Mahfuzul Islam recently interviewed Nabil Rahman, a New York-based photographer, on behalf of MPV-NY. Nabil is the founder and curator of Eyes On Bangladesh, an upcoming exhibition (March 26-30, 2014) showcasing the works of several Bangladeshi photographers. The exhibit focuses on photographers working to change the world’s view of Bangladesh. We asked him a few questions about his own work and what inspired him to start this new project.
MPV-NY: Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself? What’s your background?
I’m a photojournalist based in NY. I received my Masters from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Journalism school was perfect for me because it also taught me the audio, visual skills to tell stories – which is what I am above all—a storyteller.
I discovered Bangladeshi photography one morning when my Photojournalism professor, James Estrin, took the class to the New York Times studio to meet some staff photographers. There they briefly mentioned the photography movement going on in Bangladesh led by Shahidul Alam. I had no idea that this was going on.
Later that day, I started researching and was amazed to see the status my homeland carried in the photo world. The photos were mostly high-contrast black-and-white documentary photos. But I had noticed that Shahidul had been all over the world doing amazing work. Later I would discover more photographers doing the same.
I found Shahidul on Facebook and reached out to him. A few months later, I was packing my bags to go to intern at DrikNEWS in Dhaka. I could probably write a book about the experience I had there. There was this culture of photographers that I had never seen in New York. They were more like poets and writers always congregating and always working. They were living and breathing photography.
I went back again for Chobi Mela last December. It’s an international festival of photography with participants from more than 20 countries.
MPV-NY: So what led to the idea of creating Eyes on Bangladesh?
Over the past few months, I had been traveling the country with a National Geographic photographer working on a story. It was an immense experience. I had never imagined going to such lengths to take a single photograph. We are talking about flying across the country, waking up at 4 AM chasing the sunrise, and then hiking up for an hour to sit there and wait for hours to take hundred of photos from which only one will be selected. The perfect shot. It was physically and mentally tiring, but it made me think bigger and gave me courage.
I remembered Saikat Mojumder, one of the photographers whose work will be exhibited in EOB. He was from Netrokona, and had never touched a camera. He was caught up in youth politics and other problems young Bangladeshis have to deal with. He begged his father to lend him some money for a camera and after a year was in Dhaka all by himself. About a year after picking up the camera, he had won the Ian Perry Scholarship, and was being published all over the world for his story, “Life: Born in a Slum.”
And so one day when in a hotel room in Colorado, I had this sudden realization that I needed to do something for my community. I had always gone to cultural events in New York and was often embarrassed or left feeling empty. It felt like a popularity contest between uncles. I had to bring the culture I had seen in Dhaka to New York. We are more than we think we are. We have such rich history, from Chandidas to Tagore. And I feel like a lot of it was lost during the two partitions Bangladesh experienced, so many intellectuals were lost.
But we all need to work towards rebuilding now. Let the youth know where we come from through this exhibition, and where we are capable of going.
MPV-NY: How has the response been? Were there any difficulties?
The support from the community has been immense. Everyone came together for this project. It was my idea—but then I lost the handle on it. It grew its own arms and legs. It crawled at first and then got up on its feet with the help of Thahitun Mariam, Ayesha Akhtar, Jafar Ahmed, Tanzil Uddin and my mother, Shajia Rahman. Thahitun had an idea to organize a youth group and suddenly we had all these children by the dozens show up to our meetings and talk about being brown and going against the tide. They talked about not wanting to be doctors and engineers only—but pursuing their own interests. It was as if through oppression, we were forced to forget our talents—but it was hidden in our DNA and it was making a comeback.
Then the media slowly took interested. Thikana published an article about us. In February, we held a press conference organized by our supporters.
The support has been incredibly positive. But we have been having trouble getting money from the Bangladeshi community. I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to give—I don’t think they’re used to donating online. We just have to find better ways to reach them and give them access to us. So we organized a fundraiser on the 26th of February at the UN so that everyone can come and show their support. The ticket money, and the funds raised from our activities will help us tremendously. We need to get moving with printing the prints and making a deposit on the venue. We’ve raised more than two thousand just by reaching our family and friends. Can you imagine what would happen if we brought everyone together for this mission?
MPV-NY: Do you have any plans after the exhibit?
We plan to continue the momentum after this project and do more community work. We are thinking about making EOB an organization—we’re not sure what we will focus on yet, though. We will discuss this after the exhibition.