Rasel Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi photographer based in Dhaka. In the project “Desperate Urbanisation” he photographs the dying river of Buriganga as a way to document the changing landscape of the area he calls home.
“Dhaka City is a 400-year-old city,” says Chowdhury, “and the surrounding population that relies heavily on the River Buriganga is growing at an alarming rate. Chemical waste from the rapidly expanding factories and tanneries, and used engine oil from the hundreds of boats that use the river each day, is severely affecting the health and long-term sustainability of the river.”
I spoke to Chowdhury about his compulsion to capture Dhaka’s pollution problem on film.
VICE: Hi Radel. When did you first pick up a camera?
Radel Chowdhury: It was in my childhood. My father sent me an automatic Yashica camera from abroad, which I was so excited about. I loaded a film and pointed at my tutor at home and clicked. I still have that negative.
What drew you initially to photograph your home country?
As a documentary photographer, I like to deal with environmental issues. Bangladesh is a very beautiful country with amazing people. However, corruption and illegal activity have attributed to the harming of the environment. Consequently, we suffer a lot of natural calamities every year. I just try to show how we destroy our own environment.
How would you describe Dhaka? What message about Dhaka do you want to send with these pictures?
Dhaka is one of the most over-populated cities in the world. Almost 20 million people live in this city. Every day people are coming from other parts of the country, hoping for a better life.
We’re not very aware of the importance of nature. People just think about the current benefits [of exploiting the land] – they’re not worried about the future. That’s why we’re destroying nature – rivers, forests, hills, oceans and lands – for our own gain without considering what we’re doing to our environment. It’s not only a local problem in Dhaka, but also the rest of the world.
Shipyards are expanding day-by-day on Buriganga. Ali Gang, Narayangang.
Did you speak to many residents while you were taking photos?
Yes, I spoke to lot of people who live around the river. I have friends who also live there. People are constantly changing the riverbanks for different purposes. Some people are occupying the riverside, building houses or factories, and bringing more people in from outside of the city. Factories allow for easy transportation and cheap labour. But nowadays, River Buriganga seems like a small canal. Once upon a time the river was three to four times bigger.
Many of the images are washed out in grey or beige – bleak colours. Is this intentional?
Essentially, I like having one tonal range for one specific project. For my Desperate Urbanisation project, I’m using this kind of faded tone to relate to the dying nature. You will find one common thing in my all stories: that there is not much contrast. I like low contrast and less saturated colour.
Machines belonging to the Road and Highway department sit on the riverside, polluting both the air and the river. South Keranigang, Dhaka.
You called the series “Desperate Urbanisation”. Why “desperate”?
I think this title is very relevant to my story and what I want to say. We, the people of Dhaka, are killing the river through our insensitivity. From the river’s point of view, urbanisation and urban people are too desperate with their misuse of it. Urbanisation is occupying the river because of its greed. That’s why I chose the title – to express this issue.
Rasel Chowdhury is shortlisted for The Syngenta Photography Award 2015, Professional Commission.The Syngenta Photography Award exhibition – “Scarcity-Waste” runs from the 11th of March to the 10th of April at Somerset House.
A tyre yard on the Buriganga River. Gabtoly, Dhaka.
The river is used to drop off deliveries in Dhaka from all over the country. Postogula, Dhaka.
A place of business on the riverbank, where trucks drop off materials for new buildings. Gabtoly, Dhaka.
People sleep on the old ports at night and jog around them in the morning. Foras Gang, Dhaka.