Interview with G.M.B. Akash

Many people could have lost everything in this fire if Sumon (27) had not jumped to stop the roaring flames all by himself. The site near the Buriganga River in central Dhaka has long been used as a dump for rubbish from the textile and othere industries. It only took the dropping of a cigarette butt to produce a severe fire, engulfing the whole neighborhood of shacks and makeshift homes. But Sumon immediately ran from his scrape-shop nearby, splashing water to save his livelihood and that of others. No one helped him. It is fitting to end this photographic hommage to the many “survivor“ — characters in South Asia with this picture of this courageous fighter, who valiantly took things into his own hands. Dhaka, Bangladesh

 G.M.B. Akash is one of my favourite colour photographers of all time. He has won more than 40 international awards and his work has been published around the world. Beyond that, he is the rare breed of photojournalist who cares deeply about the people he is documenting. While many commoditize their subjects, feeling that the relationship is over after they have gotten the right frame, Akash goes much further. I know from personal conversations with him that his self-published book “Survivors” was incredibly difficult to produce, and yet he used most of the profit to open small businesses for the people who appear in its pages – keeping almost nothing for himself. I don’t know many others who would have done the same thing.

I had the pleasure of meeting Akash last year in his home city of Dhaka, and found him to be an incredibly warm and open person, as well as being extremely talented. I wrote to Akash to see if he would be willing to share his knowledge with a wider audience, and he graciously agreed. We can all learn something from his compassion, his motivation, and his lack of ego. Enjoy!

Nowadays there seems to be a talented Bangladeshi photographer around every corner, but when you were starting out, what was it like to break into the market? Did you face challenges because of where you were from?

Coming from a background where there was little space for adopting a creative process created difficult circumstances for me. People around me had no idea about photojournalism. At that time parents supported you even if you wanted to be an artist, illustrator or an actor/singer. But ‘photojournalist’, this genre did not exist in the circles I was brought up in. Today one click of your mouse takes you to the sites of your favorite photographers, their recent works, and there are opportunities to get your work published. We didn’t have an internet connection or any digitalized facilities. With the only camera I had, I could hardly manage to take the pictures that I imagined. Yes, now a days the field is competitive but there are opportunities too. In my early career, the challenges were where to find inspiration, how to get a mentor, and how to live my dream. I grew up in a place where I saw massive number of sex workers, child labourers, and people living on the edges of society. At that time my friends were filling out forms for higher education to become doctors or barristers, but I had chosen my path. Everyone said I was heading for disaster. Many days I did not eat to save my pocket money for my photography. I used my tuition to buy films. Even sometime when I had no film in my camera and had no money in pocket, I never stopped clicking. I kept clicking knowing I had no film inside my camera. Because I know I had to achieve my dream. Nothing could stop me except myself, so I kept walking. And see, now I am halfway to my dream.

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You shoot all the time. I see images from you on social media almost every day. Where do you get the motivation to work so much?

When I shoot I always ask two questions to myself: why I am taking this photo? And what message do I want to convey? First and foremost, photography is my passion and secondly it is a tool to affect positive change. I shoot almost every day because I love to do it. I do not see photography as competition, nor do I thrive for status or reputation. I want to show my pictures to my audiences. I have seen many of my colleagues who hardly share their photographs and keep them all for competitions, grants, or exhibitions.  I am very clear about the fact that I take photographs to show people, to convey a message, and to make a change. Until I can spread my message, until I share stories of broken hearts, until I show how brave my subjects are, I do not bother with anything else. On my Facebook page, every day I receive messages. Some are like ‘You changed me and my thoughts, Thank you’, or ‘After seeing your photo I cried at midnight. What can I do for the brave lady?’ and sometimes hundreds of wishes and prayers. That matters to me more than any achievement. I believe that if my photographs can connect with the heart, then this is the ultimate achievement.

Why did you decide to start the First Light Institute and what do you hope it will do for photography and Bangladeshi journalism?

