interview with photographer g.m.b. akash
Having brought the 'identity of the voiceless to the forefront' with his internationally awarded photographs, the winner of the Friends of the Earth International Climate Justice Photo Competition in 2006 talks about how he uses photography as a means to affect social change. He discusses the constraints that currently exist for fulfilling the potential of the photographic medium and the response to his presence when he works in areas where people are suffering extreme hardship.
Akash says, "I grew up in a home far removed from my current 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 things 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 meet people I never would have encountered otherwise. Each visit gave me a deeper understanding of humanity."
"In 1998, I saw a photographic exhibition on AIDS victims, titled ‘positive lives’ at a gallery in Dhaka and realised for the first time how images can influence social perceptions. My first reaction upon seeing this exhibition was a complete subversion of my original perception of AIDS patients. It struck me how AIDS victims are alienated and scorned by us because of social misconceptions and I realised how I, as a photographer, could help dispel these misconceptions. Here, I discovered the power that images have over us."
This discovery prompted Akash to portray the lives of those sidelined by mainstream society.
"The next morning I visited the brothel, a visit that would become a ritual over the next year, as I followed the lives of the prostitutes. This resulted in a volume of work that sees them through the triumphs, the pleasure and the inevitable sadness and disillusionment of their lives. I do not like using my camera from the very beginning. Each of my projects usually last 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 depict."
"I believe 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 the small community of transvestites in Dhaka, before I eventually started taking 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 than mere subjects of photography."
"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."
"I am a very sensitive and emotional photographer. Most of the time I work with people who live on the edge of the society – people who live in a very hard situation. Sometimes my subject influences me a lot. I get frustrated. I become one of them. I was biased many times. Then I controlled myself and tried to show things from a neutral position."
"I worked with a transvestite and gay community for three years and spent a lot of time with them. Sometimes I cried for them. I could not sleep many nights as I was thinking about them and how they always encounter problems in Bangladesh. Society does not accept them; they are hated and neglected by society. However, I saw them as human beings, like us, not as transvestite or gay."
Akash's work also deals with climate issues in Bangladesh such as flooding and the devastating cyclones that hit the country on an almost annual basis. This work has won him awards in the Friends of the Earth International Climate Justice Photo Competitions bringing greater attention to his work and also to the plight of communities in Bangladesh.
"Two years ago, I went to take photos in a village which was badly affected by a cyclone. There was no food or shelter and no aid from anybody for three days. I was so shocked when I saw people were begging on the street for food. I was so depressed and felt I was taking advantage of these people by taking pictures. I would get fame and money for these images, but they would get nothing. I thought I should build their houses or bring food for them instead of taking photos."
"For the first two days I could not take photos. I got sick, I was so depressed. Then, on the third day, I felt that I had to take their suffering to print in the newspaper. I thought that then everybody would know the situation and more aid would result for these people. I felt this was my duty to show what was happening there."
View Akash’s work on his website: www.gmb-akash.com.