Eyes on the prize

Posted April 23

Last week I asked for your opinion on the four 'Sisters For Sale' poster designs, and which one you would choose. 

In the past three days, over 100 people have responded: some with a simple vote, others with a thoughtful analysis of the designs, and I want to thank you all. 

It was beautiful to see so much passion around the posters. Each of the four posters has its own group of die-hard supporters, while others found themselves torn, unable to choose a favourite. Here are some of the many comments I received: 

'Still love [the cinematic design] most.'

'By far the [classic design]. Wouldn't consider the others.'

'Love, mystery, pain and hope... These are all the emotions that "mother's love" conjures up for me. Hands down, it's my favourite.'

'The ["sunset glow" design] suggests new beginnings and also the sisterhood of women, no matter what age, or connection they may have... It speaks to me the most of all the images.'

Ultimately, the "sunset glow" design proved the most popular, and will be used as the primary poster for the documentary. In time, I'd like to make all four designs available for sale on our website, to help keep this project going.

The poster vote overshadowed the launch of a new competition for the music-lovers out there, so here's a little reminder... 

We'll soon be releasing 'Sisters For Sale', our feature documentary on the human trafficking crisis in Vietnam. Right now, you can win the first-ever print of the "mother's love" or "sunset glow" poster from the film (it's your choice!).

Since 2013, I've written over 200 blog posts for 'The Human, Earth Project. For 45 of those posts, I've used the title of a song or album. I've referenced everyone from the Beach Boys to Nirvana, from David Bowie to the Chemical Brothers. 

There are three bands I've referenced three times each: what are they, and what are the names of the blog posts? 

Two of those bands are absolutely huge - I know that you know them. 

...And the third band? Well, let's find out! 

If you can't get them all, send me as many as you can. Whoever sends me the most complete answer by midnight GMT, Saturday 5th May will receive the very first print of their chosen poster. 

Anyone is eligible to enter (excluding my own blood relatives), wherever you are in the world. If I receive more than one correct response, I'll give you a deciding question. 

While there might be multiple potentially-correct answers, there's only one correct answer, and I have it written down right here. 

Send me your answers at thehumanearthproject@gmail.com

You'll find the full list of blog posts here - happy hunting! 

- Ben 

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For real

Posted April 19

Today I have a little surprise, a special prize, and a question for you. 

Over the past nine months, I've shared two very different poster designs for our feature documentary, 'Sisters For Sale'. 

The first - the cinematic poster - shows a desperate yet defiant young Hmong woman separated from her home. 

I had an amazing response when I first shared the poster here and on Imgur, where it quickly became one of their Most Viral posts. 

The first ever print was received by Kerstin Raitl in recognition of her amazing support and friendship last year. 

"Thank you sooooo much for the poster, it's amazing, I love it!!!" wrote Kerstin. 

The second - the classic poster - is a deceptively simple design representing the concept of womanhood, in the traditional colours of the Black Hmong. 

This design also received a wonderful response, and also hit the front page of Imgur.

Leonie Brok won last month's competition to decipher the meaning of the poster, and has now received the very first print. 

"Omg I'm so happy... It's such amazing quality, and has a nice solid feel to it," wrote Leonie. "I'm going to get it put in a proper frame with glass to protect it. My mom said it was a silly thing to do, but then I showed it to her and she was amazed by it too."

But there was a unexpected problem. 

Over 36,000 people have now watched the 'Sisters For Sale' trailers

Numerous people have also seen the documentary itself - some of them are co-workers and supporters whose talents and feedback have been crucial to finishing the film, and others are selection judges at film festivals. 

From the people who have witnessed my journey over the past five years, with all its successes and setbacks, the response has been wonderful. I've received comments like this one: 

"OMG! Absolutely amazing story & stunning visually. I cried, I smiled and I screamed at the screen - "Don't get in the van!" - incredible story."

From those who are unfamiliar with my work, however, praise has been tempered with skepticism. Some don't believe the events of the film are real, or even possible. Some have mistaken the documentary for a fictional film, or a "mockumentary". 

That was a response I'd never anticipated, and I've recently been taking a closer look at the film and trailer to see what adjustments can be made. 

The first, cinematic poster, which was intended as the primary poster design for the film, employs a photo-collage style typically associated with fictional films: a large well-lit face, a sweeping landscape, and tiny figures in between. 

While the response has been amazing, for some people the design has also deepened the confusion: is this a documentary, or a fictional film? 

I love the second, classic poster - but it was only ever intended as an artistic alternative, rather than a primary poster, and says little about the film it represents. 

And so I needed a third design, which would more accurately depict 'Sisters For Sale' as the documentary it is. 

The new "mother's love" design is the simplest yet - and has already become the most controversial. 

It has been the subject of a eight-week discussion about whether it should be revealed publicly at all. 

The woman in the picture is Bao. She's holding a photograph of her trafficked daughter Pang (blurred in this image). Both Pang and Bao play key roles in 'Sisters For Sale'. 

I became friends with Pang in 2010, and she was kidnapped several months later. When this photograph was taken, Bao hadn't seen her daughter in over three years. 

So where's the controversy? 

Those who had seen the poster were sharply divided as to which expression Bao has on her face. 

Despite all the hardship she has known, Bao is one of the sweetest human beings I've ever met - kind, smiling, constantly concerned for the comfort and happiness of others. 

In this photograph, I see a grimace of extreme anguish, which she attempts and fails to mask with a camera-conscious smile. 

Many others, however, have disagreed. We even conducted a poll, and 61% of people said she looked "happy", rather than "sad". 

Take another look. 

I asked my own mother, Susan, for her opinion. She stared at the picture for two or three minutes, and went through a dozen facial expressions of her own, while she considered her answer. 

'There's a smile, but there are other things as well,' Susan said. She sensed pride, fear, sadness, resignation and concern.

'A mother is always worried,' she concluded. 

As the controversy over the "mother's love" poster grew, I realised we might need yet another design to highlight the documentary aspect of 'Sisters For Sale'. 

And so I created the "sunset glow" design, the purest and perhaps the most beautiful of them all. 

It depicts an elderly woman walking with two Hmong girls through the mountains outside Sapa, as the sun illuminates the region's characteristic fog. 

It's one of my favourite images from the documentary - even so, I found myself drawn back to the "mother's love" design, which I find more engaging, more powerful, and more relevant to the film. 

I've come to love its ambiguity, and the fact that it means different things to different people. 

Now I'd like to ask you a question: which would you choose as the primary poster for the documentary - the cinematic, the classic, the "mother's love", or the "sunset glow" design?

I'd love to hear your thoughts at thehumanearthproject@gmail.com

Today I have another little competition for you - and this one's for the music-lovers out there. 

The prize is - you guessed it! - the very first print of the "mother's love" or the "sunset glow" poster (it's your choice!). 

Anyone is eligible to enter (excluding my own blood relatives), wherever you are in the world. 

Since 2013, I've written over 200 blog posts for 'The Human, Earth Project. For 45 of those posts, I've used the title of a song or album.

I've referenced everyone from the Beach Boys to Nirvana, from David Bowie to the Chemical Brothers. 

There are three bands I've referenced three times each: what are they, and what are the names of the blog posts? 

Two of those bands are absolutely huge - I know that you know them. 

...And the third band? Well, let's find out! 

If you can't get them all, send me as many as you can. Whoever sends me the most complete answer by Saturday 5th May will receive the very first print of their chosen poster. 

While there is space for ambiguity and might be multiple potentially-correct answers, there's only one correct answer, and I have it written down right here. 

If I receive more than one correct response, I'll give you a deciding question. 

Send me your answers at thehumanearthproject@gmail.com

You'll find the full list of blog posts here - happy hunting! 

