During my years in Bangladesh, I must admit that, too often I heard the same stories when discussing politics and development with politicians, government workers and other influential people. They seemed completely detached from the common people of the country. So I decided to break away from my usual circles and meet the people for who they really are.
I have always been interested in photography, but it was first during a boat trip in the Sundarbans a few years ago that I somehow unconsciously decided to take it further. We had the most fantastic trip through the mangrove forests. Wasama, who owned and operated the boat we rented for the trip, had brought along his advanced photography equipment. Our prolonged conversations on photography inspired me on a deeper level. But the fact that I couldn’t capture all the beauty around me perfectly with just the pocket camera I had annoyed me too. It is after this fantastic trip that I decided to do more about photography. Eventually, I acquired better camera equipment and set my first foot forward as a photographer.
On off-days, I’d often get up early in the morning or go out late in the afternoon, walk along the railway tracks and in slum areas or visit workshops and factories. The lives of the people around never failed to fascinate me. Besides working short-term in many South-Asian and African countries, I have lived for four years in Nepal and Vietnam each. But I have never come across a place as unique as Bangladesh.
During my photo walks, the hospitability, kindness, openness and affability I was greeted with everywhere I went, impressed me. People saw me as a strange bideshi with a camera, but surprisingly I was always welcome. It is not easy to work as a photographer if you get too much attention, but that was how it was. People were just friendly and I could feel that they wanted their story to be told.
Two hijra visiting Dhaka, 2012.
I met many women, children and men living in slums, under the worst conditions possible. People, who were struggling just to make ends meet. The more I explored, the more I realized that the oppressed, marginalized and stigmatized people in society are people just like you and I, having families and responsibilities. Suddenly, I realized that the rickshawala on the streets of Dhaka city is not just an irritating guy that I wanted to get off the street so that I could continue with my car. No, he was a father, a husband, trying to earn so he can feed his family. Now I knew where and how he lived every day. It changed my views on the millions of others, toiling on the streets every day, yet barely spared a second thought by the more privileged.
Man at the Habour in Khulna.
My photo series “Smiles of Bangladesh” is called so because I was always met with smiles wherever I went. Yes, I might have been a strange white man to them, but people do not smile like that unless they have a big heart with considerably great inner strength. I saw children going to schools, wanting to study, despite not having the proper conditions or even the barest necessities available to them. Their determination to ‘learn’ reassured me of a brighter future.
A visit to a slum, after a huge fire had devoured it almost completely, opened my eyes to yet another side of the people living in this land. Despite losing everything they had, I saw hope and strength in their eyes, sheer determination to rebuild life once again. This illustrates just how brave the commoners of Bengal are.
Girl living in a slum in Dhaka, 2011.
I also came to realize that Bangladesh is not just the “Land of Smiles”. It is also the “Land of Dreamers”. The eyes of people especially children, reflected the dreams of a better life, of something different. Their dreams were in big contrast to the massive political propaganda that you see everywhere in the public space in Bangladesh. Through my lenses, I saw how people are being manipulated by political symbols everywhere, how political posters and other prototypes were used for making walls, beds, roofs and houses. It made me think a lot about how people view and understand politics. That people are much cleverer than what meets the eye, that they cannot be fooled.
Photography took me to many places, introduced me to many kinds of people. Through a contact at an NGO firm, I got in touch with a community of Hijras. They fascinated me and hence I wanted to get to know them better personally, which was a huge eye opener for me. Once the ice was broken, I found out that they were some of the most honest and straightforward people ever. They were somehow stripped completely off the many social limitations and strings that other people are bound by.
I spent a fantastic evening with them at my place once, when I decided to invite them. It was probably the first time anyone had ever invited them over as guests. They are used to being harassed by police and stigmatized by almost everyone when they are out on the streets. People fear them and sometimes for valid reason. But there are also many misperceptions about them. Even though Hijras are usually looked down upon in this society, I found that in many ways there is greater acceptance and tolerance in the Bangladesh towards transgenders than in my own country Denmark. We might have come a longer way in terms of making laws and ensuring better governance by authorities, but when it came to individual perceptions, attitude and behavior I found it more developed and nuanced in the Bangladeshi society.
The last days of a giant. Chittagong ship breaking beach, 2012.
Another overall impression that has stayed with me through my endeavour is the incredible recycling industry that exists in Bangladesh. Nowhere in the World, have I seen anything like it. It is truly extraordinary how anything from even the smallest plastic piece to the largest supertanker in the World can be recycled here. My visit to a tannery near the Buriganga, was an interesting one, not because of the tannery itself, but because of what I learnt from what went on around it. I saw men and women working with the bones, hair, jaws and teeth thrown away as waste. Though not sure for what, but it wasn’t done under very nice conditions. I have never fully understood the economy of the recycling businesses. But one thing is for sure, people are being exploited under the worst conditions; otherwise it would not have been possible and profitable.
Some pictures I’d seen of the ship-breaking industry of Chittagong that drove me to visit the city. Some contacts here and there, a lucky friendship with a young shipyard owner and some very nice locals – and I was all set. They showed me around the port city and its ship-breaking yards. All you need is some blowtorches and a large wrench, the rest is just raw manpower!
Rohingya boy who lives in a refugee camp, 2012.
My photography spree also took me to some brothels in various cities, where I talked to women living and working there. I also met a few enthusiastic community and NGO workers, who did a fantastic job in improving the conditions for the sex workers.
Here in this country, I met some people with inner strength and faith like I have never encountered before. Shamsul, an acid victim, attacked by his friend out of jealousy and malice over his success, was one of them. The incident had taken away his eyesight. I first saw him when he was offering his prayers, talking to him revealed how pleasant and compassionate the man was. His story touched my heart.
Girl in Dhaka, 2012.
Boy from Teknaf, 2012.
Among some of my best memories of Bangladesh, is my visit to the Lalon Shah Mela in Kushtia, which a friend drove me to. The cultural diversity, the colors, the festive atmosphere – it was paradise for a photographer like me. The friend also invited me to Cox’s Bazaar once along with my wife, which was immensely enjoyable as well. Afterwards we visited some Rohingya refugees in Teknaf too.
Bangladesh is a very unique place in the World. The ordinary people of this delta are some of the most extraordinary people that I have ever met. It’s been a privilege to have seen it through my lens for what it truly is. I look forward to this land, so full of smiles and laughter, colors and life, once again.
The story was first published in INTELLECT Issue no.3, dated November 2013.