INTERVIEW: Samdani Art Award 2016 Winner - Rasel Chowdhury
Samdani Art Award 2016 winner Rasel Chowdhury (b. 1988) is an artist whose passion is rooted in his examination of environmental issues, which he documents using a camera. Born in Jamalpur—a district 140 km north of Dhaka which borders with India—Chowdhury first started taking photographs at 9 years of age, and, as he began documenting spaces in and around Bangladesh, slowly became addicted to the process.
While studying Photography at Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, and since graduating in 2012, Chowdhury has developed his own visual expression as a photographer, addressing his subjects with a distinctive look. His work deals with a variety of environmental issues effecting Bangladesh and its people—including the development of Dhaka city, the dying Buriganga River (which flows along the southern outskirts of Dhaka city), and the lost city of Sonargaon (a historic administrative centre of eastern Bengal 32 km southeast of Dhaka)—exploring the rapid and unplanned changes in his surrounding environment.
As we prepare for the Samdani Art Award 2018, we caught up with Chowdhury to find out more about his career, what inspires him and what he has been working on since winning the Award in February 2016.
Samdani Art Foundation – In your biography you state that you ‘started photography without a conscious plan’. How and when did this happen? When did you pick up your first camera and was it an immediate connection or something that developed over time?
Rasel Chowdhury – I started photography when I was around 9 years old, as a hobby, but then I did a basic photography course after school and joined a local photography club called Mucktochock. It was my Father who gave me my first camera as a present after he returned from working abroad. I can’t remember the exact model number but it was a very basic Yashica camera that I later upgraded for a Zenit camera with a fixed 50pen lens which was still a very basic model.
I continued to maintain my membership to the photography club and practice photography as a hobby, but after dropping out of my course at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in Dhaka, I joined Pathshala South Asian Media Institute to study photography more formally. Before I joined Pathshala I had always considered myself to be an amateur photographer, taking photographs as a hobby on special occasions and at significant events. It was the course at Pathshala which changed this, making me feel I was more of a documentary photographer, and no longer an amateur photographer.
SAF – The subject of your work focuses on Bangladesh and the environmental issues that are troubling the country. How do you decide which issues to cover and, for you to work with a subject, does it have to have some significance to you personally?
RC – The issues that I focus on are usually things that are effecting my childhood home town, Jamalpur, and Dhaka city which is my home now. To work with a subject, I do have to feel a connection to it but tend to discover them as I go about my daily life through the media, such as newspapers or television programmes, and through conversations with my peers or family and friends. It is only when a subject strikes me that I begin to investigate it further as a documentary photographer.
From September to December 2016 I was in London undertaking a three-month residency at the Delfina Foundation—my prize for winning the Samdani Art Award. During my stay, I became fascinated by the issues of gentrification which were causing many people living in areas of London which had, or were, undergoing development, to have to leave their homes due to unsustainable rises in the cost of living and rent. While I was researching the issue in London, I realised this was not just an issue faced by residents in London, but also an issue here in Bangladesh, particularly in Dhaka, and in other big cities globally. The subject of gentrification is something that I will be examining further now I am back in Bangladesh.
SAF – Looking at your portfolio, your images have a unique sense of drama to them and I wondered if you could share something with us about your working process. Do you take time to get to know your subject before you get your perfect shot or is the process more instinctive?
RC – I always take my photographs with an analogue camera and film, which is what helps me to add a sense of drama to my images. For each subject I cover, I take time to familiarise myself with the subject and then wait for the right moment to take my photographs. Each photograph takes time to compose and is thoroughly researched, but the length of time that a project takes mostly depends on the subject’s complexity and/or its location.
For example, when I was working with the Buriganga River on the southern outskirts of Dhaka city, it took five years before I felt that the project was complete and ready to show. With any project located away from Dhaka city, I need to travel to and from the site, which stretches the project’s timeline, especially as each time I visit, things will have changed, but this is all part of my process.
Overall, I want my photographs to show problematic issues but not in a problematic way and this is what I challenge myself to achieve as a documentary photographer.
SAF – With such long timelines to some of your projects, do you ever publish anything during the process or do you wait until you feel the project is complete before you share anything?
RC – I don’t wait until the end of a project, but I do wait until the project has taken shape as a series before I share anything. Only when a project has developed as I want it to and communicates what I want it to say will I feel comfortable enough to share images from that project. My working process takes time and I do not want to unnecessarily rush that process.
SAF – You previously worked as a contract photographer for people like the New York Times and Getty Image Global. Is this something you are doing alongside your practice or have you stopped working as a contract photographer?
RC – When I worked previously as a contract photographer, the quick turnaround that the newspapers or magazines wanted for their images did not suit my working process which is much slower. As a photographer, I need to research and understand my subject before I can work with it which is impossible as a contract photographer. I much prefer working on my own projects and now, only very occasionally, work as a freelancer photographer.
In 2013, I became a member of Daagi Art Garage; a studio collective comprised of seven Dhaka-based interdisciplinary artists. As a collective, we occasionally make collaborative work, but mostly use the collective as a safe-space to share ideas and give feedback on one another’s work. My work with Daagi is the most important part of my current working process, helping me to open up my working practice, and develop as a documentary photographer and artist.
SAF – Can you tell us a little bit about your current projects and what we can expect to see next?
RC – Currently, I am working with new issues and subjects across Dhaka city which are connected to the city’s fast paced development and constantly changing landscape. I am also continuing the gentrification project I started in London as I want to make it a series with several-layers, which starts in London, now to Dhaka and then later to another global city location, but I am not sure yet where this will be. All my current projects are still works in progress so I do not want to reveal too much just yet, but you will see them as soon as they are ready.
All images taken from Gentrificiation series. Image courtesy: Rasel Chowdhury