Archive for February, 2017

Shehzad Noorani

Posted: February 28, 2017 in Interviews

 

(Credit for Shehzad’portrait -Chris Niles)

Shehzad Noorani is one of the most important documentary photographer of our times. It is an honor for me that despite his multiple commitments, he has been kind to spare time to answer these questions.

In the words of Dr. Shahidul Alam, founder Drik Picture Agency & Pathshala South Asian Media Academy,

‘ Nooran i’s life has shaped much of what he photographs. A child worker who got caught raiding a neighbor’s kitchen for food, is an unlikely candidate for a successful career in photography. But statistics are very poor at predicting life as it unfolds. A need to feed his family led Shehzad to ensure a continuous flow of money. This he did with consummate ease by being one of those rare photographers who always deliver on time, to specification and to highly exacting standards. This thorough professional however, is also a skilled artist, who has combined his human skills with a wonderful eye that finds things other eyes might have missed. It is the subaltern that Shehzad has photographed, but not through pitiful eyes, or some romantic notion of charity, but through a genuine understanding of what being poor is. His tenacity, his ability to push himself and his unusual duality between the disciplined professional and the gifted artist, makes him special’

 

 

Noorun Nehar (15 years old) looks through a curtain hole of a battery-recycling workshop. Like thousands of other women and children, she too survives by recycling waste on the bank of Buriganga. She is only 15 years and has been breaking batteries since last three year. She earns Taka 300/week (about $4)
Godhara Ghat on the bank of Buriganga River. Dhaka. Bangladesh.

 

  1. How would you briefly describe yourself as a person?

Content and grateful for life and opportunities I have had. I believe I got a bit more than I deserved on both ends of life, good and bad, and do think both has served me well.

 

Portrait of an old woman in a village in Punjab province in Pakistan.
As a photographer who likes to take pictures of people, I have always been fascinated with wrinkles on people’s face. To me, each line and dimple tells a thousand tales. I met her during an assignment following events after 9/11, while waiting for Afghan borders to open up, in a small village in Pubjab. Even though momentarily, I clearly remember how her kindness and sincere smile completely calmed my otherwise tangled nerves. After that I travelled back and forth between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq and I guess bear a lot of burden psychologically. I had no idea what PTSD meant before those travels, but I did find out. This woman, simply known as Mai, old woman, mother, in only few moments I spent with her, gave me enormous courage to handle what followed.

 

  1. Describe your photographic odyssey. How it started and where do you find yourself now?

I was born in Bangladesh in 1966, but had to migrate to Pakistan with my family in 1974. I was 8 years old then. We settled in Karachi. For the first few years my father could not join us, and my mother raised me along with my 5 siblings. Those were hard times for us as we had lost everything we had in the process of migration and we were extremely poor.

n Karachi, I attended a public school with no furniture in the classrooms. I used to tie a string (nara) to tie down 2-size larger uniform pants. After completing grade 5 I had to start working in a garment factory as a laborer to be able to pay for better schooling. I managed to earn enough through these jobs during vacations and as an office-boy during school days to afford a private school for myself and my younger siblings.

My photography career started in grade 7 when one of my teachers asked me if I could take pictures? To please him, I lied and said I could. I only realized my blunder when he handed me a Yashica Electro 35, a modern version of Leica-like rangefinder camera. That thing, with all the dials and buttons, just didn’t made sense. Somehow I managed to take pictures that were focused and decently composed. When my teacher appreciated my work, I muttered up courage and told him about my lie. Instead of getting mad at me, he was actually impressed and said I must have some kind of a natural talent. After that he started asking me to take pictures every time there was an event at the school. Eventually the entire community found out and I started getting invitations to shoot birthdays and weddings. Same teacher eventually helped me buy my own SLR. I become popular in my neighborhood.

My big break came when a professional photographer offered me to work with him at The Aga Khan University. I got opportunity to work with public health wing of the university that gave  me a chance to visit slums to photograph research projects. It was my introduction to documentary photography, without realizing of its importance for my future career. .

In 1988, after spending 12 years in Karachi, I moved back to Dhaka. I started with a humble beginning, by borrowing 100 Taka to buy a film for my first assignment in Dhaka. It was to shoot a party in a restaurant. I got paid 35 Taka per picture, so 700 Taka for 20 pictures. Within one year I started getting work from many NGOs in Dhaka. It all changed when, a UNICEF Communication person saw my work at a NGO exhibition and offered to work for them for 2500 Takaper day,  (USD 100 ). That was a huge amount, equal to my father’s one-month salary. One thing led to another, and now, about 27 years later, I have covered hundreds stories in over 60 countries around the world.

Today I find myself at a crossroad in life where I feel I couldn’t ask for more. Going forward I have lots of possibilities ahead of me and I am excited. I wish to focus more and more on learning and find opportunities to do meaningful personal work that may be completely different from things I have done in the past. I want to look back, reflect, go through my archive, publish and write.

 

A young girl sits on broken wall inside an informal glue factory where workers process waste leathers to make glue in Hazaribagh area near Buriganga river in Dhaka.
Most industries based in urban area in Bangladesh pollute environment but leather tanneries probably do the worst damage. Hazaribagh, Dhaka’s biggest leather processing industrial zone, is right in the middle of one of the most densely populated residential area.

 

3. How would you describe your social vision?

Belief in social, economical and gender , regardless of racial or religious differences. Maybe that is too much to hope for in the world we live in today.

 

Munni (9 years old) collects drinking water from a communal hand pump in her slum on the bank of river Buriganga in Old Dhaka.
Like thousands of women and children, she too survives on resources from Buriganga. To support her family, she scavenges for metal on a dumpsite on the bank of river. She has three sisters and one brother. Her father died recently in a boat accident. Her mother works six days a week and earns Taka 400 /week ($7).
Munni’s mother Sofia Begum said, “Only I know how I manage to feed my children. Often just to feed them plain rice with salt and onion, I have to borrow money from my neighbours. School? Education is not for poor people like us.”
Buriganga River. Dhaka. Bangladesh.

 

  1. Most of your work is based on underprivileged people. Is it a deliberate decision to focus on children of lesser God?

Yes it is deliberate. I photograph where I was in the past. It’s where I am most comfortable. I detest and dislike the class I have become a part of myself, and take every opportunity to get away from it.

 

Munni (9 years old) cooks in a communal kitchen in her slum on the bank of river Buriganga in Old Dhaka.
Like thousands of women and children, she too survives on resources from Buriganga. To support her family, she scavenges for metal on a dumpsite on the bank of river. She has three sisters and one brother. Her father died recently in a boat accident. Her mother works six days a week and earns Taka 400 /week ($7).
Munni’s mother Sofia Begum said, “Only I know how I manage to feed my children. Often just to feed them plain rice with salt and onion, I have to borrow money from my neighbours. School? Education is not for poor people like us.”

 

  1. You have made a name at international level. How were you able to achieve this? Can you share your struggle and secrets of success?

Accident, help from a number of people – mostly strangers, good luck, hard work and professional attitude.

Secret of success – I don’t think it’s a secret. Hard work, careful planning, recognizing one’s shortcomings and doing something about it pays off eventually. Short cuts don’t work. How many people do you know who actually won a million dollars lottery?  I don’t know any.

 

Munni (9 years old), searches for metal in a pile of garbage on the bank of river. Like thousands of women and children, she too survives on resources from Buriganga, She has three sisters and one brother. Her father died recently in a boat accident. Her mother works six days a week and earns Taka 400 /week ($7).
Munni’s mother Sofia Begum said, “Only I know how I manage to feed my children. Often just to feed them plain rice with salt and onion, I have to borrow money from my neighbours. School? Education is not for poor people like us.”
Buriganga River. Dhaka. Bangladesh.

 

  1. Where do you see contemporary Bangladesh’s photographers compared to international scenario?

I don’t know or understand enough to have an authentic opinion. Recently I attended a workshop on Photo Bookmaking through Chobi Mela organized by Pathshala, South Asian Institute of Photography. All other participants were much younger and I was amazed to see their creativity, their dedication as well as their ability to conceptualize. I am fifty years old, and have been working as a photographer for over 30 years. I have certainly been very successful, however, at the same time, I feel for a long time I have focused on just one thing,from a particular angle.

Our young generation is lucky to have access access to great number of educational opportunities through several world class photography institutions. Moreover, with modern technology, they are exposed to the work of world classed photographers; making them extremely aware and diverse.

I think contemporary Bangladeshi photographers, for example, Anik Rahman, GMB Akash, Khaled Hasan, Munem Wasif, Sarkar Protick, Shahria Sharmin and countless others are some of the finest in the world. Many of them have won prestigious international awards, have been exhibited and published all over the world.

 

A homeless Aboriginal man walks by a graffiti wall on a construction site near the Carnegie Hall, a community centre and library that caters to homeless and poor on the Hasting Street in Vancouver Downtown East Side.
In recent years, the area has seen condominiums move in and anti-gentrification activists allege the new developments have pushed out the city’s poorest residents.

 

  1. What is the reason for your preference for monochrome pictures as compared to colored?

You may have came to this conclusion because of my work Daughters of Darkness, which is most well known, but in reality, I have no such preferences. I choose either colour or black & white depending on the demand of the story. I must say, I love black & white, especially film, because of grains and textures. There are hundreds of software that can convert your digital raw files to give similar textures, yet, prints from film still holds a special place for me.

 

Both smiling, a commercial sex worker kisses another on the cheek, an uncommon public display of affection in Bangladesh. Kandupatti Brothel. Dhaka.

 

Taking shelter from the rain under an awning, a young girl enjoying a rare moment of intimacy with one of her regular client on the roof of Kandupatti brothel in Dhaka.

 

  1. From whom you have been most impressed in photography? Do you still keep learning from the work of masters or do you feel they hinder and blunt your innate personal vision?

I learn from anything that moves. Yes, early documentary photographers have influenced me. My favourites are Alfred Stieglitz, Don McCullin, Henry Cartier Bresson, and many others. No, I don’t think they hinder or blunt my vision, instead they just inspire me. Due to explosion of information and easier access through internet, I find myself at a loss. So much is happening, it’s hard to keep up. There are way too many new works, new ways of doing things, and one has to keep an open mind and try to absorb.

 

A young commercial sex worker wait for clients in Marwari Mandir brothel in the city of Jessore, an important town near the Indian border. There are three brothels in Jessore that serve as crucial link in trafficking of women and children to Indian brothels across the border.

 

  1. Do you feel photography influences one’s personality as literature and other genres of art do? How it has changed your own personality and world view? How photography enriched you as a person? 

It’s a complex question. I think photography as a medium is vast and it depends on genre within that medium, i.e. art photography, abstract, documentary, landscape, wild life, etc, and often these genres overlaps. Again, depending on specific genre, they can certainly have an impact on people as strong as art and literature.

One has to separate viewing and experiencing images from the process of creating them. I do see lot of photographic work and enjoy them, but for me, greater influence comes from not only viewing them, but the process of creating images. I am a documentary photographer and my work takes me out of my home, to the real world. I see and experience how people live, I experience and learn about real people, real lives, their struggles and their extraordinary strengths. If that cannot influence or change you as a person, what else would?

My work involves travelling to far and remote places, and witness lives and cultures drastically different from each other, often in a very short span of time. Sometimes within one single day, I am with a commercial sex worker as well as prime minister of a country. I may be in a slum, and few hours later, I may be at a palace. Imagine the diversity of exposure from haves and have not’s, to one’s opportunity to learn the vast differences between people, their circumstances, privileges or lack of it.  How can that not change, impact and enrich a person?

 

Looking through a window in her house, Florence laughs in a village on the outskirts of the city of Masaka in Central Uganda.
Florence is a joyful young girl and her elder sister, Rose was very protective. She said, ‘I have five younger siblings. I am very tough with them. I don’t want them to fool around, particularly Florence. She is only 16, but beautiful. She needs to be careful. Men are liars, all of them, yes even my brothers.’ Rose happily translated everything for her grandmother. While walking back from the field, she also pointed out the graves of her parents, the two children Rose had lost to AIDS.

 

10. What is your photography routine? How much time you spend in it and how you are able to manage it? Do you work randomly or in planned way with a project in mind?

I am a freelance photographer. There are two sides to my work; Assignments and Personal Work.

Assignments are way I finance my life, cost of living, child’s education, as well my personal work and it takes up majority of my time.

However, much I want to do it, personal works are rare, because for me, it requires many things to be in place, including enough uninterrupted time and finances. It works differently for different people. Some people do personal work in between other things, family responsibilities, professional work, etc. For me, it takes me a lot of time to even begin personal work, sometimes years. Obviously, one is always distracted, and that too is important. For me, inspiration, ideas and concepts for personal work has to be organic, has to come from within, often from anger and frustration of how things are around me and in the world, and those ideas and concept gets solidify through readings, by seeing work of others, even those that may not be strictly photography.

Because work cannot be guaranteed accordingly to my needs and desires. Sometimes I sit for months without work, not knowing whether there may be work tomorrow, sometimes I get three assignment requests for same week and for exactly same times, but by three different clients in three different countries. One has to choose one and drop two. It is a reality of being a freelance and cannot be helped.

Whether it’s personal work or assignment, I cannot work randomly and everything has to be planned, however, until I am on the ground, things constantly change and I have to adjust accordingly.

I have a strict workflow, which includes shootings early morning till sunset, and afterwards, once I return, I have to finish editing day’s shoot before I can go to sleep. Finally when a week, two weeks, or a month long assignment ends, I take a break, complete captions and post process for complete body of work before moving on to next project.

 

A child stand with Dinka men with AK-47 riffles at Wunbel cattle camp in Thiat. Arms are plentiful in war-ragged Southern Sudan. Many ordinary men, especially in the cattle camps, carry guns for protecting their cattle that plays a central part in their economic, social, religious and esthetical life.

 

11. What do you think are the benefits of social media in promotion of today’s world? Lately you have not been very active on social media.

For me, social media is exactly that, ‘social media’. This is where you connect socially with people you personally know, as well as thousands of others you don’t. Social media like Face book, Twitter, and Instagram are useful for promotion, but I think the fact that millions of people use them, have advantage as well as disadvantage. While new, unique and useful ideas are generated on social media, they also get buried under enormous amount of garbage that we generate.

My personal lack of activity on social media is the indication that I may not have anything substantial to share. I am usually careful about what I post. I wait till I have something meaningful to share.  Lately, I have been thinking hard about quitting media like Face book. I truly appreciate many of my friends who have decided to stay away from it. Perhaps I will do the same soon.

 

Constance Bwanali (29) baths Chisomo, her 5 years old son, in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.
She got married at 18. After the birth of her third child, her husband went to South Africa for work and never came back. She realized she had to find a way to support her children. She learned and started knitting for people in her neighbourhood. Depending on work, she earns between about 10,000 Kwacha, about $20/ month.
She said, “I work hard but I just cannot earn enough to support my children properly. I want my children to have good education. It’s hard to come up with money to pay for their education.”
“What if my husband comes back? I think I will accept him back, but I will make sure he takes HIV test first”

 

12. Do you think photography can help promote tolerance and human value in our lives? Do you feel you have been able to make a difference with your work?

I think there is a misconception about photography that it’s a tool to tell the truth, and in today’s digital world, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not necessarily so. It is certainly a tool to communicate, but exactly what, depends on person behind the camera, his editor or client.

Photography can certainly help promote tolerance and human-values, etc, but it can also be used, and being used to do exactly opposite as well.

Now to your second question, whether I feel I have been able to make a difference. Question really is whether I want to do that. I feel photographers’ belief that they can use photography to tell the truth, and bring change; is a bit over stressed and exaggerated.

I take pictures as an extension of seeing, and in the process I record what is in front of me. What is in front of me depends of what I WANT to see. The process of editing, meaning including and excluding, begins even before I raise camera to my eyes. I may choose things and people in front of me because of how they look like, what kind of light falls onto them, what is behind and in front of them, whether it is too distracting, and thousands of other reasons, and often all of that happens unconsciously, but it does happens.

Once I am done shooting, I edit and reduce. At least 70-80% is edited out. In 10 days shoot I may shoot 5,000, that is reduced to may be 1,000. When that selection reaches an editor’s desk, images are once again reduced to may be 20, or 5, sometimes even 2 or 1. How is that truth? Certainly not the whole truth, thus NOT truth at all.

I do not live in the false perception of telling The Truth, I don’t even try. I document things as honestly as I can, but I know very well, that in the end, it is only, at best, my vision, my opinion. Nothing more than that.

 

A girl laughs playfully laughs while drinking water at a water point in Adone village of Ta Oi district, Saravane province, Lao PDR.
Adone is an exceptionally clean village. Most families have access to sanitary latrines and clean drinking water.

 

13. What are your current projects in photography?

As I said, I am born in Bangladesh. Even though due to family’s migrations, I have spent a lot of time away from Bangladesh, I still feel very connected to the land. Bangladesh has given me a lot, and I have a strong urge to try to give something back. In last two years I have been in Bangladesh, I have taken every possible opportunity to do exactly that through presentations, talks, and workshops.

I have little time left before I head back to Canada. Lots of ideas and little time in hands. I am not sure how much I will be able to achieve, but I am trying. Lets see. I will certainly share soon.

 

Bare feet on a rainy day, a man pulls passengers through slippery streets of Kolkata on his hand-pulled rickshaw.

 

14. Any other lesson/advice you would like to give to an aspiring photographer.

No. I don’t think I am in a place to advise anyone anything. I am constantly surprised by how new-generation of photographers and artists us pushing the boundaries of what is possible. If anything, I can learn from them and take some advice on how to get out of traditional and conservative mind set.

 

While Zeena Ali hides her face, Zaman Mohammed (12 years old) looks through a torn blanket that has replaced the door that used to be here before looting of Al Rahma Center for Abandon Street Children. Along with many other citizens of Iraq, children at the Al Rahma Orphanage too paid a heavy toll for coalition attack on Iraq. Zaman, along with many other girls, ran away from the orphanage after it was attacked by looters just after the war broke out. She took refuge in the streets near the Palestine Hotel in the downtown Baghdad. She spent many days in the streets and survived by begging. When she found out that orphanage is up and running again, she returned. However, now she regrets her decision as it is in the control of Hauza, the religious seminary. They are very strict and beside other restrictions, also force children to wear Hijab (a piece of cloth to cover head and hair).

 

Shehnaz (3 years old) sits on the window of battery recycling workshop. She cleans carbon rods that come out of the center of D-size dry cell batteries, in a battery recycling workshop in Ayena Ghat by River Buriganga on the outskirts of Dhaka. Her mother Noor Syeda Begum (19 years old) also works in same workshop. They recently migrated to Dhaka from village Lohali in Potwakhali Upazila (province). Shehnaz’s father Rahman is a boatman, but he does not have any boat. He works as a day labourer. Sometimes there is work for him and sometimes there is nothing. He managed to get work for only 6 days in September 2004 due to heavy rain. Both Shehnaz and her mother Noor Syeda Begum has to work to supplement family’s income to assure survival.

 

A woman holds her child, blackened by carbon dust. His nose bleeds due to infections caused by exposure to dust and pollution during play in the workshop in Korar Ghat by on the outskirts of Dhaka. Many women bring their children along so they can look after them while working. The environment in and around the workshop is full of carbon dust and other waste. Children play until they are tired and ready to sleep. Most children have chest and eyes infection. Environment is so polluted, most children suffers from one or the other kind of infections all the time.

 

In 2009 in Bangladesh, 11-year-old Rozina runs to her house in Islampur Village, in Kurigram District. She is returning from a night of fishing with her father and brother. Her family moved recently from the northern town of Bogra, where her father supported the family by selling vegetables, and Rozina and her brother attended school. Her father thought his business would fare better in Islampur, so he borrowed money to move the family and build a house. But the community in Islampur was too poor to purchase vegetables, and the business collapsed. The family can no longer afford schooling. Rozina’s brother and father now fish every day, and Rozina walks several miles twice a day to deliver meals to them. Her parents are concerned about earning enough to repay their debts and to afford a dowry for their eldest daughter.

 

A young Afghan girl child reads from a textbook in Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood in Kabul. After several years of Taliban rule that prevented women from getting any education, girls are finally able to return to schools.
This home-based school that serves 800 students in three shifts by 15 teachers, lacks window-panes, heat, furniture, carpets and lights. The teachers are not paid and many have no professional training. With separate classrooms for girls and boys, the school is 1 of 95 run by the local NGO Sorvach. Afghanistan.

 

Those who are interested may follow his regular contributions on the following links

https://www.facebook.com/shehzad.noorani.1

https://www.flickr.com/photos/81504640@N00/