June 28, 2009

 

Shehzad Noorani has worked as a freelance documentary photographer since 1987. His special focus is people who live on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. He has covered major crises resulting from wars and natural calamities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Iran and Bangladesh. Other assignments for agencies such as UNICEF have taken him to more than thirty countries. Noorani has also edited photographs for numerous publications. His work has appeared in Geo, Newsweek, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian and The British Journal of Photography and has been exhibited widely around the world. For Daughters of Darkness, his project on the lives of commercial sex workers, he received the Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography Award in 2000.  His project, Children of Black Dust, was featured in the book ‘What Matters’ by David Elliot Cohen.

[image: all photographs are copyright of SHEHZAD NOORANI]

cB:  Thank you Shehzad Bhai for sharing your experiences as a photographer with us today. Why don’t we start at the very beginning – what was ‘that first moment’ when you realized you wanted to be a photographer? How old where you and what was your own reaction to that realization?

SN:  Photography was really a tool to get off poverty. When I was in class 7, about 14/15 years old, one of my teachers asked me to take some photographs at school. He handed me a camera and asked me if I can take photographs. One never said ‘No’ to him and out of habit I said ‘Yes Sir’ even though I had no idea how to operate a camera. A few days later the teacher called me to his office and showed me my photographs. He was amazed at the photographs and told me that I had a natural talent for taking pictures. That incident more or less started my photography career. At that time I was working in a garments factory. To subsidize my income I would rent a camera and take photographs of birthday parties and other events. Gradually my photography business started doing well and I built a reputation for myself. Later on I got my big break when I was hired by UNICEF in Bangladesh to work on their assignments.

[image: River Bleeds Black, boats struggle to navigate through the congested waterways of Buriganga.]

cB:  You work mostly in black and white. I, myself, find black and white photographs to be more poetic. Is b/w your preferred medium? What propels you to shoot in b/w?

SN:  Not true anymore. I did a fair bit of work in b/w during film era, now I mainly shoot in colour digital raw images that can be easily converted to b/w, if need be. For instance, my story on the environment, River Bleeds Black, is shot entirely in digital colour, then, converted carefully using a software called Aperture into b/w. Yes, I like b/w because it takes away colours and, thus, makes it less distracting and people are able to focus more on what is happening in the pictures. It is simple, thus, it often helps in telling a story. Poetic, I would not know about that.  I try not to do art at the expense of poverty and people I shoot are mostly poor.

[top image: River Bleeds Black, Bristi cries after being beaten by her mother. bottom image: Daughters of Darkness, a child of a sex worker with clients in the background.]

cB:  Which ‘one personal experience’ has had the most influence on your photography? And, which photograph of yours have moved you the most and why?

SN:  I don’t think I can pin point one personal experience or pictures that move me most down to a few images. I think it is a process. There are hundreds of experiences and literally thousands of pictures. Also, I usually don’t go back and look at my own images too much and admire them. That would make me feel like I am ‘somebody’ and I know I am not. To me they are images of people, some are great images, because everything including light, moment, frame, accident, came together, while some are not so great, but still they are almost ALWAYS images of people. I find it difficult to choose one image over the other, because as I said, I am not an art photographer and do not do art at the cost of people I shoot. I simply document. Sometimes some images turn out to be great and sometimes not. Although I probably know which one worked, but at the same time, almost as a principal, I find it difficult to choose one image over others as ‘my best’. There is so much more to photography than just ‘I am a great photographer and here is my best picture’. It’s a lifestyle and life itself. I feel I sort of float through it and experience whatever comes my way without having much control over what happens in front of me, and when that happens, I just feel lucky to be there.  

Being a photographer certainly allows me to be in places and meet people that may not be possible for others. Often I get to see east, west, north and south of a country in a matter of couple of weeks that even the residents of those countries don’t get to see in a life time. There is much to learn and much to absorb and I feel very privileged to experience that. When you see how great the world is, and there is so much to understand and learn, it simply makes one feel extremely humble.

[top image: Daughters of Darkness, on Eid day Shilpi lies in the arms of her client-boyfriend Sarwar. bottom image: Daughters of Darkness, women attempt to drag a reluctant man into their ramshackle hut.]

cB:  You are passionate about documenting social issues. Your photography story on ‘Daughters of Darkness’ won the Mother Jones International Award in 2000. When working on these sensitive issues, how do you connect with the people and make them feel comfortable in front of the camera. What is your magic trick in making them feel at ease?

SN:  Yes I am passionate about documenting social issues, but I feel I am documenting my own life rather than ‘them’. I do not see much difference between ‘me’ and ‘them’. You will understand better what I am saying in later paragraphs.

 I don’t think there is either any magic or trick that could make people comfortable with you. The only way people eventually accept you and feel comfortable is when they realize that you are just like them. The key to be at home with people is to have genuine respect for them. It’s true that the people I photograph are often economically disadvantaged compared to me, but since I totally believe that it does not necessarily make me better than them in any respect, eventually it gets communicated to them as well. I don’t try to hide anything about myself or pretend that I am just like them. I am not, at least economically I am often much better off, humanly maybe not. I try to be as honest as I can be and give them honest and true answers when they ask me about myself, my family and my intentions. Once they understand that I am being honest with them, respect them as equals, and have a deep interest in them, they treat me equally as well. 

The whole body of work on the Daughters of Darkness happened due to my complete ignorance and genuine interest in understanding what was happening and unfolding in front of my eyes. The lives of people in the brothels that I visited kept unfolding in front of my eyes and, often, in front of my cameras. People often approached and requested me to take their pictures, so there was no question of them being uncomfortable. I guess another reason that you see depth in those pictures is because of the fact that I spent about 13 years on and off in different brothels all over South Asia to shoot the stories. I had no plan, no story line, no fixed purpose or intention, I was just genuinely interested and shot images whenever I felt I had the opportunity to do so. Since it was not really an assignment, there was no hurry or deadline. I did not even know what and why I was doing whatever I was doing. I was just experiencing life and capturing it as it unfolded. One other thing that also worked for me is the fact that I really and genuinely respected those girls and women in the brothel. It felt to me as they were my sisters and mother, thus, there was no question about trying to show anything gross, reality or not.

* To be continued. Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday.

[top image: emotions run high among women in Kandupatti brothel, Dhaka. middle image: a commercial sex worker kisses another on the cheek, an unusual display of affection. bottom image: a client kisses a reluctant girl. All 3 images are from Daughters of Darkness.]

[image: all photographs are copyright of SHEHZAD NOORANI]

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