Jannatul Mawa: Images of Conscience

© Jannatul Mawa untitled [detail] from the series ‘Pen Has Been Shifted to Knife’

In my view, men and women observe things differently. Our society is masculine, and boys grow up in a privileged way, while for girls the complete opposite is true: girls must always struggle two or three times as hard as boys. As a result, men and women have different perspectives on people, society, and possessions.


The People’s Republic of Bangladesh was formed in 1971 following the Liberation War which saw it separate from Pakistan. In its first twenty years, the new-formed nation suffered greatly from poverty and famine until, in 1991, the restoration of democratic order saw the country begin the slow process of economic recovery. Home to over 160 million people, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries – seven and a half times more dense than China.

Jannatul Mawa is a photographer with a strong social conscience and a deep concern for the welfare of marginalised members of her society. She has long been a keen advocate of the rights of women, exploring these issues on both a societal and a personal level. She is a documentary photographer with a poetic sensibility and a strong capacity for empathy for those less fortunate than herself. Even before she took up the camera, she worked energetically on behalf of the exploited and the discriminated against.

She has covered photographic stories on a wide range of subjects. Her works have been presented in many prestigious venues and events in her own country – Drik Gallery, Dhaka Art Summit, Chobi Mela International Photo Festival – and, internationally, at Emory University, Atlanta (USA), Obscura Festival of Photography (Malaysia), Delhi Photo Festival (India), Oxford University (United Kingdom) and the Asian Women Photographers’ Showcase.

Her beautiful series ‘Finding Neverland’ was published by Pathshala in the book ‘Under the Banyan Tree’, which marked twelve years of photographic education at that institution. Other work has featured in a number of publications internationally, including ‘Le Monde’ (France), ‘The Guardian’ (United Kingdom) and the journal ‘Southern Exposure’ (USA). She has received accolades from (among others) ‘The Daily Star’ (Bangladesh), ACI-Persona Award (Bangladesh), Kuala Lumpur Photo Awards (Malaysia), Guizhou Festival (China), UNICEF and the Press Information Bureau (India).

Alasdair Foster


What led you to become a photographer?

I was actively involved in left-wing politics and worked at various agencies, including an international non-governmental organisation promoting women’s rights. This meant that I had to adapt to the strategies and roles required by those agencies, which in turn meant I had to live in rural areas for several years. When I returned to Dhaka I wanted to undertake work in my own way. I decided I would work in film-making and, as a first step, I enrolled at the Pathshala South Asian Media Academy to learn photography. Gradually, I came to love this medium. Photography seemed to be a very important medium through which I could express my point of view, my philosophy, and my aspirations.

© Jannatul Mawa untitled from the series ‘Pen Has Been Shifted to Knife’

Tell me about your early series called ‘The Pen has been Shifted to the Knife’.

The first time I visited Geneva camp in Dhaka, I was shocked by what I saw. Thousands of people are living in a very small area. Complete families, along with their pets, were living in a house no bigger than three to four square metres. Most of the children were not in school; they were working from the age of five or six years old. Among those who did go to school, the dropout rate was high. Many of them got involved in the meat trade. Instead of a pen to use at school they learned to use a butcher’s knife.

© Jannatul Mawa untitled from the series ‘Pen Has Been Shifted to Knife’

What did the people you photographed think about the pictures?

They asked me a very critical question: “Can a photograph change the fate of people?”

What is your answer?

I know that a photo can’t make an overnight change in human relations and social discrimination that has been there for generations. Those who are privileged will not easily give up their historical advantages. Nonetheless, my pictures are particularly aimed at those who are in a privileged position. My hope is that they might create pressure for attitudes to change.        

35-year old Santa Islam (right) is a middle class housewife living in Mohamadpur, Dhaka. Asma Khatun, aged 50, is a housemaid who has lived in the city for past 2 years.

Keeping a housemaid is a common scenario for the both the middle and upper classes in Dhaka. Women come to the city to be housemaids in order to be able to feed their families.

© Jannatul Mawa from the series ‘Close Distance’

You are perhaps best known for your series entitled ‘Close Distance’.

Ever since childhood, I have observed the lives of domestic helps – their work, what they provide and how they are treated. Hiring a housemaid is common among the urban middle class in Dhaka city. These domestic helps work for us from dawn to dusk. But, while they give us all kinds of comfort, do we care about them; do we worry about when they eat; when they get to bed? How humanely do we treat them? As members of the educated middle class – as progressives – do we talk about them; do we mobilise public opinion so that they should have a day off; do we lobby for a minimum wage?

The objective of asking women house owners and domestics to sit together is to raise these questions. We would never normally sit with them on the same sofa. While we are spatially close because we live in the same place, house owners and housemaids maintain strict but invisible boundaries, reflecting deep-rooted class differences. I wanted to explore this physical proximity and ideological distance in order to raise questions.

Sharmina Hossain (right) is a 45-year-old housewife living in Dhanmondi, one of the most affluent areas of Dhaka. 11-year-old Kulsum, a domestic help, has lived in the city for last 2 years.

© Jannatul Mawa from the series ‘Close Distance’

Shakila Zaman Eshita (left) is a 28-year-old Administration and Human Resources Director, living in Niketon, Dhaka. 15-year-old housemaid, Momena, has stayed in this house for 4 months.

© Jannatul Mawa from the series ‘Close Distance’

22-year-old Sabrina Haque (left) is a housewife who lives in an aristocratic place in the Dhanmondi area of Dhaka. Moyna, her 18-year-old housemaid, has lived in the city for past 5 years.

