Artist Gazi Nafis Ahmed discusses humanity, his work process and the need for more appreciation of photography and videography as a medium of art.
How did you start your journey in photography?
When I was a student at Bangladesh International Tutorial, I had a subject called art and design. Compared to other subjects, my interest in art and design was significantly deeper. When prepping for my O levels, I used to go to a private tutor where in the class I would sketch for 6 hours. I remember there were even days when we would practise for as long as 12 hours. Those classes were very good, and we all ended up doing quite well in our exams. I completed my O and A levels and went on to study art at London Metropolitan University, which at that time was called London Guildhall University. I took a foundation course at Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design where I learned about painting, photography, printmaking and sculptures to name a few.
I bought my first camera in London from a shop called Jessops. It was a Pentax K1000 with a 50mm lens, which by then was already out of production for 30 years. I loved looking through the lens and would walk around the streets of London. My camera gave me the opportunity to put me in spaces where I otherwise might never have been in. That’s when my interest in photography developed.
There are many different genres of photography, but you have almost always been interested in people. What is it about humanity that you find so engaging?
It’s one particular side of humanity that I have always been interested in – optimism. When I came back from London, I was a student at a photography institution, learning about photojournalism. As an artist, my experience there was unpleasant. It seemed to me that most of the rules of photojournalism in that space revolved around highlighting our country as an icon of poverty. The focus was always on natural disasters, accidents and calamities. The narrative that was being created in photojournalism practices influenced by that space was telling only a side of a story that would appeal to the pathos of international readers to garner readership. But the people of this country, no matter their social status, pay-grade, or upbringing have so much more to tell. Even during a crisis, people hold on to, and fight for hope. Regardless of what background one has, they have happiness, strength, quality and romance in their lives. They have richness in their lives from various different aspects. Not being able to, nay, allowed to document that was something I could not relate to in that environment of photojournalism. People were customised to be trigger-happy by reflecting one’s own country in an icon of negativity opting for awards and fame in return.
The people in my photographs are not subjects – they are participants. A substantial part of my photography process involves participation, suggestions and interactions. I am using the same methodology in video nowadays. There is more to someone than meets the eye. To add photography does not necessarily need to be made with lights and any sort of camera.
THE PEOPLE IN MY PHOTOGRAPHS ARE NOT SUBJECTS – THEY ARE PARTICIPANTS
Could you please elaborate on how you involve people as participants in your photography?
I engage with people for some time before even taking the first picture. For one of my projects, I worked with recovering drug addicts at a rehab centre. I stayed at a rehab centre for months as a visitor, during which I got to know many very closely. They opened up to me, and poured their hearts out. I remember, at the end of a long conversation, they said, “Nafis bhai. After talking to you, it feels like whatever was ailing me has been alleviated.” I also spoke with a former gang member at the rehab centre who was recounting stories of how they used to operate back in the day. Again, during his recollections of gang fights, his failed romances and family matters, that conversation was a means of catharsis. At some point in this process, comes a moment of reflection, or a display of emotion that I would otherwise not have witnessed in them had I not engaged in those conversations. Those are the moments I like to capture. I was using a Holga camera with a mid-format film for this project. I would take the pictures in the dark with a low shutter speed, and I would ask them to make slight head movements that would blur their faces. By doing that, I was also bringing in a visual coherence between the photographs. That was a long project that I did for almost 10 years.
Working with people, you have experienced the complexity and diversity of humanity. How has that translated to your work?
During a period, I worked on a project involving the transgender community of Bangladesh, and I learned a lot about gender identities. I came across a book called ‘Gender Trouble’ by Judith Butler where they posited that “gender is an identity, tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space, through a stylised repetition of act.” Dissecting this text gave me a deeper understanding of how complex gender identity can be and how it can be argued to be a performative act, rather than being something innate in human beings. I made this project a very collaborative one. I used Instax cameras, and told the participants in my photographs to do whatsoever they wanted with the printed pictures. They took their freedom to write, paint, sketch or scribble on their photos. Some would even kiss them which would leave an imprint on the drying photos.
In an intricate web of interconnected events, this also led me to explore other mediums in my practice. I am an admirer of Matthew Berney whose works I find to be surreal, symbolic and magical – like a portal to a hidden world. Bernie once opined, “It’s a matter of discipline to go the whole way with an idea to stretch it as far as it can go.” When observing works of artist and movie maker Ryan Trecartin, I observed analogical instances from the theories and philosophies of Bernie and Butler and many others that I so admire. These artists inspired me to move on to different mediums, particularly video.
One of my video projects is called ‘Kites’ which is about Babul, a boy from Madanipur living as an immigrant in Spain without a visa. I had originally planned on naming the video something else but Babul said people like him are like kites – If they stop flying, they will crash and that will be the end of it. Babul sold souvenirs at a beach, but he had to always be on the move, constantly looking over his shoulders for the authorities in order to not get caught. That was his way of survival. He went to Spain by passing through different countries and crossing mountains, and war zones and on boats to cross water. While you may disapprove of the legality of his circumstances, you cannot help but sympathise with ‘kites’ like Babul.
There is a lot of room in Bangladesh for the art industry to grow. How do you think we could encourage the appreciation of art, particularly, photography and videography in our nation?
With the economic development in Bangladesh, we are seeing an increasing number of entrepreneurs and business personalities with the financial capacity to support young and enthusiastic artists in Bangladesh. With their support, the art industry in Bangladesh can be strengthened. I would urge them to not only invest in painting exclusively, but to look at photography, videography and installations as art as well. Young artists should not need to seek a supportive environment in foreign lands. Their work needs to be appreciated here, at home, and through that, shared with the rest of the world.