This is a very special interview with an international, award-winning photojournalist G.M.B. Akash. He is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh and represented by Panos Pictures. Wrangling him into finding the time to answer these questions took some doing because he was always on the road working on one project or another. So, I am truly honored to host his images and his responses to a few of my questions here on Tiffinbox. If you have any questions or comments for him, please do submit them at the end of this post!
1) Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How old are you?
I grew up in a home far removed from my profession. Throughout my childhood I did not have access to photographers, their work, or even a camera. Photography did not exist for me in theory or in practice. Then a decade ago I found my father’s old camera and my life took a different turn. My fascination for the captured image was uncontainable and overcame everything — even my inexperience. Not knowing what I was doing or why, I went everywhere shooting anything and everything that caught my attention. The only thing I was certain of were the subjects I photographed. I concentrated on people living on the edge of society because their faces, lives, and living conditions held a particular fascination for me. Gradually I became absorbed in their daily lives for months on end, learning from their experiences. My desire to capture it all on film pushed me to go to places and to meet people I never would have encountered otherwise. Each visit gave me a deeper understanding of humanity.
I am from Narayangonj, a city which is 200 km away from Dhaka. I come from a middle class, very ordinary family. I was born in 1977. I was always a last bencher in my school. I always felt inside that I have no talent like other kids. But photography gave me a new life.
2) Some would consider you Bangladesh's best known photojournalist. What has led to that success?
Hard work, honesty and respect towards the people whom I photograph.
3) Where were you trained as a photographer? And why, photojournalism? Why not advertising or travel?
My passion for photography began in 1996. I attended the World Press Photo seminar in Dhaka for 3 years and graduated with a BA in Photojournalism from Pathshala. I believe that the formal study of photography is necessary to survive in the industry today. But most important things are to be really passionate and dedicated.
The formal study helped me a lot but most of the time I learned from other photographers. I have learned from painting, songs and movies as well. Everyday I go through the work of other photographers and I learn from them. I have learned from many photographers.
Photography pushed me to go to places and to meet people I never would have encountered otherwise. Each visit gave me a deeper understanding of humanity. Today, I count myself blessed, having become a photographer. To be able to articulate the experiences of the voiceless, to bring their identity to the forefront, gives meaning and purpose to my own life.
In 1998, I saw a photo exhibition on AIDS victims, titled ‘Positive Lives’ at gallery in Dhaka. And realized for the first time how images can influence social perception. My first reaction, on seeing the exhibit was a complete subversion of my original perception of AIDS patients. It struck me how patients with AIDS are alienated and scorned by us because of social misconceptions, and I realized how I as a photographer could help dispel these misconceptions. I discovered the power that images have over us.
To me, photojournalism is a huge responsibility and a tough job. A photojournalist must be honest, hard worker, punctual, and he or she must respect other people.
I believe photography can bring lot of changes in our life. It can bring positive changes. In my case, “my images are my voice, I want to show the things that should be corrected or should be appreciated.”
4) What drives you to make images? Do you see it as a job or as a calling?
What I find most amazing about the work I do is that it opens my eyes to all these little pleasures of life. There is great pleasure in meeting people who are despised by the world, in sharing a cup of tea with them, and discovering that they are still capable of affection, though they themselves go unloved.
This is not a job about making money or succeeding; it is about pursuing art, and opening people’s eyes. That is the responsibility of every photographer.
5) How do you take on projects? Are they self-financed or do you write grants?
Most of my projects are self–financed. I keep saving my money from other assignments to keep doing my personal projects. I do not like using my camera for begging. Each of my projects usually lasts over a year or even two and I begin to use my camera only when I have earned the trust of the people whose lives I want to document.
To portray a community or a way of life, you first need to understand it well yourself, otherwise the images become superficial, and neither you, nor those who look at your photographs, will be touched or moved. In fact, I let the year pass in regular visits to a small community of transvestites in Dhaka, before I eventually started taking their photos. I like to mingle with my subjects, I visit them often, and I invite them to my house, to get it across that I see them as people rather them mere subjects of photography.
6) There is great sensitivity to people in your images? How did you cultivate it? How do you approach people when you are doing stories?
With every picture you take, you enter a space that is unknown to you as a photographer. In the beginning it feels like forbidden territory, a place you are not supposed to enter surrounded by borders of privacy you are not supposed to cross. You, the photographer, are there at a factory, an old home or a brothel with your simple black bag hanging from your shoulder, eying everything around you as you are eyed by the people there. The first days following these intrusions I never take pictures because they would not be good. I wouldn’t know the people I met, wouldn’t understand the place I had just entered – my photography would be stale and meaningless. But there is always that moment when it feels completely natural to open that bag. And also there is no way of telling why it comes. Suddenly, I have a friendly conversation, or the afternoon light makes everybody around me relaxed and mellow, or someone looks at me in a trusting yet familiar way.
