(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’
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Those who are interested may follow his regular contributions on the following links