Photo Exhibit Puts Bangladeshi Identity in Focus

Part of the "Life: Born in a Slum" photo series by by Saikat Mojumder (Photo via Eyes on Bangladesh)

When Nabil Rahman met with four friends to discuss hosting an exhibit on Bangladeshi photography, he was prepared for the project to fail miserably.

“I honestly didn’t think there was a chance of it happening,” Rahman said. “I thought, if anything, it would be an interesting exercise.”

Neither Rahman nor his team members had any experience hosting exhibitions or fundraising. They all have full-time jobs.

The team behind "Eyes on Bangladesh" speaking at a press conference on March 20, 2014. From left to right: Thahitun Mariam, Ayesha Akhtar, Nabil Rahman, and Jafar Ahmed. Not in attendance was member Shajia Rahman. (Photo by Antonia Massa/Voices of NY)

But two and a half months later, the final pieces of their exhibition, “Eyes on Bangladesh,” are falling into place. Over 90 photos by nine prominent Bangladeshi photographers, including this year’s World Press Photo contest winner, are being mounted at a Queens gallery. A major Bengali newspaper is preparing a four-page spread about the photo exhibition. And the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, Dan Mozena, recognized Rahman and his collaborators in person.

“Eyes on Bangladesh” features images that focus not just on destitution and poverty, but also on humor, family, regret and ambition.

Photo by Samsul Alam Helal (via Eyes on Bangladesh)

One series of portraits by Jannatul Mawa shows Bangladeshi women and their servants sitting side by side. A conceptual installation by Shumon Ahmed focuses on his family’s strained, complicated relationship to his mentally disabled mother. A whimsical series by Shamsul Alam Helal shows Bangladeshis dressed up as people they admire, ranging from James Bond to Michael Jackson.

“We didn’t want to just show the poverty aspect,” said Thahitun Mariam, the exhibit’s outreach coordinator. “We didn’t want people to just come to the photo exhibition and cry.”

Curator Ayesha Akhtar said that the exhibit is, in its own way, filling a media void for honest representations of Bengali faces and lives.

“There’s not enough of us out there. We’re not on TV, we’re not in advertisements,” said Akhtar. “Brown people aren’t anywhere – and we’re so much of the world!”

Though photography is looked down on in Bangladesh as a way to earn a living, the country has a thriving culture of photographers. Bangladesh is known for its acclaimed photography schools, including Pathshala, where most of the photographers featured in “Eyes on Bangladesh” were trained.

“The thing about Bangladeshi photographers is they think like poets and writers,” said Rahman. “They gather, they drink tea, they talk about their ideas. These people really love it. They’re really passionate about it.”

All the same, from the very beginning Rahman knew it would be a tall order to create an exhibit showcasing their work. According to his initial calculations, “Eyes on Bangladesh” would cost a staggering $40,000 to put together. Undaunted, Rahman and his friends tackled the project anyway, cutting costs wherever possible – instead of ordering prints of each photograph, for instance, the group rented a printer and spent two 12-hour days making glossy prints themselves. They persistently negotiated their gallery costs down too, eventually bringing their total costs to $20,000.

“It’s that South Asian trait of haggling,” said Rahman.

"Final Embrace" by Taslima Akhter won the World Press Photo contest this year. (Photo via Eyes on Bangladesh)

With less than a week to go before the exhibition opens andjust shy of $12,000 in donations, they have yet to meet their fundraising goal. But the group has had some good fortune. One of the exhibition’s featured artists, Taklima Akhter, earned the 2014 World Press Photo contest for her photograph “Final Embrace.” The United Nations also gave its blessing for the group to host a gala fundraiser at the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the United Nations.

Curator Akhtar said that though the past months have been stressful, once this exhibition closes she’s ready to pick up where it left off.

“We’re probably going to start planning another exhibition as soon as this ends,” she said with a laugh.

More information on the photos and  “Eyes on Bangladesh” can be found on the exhibition’s website. The exhibit will take place March 26-30 at Soundview Broadcasting in Long Island City, Queens.

Antonia Massa is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter