Munem Wasif broke into an abrupt reverie. A set of forty images were collapsing in front of him creating a nostalgic motion in his mind. Yet he remained perfectly calm. He knew each image through-and-through, he knew all the pieces. How could he not? For years, he had kept them on his bedside, sleeping and waking up in their presence. These were the images that inspired and influenced the photographer in him. They could be in the past, but he could feel their presence often… almost instinctively. Over time, they had become personal.
In fact, so does any photograph he produces.
A Bangladeshi documentary photographer who is represented by Agence VU in Paris since 2008, Munem Wasif is also a graduate from Pathshala South Asian Media Academy. Young and intense, his work is characteristic of deep-seeded emotionalism, personal struggles and social turmoil. From an early age, Wasif recalls being disinterested in textbooks. On completing SSC, he was admitted to BEGART – a local photography school based in Dhaka. There, he discovered his love for pictures and eventually, was admitted to Pathshala.
“Pathshala changed my life. I had a potential that the institution carved carefully and I ended up producing the photographs I produce. I remember when I began my work on Old Dhaka, I used to go back each week and my teachers at Pathshala would provide me with constructive feedback. This allowed me to think and improve. I owe much of what I am today to Pathshala.”
As a result, Old Dhaka has truly been a prolific and captivating body of images. Question arises, as a documentary photographer, to what extent does personal connotations conflict with social interpretations?
“When I take photographs, I do it from my personal sense of that story. For instance, when I covered the protests in Fulbari, I remembered those who took photographs during the 1971 Liberation War. My photographs on tea garden labourers came from my urge to know and show the blood and effort that goes behind producing a simple cup of tea. When I worked with labourers from jute mills, I remembered how we read about jute in school as the ‘golden fibre’ of our economy. I saw the jute workers dying from hunger, and I had to document the story. I don’t produce my work as a photojournalist, rather as an individual. If I were a poet, I would write poems about these issues. If I were a musician, I would make songs. Because I know how to photograph, I express through it.”
Perhaps his intimate experience with his photographs has led to stunning reflections of unheard stories and emotions in them. Munem Wasif’s unique capacity of storytelling often allows the viewers to become as involved with the situation as he was. They are potent yet poetic, harsh yet absurdly acceptable and most importantly, extremely honest. His images are able to create an environment where framed conditions seem leap out of closed boxes, and faces and landscapes are more than mere documentation. They are able to connect with the curious viewer, thus leaving a tinge of the same emotion that the subject or creator of the photographs has experienced.
During Chobi Mela V in 2008, Wasif held a solo exhibition in Old Dhaka depicting a series of images that documented the decaying trade of jute. I remember visiting the exhibition on a horse-driven chariot. The photographs were real and loud, and on leaving, I felt a small part of me was beginning to perish in the same way the life of jute was.
Similarly, in Chobi Mela VI this year, his second solo exhibit “Salt Water Tears” – being held at Drik Open Air till 3 February 2011 – tells a moving a story about victims from a recent cyclone in Bangladesh and the tragedy resulting from the introduction of shrimp farming . The vast emptiness in a context of abundance, contradiction between presence and absence, conflict between social, emotional and political justification of it all were intrinsically embedded within the photographs. It’s almost difficult to leave without feeling a hollow punch somewhere in the heart, much like the essays that were being exhibited.
Indeed, why should not one feel? What is a photograph if it cannot communicate? What is a photographer if he or she cannot be truthful with their photographs and its audience? Munem Wasif’s most striking gift comes with the ability to interpret what is seen, heard and felt with a sense of precision. His work communicates in a way that each viewer leaves with a burning sensation of what was expressed in the photographs. The fact that it can inflict even the slightest tension between the viewer and the photograph proves his remarkable quality to create expression and impression simultaneously.
An accomplished photographer from today’s brigade of “thinking photographers” , Munem Wasif has held exhibitions worldwide. He has also scooped several awards and recognitions, and his photographs have been published both nationally and internationally. He is currently a teacher in documentary photography at Pathshala South Asian Media Documentary.