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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Briton looks through lens with an eye to change

Photographer prods us to focus more on empowering others


Special to The Japan Times

Japan-based photographer and activist El-Branden Brazil quotes Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama: "If you think you're too small to make a difference, sleep in the room with a mosquito."

News photo
For a cause: Photographer and activist El-Branden Brazil, a British national living and working in Tokyo, focuses much of his efforts on helping refugees everywhere. BARBARA BAYER PHOTOS

Passively or actively, we can or will make a difference. Brazil wishes more people would embrace action. "Often, people just drift through their lives apathetically, complaining about what's going on in the world. But they don't try to do anything to make a difference.

"If everyone had one cause that they gave 100 percent energy to, then we could change the world and make it a better place. But when people are busy just focusing on purchasing the next Louis Vuitton bag, we can't create that change.

"It doesn't mean you have to be in a position of great power in order to make changes in the world. It doesn't take a lot of energy. You can be a nobody and have an impact," Brazil insists.

So who is this guy with the fancy name telling us what we should do? Actually, Brazil would be the first to claim he's a nobody. But to many people, he's far from it. Brazil's work today is largely devoted to helping the people of Myanmar in their struggle for freedom. His efforts are the culminating focus of years of diverse and seemingly unrelated interests and experiences.

Born in Eastbourne, England, in 1971, Brazil grew up in the city of Bath. His hyphenated first name, he says, is nothing more than the result of having "parents of the crazy 1960s." His was a theater family and from the age of 10 to about 21, Brazil performed professionally, both on stage and in film.

A passion for photography was planted when Brazil, at age 10, was given a 1932 vintage fold-out camera by his grandmother. It led to him studying the history of photography as part of his BA in humanities at the University of Bedfordshire and realizing, after his first trip to China in 1998, that he "had a knack" for capturing the world around him. A growing interest in activism as well saw him as a member of Greenpeace and increasingly interested in politics, especially international relations. At the same time, a "fascination for Asia" rooted in his early years had grown in tandem with an "intuitive connection" with Buddhism.

News photo
Not sweet: A child refugee walks through the garbage of the Mae Sot dump along the Thai-Myanmar border, where some 70 families make their homes after fleeing Myanmar. Below: Myanmarese women stand in front of a hut on the Mae Sot garbage dump. COURTESY OF EL-BRANDEN BRAZIL
News photo

A strong sense of curiosity, desire to experience the world firsthand, a love of humanity and a love of "the contrast of humanity," sent Brazil off to travel the world with his camera and an eye to capturing "the essence of human beings."

Brazil came to Japan nearly 16 years ago and has supported his photography with a steady English-teaching job. "I can either be a poor artist and try to compete in the harsh world of photography or be an artist that can survive," he says.

While here, he has traveled extensively in Asia and South America. His photographs have won a number of awards and have helped raise funds for such groups as Refugees International Japan. Though the monetary returns are dwindling for photographers in today's digital world, Brazil rationalizes his efforts with a belief in photography's power as an awareness-raising tool and its ability to facilitate change in the world.

"It may never earn much money but if it helps others, that's great. I hope it can act as a voice for people who have none and through it I hope I can motivate people here to be more aware of some of the issues and experiences that people in their neighboring countries are having. Just maybe I can get them to become active in a particular cause."

Urging others to find a cause is one of Brazil's own. He believes strongly that "people should find a cause, learn about it as much as they possibly can, contact people directly and do everything to look at every avenue to improve the situation."

His personal call to arms came in 2003, when Brazil first traveled to Myanmar. He admits to having been mostly interested at the time in "experiencing a country with a military regime." But what he found were "incredibly generous, kind, gentle people." There was no going back. "They touched my heart in such a way that I now have a strong connection with Burma and strong friendships there. All my activism now is really to try and help my friends in Burma to try and bring change to the country in whatever small way I can do that."

And Brazil does that by helping "keep Burma on the radar and in people's consciousness" through, among other methods, social-networking tools such as Facebook and MySpace. Brazil keeps readers abreast of Myanmar's issues and political developments, as well as the plight of the country's refugees both abroad and in Japan.

Earlier this year Brazil was invited by Ashin Sopaka, one of the leaders of Myanmar's 2007 "Saffron Revolution," to personally accompany the monk on a trip to the Mae Sot dump in Thailand, where Myanmarese refugees live in dire conditions literally on top and amid the garbage along the Myanmar-Thai border.

In Tokyo, Brazil assists with the photography work done at numerous protests over Myanmar's military dictatorship and also produces videos for posting on the Internet. "I see the Burma issue like a granite cliff and I'm just chip, chipping away. It seems almost impossible to make progress, but if I don't chip, I feel like I'm failing my friends back in Burma. It's vital that I do everything I can possibly to help them. They have my total solidarity," Brazil says with conviction.

Though it's often painful, being part of a cause is nonetheless a satisfying one for Brazil. He sees it as going hand in hand with his Buddhist beliefs and practices. "I'm not famous, I'm not a wealthy man, but I feel some purpose in my life which I didn't have and I also realize just how lucky I am.

"My Burmese friends in Tokyo are continually protesting for change in their country because they really, really want to go home. But they can't, because either their lives will be in danger or there's no opportunity for them. I feel very lucky because I choose to be involved in the Burma issue, but they have no choice. So they breathe this 24 hours a day, seven days a week, desperately wanting to see change in their country."

Compassion, the main tenet of most religions, but particularly of Buddhism, is a crucial element in activism, Brazil feels. He describes it as something "much, much deeper than just caring. It's a connection to other people, having a deep empathy with other people."

Giving money to charities and feeling good about it is fine "but it's a fleeting action," he says. "If you do it with a true compassionate heart, then that sense of responsibility to others is stronger, more solid. It remains, it doesn't disappear. The more you do that, the more you develop that sense of compassion, the more beneficial you are to others, to the world and to yourself."

Brazil also links compassion with a perhaps easier concept to grasp — responsibility. "People are driven by trying to satisfy their pleasure instinct at the detriment of serious issues that need to be dealt with. In some ways we behave like we're still children. There are issues that require some self-sacrifice of pleasure.

"Acting like grownups means sometimes doing things we don't want to do, facing rather than avoiding things that may seem extremely depressing. In some ways a truly compassionate person is really, metaphorically speaking, very parental in his responsibility to others.

"For example, when you look at some of the environmental destruction that human beings have caused. By developing compassion for the environment and for animals, we would be less willing to cause harm, to damage things in the ways that we do."

In Japan, where the struggle to survive is far from dire for the vast majority of people, Brazil understands the ease with which one can "slip back into a sense of apathy." He personally finds it difficult "because the engagement I've had with people that I've met on my travels has touched me too deeply to be forgotten. My photography constantly reminds me of what I've seen, where I've been.

The bottom line, Brazil says, is that "we need to try to engage in the world and not to feel powerless. We all have power — in varying degrees — we may only be a droplet, but if we work together with a focus to do good in the world, we can be an ocean of change."

El-Branden Brazil can be contacted at themystictraveller@gmail.com


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