Interviews with Phil

Posted by & filed under Interviews with Phil, Stirring The Fire.

Moving from the macro topic of gender equality to more of Phil’s individual approach in his work, we offer the rest of the interview. (Questions in italics.)

As a photographer you’ve had to learn the art of approaching individuals not only for a photograph but also for interviews. How do you approach women and girls as subjects, especially they are victims of gender-based violence?

I approach them as I approach anybody: out of curiosity and respect. I’m approaching them mostly to tell a story. Just like you right now, you’re approaching me and you have an agenda to tell a story. That’s the way I approach the women that I bring into my photographs and films.

Phil Photographing an Acid Burn Survivor in Cambodia (Filming for UN Women, Photo Danielle Prince)

Have you had to navigate that potentially awkward space of being a man and approaching a woman? How do you do that?

I don’t think of it that way. I’m reminded of it at times, especially in places like Afghanistan. I’m very touchy. “Hi, how are you doing?” [Mimics clapping someone on the shoulder.] I was reminded there: you do not do that. I don’t really differentiate in my mind between women and men in terms of the work I do. I’m just not thinking ‘I’m a man, she’s a woman’. I do hear about it though. I get surprised at times when I hear that there was grumbling in CARE because I’m was a man out there doing this and why didn’t they have a woman doing it?

So coming from a macro-picture in talking about gender equality, what motivates you to tell individual women’s stories?

It is the most effective way for an audience to access a situation or an issue. It is just the way the human mind is built. We can’t really wrap our heads around 200 million deaths; we can wrap our heads around somebody we know who dies, or is starving, or is oppressed. Nicholas Kristof talks about this. He was doing a story on the issue of female infanticide in Asia because of dowry. There are millions of missing girls in the world because of this [type of] gender discrimination. But it was a non-issue. But then you have the death of Princess Diana and the whole world is weeping. At the same time how many people are dying in wars and [because of] violence against women? It’s just the way we are built: individual stories move us.

Having heard hundreds if not thousands of stories, is there any one that sticks out, or that touched you most deeply?

I’m moved by stories that have to do with the ‘wounded healer’; the person who has been a victim of the issue and who springs back from the tragedy and uses it to propel them to address it for others. One of my favorite stories is the one of Abay, the woman in Ethiopia. It is the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell talks about. They go out into the unknown world and come back with information for the tribe. That type of story is always amazing to me. They are powerful stories when they use tragedy to better humankind.

Abay’s story:

I’m getting to the stage where people come up to me and say ‘hey, you inspired me to do this’. It is people I don’t even know. It is very rewarding when you hear that. I say, ‘what did I do, quit orthodontics? (laughs). Or ‘the story on what you’re doing for women, or what you’re did for Tibet, or the way you’re going about it’.

You’re causing a ripple effect.

Yeah. It has nothing to do with the story that I’m doing. They are doing something else completely but they’re doing something that has a lot of meaning to them, and it is usually something socially and environmentally good for the world.

How Will her World be Different from her Grandmother’s? (Photo Danielle Prince)

Do you have any concluding thoughts for readers?

Here I am almost 70 years old and I can look back in my lifetime see such a huge improvement in the way women are treated. There is a long way to go, but in terms of giving women equal opportunity in doing what they want to do, different opportunities to do what they want to do, we’ve achieved much. The most dramatic example for me was in my dental school where there wasn’t a woman in my class, not one. In the whole UC San Francisco Dental School there was one woman and it was the daughter of a visiting professor. I went back to give a commencement address at this same school and 54% of the student body were women. In 30 years it had changed that much. Everybody thinks the world is getting worse, that there are all these horrible problems and yeah, we’ve always had problems. Just pick up an old paper on WWII and read the headlines: 200,000 people killed in a day in 1 battle. I don’t know how many people died in Iraq, but on our side it was less than 10,000. In WWII that would be a couple of hours in battle.

Everything is getting better. The thing that makes everything seem like it’s getting worse is media. (laughs) The media has to find news and it’s everywhere. It’s big business and unfortunately people crave bad news. But I personally think things are getting a lot better.

Posted by & filed under Interviews with Phil, Stirring The Fire.

