Can you imagine your definition of a better life as living in a landfill, picking through the trash to find items you can sell?
For a group of Burmese refugees living in Thailand, about 400 people in 50 family groups, that’s what they’ve found after fleeing political persecution and economic hardship.
In Forgotten Laughter: Children of the Dump, social documentarian Gerry Yaum shares photographs he has been creating in Thailand’s Mae Sot dump since 2013. The works are on display in the Project Room at the Penticton Art Gallery until Nov. 4.
The earliest images show the struggle of the people as they tried to survive in the dump, while later images are more intimate, painting a fuller picture of the lives of the people who are making a life while surrounded by trash.
“When I went to the dump the first time, it threw me. I was covered in flies, it was hot as heck, sweating, no hat, all these white bags were reflecting light into my eyes. I just felt really uncomfortable,” said Yaum. “Initially I photographed the people there like victims, people that were suffering.”
As time went on, he said he came to understand that the dump at least offered a chance for families to grow, to make money and build up their lives, at least in a small degree.
“For me, the dump sort of changed. I think that is why the photographs changed too, said Yaum. “I realized the dump was not a terrible place, it provides work.”
He doesn’t downplay the abject conditions. He relates how excited one of the people would be when they found a few forgotten coins in a discarded purse or bag.
One image Yaum showed during his Artist’s Talk at the gallery Saturday was of two boys using an old fender from a vehicle to toboggan down a hill of trash.
“It helped them feel good for an hour,” he said.
Another image shows a pretty little girl, her head shaved because of lice, a big smile on her face, clutching a donated doll that Yaum had just given her.
It’s that kind of moment, he said, that help him deal with the tragedy around him.
“You’re making a kid smile, that’s got to feel good,” said Yaum.
Yaum has returned to the Mae Sot dump over and over, becoming involved in the lives of the families and doing what he can to help make their lives easier and bring a little joy.
“My first day I was there, I showed up with two food bags that I gave to people,” said Yaum. “This last trip, in 2018, we raised $4,300 Canadian and we bought rubber boots, headlamps, toys for the kids, lollipops, all kinds of things that would help the people.”
As the images are exhibited, Yaum is also donating some of his artist fees.
“So the pictures were helping the people, that was a really beautiful thing,” said Yaum. “I would buy rubber boots, I would buy headlamps and I would head out on my motorbike and make more pictures.”
Forgotten Laughter is one of four shows on at the Penticton Art Gallery right now. In the Toni Onley Gallery, Greg Constantine is showing Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya, documenting the human rights abuses suffered by this Muslim minority living in Burma.
Joshua Van Dyke’s Trace Marks is on display in the Bench 1775, mapping digital data of the contraction of B.C.’s woodland caribou herds into three dimensions, and exploring how the data moves between digital and analog space.
The annual Mental Health Exhibition is on in the Education Space.
Senior reporter, Penticton Western News
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