Abeer Hoque interviews a celebrated Bangladeshi documentary photographer whose work recently made its way to an exhibit in New York City
I first encountered Munem Wasif’s work when I was on a Fulbright Scholarship for fiction and photography in Bangladesh and India in 2007. I was blown away by the talent of the Bangladeshi photographers I met during my time in Dhaka. They were everywhere, at galleries like Drik in Dhanmondi, teaching and studying at the Pathshala Photography Institute, exhibiting work at the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography, tackling various activist and photojournalism projects around the country, and of course, shooting fashion shows and weddings and other social events.
Wasif’s work immediately stood out: the rich textured black and white portraits, intricate cityscapes, ruined industry, sprawling countryside, poignant street scenes—all of it artfully framed, skillfully shot. Here was someone who knew what he was doing, and more than that, had an eye for the unusual, for the significant.
Wasif is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, and his work has been published and exhibited worldwide. He teaches at Pathshala and is a curator for Chobi Mela. In March 2014, Wasif was one of the photographers featured in Eyes on Bangladesh, an exhibition in New York City that showcased the work of nine noted Bangladeshi photographers and began a dialogue between first and second generation Bangladeshis.
In this interview, conducted over email, I asked him a few questions about his work and life as a Bangladeshi photographer.
Abeer Hoque: How did you get started?
Munem Wasif: My uncle Ikram was a student of Geography. He traveled for his studies and took photographs. He was also a member of a photography club. His room was full of negatives, cameras, and lenses. The whole idea of traveling, taking photographs, and developing and looking at negatives greatly attracted me.
After I finished school, he introduced me to Begart, the first photography school in Bangladesh, which was founded by Manzoor Alam Beg in 1960. That was how it all started. When I went to Begart, I was amazed by the environment of the art studio. It was very different from the middle class Bengali lifestyle I was used to. There were hundreds of LPs, books, and magazines. Imti bhai, the son of the founder, was running the school, and he was living the life of an artist. I was young and all of it made a great impression on me.
My father was not very happy that I wanted to become a photographer. He told me to think twice, because the drivers and cameraman eat at the same table. This is what he understood about photographers in our country, and perhaps what a lot of people think.
Who were your inspirations and teachers?
Oh, there are lots of people! My literature teachers in school and college were really important. I remember Saikat sir talking about Haiku poetry in class, and Shamem sir telling us the story of the albatross.
Imti bhai at Begart played a crucial role in my introduction to photography and developing my taste and style. It was through him that I discovered Cohen and Dylan, musicians who influenced me as an artist. We were both crazy about the singer Suman Chatterjee, now Kabir Suman. Suman’s lyrics are so political and so poetic at the same time. They aren’t just about blue skies and rain and falling in love. They’re more than that. They’re immediate and meaningful and visual. They changed the way I see and the way I take photographs.
Abir bhai looked at every single image I came up with when I was learning, and helped me develop my skills. Manosh da taught us to look at photography critically and understand the politics of representation. Malu was amazing in how he linked up literature, film, music, and politics. Shahidul taught us everything beyond photography. He gave us the confidence to dream, and to see the world around us. I used to look at the pages of Raghu Rai’s small book “In His Own Words” every night. And there are many more abroad, including Barbara who helped change the way I see and edit my work.
What has it been like for you as a photographer in Bangladesh? Where do you see the field going? Where do you want it to go?
I think we have just now only created the base, the context from where we have to start the real work. We still don’t have the historians, the curators, the editors for the field of photography. We don’t have a market, neither editorially nor in the art world. And we are still taking photographs of eggs and poverty, and talking about raw and jpegs, and counting how many awards we have won. This is what we’re selling, as we rotate around the West.
But we have also established a beautiful photography school in Dhaka (Pathshala), a great international photography festival (Chobi Mela), and a local community, which is very supportive. I think that’s truly special.
How did you learn your craft?
I learned photography the way one learns how to play music, by listening and practicing everyday.
What are some accomplishments you’re proud of?
I am really proud of my students at Pathshala where I teach documentary photography.
I am proud to have published two small anthologies (Kamra 1 and 2) called Photography in Bangla with my friend Tanzim Wahab.
I am proud to have interviewed one of the masters of Bangladeshi photography, Bijon Sarker, who died in 2012. Bijon da helped found the Bangladesh Photography Society, and he was one of the few photographers of his time pushing the boundaries of images while everyone else was busy making pretty pictures. His experimentation in the dark room resulted in images of a kind we had never seen before. I hope people will hear his voice.
And I am happy to be working with the photography festival, Chobi Mela, as a curator.
What are some of the topics and issues you address in your work?
I love working on long-term stories, looking through the layers, and going back to places again and again. I have been working on a story for the last 5 years called “In God We Trust”. It’s about the representation of Islam after 9/11, about all the contradictions and overlappings we have within ourselves. It’s not about right or wrong. Photographically, it has been very difficult, but it’s a very important topic to me.
I recently returned from an art camp organized by Britto Art Trust. We worked in No Man’s Land, the literal place between India and Bangladesh. We installed our work in an open field, neither in Bangladesh nor India, nowhere. I arranged my photographs in the field, one after another, like a panorama. You had to bend down really low to see the work and in doing so, you would also see the border, the land itself. After the show, a man came to me and asked me if he could take a print to hang on his wall. His name was Shafik Mia and he was from the village of Lubia in Shonapur, Sylhet. I asked him why. He just smiled and said it was beautiful. That was really something for me.
What is one of your favorite projects?
I have just published a book on Old Dhaka called Belonging. It didn’t start off as a project, but more as my infatuation with this part of town. Old Dhaka reminds me of my childhood city of Comilla, with its strong sense of neighborhood, old buildings from colonial times, and small alleys where I would get lost on my bicycle. Old Dhaka will always be a special place for me.
What are your strengths and weaknesses as an artist? What would you like to learn?
I think I have only just learned how to look at things.
I want to make books – not just commercial coffee table books, but art books that channel emotion on the page, and handmade books where the pages and binding are part of the artistry. I would like to experiment with different materials, and with installing work in context.
I would like to write about Bangladeshi photography, its history and transformation over the last 30 years. The anthologies, Kamra 1 and 2 are part of this effort.
In the next Chobi Mela, we are planning some workshops that address some of these topics, and will hopefully help develop a culture where people are interested in making and buying such books.
I have been planning for a road trip for some time now, just to observe my country and its people. I think we are passing through a very sensitive time, politically. After the election, I don’t know how many Hindu families will be left in Bangladesh, how many will have gone to India. I don’t have a story or a plan. I just want to explore, and travel by river and through the hills.
Tell us about your work in Eyes on Bangladesh – how did you get involved and what does it mean to you?
Ayesha, one of the curators for Eyes on Bangladesh, contacted me about being part of the exhibition. I was not very sure at first, but after talking with Nabil and Ayesha a few times, I decided to participate. I think they have done a fabulous job, and it’s great how they have designed the whole exhibition. For example, I like how little kids have been invited to visit and comment on the work.
What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer?
Read literature, study the history of art, and travel. That’s how you will learn photography. Don’t post your work in FB and wait for likes. Listen to your heart.
For more information about Munem Wasif’s work, please see http://www.munemwasif.com.
Check out this gallery of images from the Eyes on Bangladesh exhibit: