The outer world
By Alisha Sett
24 February 2016
A conversation with photographer Sarker Protick.
You are a teenager with a mobile phone. You look up at the sun and try to take a picture. The light is too intense and your phone crashes.
It’s a strange story and a rather abrupt way to begin a journey in photography. But this is how Sarker Protick, perhaps the most widely exhibited photographer from Bangladesh in 2014-2015, entered the world of images, with a small phone full of pictures of his friends.
His love for snapshots has continued. One of his newest bodies of work titled Letters is shot entirely with his mobile camera. It is a melancholic tale of arrivals and departures set to the music of John Cage’s In a Landscape. Beginning with the words of Fernando Pessoa, “I’d woken up early, and took a long time getting ready to exist”, it gives us glimpses of the spaces and solitude Protick experiences during his many journeys away from home.
We met on one such journey in early 2015. Georgetown is an old city with a thriving art scene on the island of Penang in Malaysia. The buildings are remnants from a colonial past and in the early morning light, there is a forgotten fairytale feeling to the shuttered French windows. In August, the city played host to the Obscura Festival of photography, with prints appearing on the peeling walls for a few weeks, and photographers prowling the streets.
Protick and I were both to be conducting workshops at the festival. Having followed his work for some time, I was curious to meet him but was told his arrival had been put into question because of visa issues (a common problem faced by Bangladeshis, even for artists who have travel frequently). On the second day when I walked out of the elevator, I saw him standing in the lobby looking out the window.
I introduced myself, and we got into a cab together heading for the festival headquarters. As the ocean popped into view on our right and the clouds threatened ominously over the green hills on our left, I complained that I seemed to have left the Mumbai monsoon behind only to be greeted by more rain in Malaysia. Protick smiled, toothy and twinkling, and said, “Really? I am happy when it rains anytime.”
Protick has three major ongoing projects. The best known is What Remains, a quiet look at the lives of his grandparents John and Prova and their housebound later years in Dhaka. Prova passed away in 2012 and so the story has paused for now, though the prodigal grandson continues to visit John, often without the camera in tow. This photo essay won the World Press Photo Award in 2015, and has been published in the British Journal of Photography and the New Yorker.
The second explosively Southasian photo-story is Love Me or Kill Me, an insider view of Dhallywood, the Bangladeshi film industry, which churns out over a hundred of its own versions of pulp fiction and Bollywood-style dance dramas each year. From capturing the contradictions of the ‘item’ girl (the overtly sexual, sometimes coy, Indian version of burlesque, crafted for the Indian male’s imagination, a staple of ‘blockbuster’ films) to the cold madness behind the villainous dons of the screen, this story is a roller-coaster ride for those unfamiliar with the carnivalesque cinema of Bolly/Tolly/Dhallywood. For those who have grown up in the “woods”, it provides an ironic moment for self-reflection about the absurdity of our daily visual fare. Chronicled in the Paris Review, it formed a critical part of the work submitted to the prestigious Joop Swart Masterclass for which Protick was selected as a student in 2014.
Finally, there is Of River and Lost Lands, an exploration of the Ishwardi district on the Padma, a calm, almost dream-like look into rural life along this famous river running through erstwhile Bengal.
Protick follows a long line of photographers from Bangladesh, inheriting a powerful, if largely unknown, legacy. In the past decade, Bangladesh has been leading the way in putting contemporary Southasian photography on the world map. Not even India – where pioneers such as Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh had access to the global market as early as the 1950s and where the general population has fared much better economically – has been able to keep pace and produce the same level of engagement with its photographic community. Shahidul Alam, the founder of Pathshala, the South Asian Media Institute; Chobi Mela, Asia’s first international photography festival; and Drik, an agency which circulates and archives the work of several Bangladeshi photographers are widely credited for creating international relationships and a thriving local community necessary for Bangladeshi photographers to be recognised beyond their own borders.
NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, founder of Photo Circle in Kathmandu, an organisation that aspires to create a similar thriving space for Nepali photography, related an anecdote that illustrated this: “I was talking to a top photo editor, and she told me, ‘If you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me to name ten contemporary photographers from Bangladesh, I can do it. Not from Nepal.’” She believes this has been the ripple effect of Bangladeshi photographers having continuous engagement with European and American photography circles. The presence of a school and a festival those interested in photography from across the world can to engage with is significant. Even today, with new photo festivals being announced each month across Asia, none are regarded quite like Chobi Mela, which is touted for its excellence in production and quality of debate almost every year.
