Interview with GMB Akash
Please tell us about yourself. How did you start your journey in photography?
I am a humanitarian photographer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but I also cover stories in other South Asian and Southeast Asian countries as well as an occasional assignment elsewhere such as in Greece covering the Syrian refugee crisis when so many were arriving by rubber rafts from Turkey.
For the last 24 years, I have been a professional photographer. Although I did graduate studies in photography, later on, I more or less fell into photography while still deciding my future. I found an old camera at home, a Yashica fx3 that was my father’s, and that camera changed my life completely. I learned how to operate that camera by myself with the help of the manual and started taking photos without knowing anything. I had no idea about photography or even that photography could be a profession. Knowing nothing, I started roaming around here and there taking photos.
I had always been fascinated with marginalized people’s lives and their stories. Human faces and unusual stories intrigued me very much and that camera becomes my passport to go to the places that I could never go to otherwise. Slowly my camera becomes my best friend and I profoundly started discovering meaning and purpose in my life. Photography became and still is, my mission. I want to change people’s lives through photography. I want to inspire them and to give them a voice when they have no voice.
With this mission at the forefront, I have received numerous photography awards during my career and my work has been featured in the most prestigious international publications. I have been invited to speak and present my work as well as to have solo exhibitions at many exclusive events around the world including Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Qatar, Maldives, Laos, USA, and Greece. I have also been selected to be a member of various juries during many international photography competitions. In addition, I have completed the publication of two photography books, “First Light” and “Survivors”, a fundraising project to support the people who have appeared in the book. I’m also currently working on another photography book, “Heroes of Life”.
You're a pioneer of photography in Bangladesh and became the first Bangladeshi Photographer to be selected for many reputed awards around the globe. What were the biggest challenges you faced during your career? What has led to this inspiring success?
In the early days, some of the challenges were overcoming the social stigma of the type of subjects I chose to photograph. Some people were not able to see the value nor the beauty of the marginal souls that I have photographed and that I have assisted in changing their lives in some ways for the better.
Still, today, every day as a photographer is challenging because of the nature of the industry. It’s one of the most challenging professions and it’s very difficult to even survive these days. There are too many photographers now who are ready to work even for free or in exchange for the distribution of their photos only in order to get exposure. On the other hand, magazines, and editors these days only give work to their known people. Most of the international magazines and newspapers send their own photographers from their countries or from their list of friends even though there are many very good local photographers in Bangladesh who also know the culture and the language of the foreign audiences as well as the local terrain.
But I see these days, it’s all mostly about the connections; it’s not about the quality. It does not seem to matter how good you are; only people who are connected to editors or influential people in the industry will get the job or exposure easily even if their photos are not the best. There are a lot of photographer groups also in Bangladesh who control the industry and if you do not belong to those groups, your whole journey will be more difficult. Corruption and nepotism make this entire industry more challenging and complicated.
I have always worked alone. I never had anybody to help me from this industry because I do not belong to any group. I just believe in my work and keep working. Still, now, I work every day and every moment of the day. Photography and writing stories of the people I photograph are a huge part of my life. I always use photography to help people and every day I want to reach more people through my work and to see some positive changes in society.
Why did you choose documentary and photojournalism over other genres? What according to you make a good story?
Every person we meet in our lives has a story. Some have very inspiring stories and some have stories of loss. Every single person goes through so many different experiences in their lives. My childhood had a big impact on my life. The place where I grew up has had a big influence on my photography. Beside our home, there was the biggest red-light area in Bangladesh. Almost Every night I used to listen to women who were shouting or crying. There was always fighting going on or loud music. I wanted to know more about the lives of those women who live inside those walls.
I used to visit my uncle’s house, where I saw a third gender person who used to work as a maid. My cousin brothers used to tease her all the time and make her dance sometimes almost naked. I wanted to know what her sin was that caused everybody to make fun of her.
I spent sleepless nights thinking about Dalit people who lived in the sweepers’ colony. Nobody used to let them come inside their home nor touch them because they were cleaners. I used to think about all these people and wanted to know more about them.
Since my camera had become my passport to get access to these people, I started mingling with them for months and months to know more about their lives. These people and their stories made me a better human being every day and I wanted to bring light on these issues. I wanted to let people know that our gender, sexual orientation, or profession does not define us. We are all human beings. No one becomes a sex worker and sells their body for pleasure; they do it for their family or for someone else who for that person’s own benefit, put them in Hell. The life of the Dalits lacks any choice of occupation as it is imposed upon them by society and cleaning the sewage of others is all that is available to them to do in order to survive.
I learned very quickly that we must respect each other and we must help each other for a better planet. Nothing is more beautiful than kindness and humanity in a good story.
In your photographs, it can be clearly seen that you build a relationship with your subjects before photographing them. Please share your thoughts on the same.
For me, the relationship with people I photograph is very important. The people I photograph are never a mere subject for me to only use them and their photos for getting awards or fame. I build up a relationship before I take every single photo. I spend sometimes months and months building up a relationship with them before using my camera. And you will feel that relationship in the photos. I let them know who I am, why I am taking their photos, and what I really want to do with the photos. I keep that relationship even after completing my project. I keep visiting them all in my life. I also try to help them in some way such as setting them up with small businesses or providing education for their children.
All of your stories provoke very strong emotions. How do you choose your subjects? While photographing such strong subjects, how do you keep yourself separate from your personal feelings? Or, do you let your emotions impact your overall storytelling?
Ans: I have always been interested in marginalized people. People who have no voice. People who work so hard every day and are only able to earn a basic living. People who cannot afford to send their children to school, have their children work beside them. These people are like heroes to me. They do everything only for their survival and they never give up. These people work for very little money under rich people making a lot of money. But they never complain. And I see that nobody really knows about these people; nobody knows about their struggles, suffering, turmoil, nor joy. I wanted to share those stories to rest of the world.
Anybody who is facing injustice from our society is my subject. Anybody who inspires us is my subject. People who fight for their lives without complaining are my subjects. These people work for us; they are everywhere but we do not know anything about them. They also cannot share their stories or suffering on social networks as we do. I have always wanted to be a voice for them. Through my photography and stories that they tell me, I want to share their joy, suffering, and pain.
I am a very sensitive and emotional person. I cry every time people cry in front of me. It’s very difficult to keep myself separate from all this. I try to show what I experience with them; those stories are also stories of mine. My soul and eyes have bled hundreds of times while collecting those stories. For countless nights, I could not sleep afterward. I could not even eat in a good restaurant when I think about all those children working in factories. All these people and their stories have taught me to live a simple and meaningful life.
I see so many of your pictures on Instagram which closely tells the struggling stories of Bangladesh and beyond. There is great sensitivity involved. How did you cultivate it? How do you approach people when you are doing stories?
With all single girls or women whose photos I take, I call them ‘mother’. For men, it’s quite similar as I always treat people with great respect and I treat them like my family. I show my gratitude with my every movement, with my every word, with my body language, and even with the clothes, I wear when I go to work with them.
Usually, when I go for shooting photos, I give myself a lot of time. I never hurry. I talk to people. I introduce myself. I always show them their photos after taking them. I build up a relationship with my subject. People feel secure and safe and they open up in front of my camera. Because they know or get impressions about the person who is taking photos and then you can really get a good image.
What impact or change has your pictures brought in the lives of these people you photograph? Any particular incident that you would like to share with us that is really close to your heart?
Despite the awards, recognition, and interesting assignments, I was not completely happy with what I was doing in the early years of my career. I could see that the people in my photos were in the same hopeless situation many years later. My mission and my goal were to change the lives of these people who I photographed. I wanted to give them something back from what I received. I was fervently trying to find a way for me to help these beautiful people change their lives.
I came up with the idea that I would gift unprivileged people with small businesses so they could earn more money to meet their needs and to be able to send their children to school. The education of children is my main concern for the people of my country. In order to get children out of the factories and brickfields, I needed for their parents to make enough money to support the family and have their children attend school. This also enables people to live with more dignity and to feel motivated to contribute to society.
For example, I have gifted a family a vegetable stand in the market where the son and the father are able to work and satisfy their needs including the education of the son who had been working as a child day laborer. I set up similar business concepts for others. I find out what they would be able to do which would motivate them and satisfy their family needs. Then I’d set up the business including helping them build a structure, train them, monitor them, and offer consultation for them.
One year ago, I bought 3 Tuk Tuk taxis and put in 3 needy drivers who could manage the operations and make a profit for their families as well as money to support 3 different elderly childless couples who couldn’t even buy their daily food. I am currently planning to help more people with different kinds of businesses. So far, I have given 100 different businesses to 100 people or to the members of their families.
The education of children is a high priority for me knowing that they are the hope and drivers to get child laborers out of the fields and factories and into the schools. Three years ago, I set up a school for unprivileged children under a large tree with 30 students in a rural area for 8 villages of day laborers and small craft makers, none of whom had any education at all. I built a school building and I am now building an extension for it as we currently have 160 students. We have hired teachers and provide the children with free education up to class 5. These students will be the first generation ever to be educated in this region.
I also provide scholarships to hundreds of students every year which enables them to take their SSC and HSC Exams which they need to continue with their education. Many of them are studying now in recognized institutions like Notre Dame College in Dhaka and Dhaka University.
I look after 20 elderly couples who have no children and they live on their own. They have no one to support them and no income even to buy their daily food nor other necessities. Every week I buy and supply them with everything they need.
I also try to do other types of charitable activities such as distributing new clothes amongst thousands of poor people every year. For example, I distribute winter clothes amongst the masses of needy people who are cold but who cannot buy anything. I have also given thousands of pairs of sandals to street children, most of whom are walking in bare feet and cutting themselves. Whenever I get any money, I try to help people.
How important it is to find your own voice while developing a photo story? How did you achieve it? How do you suggest aspiring photographers can find their voice in their photographic work?
When I started taking photos I had no idea about any particular style or developing my voice. I think it comes with time and experience. It happens when you really know what you want to achieve with your photos. But I always wanted to make my photos simple and easy for all to understand. My first audience was my mother. She had no photography education nor special knowledge about photography. But even my mother could understand what I wanted to show. She was very interested in what kind of photos I was taking even though she had no idea of my intent. I wanted anybody, even those who do not have any background in photography to manage to understand my photos easily. That was my goal in the beginning and still is now. I only take photos to inspire people or bring positive changes to their thinking or to their perspectives.
In photography, one cannot find their own voice overnight. In my opinion, it takes at least 10 years to truly understand your own style and your inner voice. The essential is that one should continue their journey. One should keep doing what they love. You should do your photography to feed your own soul first. Then one day when you ask yourself what you want to achieve with your photography, the answer will come. You should never just copy or follow what other people are doing nor try to please audiences that seem to appreciate a certain style. You must listen to your own inner voice. You must continue and slowly you will recognize and find your own style with which you will feel the most comfortable in order to achieve your goals.
What according to you makes the good picture stand out from the average?
A good photo will have a long-lasting impression on viewers. You will remember that photo for a very long time or even a lifetime. The assessment of a good picture varies, of course, from person to person and within the context of their own lives.
To me, a good photo will not only be technically sound, but it should also have content that can communicate easily with the viewer. A good photo can make you smile or make you cry or just surprise you. A good picture can make you sad for the whole day or it can also turn your whole day into a positive experience. A good photo will raise questions or make people aware of something new about which to reflect. A good photo will never lose its beauty even after many years. The more you see that photo, even if every day, the more you will like it. A good photo should have a soul and share its passion with us and make us better human beings.
Out of all the stories that you have photographed so far, which one has been the most difficult and why? Please share it with us.
Photography is not an easy job at all. Photojournalism and documentary photography are especially difficult for many different reasons. Such is the case with my passion for photographing the marginal people of our societies. You have to be really strong mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I usually work on long term projects rather than single photoshoots. I select one topic and work on it for a long time; sometimes for over a year. Every project, without exception, has its own specific difficulties and challenges. Sometimes it’s very lonely and very hard to stick with one topic for a long time. Most of the places you need to travel alone and wait day after day for the right moment or the right situation. And there are so many unexpected changes involved for each project that you are doing from the preparation to the finish. It can be lonely, risky, stressful mentally and physically, and even life-threatening. Furthermore, there is always the possibility that you may not find the perfect moment for which you were hoping to take the photos or to engage with the people.
The most difficult type of work has been on my projects about the third gender and about sex workers. These topics were even more difficult in the beginning for me because of my lack of experience but it was never easy.
Firstly, it was so much work to get permission from these people who had to deal with their own constraints. I have spent months and months meeting with them without my camera only to build up a relationship with these people who I photograph. It’s imperative that they can trust me and have faith in me in order to share their exceptional life stories. The people must get to know who I am and why I am doing the project as well as why that story is important to share with the world. It is only at this point that I can take out my camera which is far less threatening once the confidence in me is instilled and the people can relax and become themselves.
Now that so many people want to become photographers, what advice would you give to people who are just starting?
Always ask yourself why you want to be a photographer. Every time you lift up your camera, ask yourself why you are taking that photo; those photos, any photos. How are they related but each one remains unique and connected to each other which expresses your overall vision of your art? What is it that you want to convey in your work? What is it that you are trying to achieve? For example, for myself, I always want to show at least one of two things through my work. The things that need to be changed positively or the things that need to be appreciated.
It is very important to know yourself and what your actual interest is in photography as a profession and a means to communicate your passions as an artist and as a human being. Beginning photographers should spend time learning about photographers whose work you admire and try to understand their methods, techniques, and ways of thinking that lead them to achieve the work that is appreciated. You should apply the lessons that you learn from other photographers to your own photography goals and develop your own unique style and voice that will lead you to your own personal achievements.
Do not just use photography for getting ‘likes’ and attention on social media nor for getting photo awards and rewards for yourself only. If you want to be a professional or committed photographer, this will never bring you, any peace nor a sense of accomplishment. If you are a passionate photographer and a compassionate person, you will have a purpose for your art. Photography has the power to change the world into a better place for all living beings. It can change peoples’ perspectives and even their thoughts. Always be responsible for this power and focus on bringing positive changes that are needed, celebrating life, and inspiring all people.
All photographs are copyright of GMB Akash.