There are some very exciting things happening behind the scenes here at the moment, which I'll be sharing with you as soon as I can. 

I want to shout out to Sina Miakhail for her help this week - and, as ever, to Melissa Adams, Katie Carriero, and Astrid Hofer, who are the amazing team behind our Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter!

Stay tuned! 

- Ben

PS. A friend spotted us last week on TV in Poland! 

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Darker than blue

Posted April 01

Last month I unveiled a brand new 'Sisters For Sale' poster design, and offered the first ever print to whoever could decipher its meaning. 

The design was shared via my blog, the front page of Imgur, and (thanks to our amazing promotion team of Melissa Adams, Katie Carriero and Astrid Hofer!) across Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter

We had an amazingly positive response to the design, and I was fascinated to see that such a seemingly simple image can mean so many different things to so many different people. 

Among the one-word interpretations of the poster's theme was everything from "innocence" to "bureaucracy", "enlightenment" to "warriors", "hope" to "journey". 

More than one person saw the poster as a reference to the Judeo-Christian valley of the shadow of death. 

I'll tell you what this poster means to me. 

The theme

The original, cinematic poster I shared last year was focused on the human trafficking crisis at the centre of 'Sisters For Sale', depicting the separation of a young Hmong woman from her home. 

This new, "classic"-style poster is a little different. 

What's it all about? 

In a word: womanhood. 

With this design, I've tried to depict the position of Vietnamese Hmong women in particular, and women in general. 

In a sense, it's a reflection of my own journey with 'Sisters For Sale'. 

When I first began work on the documentary, I was highly focused on the local human trafficking crisis, only to learn it's just one thread in a much larger, more complex tangle of women's rights issues. 

As mentioned, I've used four design elements to deliberately underscore this theme. Those of you who are familiar with the Vietnamese Hmong and their homelands had an advantage in deciphering some of these elements. 

The colour

The original poster was a complex design using a full colour spectrum. Here, I wanted a bold design with strong, simple colours. I see it almost like a battle flag, carrying with it the same ideals of strength, courage and unity. 

As the predominant colour, I chose the same colour that gives the Black Hmong people their name. 

My kidnapped friends - the central characters in 'Sisters For Sale' - are Black Hmong people. As with other Hmong groups in Vietnam (such as the Red, White and Green Hmong) their name derives from the principal colour of their traditional clothing. 

It's the Hmong women who labouriously spin, weave, dye, roll, stitch and embroider this clothing from hemp fibres. In reality, it's not black at all - it's a rich indigo, with highlights of red, green and white. 

Each time you see a Hmong person in traditional costume (as you will throughout 'Sisters For Sale'), you're looking at the unique handiwork of a Hmong woman who has poured months of her life into creating something which is not only beautiful, but also practical and resilient - much like the women themselves. 

I didn't want the pinks or soft pastels which are seen in the West as "feminine" colours. That warmth and softness wasn't the aspect of womanhood I wanted to emphasise here. 

I love the fact that these colours are exactly the opposite, a stereotypically "masculine" colour scheme of deep blue - almost black - with an aggressive slash of red. As a battle flag, it is female without being feminine. 

The particular costume photographed for the poster has a special significance, too. It was made by the mother of my trafficked friend Pang. Pang wore it on her first day at home in Vietnam - the first time she'd worn Hmong clothing in 3 years and 8 months - after escaping forced marriage in China. 

It is the clothing not of a girl, but of a woman; not of a victim, but of a survivor. It gives the poster not only its dominant colours, but also its subtle background texture. 

(Although never part of my original design, the dominant indigo has also come to remind me of Curtis Mayfield's 1970 soul/funk classic, 'We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue', in which he speaks to all the repressed people of the world, regardless of colour.) 

The central figures

Unlike the original poster, which is designed to keep your eye wandering between several areas of interest, this poster is designed to capture your attention and focus it on the lower centre of the image. 

The strong lines of the valley walls and the vertical tagline form an arrow to draw your eye inwards and downward towards the central figures and the title itself - and to stop there, cut off by the red line across the bottom. 

The sisterhood between these two young women is very literally the focus of the design. You really can't look at the top of this poster without bringing your eyes down towards them. Try it. 

The two young women at the heart of the image come from a photograph given to me by Laura Snape. Laura is a friend of May's who was living in Hanoi at the time of May's abduction, and made the first investigations into her disappearance. 

The image shows May (on the right) with one of her friends, Lee. I've redrawn them in the same bold colours as the rest of the design: they are individuals, yes, but they are also pieces of the larger fabric of womanhood. 

The title itself - 'Sisters For Sale' - tells you several things: it is a female story; there's more than one woman involved, with a close bond between them; and the fact that they're being sold indicates that circumstances are against them, and seem to be overpowering them. 

These two young women, positioned as they are between the dark and seemingly insurmountable valley walls, are a visual echo of that title. 

The shape

The obvious setting for these young women was the land where they have their roots - the mountains of northern Vietnam, with the distinctive stepped rice terraces that line its valleys. 

As I worked with the image, however, the valley walls began to steepen, and evolve into something else. I asked myself: What defines the role of these women in society? For what reason are they taken and forced into marriage? 

My friends were sold, essentially, as baby-making machines. They were reduced from human beings merely to wombs. And so the valley itself became the womb, which has both a light and dark aspect. 

Firstly, the womb as home, as a place of warmth and comfort, of creation. Secondly, the idea that these women are trapped in that role, of being wombs and nothing more. 

The walls of the valley are steep, and - if you look at the faded lines across the top of the poster - they seem to stretch forever. The women can't seem to escape this role. 

As women - and particularly as impoverished rural women in a strongly male-dominated culture - they find themselves trapped in the bottom of the valley. They have each other, and otherwise seem very much alone. 

These are young women, coming of age, with wombs of their own. By placing them inside the larger, symbolic womb of the steep-walled valley, it becomes a sort of loop, a repetition, a Russian-doll situation. They were born into their role as birth-givers, like their mothers before them. 

This is not a new or temporary situation, but something that has continued down through the ages. This sense of repetition is echoed in the endless, identically-formed terraces, and even the line of white stitches that underlines the image, passing unchanged from one side to the other. 

If these women can't climb out of this narrow space, not only will they remain there for the rest of their lives, but so will their daughters, and granddaughters, and so on. 

The question mark

There was one final element I wanted to accentuate: the question mark. 

I wanted to make it bolder, and in a different style, to disconnect it somewhat from the tagline above, to make it a question in itself. 

While the situation appears eternal and unchangeable, while women have been trapped in this position for generations beyond count, there is still a dynamic element in the design: the young women themselves. 

(The other dynamic element in the poster - the red slash, with its twists and corrugations - was a matter more of happenstance than design: I would have used a straighter version, if I'd had one!) 

These particular women are just now on the cusp of entering the valley, of entering womanhood. It is something that is happening now, in the present moment, and is as-yet unresolved. 

They may not be comfortable there, but they have not been crushed - and they are moving forward, towards a glow that appears at an indeterminate distance. 

Unlike the cinematic poster, which has a key that explains everything else - the faceless motorcyclists, representing the traffickers - this design is left unresolved. The question mark still hangs above their heads. 

Not in an abstract "mystery of the feminine" sense, but in a very concrete way: Are these women strong enough to climb out of this valley, can they rely on external assistance, or are they and their descendants destined to remain there indefinitely? 

It is a question which, for me, goes beyond these young trafficked women, beyond Hmong society, to all women - and to all men, who have built many of the barriers around these women, and are in a position to bring them down. 

The responses

I didn't expect anyone to uncover so much meaning in the design. 