As a Stirring the Fire volunteer over the last year and a half, I’ve enjoyed several conversations with STF Founder Phil Borges about his work. However, more people than myself need to hear the inspirational and visionary aspects he brings to his work, so we decided to have actual interviews on several topics with him. In today’s post he shares his thoughts on why he has decided to focus on women and girls. (Questions in italics.)

Young Cambodian Girl with a Younger Child on Her Back (Photo Danielle Prince)

In all of your international travels, your breadth of experience in documenting people’s stories, why focus on women and girls? Why is this important to you?

I started to notice how hard women and young girls work, and how much work they do. I travel mostly in the developing world and there you have to collect water and firewood and do all the cooking on open fires. In terms of child care, young girls are saddled with that at a very, very young age. I’ve seen girls who’ve just started to walk with a baby on their back. This is where it first started – just noticing this situation.

I met people from CARE who I ended up working with. These individuals started telling me things about not only what women and girls face in terms of work they do, but about a lot of the cultural traditions that discriminate against women and girls, or that harm women and girls like female genital cutting. The big thing for me was, at this point in my career, I was doing a lot of human rights work. I had started on the Tibetan project and from there I started doing things with Amnesty International. But all these stories, at the time I was telling them, were around “exogenous” issues. In other words they were issues that were being forced upon people from the outside: China taking over Tibet, the oil companies coming in and spoiling the Amazon and the tribal people paying the consequences. But the thing with women is it’s endogenous. It is embedded within the culture.

I really hesitated about getting involved with the issue. I didn’t get really involved until years after I had noticed all these things and learned that the discrimination and inequality was there. But I also learned how effective it was in changing gender inequality in terms of reducing poverty, bringing stability and peace to a country, helping with environmental sustainability. All these things improved when the lives of women and girls are enhanced with education, access to resources, healthcare.

What made you hesitate before taking on this vast subject of gender inequality?

Cultural imperialism. Who are we to say what another culture should do in terms of the way they assign roles to women and men?

So you didn’t want to become an “imperialist”.

That’s the big thing; it’s easy to slip into that [role]. I’m going over to Dolpa [Nepal] in a couple of days and there they have their shamans, their traditional healers, and we’re coming in and saying ‘we know how better to serve your health needs; we’re the great white fathers’. So it’s always something you have to be on guard for. We think we always have all the answers.

Phil Photographing Adorable Girls in Cambodia (Filming for UN Women, Photo Danielle Prince)

But there are so many issues around the world that you could focus on. What is personally important to you about gender equality?

I think it’s the most effective way to address the major ills that face humanity: poverty, war, environmental degradation. I think you get the most bang for your buck. It is the moral thing to do but more than that it’s the most practical thing to do. If you get down deeper into my psyche I’ve been raised by women and surrounded by women my whole life; women have cared for me and taken care of me. Single mom, sisters, wives, I’m a kept man by women (laughs). In my [orthodontic] practice I had all women, 14 assistants, except for one man. But I don’t know how much that plays into it. It could, it’s there. But it is a very practical thing when I think about it logically.

What do you have to say to people who take issue with the fact that you are a man, even as a strong ally for the women’s movement globally, doing this work?

You’ve got to bring the men into the movement to make it successful. I have women come up to me and say ‘I saw your book Women Empowered, saw it was written by a man and I just put it back down and didn’t even open it’. I’ve had them come up to me after one of my talks and apologize for what they said earlier. So I thought ‘wow, I wonder how many people do think that?’. I think, quite frankly, that the women’s movement has grown, and is maturing. It started as an anger-based movement. Women were pissed. I think [the anger] is something that any movement has to get passed eventually to make it a real strong, mature and holistic movement.

Phil and Cambodian Girl Taking a Break (Filming for UN Women, Cambodia, Photo Danielle Prince)

Why should people care about gender equality?

Because it is like civil rights. Why do we care about civil rights? Why do we want to treat each other like we like to be treated? Again, it is moral, but it is very, very practical in terms of addressing the issues that are very on our radar right now: peace, stability. Even in Liberia, you go to a place like that and you say ‘Charles Taylor came in and tore the place apart over 15 years’. The women came in, got together, and as a movement put an end to it. They have the first woman in Africa elected and who is bringing this country back from hell, really. The whole microcredit movement has been powered by women. Women, when they get money, they put it into the healthcare and the education of their kids. That’s why giving resources to women builds the infrastructure of a community so fast.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this interview with Phil Borges in which he talks more about his personal approach and experiences.