That is not to say that photography did not have a rich tradition in Bangladesh before Shahidul Alam. Pioneers like Golam Kashem Daddy, Naib Uddin Ahmed and Rashid Talukder produced groundbreaking work during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Working for the daily locals for decades, they were the relentless documentarians of the turbulent aftermath of independence. With press freedom precariously absent, this work was often done at great personal risk. While all three of them have passed away, many living legends like Anwar Hossain and Nasir Ali Mamun continue to provide a sense of history and lineage to the newer generation.
In his choice of aesthetic and subject, Protick has deviated from traditional documentary practice (championed by all of the above), focusing not on social issues but simply on subjects which intrigue and excite him. Over a long evening involving two dinners, we unfolded the stories behind his colourful, almost feather-like, often pensive and playful photographs.
Alisha Sett: Tell me about your childhood.
Sarker Protick: I was born in Dhaka. I’m an only child. Both my parents had jobs so I stayed at home alone for a long time when they were not in the house. I think that’s a habit now, I’m used to staying alone.
AS: What kind of school did you go to?
SP: I studied in a mission school. I was a good student, not the best; I was a bit of a faakibaaz [work shirker]. I wasn’t that interested in studying. I used to do what I needed to do. But when my mother wanted me to study, I used to come first or second in class. After I went to high school, I didn’t bother any more. My goal was to study as little as possible.
AS: What is your most vivid childhood memory?
SP: I was just looking at this picture of my father today, he was standing on a bridge, and that picture reminded me a little bit of that moment. It must have been when I was four or five. I could remember the bike. He used to ride a bike. I used to ride with him.
AS: Had you photographed anyone in your family before you began photographing your grandparents?
When you see white, you feel very… not clean but… in Bangla we call it shubro or pabitro. It gives you peace… but not peace exactly. It has something to do with death also. So I felt that that colour could be the medium to express what I wanted to say
SP: I don’t have much family left. There is only my mother and then my grandparents. I started photographing my grandparents, not just because they’re my grandparents, but because I felt that [they were at] this point that people reach in their life when they have done everything… they’ve studied, they’ve gotten married, they’ve produced kids, they’ve done their jobs, all properly, and they have retired, their sons and daughters have grown up, they also have their own families… what is the next thing? What is next for them?
Younger people like you and me, we’re always thinking about what’s next. But for these people, there was no next. Of course, there is one thing left, which is the inevitable. And that is something that is always intriguing to me.
I have experienced death many times in my life. My closest uncle, my grandparents’ son, died at a very young age, which was in my childhood, when I was in high school. That was a sudden death, so it had an effect on me and my family. And then my father passed away five years after that which was also a very sudden death. I was just 18 or 19. I had just started university. And that was difficult; it took a long time for me to accept… Four years after that, my buddy, the buddy you grow up with, the buddy you do everything with, playing cricket, buying the first cricket ball, playing video games, exchanging porn, checking out girls, watching movies, doing music, he committed suicide in 2009.
I recovered because of photography I think.
I started doing photography classes because I needed to be busy with something. I used to do university all day long and then by evening I would be done. If I had nothing to do, I knew I would fall into the same trap that many of my friends had, drugs, so I started doing an evening class in Pathshala.
But… anyways… he also died. So death has always had an impact for me. For my grandparents I know it’s a different thing. They will die but they know that they’re going to die.
AS: And time matters. Their deaths will happen in expected time, after having lived a full life rather than suddenly.
SP: Yes, exactly. So what do people do at that point? Because in all the deaths I had seen people were leaving far too young. They still had a lot of things to do. But when people know that they will die, what are the things that they might feel or go through? That was something I wanted to portray. To be quite honest, I wanted to photograph them because it allowed me to spend a lot of time with them but I also wanted to talk about death.
There was a point in my life, I wanted to be reckless – you’re young, you’re in university, you listen to Jim Morrison and you want to die at 27. But then at one point I was fucking scared of it, scared as hell.
Now… I have mixed feelings.
AS: I was drawn to that body of work because I found it soothing and contemplative. Living in a frenetic city like Bombay that is saturated with the world of colour advertising, I was drawn to the calm in it. And the overwhelming ‘whiteness’; that faded bright white in the pictures. That is a mood and a palette that seems to have continued in your other stories.