I was surprised, though, that nobody guessed the word I was looking for, especially as I've made no secret of my feelings on women's rights issues. 

Leonie Brok came closest with her theory of sisterhood, and will receive the very first print of the poster. 

"In this dangerous world, we are all sisters," Leonie wrote. "The girls have to stick together." 

I'd like to share some of the other unique and beautiful responses I received. 

One entrant, Huong, said: "I would choose the word Beyond. Because there is no limit to helping friends... It can go beyond the mountain, beyond the river, beyond the border, beyond language, beyond what we know, beyond what we could imagine and beyond any measurements in life." 

One of my favourite explanations came from Nancy Moyers, who believed the word was "lines":

"Like threads in a tapestry, the picture of humanity is composed of billions of little lines. They connect us to people, and they are the ties that keep us connected even when we are far away. This connection is what led to your search. In your journey to find May, you must have spent so much time following any lead you could find, hoping that you would find one that connected to her. You had to follow each thread back to the source, looking for one that might eventually connect to her. To me it also represents the lines that we draw for ourselves, the lines we don't cross. In a sense these lines define our humanity. They are the lines by which we judge ourselves and others, and the lines at which we can no longer sit by silently. These lines have to exist, and we have to figure out what they are. They can be subtle and hard to define, or rigid and absolute."

I'd like to thank all of you who took part in the contest, and really enjoyed reading all your submissions. 

We'll be running another little competition for you soon - stay tuned! 

- Ben 

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Introducing the band

Posted March 20

It's hard to overstate the impact a strong piece of music can have in a film. 

The right music provides an audience with a guide to help navigate the emotional complexities of a story. 

The repetition, combination and variation of particular melodies and instruments help link the various themes and characters together, and highlight their development. 

While much of this is experienced subconsciously, the music must be designed as carefully as any other element of the film. 

When it came to musicians, there have been times over the past few years I've almost felt as though 'The Human, Earth Project' was cursed. 

Mike Taylor, a good friend of many years and the first musician involved with the Project, died tragically in September 2014. 

You will have heard Mike's composition, 'SweetSorrow', on many of our videos, including the 'Sisters For Sale' trailer

Chris Tenz, who was to compose original music for 'Sisters For Sale', passed away in February 2016. 

Chris' music has also appeared in our videos, and his first two albums were made available through our 2016 fundraising campaign. 

The next musician who committed to scoring 'Sisters For Sale' - a very talented Australian composer - disappeared without explanation, at a crucial time as the film neared completion.

He's still alive, and I believe he's fine. I still don't know the full story, and have never heard any of the music he composed for the film. 

And so, with the rest of the film completed on schedule, 'Sisters For Sale' remained without music. 

My uncle, Geoffrey Hindmarsh, is a very talented pianist who filled our family gatherings with music since I was a child. 

As Geoffrey had influenced my own knowledge and understanding of both music and film more than anyone, I felt it would be very fitting to feature some of Geoffrey's music in the film. 

Geoffrey composed a beautiful track for 'Sisters For Sale' - but it became logistically complicated, at a time when I was already overwhelmed with finishing the film, and unfortunately didn't work out. 

Other musicians - including Joey Chang (AKA Cello Joe), Konstantin Jagoulis (AKA Kosma Solarius), and Rami Shaafi - have had their work featured in our previous videos, and had graciously offered it for use in 'Sisters For Sale'. 

While pieces of Konstantin and Rami's work are to appear in the finished film, I was convinced that it would be better to have a customised score from beginning to end, rather than use a blend of pre-recorded tracks. 

But who was to score the documentary? 

Although he has never recorded or released his work, my brother Will Randall is a skilled composer. 

With a doctorate in music psychology, his understanding of the relationship between music and emotion make him very well-suited to scoring a film. 

Johanna Wilson is a lifelong musician, who plays both piano and violin. 

Joh received her Bachelor of Music in her native Canada and is currently undertaking her Master's in Music, Mind and Technology in Finland. 

For the past several months, Will and Joh have been working together to score 'Sisters For Sale'. 

As a filmmaker, this is the first time I've been involved in having a film scored. I felt somewhat nervous handing my baby over, not knowing how Will and Joh might dress it up. 

Last December, I received my first clue - just a snippet, less than a minute of music set to one of the early sequences of the film. 

After having painstakingly constructed and reviewed that sequence a thousand times, it's hard to explain how it felt to watch it at last with music. 

It was perfect - better than I could have imagined. It gave me chills. 

I felt as though my baby was suddenly growing up, as though the Pinocchio I'd cobbled together was at last transforming into a real boy. 

I've since heard other fragments which will form part of the completed score, and have been impressed with them all. 

Will and Joh are taking the same approach I took with the film itself - working meticulously to make it as powerful as it can possibly be. 

Will and Joh will be assisted by two other Australian musicians - pianist Paul Byrnes, and violinist Lucy Rash.

It's a big job, and a time-consuming process, but I have full confidence in their work, and am very excited to hear how it all comes together - stay tuned!

In the meantime, my attention is focused elsewhere: on the forthcoming 'Sisters For Sale' book and podcast, plus the promotion, distribution, and various translations of the documentary. 

I want to thank Melissa Adams, Katie Carriero and Astrid Hofer for their ongoing social media magic - you're amazing! 

Last week I revealed a new 'Sisters For Sale' poster design, and promised to send the first ever print to whoever could tell me what it means!

Earlier this week I shared the poster on image-sharing platform Imgur, where it has been seen by 140,000 people - and counting!

It's been fascinating to read so many diverse interpretations of such a seemingly simple design. Send your entry to thehumanearthproject@gmail.com before the end of the month to win the print! 

Details here

- Ben 

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The colour and the shape

Posted March 13

Last July, I shared a cinematic poster I'd designed for our feature documentary, 'Sisters For Sale', together with an explanation of what it meant to me. 

The response was so positive I shared it a few days later on Imgur, where it quickly became one of their Most Viral posts. 

There was just one thing I neglected to mention: it wasn't the only poster I'd designed for the film. 

I love design work, and enjoy searching for ways to express complex ideas visually. 

The second poster I designed is in a very different, more "classic" style. 

On the surface, it seems far simpler - yet this one, too, is loaded with hidden meaning, and its meaning is quite different from the cinematic poster. 

I could explain it to you - but where's the fun in that? 

This time, I'll let you guess the meaning behind the poster. I'll give a print of the poster itself - the first ever! - to whoever gives the best answer. 

Let me give you a few clues. 

This poster has a particular theme, which can be encapsulated in a single word - can you see it? 

There are four elements in the poster which deliberately underscore that theme - the colour, the shape, the central figures, and... well, one other thing - I'll let you guess what it is! 

The poster has never been printed, anywhere in the world. 

Whoever can send me the most complete and accurate answer by the end of March will win the very first print. 

If you could describe the theme in a single word, what would it be - and why? Let me know!

I'll announce the winner, and my own explanation of the poster, in early April. 

I've discovered it can be quite complicated to have posters printed or delivered in some areas, but I don't want to exclude anyone on that basis, so you're eligible to enter, wherever you are.

For form's sake, I'll exclude blood relatives. It's impossible to exclude friends since so many friends are supporters, and so many supporters have become friends, but I've written down my explanation of the poster in advance and will have an outsider double-check the closest answers!

I'll be waiting to read your answers at thehumanearthproject@gmail.com.

I want to give a shout-out to Laura Snape, whose photograph was the basis for the poster's central figures.

... On another note, Vietnam's national broadcaster, VTV1, covered our story last week for International Women's Day. The piece included music by Rami Shaafi and Mike Taylor. I'd like to thank Lan Anh Lo, Dominic Nicholas and Alexander Yo for making it possible!

- Ben

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