© Jannatul Mawa untitled from the series ‘Close Distance’

Mustari Akter (right) is a 44-year-old housewife, living in a middle class area of Dhaka called Lalmatia. 35-year-old Reena has been a domestic servant in this house for the past year.

© Jannatul Mawa untitled from the series ‘Close Distance’

How has this work been received by audiences?

The interesting thing is that the audience responded with a kind of knowing surprise. I have heard many people say that this series has captured a very true scenario. Some confessed to being implicated in its meanings; others were critical of the house-owners in these pictures.

What do you think about that?

I make it clear that this is not about the individuals, but rather it is about a social problem which needs to be overcome. I am very grateful to both house owners and helps for having agreed to be photographed; particularly to the house owners because they had the power to say ‘no’. Coming to the exhibition, many of them wondered what other ways could be found to reach more people in order to raise awareness of the need for more appropriate behaviour towards housemaids. Many said that they felt that the state should take appropriate measures.

Your series ‘Finding Neverland’ takes another approach to photographic story telling.

During the time my work required me to be ‘exiled’ in a small rural town, my daughter was born and for the first time I had a real relationship. We soon became dependent on each other, sharing an unconditional love. In time my daughter came to care for me even more than for herself. Because of our limitless tolerance, our lives were wild – more like gypsies. If we had been more courageous, perhaps we would have never returned to the city. But family, relationships, and sense of ‘accountability’ drew us back to Dhaka.

Once again in the city, the struggle of hiding our true selves began. Everything here is measured – home, relationships, even love is measured here. I could see my daughter’s eyes fill with tears. Our former life – our home, the field, the river, the jungle and the broken school with its flag waving in the wind … countless memories beckoned like a wild kind of love for a place to which we will never return.

‘Finding Neverland’ is about the contradictions my daughter and I now share … about our life in the city and the time we have left behind.

© Jannatul Mawa untitled from the series ‘Middle Class Housewives’

What are you currently working on?

I am working on two series. I am making a series about middle class housewives of Bangladesh. I am about halfway through that project.

It hasn’t been long since women used to see destiny as synonymous with living with their in-laws and responsibility meant taking care of everyone. Earning a living, managing social responsibilities and other such areas were meant for men, while women were seen as the homemakers. The world is moving fast and social structures are beginning to change. That effect can also be seen in the Bengali middle class. Women have begun to explore other professions aside from teaching [the profession traditionally consider suitable for a woman]. Women’s responsibilities have increased, both at home and outside. Life has become even more complex. 

Women who do not have financial freedom are dependent on their husband or other male members of the family. That is why, in many cases, they are not properly respected. But I think it is up to women to define the mainstream culture. We have to ensure women are able to enter the workforce. If we fail to do so, the money spent on their education will simply go to waste.

What is the other new work about?

I have started a new work on the women freedom fighters who were raped during the 1971 Liberation War. But this work is still at its research stage.

What interests you about this subject?

Well, I am still researching this piece of history and have yet to fully understand it. However, I would say this: the heroic stories about the Bangladesh War of Independence are almost all about the bravery of men. When women are discussed in the context of the war, it is only as victims who are in the ‘embarrassing’ position of having been systematically raped [by Pakistani soldiers and the Bihari and Razaker militias who supported them] and survived. Losing their honour is seen as their biggest misfortune, and for this they were ostracised. Meanwhile, all this has been eclipsed by the heroic tales of men.

It has taken more than forty years for these women to come out from the shame and suffering that the nation has bestowed upon them. Even now, they still do not receive full respect. Primarily, I am doing this work to understand the historical and present-day position of these 200,000 mothers and sisters, who were raped.

Do you think that being a woman brings any particular qualities or sensibilities to the work as an artist?

In my view, men and women observe things differently. Our society is masculine, and boys grow up in a privileged way, while for girls the complete opposite is true: girls must always struggle two or three times as hard as boys. As a result, men and women have different perspectives on people, society and possessions. The demands, expectations, and problems of the two sexes are also diverse. The perspective of a female artist is therefore important. In her view, similarity and difference, what is right and what is wrong, are understood differently from the way they would be seen by a male artist.

Is it easy for women to become a photographer in Bangladesh?

Parents are not interested in their sons taking up such an uncertain profession as photography, they want them to become a doctor, an engineer, or go into other socially recognised professions that earn good money. But for daughters, photography is an even more questionable choice. The women who come to learn photography have a strong personal dream, vision, and desire. They face a struggle with their family, with society and, of course, with male photographers. Many of them, once they marry, come under family pressure to leave photography. So, while some space does exist for a woman to become a photographer, sustaining oneself in the profession remains difficult.

© Jannatul Mawa untitled from the series ‘Middle Class Housewives’

What do you think about that?

In my view, it’s not rational. A photographer is a photographer. Why does it have to be gendered? Photographers work with both technical and conceptual aspects that are applicable whether you are a man or a woman. Yet, if a female photographer performs well, it is perceived that she achieved this because of some kind of unfair advantage and if she does not do so well, then people say that this profession is not appropriate for a woman. To me, this attitude is ludicrous. But things are beginning to change and spaces have begun to be created for women to work. There is some scope now.

What is the most profound thing you have learned through making photographs?

It seems to me that I have learnt how to slow things down and be thorough. I have learned how to observe things in an objective way.

Biographical Notes

Jannatul Mawa was born in Dhaka in 1973. She has an MA in Bengali Literature and is a graduate of Pathshala, the South Asian Media Academy, where she now works as a teacher. She began her photographic career with UNICEF.

Photo © Agnidrohee Spondon

This article was first published in Chinese, in the July 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. First published in English at Talking Pictures in April 2020.