July 1, 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:  Welcome back! Today we are continuing our conversation with Shehzad Noorani. Shehzad Bhai – reading the stories behind some of your photographs made me very emotional, like the story of child labors in ‘Children of Black Dust’ – how do you control your emotions at such times? While on assignment, do you get very upset, depressed at the unfairness of why so many people live in poverty when there is all this wealth in this world or do you keep your mind very focused on the job, as it needs to get done and not allow for distractions.

SN:  Both at the same time. Sometimes I do get upset. I guess if I didn’t get emotional, I would not be shooting what I shoot. However,  usually I am not trying to show injustice and have ‘lets change the world’ attitude. It’s difficult to express what I feel in words. Let me try. I have been poor myself, a street child, and worked as a child labour when I was young. Odd as it may sound, I remember that experience fondly and I think those experiences have greatly contributed to make me whoever I may be today. Depending on the degree of poverty, may be it’s not all that bad to be poor. It’s a relative term. I think everyone in the world should some how be able to at least get enough food to survive, some shelter, cover and medical assistance if and when they need. I do believe it’s terrible when your child has to go to sleep hungry and you are not able to do anything about it. Rich or poor, it really hurts deep inside when your child is sick and worst when you are not even able to take your child to a doctor or provide any kind of medication. Some of these things are supposed to be ensured by the governments, and in developed countries they do. In developing countries, our politicians are so bloody corrupt, they treat their limited time on power seats as a last opportunity to make money and never do anything for their people. I feel helpless and also feel responsible at the same time to somehow share with the haves, more privileged, people just like myself, what I see. If not to change anything, at least to make them realize that often the luxuries we have are at the expense of thousands of people we sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly exploit. I cannot reach the damn politicians, but I often make it to their children. I don’t mind those corrupt politicians not seeing it. It would not make any difference anyway. They don’t care. But I believe their children would.

Having said all this, I must admit, this is just my anger. When I am shooting, I may feel angry, but at that time my mind is simply focused on what is going on in front of my eyes. I am not shocked with poverty or poor people. I think being one of them at one point in my life and later witnessing it all the time as part of my work, almost daily, has taken away the shock value. Just like a surgeon who does not get shocked to see blood and continues to operate, I shoot, knowing exactly what is wrong and not in place. Difference between me and that surgeon is I guess that I just don’t know how to fix it.

[top image: Children of Black Dust, an infant sleeps on a jute bag in a factory where his mother works. bottom image: Children of Black Dust, Hajira laughs standing on the door of a workshop, where she works, with her 3 year old sister Mumtaz in her arms.]

cB:  Have you been able to keep in touch with your subjects? When you visit Bangladesh, do you get a chance to see them? For example, Munni and Noorun Nahar from ‘The River Bleeds Black’ – I wonder where are they now.

SN:  I do. Often I go back, meet them, talk to them and give them their pictures, like with Noorun Nihar whom I met several times. Sometimes they are simply lost, like Munni. I went back to the slum she used to live and looked for her for days, but just could not find her. Recently I have raised some funds to try to help some of these children I photographed including those in ‘Children of Black Dust. Just a couple of days ago I sent my younger brother, who now lives in Dhaka, to try to locate her, but even he could not find her. I will not be surprised if I find her in a brothel somewhere in Bangladesh or even in India. Life sucks.

[top image: River Bleeds Black, 9 year old Munni searches for metal in a pile of garbage on the Buriganga banks. bottom image: River Bleeds Black, Munni has 3 sisters and one brother. Her father passed away and her mother struggles to keep the family going. She says, ‘Only I know how I manage to feed my children. School? Education is not for poor people like us.]

cB:  Your assignments have taken you all over the world, over 30 countries in Asia, Africa, Middle East [and, I am supremely jealous of all your travels!]. Which country has the fondest memory and which country was the most photogenic [of course, besides Bangladesh – we all agree it is the most beautiful place on earth!].

