I believe that it is important to be a good human being before one can become a good photographer… I never take pictures of people for whom I do not have respect and love in my heart.
One of the hardest challenges for a humanitarian photographer is how to make evident injustice while maintaining the possibility of hope. It is a challenge that the Bangladeshi photographer Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan has grappled with for over a decade. From child labour and elder neglect to the Rohingya refugee crisis, he has approached each project from the point of view of being immersed among. He takes care, for example, to dress and behave in ways that help to build a sense of connection between himself and the people whose lives he documents and makes visible. When he returned day after day to document the life of Shafiq, an eleven-year-old boy whose father had rented him out for half a year to labour in a brickyard, the photographer took care to always wear the same tee-shirt, pants, and sandals. Shafiq warmed to him saying: “You have only one set of clothing, like me?”
In 2016, Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan founded VOHH, the Voice of Humanity and Hope Photography Institute, an educational initiative that brings internationally recognised artists, journalists, teachers, and writers together with students from Bangladesh and abroad. Working on location and online, its pedagogy is broad, spanning basic courses in photography through to career development and long-term mentoring. The associated VOHH Foto Fest is a month-long biennale held in Chittagong. Raising important social and ecological issues, the festival aims to bring photography to a diverse audience with exhibitions staged not only in art galleries, but in rural communities, along rivers and streets, in factories and slums, and even on garbage dumps and in the jungle. In this way, he engages many areas in parallel through a shared ethical and humanitarian lens. However, in this interview we focus on his work as a photographer.
The body of work for which he is perhaps currently best known internationally is an uncompromising exploration of his family life during an enforced government lockdown to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Unflinchingly, he examines the daily trials and tensions of an extended family of six parents and their children living in an enclosed space. It was a time when he came to re-evaluate his own relationship with his family. He saw how hard his wife worked each day. How frustrated the children became continuously penned in. And he became poignantly aware of his own shortcomings. The things he had taken for granted. The things he had left undone. It can be difficult to face up to one’s own failings. It takes courage to reveal them publicly in order to document, fully and honestly, the experiences of an event like the Covid-19 lockdown. The pandemic united the world in a way it had not seen before, yet its impact was in each case individual, personal, and often profound. Central to our own humanity is the recognition of our weaknesses as well as our strengths, for it is then that we can understand the complexity of others. And, in so doing, we can find the hope of better understanding, one with another. Of respect for each other in all our imperfection.
What drew you to photography in the beginning?
At school I did not fit well with the strict teaching methods and found life in college harsh and abusive. I felt unable to trust anyone, lonely. So, I undertook my own education, informally spanning many areas – philosophy, literature, dance, poetry and much more. And finally, I sought refuge – or found refuge – in photography. I have always been interested in people, their lives, their cultures, their struggles to survive. I believe photography is such a great way of telling the truth in order to change the world.
I took courses in photography and studied with Shoeb Faruquee and then the respected documentary photographer Saiful Huq Omi, who is a great teacher in my view. Later, I worked as a fixer with the renowned photographer and activist Shahidul Alam when he was working on the Rohingya issue in Myanmar. I learned a lot from him. He inspired me.
[Left] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘Shakil falls asleep on his machine at a Chittagong aluminium factory.’ 2013 from the series ‘Fallen Stars’
[Right] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘Eleven-year-old Shafiq works above the pile of dangerously hot bricks, Bakkar, Chittagong.’ 2013 from the series ‘Fallen Stars’
Tell me about your on-going project ‘Fallen Stars’.
This was my first documentary project. I began it in 2011, when I was a wayward wanderer, my life was aimless. The subject is child labour and everyone – my teachers, friends, well-wishers – all urged me not to do it. They said the issue had already been covered by many other photographers. But I had to listen to my heart. It remains an ongoing project. I think it is my best.
These children are victims of poverty, lack of education, floods, droughts, climate change, migration… they must spend their lives labouring far away from home to support their families. I have worked on this issue in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Ethiopia… in brickfields, aluminium factories, garbage tips, and shipyards.