SP: It didn’t start out like that. I can show you some images that I took in the first month in that house with my grandparents. They were normal, in the sense that the light you see in those images is what you’ll find when you go there.
But then I started noticing three or four images that had this very high palette of light and very pale colours. And I realised that this could be interesting because I don’t think I was just documenting their old age. I wasn’t interested in that. Colour plays an important role in this work because white has a very different meaning. When you see white, you feel very… not clean but… in Bangla we call it shubro or pabitro. It gives you peace… but not peace exactly. It has something to do with death also. So I felt that that colour could be the medium to express what I wanted to say.
It was a conscious decision to work like that. Which made the work more difficult because then I was limited. It is a dark place so I needed a tripod, and a very slow process to work with. You don’t get candid moments working like that.
AS: I was also surprised when I learned you were a graduate of Pathshala. I associate the school with a very strong documentary tradition that focuses on social issues. And this work moves very far from the black and white oeuvre of someone like Shahidul Alam or Munem Wasif or the hard hitting journalism of Abir Abdullah and Taslima Akhter.
SP: The way I started photography, I had no ideas about the word. Not internationally, not in the context of my country. I didn’t know who was doing what kind of work. I didn’t know who Shahidul was, I didn’t know who Abir was, I didn’t know Wasif… I had no idea. Slowly I started seeing their work and personally I didn’t find myself interested in that genre.
But these people were very accepting. These are all my teachers and they didn’t say to me, “What are you doing?”
This work started when I was still in the school, maybe one month of it was done there. I’m very grateful because you have to be very open to accept this kind of work that you haven’t seen before. You also need to have the knowledge and sensibility to understand this kind of work. So if my teachers didn’t have that sensibility, I wouldn’t have felt encouraged or realised that I’m doing something good.
So that was great for me.
AS: How long did it take you to finish What Remains?
SP: It’s not finished yet. It started in January 2012.
AS: And Love Me Or Kill Me? It’s a subject I’m so curious about! I enjoy Bollywood sometimes. Some very trashy films can be very fun to watch. And of course, living in Bombay, you are in the middle of that industry. So to see that world deconstructed is very intriguing.
My favorite image is of the item girl. This use of women in Bollywood is so absurd. For all the puritanical discussion and enforcement when it comes to couples kissing in public or meeting in hotels, there is this constant hyper-sexualisation being shown on the screen.
But this film world permeates our culture. Did you recognise this? Was it a key motivation for the project?
SP: This project just started last year. There is a long way to go. I’ve spent less time on it compared to the other work.
I had started photographing my city – Dhaka – and the things I really don’t like about the city. One of the key images was of this construction structure. It looks like a machine but feels like an ugly beast which portrays the city for me. In the series, there was a picture of a tall, strange guy. There was a picture of a beheaded goat. There was a picture of two policemen holding a gun. There was a picture of a weird man standing by a car. There was a picture of a guy in the lift with a mask. Most of the things in the city are fucked up. And that was the idea. I was creating my own perspective of the city. It was a very sinister feeling that gave a sense of the turbulent atmosphere in Dhaka.
I wanted to make a picture where a guy might be dead, or with blood, where it looked like he had fallen on the ground. I didn’t necessarily want to stage something… I was looking for something that is already there. That way it would look like it’s true but it’s not true, in a way. I thought I could go to the film studio and find something like that. I knew Bengali cinema and its violence so I knew where to go.
After going there and seeing those characters, those people, those lights, those colours, those sets, especially those cheap interiors, it gave me a different perspective on those places. And on that very first day, I thought, this is something I want to do.
I would really like to make a book about this one day. After five years or maybe more. I want to create my own narrative with it, which will also reflect what people from our part of the world, Indians and Bengalis, feel. We are very emotional people, we are very expressive, sometimes too loud, and we fantasise about a lot of things that are actually portrayed in the cinema.
Why would a guy or a girl dance with another hundred girls? Maybe we want that.
There was this Hindi song on TV, there is one boy and one girl dancing in a nice place, a Switzerland kind of place, but for some reason there were two sports car there. They were dancing around them. So I was thinking: Why? Why do they have a car there? Why these sports cars? Is that how they are controlling us, making us want these things? Or do we actually want these things? Are these things so basic that Bollywood has understood this is what people want, just put it there?