SN:  I think Myanmar, Syria, Afghanistan, Nepal, India and Pakistan have to be on the top, that is of course after Bangladesh. It would be extremely difficult, but if I have to pick one country to live, I think I would choose Myanmar. Perhaps because Myanmar truly sandwiched between South Asia and South East Asia have cultures from both to offer in one single country. Also, I think due to the fact that it has been sort of closed from rest of the world because of the military regime there, parts of Myanmar still remains sort of unpolluted in terms of the affects of globalization and makes you feel as if you are somewhere on the planet earth at least a century ago. Burmese people are truly beautiful, physically, culturally, and spiritually.

[top image: Children of Black Dust, Noorun Nahar, 15 years old, is breaking old batteries.  She had to quit school to work and help the family. bottom image: Children of Black Dust, a woman holds her child blackened by carbon dust. His nose bleeds due to infections caused by exposure to dust and pollution.] 

cB:  One lesson that Bangladesh has taught you or, one memory of Bangladesh that you always carry with you.

SN:  That one can survive with so little and still be grateful and happy. No matter what happens, flood, erosion, cyclones, one can always bounce back and try again.

cB:  Though you spent part of your growing-up years in Karachi, you are very much a Bangladeshi at heart and you are very connected to Bangladesh, as your work shows.  How did that evolve, develop? Did you always feel Bangladeshi, even while living in Karachi?                    

SN:  I am an Ismaili Muslim and for most Ismailis around the world, their spiritual identity comes first even before their race or country. I’d be honest to admit that it was the same for me for many years. Now, I know that I am Bangladeshi and I am proud of it. Having said that, I also know that by race, I am not Bengali and sometimes when I am back in Bangladesh and get treated like a foreigner, I feel very hurt. My family always migrated, first from India to East Pakistan soon after the Independence in 1947, then again I think in 1974 to Pakistan from Bangladesh when I was only eight years old, and then again in 1988 from Pakistan to Bangladesh, when my father just could not take the degree of violence Pakistan was affected with and wanted to come back to his peaceful Bangladesh. I remember that when I was leaving for Bangladesh, my best friend told me not to go and that “it’s a poor country and you will die hungry”. I told him that it may be a poor country, but if you have not seen it, you will never understand its beauty. The soil in Bangladesh is black (meaning wet and fertile) and if you throw a mango pit (core or seed) outside your window,  in a few days you will see it becoming a plant on its own.

I had such beautiful memories of Bangladesh from my childhood and although I lived in Pakistan for about 14 years, I never felt I am anything but a Bangladeshi. Sitting outside our house in Rangpur shinning coins with soil before I hand them out to beggars who used to pass by, or digging for black wet soil to mold toys and climbing big piles of jute fibers behind our house on Station Road are treasured memories. When my father was dying from cancer in USA in 1998 and he knew he had very little time in hand, it was his last wish to go back to Bangladesh, the place he was at home, to die. I think that’s why I always felt hurt when people treated me as a foreigner. At heart I never felt like one but obviously I did look like one physically.

cB:  Thank you very much Shehzad Bhai for taking the time to talk to us about your photography and life experiences. I really enjoyed our adda [Bengali discussion] and hope to see more of your work in the future!

* To view more of SHEHZAD NOORANI’s photographs, you can visit his Flickr Photostream here.

** For an audio slideshow of ‘Children of Black Dust’ narrated by SHEHZAD NOORANI and which was featured in the book, ‘What Matters’, please visit the CNN site here.

[top image: River Bleeds Black, Nawab Ali washes himself using extremely contaminated water from a concrete tank that is used to melt waste leather full of toxic chemicals. middle image: Children of Black Dust, children break used batteries for recycling. As they spend a good part of the day in polluted factories inhaling harmful gasses and particles, they often remain sick. bottom image: River Bleeds Black, children burning garbage and retrieving metal objects for recycling.]

[image: all photographs are copyright of SHEHZAD NOORANI]



2 Responses to “”

  1. Labiba, thank you for posting this interview. It helped me see Mr. Noorani’s shining works, and also a glimpse of the lives of some very special people. No words can describe the emotions that these photographs have evoked in me. Suffice it to say, they brought tears.

  2. Rima Kamal Says:

    Amazing photography, I have never seen this side of Bangladesh, it saddens me so. Thank you for revealing it.

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