole of the country and its economy will be hampered because everything is interlinked - these workers, the money. It's a big, big industry. I think it's our own $34 billion industry in export that Bangladesh does, which is more than the Remittances earner, you know?
Kelley Lynch: 17:52So are they gone? Have many of them gone back to their homes in the villages or have they stayed in Dhaka?
Salman Saeed: 18:00A few. I heard they went, but the people I filmed, they said, "How will we go to our village? It's a lockdown. And so there's no way we can go to our village." Most of t he garment workers I spoke to say the same thing, "We will die of hunger than of corona virus." So it's not only them. I had another opportunity, you know, to go to one of the largest protests in Bangladesh, which is also sealed down. So a friend of mine, she was raising some funds to distribute some relief to the, t hese people was like around 1300 sex workers living in Daloadia and 400 children.
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 19:02Sex workers are an outcast in this country. So, they are always mistreated. And I was actually wondering how they're surviving during this. It's been almost three months.
Salman Saeed: 19:17Yeah, by the way , I don't know if you guys have visited that place. It's not easy to get access and film inside that place with a camera moving around, talking to people it's very difficult. So I knew a bit of background, they were getting some relief from the government of Bangladesh, but the crisis they were going through because they live in these brothels, they need to go to lot of medical, checkups and treatments, which I had personally no idea about. And then I was in my full PPE, double. I will tell you I was in my double PPE. I had that genuine PPE does the ones with that is fully waterproof. And then on top of that, I had another one just to protect that PPE. It was really hot . Initially, some of them were refusing to be photographed . But then at one point, I found some ladies who said, okay, I really want to be photographed. I don't care. My family isn't shamed. They abandoned me . So then some of them who are born inside those brothels, now they're in their twenties. They even have their kids. Their stories were, Oh my God, it was heartbreaking. There was a lady telling me, "I came here for only two years though. I was born here, but I was, I had that opportunity to go out and make a decent living without living this life." But now she had to come back, but she still had a plan to go out of this place after she has paid all her dues and have a certain amount of savings. And then she tells me, you know, we didn't know this kind of situation would come. Otherwise we would have saved some money. Normally what happens is whatever they earn, they either spend on their kids on the family or they eat some good food. Now they're complaining "We need to eat some meat. We need to go to doctors. We need to get our medicines." Because they go through a lot of drugs like steroids, which are normally used for cattle to fatten, f atten the cattle.
Kelley Lynch: 21:38In order to have more fleshy body or what?
Salman Saeed: 21:43In order to have a more fleshy body and also to look more aged because some of them are young, so they want to look much older so that they'll have more customers . That's what I was told. But going around, I was walking in these small alleys to the brothel, I met a pregnant woman. She was also with distress telling me all the stories, "We a re scared. We don't want any customers. We don't know if they have the virus or not. We don't want to put ourselves at risk." It's really difficult to do this story. If I go, I can take risks for my life, but when I come home, I have my mother who stays with me in my flat. Whenever I come from an assignment, it takes me three hours to disinfect myself and my e quipment. And then I keep like at least six feet distance from my mom because I don't know what virus I'm c arrying. I really did get scared when I saw some of my local j ournalist friends, they got positive while covering it in the story. So I was always just taking double protection. Even when I was working in the brothel, at one point I was breathless because it was humid and hot and I was sweating. And then my face m ask got all wet and it air was not passing through. It was difficult to breathe. So I had to get out of it t he brothel much earlier than I was thinking. Then they was telling us, thank you for coming and getting our stories out. And I said no, thank you for telling me. I'm sorry that I can't help you financially, but that's not our job. Our job is to get your voice out in the world.
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 23:56Working in the brothel is difficult because then you're torn apart between being a journalist and an individual. How do you manage this emotional dilemma?
Speaker 6: 24:07It comes with years of experience, but even I went to these traumas. I even tried to stop filming at few points when I used to hear these sad stories. You go through PTSD. That's a fact. And I do make prayers for these people I've interviewed. I do get blamed that, okay, I'm selling poverty and then I'm making money. What happens to them? But, I'm doing my job. I know it's not right. Getting somebody's misery out in the media. And then that brings food to my plate, but somebody has to do this dirty job. Somebody has to go and film the Rana Plaza collapse. Somebody has to go and power the cycle. And somebody has to go to this and bury people who are dying of COVID-19 right? So somebody has to do take up this job. Otherwise, what will happen? Will they just be lying around their unheard untold? That's kind of, I think that's more doing injustice to these people.
Salman Saeed: 25:25Right now, I know that I have to live with it. So for me, it's watch some really funny comedy movies, try to get my mind diverted. Normally I used to go a nd travel earlier. But since with the travel b an a nd everything is bad, my swimming pools w ith t ubs a re c lose. Health clubs are so I c an't swim. It's very big problem for me if I can't swim b ecause that's one way for me, i t s tands for meditation. So I moved on with the stories, but one day I do want to return follow these characters and maybe do something for them.
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 26:14During this pandemic you have covered a lot of difficult stories. If you had a chance to change one or two things, what will be your choice?