I founded the ‘First Light Institute of Photography’ in August, 2013. I wanted to take photography door-to-door, and heart to heart. My mission is to give quality knowledge at minimal cost to unprivileged photography students. The dream is very simple: it is ‘keeping your light alive’. First Light recently organized the event ‘Inspiring Light’, in which we brought aspiring individuals to share their unique treasures with an audience. ‘Inspiring Light’ is an event in which to exchange inspiration; where people learn, are inspired and where ideas will take shape. The event is free for everyone. We recently organized an exhibition at the nearby Narayanganj train station to make the general public aware of photography. More than 25,000 people were our viewers. At the inception of our school, we made a wish! We wished to ignite the dark-velvet realities of many lives. We are aiming to educate unprivileged children: children who are living in the streets, children who are working as child labourers, children who are dropping out from schools and children who have no access to 21st century education. In short, we want to ignite the minds of the unprivileged in many different ways. We have started providing informal education of the basic subjects. Our groups of children belong to factories, the streets, slums and villages. Besides this non-profit contribution to young children, we are charging minimal fees for photography workshops that will provide the fuel for the institute to function. Our mission is to go beyond our dreams and we believe we surely will.

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Angel in Hell

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The journalism/photojournalism industries are undergoing some huge changes. It’s hard to make money, let alone support a family. How have you managed to stand out and carve a niche for yourself?

Frankly photojournalism is not a money making field. It is very hard now and was tougher in 1996 for me when I started. My mother used to say, ‘when you will not have any penny in your pocket, your love will fly through windows.’ That love was and is photography. My father told me, ‘settle with one: money or dreams?’ I replied, ‘dream and money both’. Now I have enough to live my life and live my dream. It did not come in a blink of an eye. You need time to build your name, your reputation and to prove your devotion. If you are looking to drive a Ferrari and living in a studio duplex, photojournalism is not for you. Yes, competition in the field makes everything complex. A lot of groupism and biases are slowing down promising photographers. Often new photographers are providing images to website and magazines for free, and that is creating more problems. In this respect, I try to be honest to my profession, to my work, and to my clients. That is the simple rule I am following to a make a niche for myself. I hate to be greedy because I learnt from my photography that a family can be happy living under a plastic sheet, while another  family can be unhappy living in palace.

What do you think the future holds for you and the profession of photography?

I believe in saving for my tomorrow but not wasting my today worrying about it. By the grace of God photography has brought me much respect, affection and love. For me, photography is my past, present and future. More and more people are entering and taking photography professionally. By the next ten years competition will be triple but I truly believe it will open doors that we can’t imagine now. So cheers to the people who will bring more to the table and will ask the world to wake up.

Now that so many people want to become photographers, what advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

The first question all beginners ask me is about my camera. I say that the camera is the medium, but do not take it more seriously than your eyes. It is your third eye that will capture the image and camera will only convey them. Do not become a camera-junkie with many big varieties. The second question beginners ask me is how to earn a living. I advise to be strategic, to consider things that can bring you money – they could be part-time jobs, small assignments, friend/family party shooting etc. Think about how you can continue to live in your dreams and can survive until you reach to your goal. The third question that I often face is “my parents are against my photography/my girl friend threatened to leave me.” I answer them that the convincing power of a photographer has to be marvelous because you have to convince the people whom you want to shoot. So start doing your homework. If you cannot relate your passion to those closest to you, then how far can this passion take you?

Lastly, be honest, respect others, do not enter into groupism, work hard, travel near and far, and never underestimate your inner power.

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What new projects are you working on right now? What are you most excited about in the future?

I aspire to do many things. I am working on my next photo book and continuing to do my long-term projects. My happiness is being able to bring a smile to a face. My book ‘Survivors’ is spreading happiness among survivors’ families as I am continuing to give an opportunity to elevate their lives. More than 15 families are now happily working in businesses that I set up for them. My desire is to give more. I am currently working on my recently founded school, First Light Institute of Photography. The institute will also be an educational hub for child labourers and street children. If I had a magic kit I would abolish the tears of all sufferers. But as I do not have such a thing, I will still try to wipe off tears of a few. Besides these goals, my photography journey is never ending.

Parting Words?

Dear audiences and fellow companions: our simple work may be our greatest inspiration to become better human beings each day. By making some effort through our work in changing the world even if just a little for the better, we can find the way to love and peace. Helen Keller inspired me by saying:

‘I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do’

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