Jomin O Joban is an eclectic series of photographs that come together to resonate the socio-political ethos of a land that has taken various shades of meanings and significance. Photographs of exposed, dug out earth show stories of border skirmishes, greed, and political gain. The interiors of a factory with predominant machine imagery bespeak the sordid poeticity that emerges from the dissonance of man-machine labour. The cyanotype photographs radiate a sense of germination which is once again inextricably linked to the land and the cultures and political economies that are built on them. This Tale of the Land, indeed, has much to offer and prompted us to get in touch with Bangladeshi photographer, Munem Wasif.
1. Could you elaborate more on the specific use of colours in your show Jomin O Joban?
I don’t think about color much. It developed very organically. In Land of Undefined Territory, I was interested to create something banal and repetitive. So the dusty, bright landscape helped me to reach that washed-out grey tone. While I was researching on seeds, I was also looking for a method dealing with the idea of ‘document/archive’ very directly; as I was trying to create a pseudo archive, and cyanotype is one of oldest methods which was used by architects to reproduce their drawing as blueprints.
2. Going through your work apart from the current show we see a lot of minimalism, lines and negative space. What was the purpose of choosing them?
I can’t explain this. I was trying to find some breathing space in my work for various reasons. I live in a city where there is so much noise. When I concentrate on my work, I think I get inclined to a space which is more meditative. It helps me to travel to a different space.
3. What is it that you want to communicate through your photographs?
It is a very difficult question to answer because it develops gradually. Sometimes the meaning shifts over the period. In Jomin o Joban, I was interested to explore issues around land, borders, territory, and economy. It started with Land of Undefined Territory followed by Seeds Shall Set us Free and then Machine Matter developed gradually. A lot of these works deal with complex histories of South Asia.
I think authors don’t have the same kind of authority when the work is out in public. For me, it is interesting to leave some space for the audience and see how they read the work. A lot of my works are long term. The process of creating work, for me, is more important than the result. A lot of times I am not interested in the image, I am more interested in the essence or a feeling that comes from a work. Something more immaterial.
But I hope my work will give specific context about a particular moment in the history, which can help the audience to go deeper and read between the lines.
4. How does photography help the socio-economic issues in Bangladesh? What is its contribution?
I think Bangladesh has a long tradition of socially engaged work. We live in a violent world where we are tormented by our reality every moment. Therefore, artists have taken various roles as organizers, activists, writers, and a lot of them extend their work in various modes. They have so many shared histories where they have collaborated and worked together. We need to look at these histories in that context.
Starting from Jainul Abedin, SM Sultan, Rashid Talukder, Zahir Raihan, Shahidul Alam, Shishir Bhattacharjee, Mamunur Rashid, Dhali Al Mamun; even today the works of Tayeba Begum Lipi, Taslima Akher lima and Naeem Mohaimen, and many more; their works are deeply engaged with society. They have raised pertinent questions regarding gender inequality, class struggle, they have asked a critical question to the state, some of their works have become iconic of certain movements.
On the other hand, the availability of cameras has given people a chance to document and question a lot of issues. But I don’t think photography or art alone can make certain changes. There needs to be a kind of social movement around these issues, and photography can extend this voice to a wider audience. But all these things need to work together and create a presence.
Photography has many roles. But most importantly it produces knowledge. The question is, can we read it? A lot of times it’s heavily coded. It also has a lot of functional quality but many times it also goes far away from these practical modalities and creates something more profound, unique and powerful. We also need to be critical of its role and how it functions in the industry. The economy and distribution are far more important because it decides who portrays whom; the politics of representation.
5. What are your future plans and projects?
I am doing research on my new film on Old Dhaka, where I have worked for more than twelve years. I am reading stories of Akhteruzzaman Elias and Shahidul Zahir, and trying to gather clues and symbols. Then I have a show coming up at the Dhaka Art Summit. I am excited and nervous because Seeds Shall Set us Free and Machine Matter will be shown in my city within next few months. Normally it never happens. I haven’t yet shown my old Dhaka work in Bangladesh!
6. What are you doing to nurture young talent?
I was involved with Pathshala South Asian Media Institute for more than a decade and taught there for quite a long time. I have taken several workshops in that region. This gave me a chance to meet younger/older photographers and have meaningful conversations. But teaching is also exhausting, so I am trying to move away from it to concentrate more on my work. Along with my friend Tanzim Wahab, we together published two editions of Kamra, anthologies on Photography in Bangla. We have taken long interviews of early masters as there is no written document on Bangladeshi photography history. We hope this will interest researchers in regional history. For me, the role of a teacher and of an artist is very different. Sometimes it creates conflicts. On the other hand, when you are an active artist, I think you have so much more to give to younger artists. But if you do it for too long, it affects your own practice. I am deeply involved with the school which focuses on visual education in our region. I am a part of Chobi Mela curatorial team for the last three editions which involves a huge number of students and volunteers. And it’s lovely and sometimes painful to produce something on that large a scale with a community because you grow together, you experience a lot of things as a community, which is never possible in a small class.