[Left] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘Shafiq’s master beats him, accusing him of playing during working hours. Bakkar brickfield in Chittagong.’ 2013 from the series ‘Fallen Stars’
[Right] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘Shafiq loves to play the flute whenever he gets time. Bakkar brickfield in Chittagong.’ 2013 from the series ‘Fallen Stars’
In 2013 I began following Shafiq, an eleven-year-old boy who works at a brickyard in Chittagong. His father received six thousand taka (about eighty US dollars) from a work master in return for six month’s labour by Shafiq. I have tried to document the lives and dreams of Shafiq and a number of other child labourers, following them in their working lives. I wanted to try to understand the reasons behind this issue… to try to fathom how these children cope with their daily lives and the hazardous situations in which they work… to chronicle their undervalued labour and raise awareness of their plight in wider society.
How has this work been received?
I have been amazed to see that this project is being used educationally in colleges and universities around the world, from North America and Europe to Africa and Asia. The project has been exhibited in forty countries and has been extensively featured in the media internationally, receiving many awards and grants.
[Left] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘Ninety-five-year-old Anowara lives in a small corner of her elder son’s house beside her toilet. Kutubdia Island, Bay of Bengal.’ 2015 from the series ‘Yea I’m Alive’
[Right] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘Asia Begum, ninety, lives in the hills of Vatiary, Chittagong. Her four sons and husband are all dead, but she still waits for them.’ 2015 from the series ‘Yea I’m Alive’
In contrast, ‘Yea I’m Alive’ explores the plight of the elderly poor who no longer enjoy the support of traditional domestic structures due to the kind of economic imperatives that see children sent away to work, breaking up the family unit.
I started this project in 2014. At the time my father was very sick. Happily, he recovered and was looked after by my two brothers and me. But it made me realise how difficult life must be for the elderly who have no such family support.
There are many families who will not take their elderly parents to old age homes for fear of public shame and condemnation but, instead, push their parents to a brutal death through neglect. It is an important subject. Family abuse of the elderly is increasing exponentially and is most prevalent among the rich, highly educated upper social class – secretly and silently, behind closed doors.
[Left] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘Rohingya refugees cross the river Naf from Myanmar to Bangladesh on bamboo rafts. Nayapara, Teknaf.’ 2017 from the series ‘Rohingya Refugee Crisis’
[Right] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘Exhausted after days of walking barefoot over mountains and through rivers, a Rohingya refugee family arriving in Balukhali refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar.’ 2017 from the series ‘Rohingya Refugee Crisis’
Tell me about your work documenting the Rohingya refugee crisis at the Bangladesh border.
I am from Chittagong. The Bangladesh–Myanmar border is familiar to me; the languages of Rohingya and Chittagong are very close. An estimated 750,000 Rohingya – more than half of them children – have fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh to escape murder, arson, sexual violence, and other atrocities as the Burmese security forces carry out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims. This is the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.
For you, what are the principal ethical considerations in making such intense work?
I believe that it is important to be a good human being before one can become a good photographer. My working process builds on my research about the history of each individual community and in the field. I first try to understand a person’s background, local language. I follow their behaviour, I try to wear similar clothes, to build a relationship with respect before I ever start taking any photographs.
[Left] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘A Rohingya refugee carries his crippled brother to escape the killings, arson, and other atrocities they faced in Mayanma. Shah Porir Dwip Island, Teknaf.’ 2017 from the series ‘Rohingya Refugee Crisis’
[Right] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘A hungry Rohingya family in Balukhali refugee camp, Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar.’ 2017 from the series ‘Rohingya Refugee Crisis’
I never take pictures of people for whom I do not have respect and love in my heart. There are things that must be revealed to create awareness in society, but I will never disrespect anyone. I do not enter into anyone’s personal life or their special moments without permission. My relationship with the people in my photograph is based on trust.
It can be hard to represent suffering without it becoming abject spectacle. How do you avoid this while building an emotional connection with the viewer?
It is not always necessary that suffering be shown. It depends if it is important to the community I am photographing, to the individual, or to focus the attention of wider society. I hope that viewers will remember Shafiq playing his flute and not only his hard labour. But it is true, I want the audience to see my photos and remember these people. To feel pain in our heart can awaken our humanity. Some things must not be avoided, hidden, but made evident. What I want to encourage is humanity and mutual respect.