Salman Saeed: 26:25It's , it's a very undiplomatic thing probably, but I don't know if it's right to say. We, as a country, Bangladesh was always shown as a dependent country and underdeveloped country. Yeah. We were always dependent on foreign aid and things, but this was the first time I see. There are crisis . Yeah. I will not disagree, but you know, I see a lot of the reliefs are being distributed and these funds are coming within the country from the rich people. They're getting money and they're giving it to the poor people. Maybe not all, maybe there are crisis. And the change that I think Bangladesh is going to be clean. Now people are washing hands. Every alley there's a wash scene . People are using hand sanitizers. I was in the market today. Before you go, people stand in line. Then they get disinfected in their shoes. And everywhere there's antiseptic sprays. So that's kind of something very new in our culture. And staying clean and people are in every step of the society, people know social distancing. And I think it's time, if you want me to, if you ask me to change, I would love to keep my city like this, empty traffic. I wish it's like this. You know, this is a country. People here are survivors. There's the cyclones are hitting the coastal region every year, but still the Fishermans are survivors. They will rebuild their houses. It's a difficult time for freelancers like us. I wish we had some kind of recognitions in this country, but here even in the normal time, we don't have any status because of senior photographers like you and you guys have struggled. So photographers who like us, who can like proudly tell , we are photographers so people do respect us in the society. I think it's our turn to make the people in our society also understand, you cameramen are also the same kind of professionals who are not journalists, but who are also a key part of journalism and who are always on the front line covering stories for the people who are just sitting back in their couch, in their air conditioning and seeing these stories. But the people who are working behind the camera are not given any respect. The challenge is to stay alive and healthy, and it's not encourageable to take, go up and film. If you have to do it, you have to do it. But then again, subconsciously, I'm a cameraman who needs film and who needs to be on the ground. So I figured out my hurdles, and then I solved them one by one. Working with the PPE, the speed of the filming slows down. And it's a big challenge wearing these gloves, having a mask. You're talking with people. They don't see your facial expression . And then you are at a distance. It's a nightmare. It's a different world. Once this pandemic is over, a lot of people will have l ot of different stories to tell.
Kelley Lynch: 30:20Thank you so much for all you do.
Salman Saeed: 30:26Thank you guys.
Kelley Lynch: 30:35So guys, I wanted to talk to you about Solomon and see what you think. But yesterday, when I was editing our first take at all of this, I was really shocked to recognize that basically the two major pillars of Bangladesh's economy have been seriously impacted. And I was thinking, where does Bangladesh go from here? And I think it just suddenly struck me in a way that it hadn't before the seriousness of the situation. I mean, what are you going to do? How are you going to make an economy like that work? And I know Salman's thing was just really about journalism and about the stories and about what he's finding out there. But it was like a big aha moment for me,
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 31:36The picture that we got from Salomon about the remittance and the remittance worker stuck abroad and the garment workers in the street protesting that they're not getting paid and things like that. It was pretty grim. It is pretty grim. And actually it's not that it will go away soon, but I am not really disheartened by this whole scenario. As a nation and as a people, Bangladeshi people are resilient. You know, like we get back up from whatever it is that takes us down. This flood, this disaster, this natural calamity that happens every year in some p art of the country and people get back on their f eet and they move on, keep going. And look at the progress that has been made in 50 years before this pandemic started, we w ere projected to become the fastest growing economy in the world, but still then people in our country, they are resilient. You know, just one small example, s treet-side t ailors who alter your clothes. Now they're making P PEs. So this is kind of innovation and adapting to the situation. So yesterday he was altering clothes, second hand clothes or old clothes. Today, he's manufacturing PPE and selling it in the street. And people are making masks. We have this company which produces really good quality rum for export. So when the export m arkets slumped, they started using that alcohol that they produce into hand sanitizer. So I'm worried, but not that much worried because I know o ur people. Life has put them through all sorts of miseries, natural, manmade, anything. Come out of that and they come out winner.
Cindy Sealls: 34:02So, when you all are looking at COVID, you're, you're saying we've survived all this other stuff. What is COVID COVID is nothing. Okay. If that's the mindset of the Bangladeshi people, how in the world did they react when the government said you have to stay home because of the virus. I mean, were people really upset by that?
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 34:26People did not pay any attention to that. They went out doing their own business until they were forced inside the house. The police forced them to go back to home. At one point, the military was in the town ensuring that people stay at home.
Cindy Sealls: 34:47So at some point, were you starting to hear rumors about that this was some kind of hoax or a conspiracy? That he government was trying to do this, or did you guys have that issue there?
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 35:04Yeah. In the rural area, people are saying, this is a political stunt. There is nothing called virus. It's not deadly or anything like that.
Cindy Sealls: 35:15It's good to know people are just like us. Consistent worldwide. I bet. You know , but I mean, it's interesting his, the Bangladeshi mindset that, that he's describing, I think in a lot of ways, that's the U.S. mindset. What do you think Kelly?
Kelley Lynch: 35:35Somewhat, but I think having lived there and lived through things like floods and cyclones, I mean, albeit in Dhaka and in comfort , I think it's different. The people who used to work in our house would arrive through the floods. Having walked to the house in chest deep water to get to work. I don't think Americans have to endure that much. Somebody tells them to stay home and they don't like to do that. And if somebody told them to go to work and chest deep water, they wouldn't like to do that either. I think there's a lot of , um, how would you describe it? Um, there's just not Americans. Don't like hardship in whatever they perceive the hardship to be. And I think Bangladeshis are used to hardship. I think they do what they have to do to survive. And I think the mindset there is not like, Oh, I'm going to complain about it. Or I'm going to get mad at somebody about it. It's just, well, this is what we have to do.
Obaidul Fattah Tanvir: 36:58Yeah . It's , it's very true. Then it's, it's this thing that you get the job done, you know, you do what you have to do because you really don't have an option of falling back here. Life is always unsettled. Life is full of struggle. So it , it sort of prepares you to take life, head on.
Cindy Sealls: 37:29Hey there, thanks so much for listening to our show. We hope you enjoyed it. A few did, please leave a review. Also make sure to share us on whatever social media platform you're using. If you'd like to see photos of the people that we're speaking with, please visit our Instagram feed at a new normal podcast.
Kelley Lynch: 37:51And then should you feel so inclined? It would be great. If you wanted to share our podcast with your friends, tell your friends about it. We'd appreciate it. Thanks so much for listening.