That is also something I want to investigate through this work. What do people want? Do they want flesh, girls like meat? Are they really so revengeful? If you see these films, they are so violent, they are always about taking revenge, and of course girls.
Those basic emotions, love, hate, revenge are the central ideas behind this work. I think Dhallywood is an interesting place to find these things easily.
AS: Recognition has come swiftly for you. You’ve been pulled into the big photo world so quickly. How has it been?
SP: Good and scary. The good part is that I did work hard. I won’t say I’m lucky but I’m blessed. If you work hard and if you get back those things, you feel good about it.
I came into photography without any ambitions. But everything is very fast. Which is scary because I think then people expect a lot of things from you. They expect that whatever you do will be really good. A lot of responsibility comes with it. That is what I’m afraid of.
I’ve only spent five years; five years is nothing. My teachers have been photographing for 10 – 12 years minimum.
AS: The fact that you’re mired in the madness of a place like Dhaka and your work producing serenity – it must take a supreme effort.
SP: I don’t think my work represents where I’m from. Many people see my work and they don’t think its Bangladesh. Someone, a well regarded editor actually, thought it was from Russia. He couldn’t think it was from Dhaka. But while my work might not be the best representation of my country, it is representative of me and my desire.
I always think of the musician Erik Satie. If you see his music and you see my images, you’ll see they go together. I always wonder how this guy that used to live in a small, quiet French town wrote the music that he did. Some of his pieces are so emotional. I always feel, what must he have gone through to have felt this emotion, and then to write it?
And I want to be in those kinds of spaces. Which I can’t most of the time. So it is a desire, and that desire is reflected in my work. Even though it might not be the reality.
AS: And this is there in the River as well. It’s like the river in a dream. The river beyond the veil of life.
SP: If you go early in the morning by the Podda [Bengali name for the Padma], the river and the wind has a very nice fragrance. You can smell the wind. It is so beautiful. I wanted to make pictures with that same calmness, where I feel like I can breathe. I need to breathe. I need to be in huge open spaces, I love open spaces, not small space, huge space. And the river gives me that so I keep going back, to different districts. At one point, I came to the place where you see the story is based. It’s a district in the north. The river goes a long way.
It started in November 2011, which was the first time I went there. Before I began the series, I was also travelling by the river and taking pictures. I was traveling for four to five days, coming back to the city again, and then going back. During my fourth trip, I came there.
And then it started on 2 November 2011. I was at the end of my time in Pathshala and had started working seriously with photography.
AS: And how does your mother feel about all of this?
SP: At first, she was very confused. She is a lonely person; she doesn’t have anyone beside herself. And she didn’t understand.
Mother… she is full of love. And especially mine, she is a bit crazy and obsessive about me. Because I am the only one. I am the only child and I’m the only person she has so you can understand that the mix can be really heavy. She didn’t know much about this field. She was unsure. Not unhappy but just confused.
But slowly, when people started liking my work and she saw that I’m getting recognition, and also I’m able to earn, then she felt happy and relaxed.
So now she is really proud. But it’s not easy for her. Because most of the time I’m not at home. And in our culture, it’s not that we leave home at 18, we have to take care of our parents.
AS: Tell me about a hidden obsession.
SP: Space. The outer world.
I have a lot of contradictions within myself. I believe in God, I respect my religion and at the same time I also believe in science where as logically both have a different path. But I am very fascinated with the universe, different stars and planets, it’s not like I know all of them but I wish I could be there.
I can be really crazy about science. There was one point earlier this year where for three days I didn’t go anywhere from the house. I didn’t go to Pathshala, take pictures or meet any friends. I just watched documentaries on quantum physics. Whatever there is on Youtube, the Discovery channel, the BBC. On the black hole, what exists there, stars.
I don’t know why but sometimes you feel like you are meant to be somewhere. Maybe death can be the moment when I’ll have that freedom to go outside. It’s so grand. It’s so huge. I don’t know what is up there. I want to know. That’s one of my biggest inspirations and interests.
I don’t always want to think about photography and take pictures. Science, space, astrophysics. I wish I could do something with that.
AS: Maybe you will. Thanks Protick.
~ Alisha Sett is a writer based in Bombay. She graduated from Tufts University in 2012 with a BA in Political Science and English.