The work for which you have recently become best known internationally is ‘Living in the Cage’. How did this begin?
On 26 March 2020, the Government of Bangladesh initiated an enforced lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19. I had been about to begin a teaching job and had spent much of my time and money on preparing for the Voice of Humanity and Hope festival. Unable to work and having spent most of my savings on the festival, I began the lockdown with my hands empty.
‘Life in the Cage’ is a very personal project about my family and me. Up until then I had spent my life documenting the struggles of other people. Now I turned my camera on my own family, to tell our story. It felt awkward, often uncomfortable, as I focused on our daily experiences: our hopes, disappointments, expectations, loneliness, courage, love, strength, frustration, fears, and responsibilities. It was overwhelming.
[Left] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘After fasting all day during Ramadan, the whole family shares an Iftar meal.’ 27 April 2020 from the series ‘Life in the Cage’
[Right] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘When our son Imran was injured, we rubbed antiseptic onto the wound to try to stop the bleeding, which made him scream louder.’ 11 June 2020 from the series ‘Life in the Cage’
You map a complex interplay of familial relationships and unforeseen events.
I have two brothers. Our father and mother died two or three years before the pandemic. When lockdown began, we were all living together with our wives and children as one extended family. My wife and my brothers were very supportive and agreed to my project to document our life in this domestic cage. My wife Negar often helped me by releasing the shutter when I was in front of the camera. But this was stressful. She is not a photographer. It was difficult for her, and many moments were lost, which made her uncomfortable. When my kids were taken ill or had an accident during the lockdown, I took photographs while my wife and brothers ran to help the child. It has been so painful for me to take pictures, but I was mentally focused on documenting everything that happened to my family during the lockdown. I was completely immersed in the project – there was no going back.
[Left] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘I have suffered from heart disease since 2015. At this moment I had no idea what was going on. The next day Negar took me to the hospital.’ 6 July 2020 from the series ‘Life in the Cage’
[Right] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘Hossain is crying because he does not want to leave our old house now the families are splitting up.’ 30 August 2020 from the series ‘Life in the Cage’
There was a time when I was feeling very sick and weak. While my younger brother took my blood pressure the others stood anxiously looking on. I called to Negar to fetch my camera and please take some pictures. The others were perplexed and then sceptical. Was this a performance for the camera? But when the blood pressure reading was made everyone started praying for me and trying to get me to the doctor.
I don’t think we noticed how the tensions built between us all. The death of my parents had left me physically, mentally, and financially unprepared. When the break came, it was as if a country split apart, and three new smaller countries emerged. The families separated and we moved to a new home. I think the wounds that have been created will never be fully healed. Now, we occasionally visit each other’s houses, and our children spend some time together, but the void that has been created will never be filled.
[Left] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘During the days of lockdown, I spent as much time as possible with my children and those of my two brothers.’ 13 April 2020 from the series ‘Life in the Cage’
[Right] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘Negar and Hossain ran to the roof when, after many days of intense heat, it began to rain.’ 24 April 2020 from the series ‘Life in the Cage’
Turning the camera on yourself and your own family, what did you discover that you did not previously understand?
Despite everything, our joys outweighed our uncertainties. Making this work I was able to observe my family closely. I discovered my weaknesses deeply, and yet I also fell in love with my family. It wasn’t the pressure of events. It wasn’t from a sense of responsibility. I just fell in love. My past mistakes flashed in front of my eyes: my irresponsibility, incompetence, disconnection. I realised that in the darkness of my despair I could only do what I knew and understood: take pictures. I had felt as though I was drowning and had struggled to stay alive through our story. I started spending more time with the kids. I dreamt a lot. My wife and I grew closer together.
How did you find a balance between subjectivity and objectivity making such intense work in which yourself were directly involved?
Look at this photograph [below left]. Is it photojournalism, documentary, conceptual? Is it real or staged? Did I interfere here or tell the truth? There were many times in this project when I took part in photographs as well as operating the camera. I was part of that reality, after all. I felt myself an essential part of this story – I could not remain invisible. This is a reality that includes my own reality mixed within it.