Then I take out my camera, and for me and everybody around me it is the most natural thing to do. There is consent. People don’t accuse me, or reject me or pose in unnatural ways. They are just there, doing what they normally do. Then I click away, and it feels like a conversation, a conversation between me and the people, between me and the location, between me and the light, between me and the souls that make this place alive. In such moments a landscape becomes a soulscape.
After such moments, life where I am working becomes trivial again, and the next day everybody asks for their photographs, and there is no difference if the people are girls from a brothel, children who work in a factory or farmers from the countryside. But these little exchanges bring us closer to each other, and the ties between us, which started with small talk and conversation and continued with the first pictures I took, will begin to become deeper and more meaningful, and so will the pictures I take. And the closer I get to them and the deeper our friendship becomes, the simpler my photography gets. I am no longer looking for special angles or artistic points of views; I just open myself to these people, take a good look, frame and wait for the right moment. When I walk home, I have all the moments that I missed in my head, and they will become my source of inspiration in the days to come.
I see the beauty of people and the human soul in the pictures I take. And though the circumstances of some of the people I portray may be grim, back-breaking, depraved, the people themselves are always remarkable characters and souls. And it is my duty as a photographer and artist to point with my pictures at every aspect of existence in the society and world I live in, to show what can be shown, to go deep into every milieu and also into every aspect of poverty, deprivation and hardship that I encounter – because the only sin for a photographer is to turn his head and look away.
7) You keep winning award after award and you are very good about making it known that you were either nominated or you won. Where did you learn such a basic marketing strategy – that is, to be in forefront of everyone's mind when it comes to photography? What or who inspired you to follow that template?
I am very much alone in the Bangladeshi photography industry. I do not even have photographers as friends. I learned everything for my survival. I keep doing the hard work. And my God was always so kind to me and my friends and family.
Lot of people are getting interested in photography in Bangladesh. It is becoming a very popular art form. Pathshala is one of the main photography schools. But there are many other schools which also
give a very good education.
It is very tough to survive as a freelancer now days. Especially in Bangladesh. Wire services like AFP, Reuters, AP, EPA capture all the markets. They are very fast and very powerful. They have a huge investment and network. They have their staff everywhere. It is really hard to publish your work as a freelancer.
But what I believe is this: “if you remain true to your work then your work will remain true to you”
9) Do Bangladeshi photojournalists have a network? Is there a sense of camaraderie and competition between photographers?
We have huge competition and huge politics in Bangladeshi photography. Lots of groups and nepotism. Few people control the whole system and they only favor their own people.
10) What challenges do you face when you are commissioned by magazines or newspapers around the world?
Every assignment is a new experience to me. Till today, I have received more than 40 international awards from all around the world and my work has been featured in over 50 major international publications including: National Geographic, Time, Sunday Times, Newsweek, Geo, Stern, Der Spiegel, The Fader, Brand Eins, The Guardian, Marie Claire, Colors, The Economist, The New Internationalist, Kontinente, Amnesty Journal, Courier International, PDN, Die Zeit, Days Japan, Hello, and Sunday Telegraph of London.
It is challenging to work with so many international magazines. Bangladesh is not an internationally important country. I've met so many people who even don’t know where Bangladesh is. Magazines seem to only want photographs from Bangladesh when there are big floods or big disasters.
We have also lot of problems in acquiring travel visas. If something happens in India or Pakistan, we cannot go there instantly. It takes a few days for getting the proper visa. It is so easy for a photographer from a developing country to get a visa but that's not the case for Bangladeshi photographers; it is almost impossible to go into a conflict zone.
But all these awards and publications bring lot of attention on those issues that I have been working. After seeing my work, so many individual people and organizations have shown their interest to help/improve the situation of child labor in Bangladesh and other issues.
My work on “home for elderly people in Nepal” has been printed in a German magazine. After it got printed so many individuals and organizations came to help them. We raised lot of money for this old home. The situation at that old home was very bad and the elderly people who lived there found it hard to get food three times a day.
11) Are you mentoring anyone interested in pursuing a career in photojournalism? Have you considered conducting workshops in South Asia?
I am trying to help a few of my friends. But no workshops at this time. I am very busy with assignments, traveling and working on my personal projects. And I really want to keep taking lot of photos. I need more time for organizing and giving workshops.
12) Have you ever been tempted to work with video? Will still photography always be your main mode of communication?
I have never tried video but I really want to start making short videos. I mainly concentrate on still photography now.
13) What are you trying to say with your photography?
I see the beauty of people and the human souls in the pictures I take.