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TEDIndia 2009

Ryan Lobo: Photographing the hidden story

Filmed:

Ryan Lobo has traveled the world, taking photographs that tell stories of unusual human lives. In this haunting talk, he reframes controversial subjects with empathy, so that we see the pain of a Liberian war criminal, the quiet strength of UN women peacekeepers and the perseverance of Delhi's underappreciated firefighters.

- Photographer
As a photographer and filmmaker, Ryan Lobo uses his exquisite lens to capture humanity and nature at their most open and vulnerable moments. Full bio

My name is Ryan Lobo,
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and I've been involved in the documentary
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filmmaking business all over the world for the last 10 years.
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During the process of making these films
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I found myself taking photographs,
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often much to the annoyance of the video cameramen.
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I found this photography of mine almost compulsive.
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And at the end of a shoot, I would sometimes feel that
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I had photographs that told a better story
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than a sometimes-sensational documentary.
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I felt, when I had my photographs,
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that I was holding on to something true,
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regardless of agendas or politics.
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In 2007, I traveled to three war zones.
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I traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and Liberia.
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And over there I experienced
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other people's suffering, up close and personal,
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immersed myself in some rather intense and emotional stories,
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and at times I experienced great fear for my own life.
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As always, I would return to Bangalore,
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and often to animated discussions at friend's homes,
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where we would discuss various issues
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while they complained bitterly about the new pub timings,
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where a drink often cost more than what they'd paid
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their 14-year-old maid.
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I would feel very isolated during these discussions.
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But at the same time, I questioned myself
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and my own integrity and purpose in storytelling.
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And I decided that I had compromised,
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just like my friends in those discussions,
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where we told stories
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in contexts we made excuses for,
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rather than taking responsibility for.
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I won't go into details about what led to a decision I made,
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but let's just say it involved alcohol, cigarettes,
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other substances and a woman.
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(Laughter)
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I basically decided that it was I,
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not the camera or the network,
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or anything that lay outside myself,
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that was the only instrument in storytelling
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truly worth tuning.
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In my life, when I tried to achieve things
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like success or recognition, they eluded me.
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Paradoxically, when I let go of these objectives,
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and worked from a place of compassion and purpose,
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looking for excellence, rather than the results of it,
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everything arrived on its own, including fulfillment.
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Photography transcended culture, including my own.
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And it is, for me, a language which expressed the intangible,
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and gives voice to people and stories without.
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I invite you into three recent stories of mine,
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which are about this way of looking, if you will,
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which I believe exemplify the tenets
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of what I like to call compassion in storytelling.
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In 2007 I went to Liberia,
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where a group of my friends and I
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did an independent, self-funded film, still in progress,
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on a very legendary and brutal war-lord
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named General Butt Naked.
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His real name is Joshua, and he's pictured here in a cell
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where he once used to torture and murder people,
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including children.
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Joshua claims to have personally killed
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more than 10,000 people during Liberia's civil war.
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He got his name from fighting stark naked.
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And he is probably the most prolific mass murderer
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alive on Earth today.
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This woman witnessed the General murdering her brother.
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Joshua commanded his child-soldiers to commit unspeakable crimes,
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and enforced his command with great brutality.
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Today many of these children are addicted to drugs like heroin,
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and they are destitute, like these young men in the image.
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How do you live with yourself
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if you know you've committed horrific crimes?
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Today the General is a baptized Christian evangelist.
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And he's on a mission.
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We accompanied Joshua, as he walked the Earth,
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visiting villages where he had once killed and raped.
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He seeked forgiveness,
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and he claims to endeavor to improve
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the lives of his child-soldiers.
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During this expedition I expected him
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to be killed outright, and us as well.
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But what I saw opened my eyes
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to an idea of forgiveness
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which I never thought possible.
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In the midst of incredible poverty and loss,
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people who had nothing absolved a man
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who had taken everything from them.
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He begs for forgiveness,
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and receives it from the same woman
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whose brother he murdered.
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Senegalese, the young man seated on the wheelchair here,
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was once a child soldier, under the General's command,
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until he disobeyed orders,
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and the General shot off both his legs.
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He forgives the General in this image.
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He risked his life as he walked up to people
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whose families he'd murdered.
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In this photograph a hostile crowd in a slum surrounds him.
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And Joshua remains silent
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as they vented their rage against him.
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This image, to me, is almost like from a Shakespearean play,
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with a man, surrounded by various influences,
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desperate to hold on to something true within himself,
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in a context of great suffering that he has created himself.
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I was intensely moved during all this.
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But the question is,
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does forgiveness and redemption replace justice?
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Joshua, in his own words, says that he does not mind
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standing trial for his crimes,
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and speaks about them from soapboxes across Monrovia,
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to an audience that often includes his victims.
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A very unlikely spokesperson for the idea of
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separation of church and state.
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The second story I'm going to tell you about
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is about a group of very special fighting women
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with rather unique peace-keeping skills.
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Liberia has been devastated by one of Africa's
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bloodiest civil wars,
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which has left more than 200,000 people dead,
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thousands of women scarred by rape and crime
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on a spectacular scale.
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Liberia is now home
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to an all-woman United Nations contingent
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of Indian peacekeepers.
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These women, many from small towns in India,
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help keep the peace, far away from home and family.
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They use negotiation and tolerance
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more often than an armed response.
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The commander told me that a woman could gauge
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a potentially violent situation
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much better than men.
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And that they were definitely capable of diffusing it non-aggressively.
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This man was very drunk,
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and he was very interested in my camera,
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until he noticed the women, who handled him
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with smiles, and AK-47s at the ready, of course.
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(Laughter)
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This contingent seems to be quite lucky,
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and it has not sustained any casualties,
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even though dozens of peacekeepers have been killed in Liberia.
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And yes, all of those people killed were male.
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Many of the women are married with children,
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and they say the hardest part of their deployment
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was being kept away from their children.
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I accompanied these women on their patrols,
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and watched as they walked past men,
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many who passed very lewd comments incessantly.
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And when I asked one of the women about the shock and awe response,
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she said, "Don't worry, same thing back home.
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We know how to deal with these fellows,"
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and ignored them.
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In a country ravaged by violence against women,
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Indian peacekeepers have inspired many local women
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to join the police force.
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Sometimes, when the war is over and all the film crews have left,
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the most inspiring stories are the ones
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that float just beneath the radar.
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I came back to India and nobody was interested in buying the story.
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And one editor told me that she wasn't interested
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in doing what she called "manual labor stories."
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In 2007 and 2009 I did stories on the Delhi Fire Service, the DFS,
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which, during the summer, is probably the world's most active fire department.
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They answer more than 5,000 calls in just two months.
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And all this against incredible logistical odds,
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like heat and traffic jams.
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Something amazing happened during this shoot.
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Due to a traffic jam, we were late in getting to a slum,
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a large slum, which had caught fire.
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As we neared, angry crowds attacked our trucks
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and stoned them, by hundreds of people all over the place.
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These men were terrified,
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as the mob attacked our vehicle.
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But nonetheless, despite the hostility,
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firefighters left the vehicle and successfully fought the fire.
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Running the gauntlet through hostile crowds,
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and some wearing motorbike helmets to prevent injury.
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Some of the local people forcibly took away the hoses
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from the firemen to put out the fire in their homes.
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Now, hundreds of homes were destroyed.
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But the question that lingered in my mind was,
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what causes people to destroy fire trucks
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headed to their own homes?
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Where does such rage come from?
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And how are we responsible for this?
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45 percent of the 14 million people
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who live in Delhi live in unauthorized slums,
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which are chronically overcrowded.
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They lack even the most basic amenities.
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And this is something that is common to all our big cities.
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Back to the DFS. A huge chemical depot caught fire,
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thousands of drums filled with petrochemicals
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were blazing away and exploding all around us.
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The heat was so intense, that hoses were used
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to cool down firefighters
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fighting extremely close to the fire, and with no protective clothing.
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In India we often love to complain about our government bodies.
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But over here, the heads of the DFS,
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Mr. R.C. Sharman, Mr. A.K. Sharman,
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led the firefight with their men.
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Something wonderful in a country where
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manual labor is often looked down upon.
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(Applause)
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Over the years, my faith in the power of storytelling has been tested.
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And I've had very serious doubt about its efficacy,
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and my own faith in humanity.
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However, a film we shot still airs on the National Geographic channel.
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And when it airs I get calls from all the guys I was with
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and they tell me that they receive hundreds of calls congratulating them.
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Some of the firemen told me that they were also inspired
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to do better because they were so pleased
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to get thank-yous rather than brick bats.
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It seems that this story helped change perceptions about the DFS,
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at least in the minds of an audience in part on televisions,
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read magazines and whose huts aren't on fire.
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Sometimes, focusing on what's heroic, beautiful and dignified,
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regardless of the context,
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can help magnify these intangibles three ways,
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in the protagonist of the story, in the audience,
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and also in the storyteller.
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And that's the power of storytelling.
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Focus on what's dignified, courageous and beautiful,
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and it grows. Thank you.
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(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Ryan Lobo - Photographer
As a photographer and filmmaker, Ryan Lobo uses his exquisite lens to capture humanity and nature at their most open and vulnerable moments.

Why you should listen

During a recent shoot on the streets and beaches of Chennai, Ryan Lobo turned his lens on men and women in relaxed, after-work poses. His starkly beautiful black-and-white photos, Lobo writes, reveal what it's like “to be young, employed and alive in Chennai today, regardless of one's language, economic class or social skills.” This follows the theme of Lobo's career: breaking down stereotypes while reframing the landscape.

Since 2001, Lobo has been taking haunting stills of everything from Yakuza tattoos and the illegal organ trade to the Indian middle class. He's worked as a field producer on many nature-oriented shows for National Geographic and founded Mad Monitor Productions, a production company based in Bangalore and Washington, D.C. There's no scientific, economic or sociopolitical boundary Lobo isn't willing to cross. His intense fieldwork continues to illuminate his traveling (you can read about his journeys and see photographs on his blog) and a forthcoming book project.

More profile about the speaker
Ryan Lobo | Speaker | TED.com