[Left] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘I am a photographer, and my wife Negar is studying economics. We have two kids. Here, I’m trying to understand our relationship during the lockdown. We are drifting apart from each other.’ 07 May 2020 from the series ‘Life in the Cage’
[Right] © Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan ‘While enjoying the late afternoon light with Imran, he asked me: Where is the Sun?’ 29 April 2020 from the series ‘Life in the Cage’
What do you think the long-term benefits of a project like this can be?
This project isn’t just the story of an ordinary man’s life during the days of lockdown in the Corona pandemic, rather it is the story of a photographer and his family, of a journalist, of an artist. And I believe that the photographers, journalists, and artists of this world understand better than most how to describe situations truthfully and sincerely. We can only guess what was happening within families around us during the lockdown, a visual record is not available. So, I picked up my camera and dedicated two years of my life to this project. Through it, I have tried to understand and reveal the impact of the crisis with honesty and courage.
What kind of response have you had to this work from the public at home and abroad?
Honestly, I didn’t expect my project to get so much attention. It has been published through almost one hundred international journals and media outlets and won over eighty awards world-wide. Many editors, curators, and fellow artists have told me that my project is deeply etched in their minds, impossible to forget. They have told me that they find this project is deeply moving, timeless, poetic… unique. But my big regret remains that my family and I have not been able to stand in front of my pictures and see the reaction of viewers for ourselves.
© Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan – Work in progress from a project with the working title of ‘Self-Portrait Series’ 2021 onwards
What are you working on now?
I have always been imaginative, but during the period of lockdown this increased. It was also the first time that I turned the camera on myself. My new project is still evolving. In these images, I am the central character, but I am not the subject. The environment and situation in which I appear is the main element, the message of these pictures.
I see myself as an activist. I want to create projects on many issues in society and around the globe. It is not possible for me to be present among these events in other parts of the world. So, in this project, I am trying to overcome this limitation though a more metaphorical approach. In order to build myself into these images I must first break myself down. That can be personally embarrassing, but it is undoubtedly important, and so I venture to give it my best.
What have you learned about yourself – and your sense of yourself in the world – in the process of making your work?
I have learned to gain the trust of ordinary people, not to be distant but to become like a family member, one of them. I have learned the importance of meticulous observation. And I have learned to discover myself.
I believe photography is such a great medium for telling the truth in order to change the world. Every picture is like a story and every project is like a novel. From childhood, I loved stories and novels. But, after I embraced photography, I felt as if I was wandering not in the pages of a book but in pure reality.
Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan was born in Chittagong, Bangladesh, in 1984. He has a diploma in photography and a degree in professional photography, subsequently undertaking many masterclasses and mentoring programs in the fields of photojournalism and documentary photography. In 2015, he received a scholarship from Syracuse University, USA. Beyond this, he has studied a diverse range of subjects including philosophy, history, literature, poetry, song, dance, and acting in a process of lifelong learning.
Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan is a photographer, curator, educator, and social activist. In 2016, he founded the Voice of Humanity and Hope Photography Institute (VOHH), subsequently initiating the VOHH Foundation, and the VOHH Foto Fest. His photographs have featured in exhibitions in eighty countries worldwide in many prestigious institutions and events including the Museo de la Carcova (Argentina); Pingyao International Photography Festival (Shanxi, China); Yixian International Photo Festival (Anhui, China); Addis Foto Fest (Ethiopia); PhotoVisa (Krasnodar, Russia); Bursa Photofest (Turkey); The National University – Ostroh Academy (Ukraine); Somerset House (London, UK); the International Center of Photography (New York, USA); and United Nations HQ (New York, USA).
As a freelance photojournalist he has worked for many of the leading media outlets globally including Al Jazeera, CNN, Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh), The Guardian (UK), Público (Spain), The Sunday Times (UK), The Washington Post (USA); NGOs such as Amnesty International and UNICEF; and magazines such as National Geographic and Time. His long-term documentary projects have been widely used for teaching and research in universities and institutions in Europe and the USA. He lives and works in Chittagong.
photo: Faisal Azim
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.