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Shedding light on the destitute underbelly of society

GMB Akash is a Humanitarian photographer from Bangladesh who has worked tirelessly to uplift the lower classes in society. He has won over 80 international awards for his work and has been a speaker and teacher of photography in countries such as Indonesia, Portugal and Norway. He set up the First Light Institute of Photography in Bangladesh in 2013, where all the proceeds of the institution are given to charities that battle child labour and abuse.  Fotoflock met up with this celebrated yet humble photographer for a tete-a-tete:

1. Please tell our readers about yourself and how your journey as a humanitarian photographer began.

My passion for photography began in 1996 when I discovered that I had a gift for developing interpersonal relationships with the subjects that I saw through the lens of my camera. After that realization I was photographing daily with great eagerness. Subsequently, as a young man with some experience I saw the impact that images can have on people and societies. I was convinced that I had made the right first step into what would be the beginning of my life’s most important journey.

I started studying this art and its accompanying techniques, firstly in Bangladesh and then continued my studies in the Philippines at Ateneo de Manila University where I received my Diploma in Multimedia Journalism.

Growing up in a developing country filled with millions of impoverished people and abused children; I realized that I had access to the darkest corners of the world. Overwhelmed with compassion and empathy for those people in my photographs, I was determined to give a voice to the voiceless and have it heard around the world.

However, at one point I realized that just reporting the human rights injustices through my images was not enough. I repeatedly asked myself then: what changes have my photos brought to the lives of my subjects of abuse and suffering? I knew that as a photojournalist that it was my duty to tell the truth but besides that, as a human being I believed that it was my moral duty to find ways to alleviate the pain of exploitation and poverty of those people in my photographs.

It was at that time that I decided to dedicate myself to what became more than 10 years of my life of photographing ‘Survivors’. This resulted in a self-published photography book depicting the invincibility of the human spirit to survive against all odds. The proceeds from the book and subsequent exhibitions go to helping the subjects in that book. I help them set up small businesses for which I train them and monitor their progress in order to make them and their families self-sufficient.

All this while, I have still been taking photography assignments from my agent, Panos Pictures, NGOs and the media. Nevertheless, I managed to found the FIRST LIGHT INSTITUTE OF PHOTOGRAPHY in Narayanganj (near Dhaka), Bangladesh in August, 2013. Along with guest master photographers, I am teaching photography in workshops and seminars for aspiring young photographers. The proceeds from this school go to help achieve my ultimate objective of providing basic education for street children, child sex workers, and child laborers.

2. While commercial photography has become a lucrative profession and is the most sought after, what distinguishes a humanitarian photographer from his/her commercial counterpart?

Simply put, I do photography for passion, not for money. I need money as I have to live a decent life in society and most importantly I need funds for my photography tours, projects etc. The difference is that with my pictures I feel a duty as a photographer and an artist to point to every aspect of existence in society and in the world in which I live.  I am compelled to show what can be shown, to go deep into every milieu and into every aspect of poverty, deprivation and hardship that I encounter. For me the only sin for a photographer is to turn his/her head and look away. Commercial work never inspires me. With respect to my fellow colleagues, commercial work is its own kind. As a freelance photojournalist you never know when you will get the next job while commercial work usually has certain flow of income. The industry is getting more and more complex; not for the competition but for the nepotism. A humanitarian photographer goes through continual hardship, trauma and difficulties for his/her projects. To support my projects in addition to funding from assignments, I give courses at my school (www.firstlightphotoschool.com), I give one-on-one personalized workshops in Bangladesh. I also work as an advisor and an online-interactive master photographer teacher for The Compelling Image. All of these kinds of different activities are the fuel to operate my photography projects.

3. How would you describe your photography to someone who has never come across it before?

My photography is very ordinary. What is extraordinary are the people in the photographs. You may have seen these kinds of people every day. You might have never paid attention to them but they all have lives and untold stories. My photography is really very simple. If you want to get inspiration from the most unlikely people, please have a closer look at them.  If you want to get to know the bitterest truth of life from someone, pay attention to my images. My images are nothing but a canvas of life.

4. How do you approach strangers while documenting your photographs?

I search for an interesting character; a face or a story that may be very common and usually unnoticeable. I search for faces in the middle of a crowd. Before I take any portrait, I try to become familiar with the person. I talk to them and try to build a relationship with the person. Only then will I photograph. I give them time to be normal in front of my camera. I introduce myself to them. When the person gives his/her most natural expression to me, I take out my camera and start shooting. I believe it is the strongest factor which I practice so far to get a close snap of a human soul.

5. You have covered a few social stigmas from prostitution in Nepal, the plight of child labour in Bangladesh to the high suicide rate amongst cotton farmers in India and seasonal workers in Pakistan. As a photographer, what are your worrying concerns while covering such stories? How do you then spread awareness through your photographs?

To be able to articulate the experiences of the voiceless and to bring their identities to the forefront gives meaning and purpose to my own life. When I cover such social stigmas I feel an urge to deliver those untold stories to the world’s table and ask the people to walk up and see. My deepest personal concern is to get to the root of the situation. I continue to work with the hope that I can bring possible changes. Even the smallest change in a situation matters a lot to me. I never keep my images locked-up in secret folders and I never hide them away for possible future awards. The moment I shoot and I feel the image has developed intensely, I show it to the world through my website, my blog, various social networking sites, exhibitions etc. I believe that when I will be able to reach more and more people with my image stories; there will be a greater chance for positive changes.    

6. When you are out and about on a project or assignment what subjects or things do you look for or seek out?

I do not do anything in hurry. In fact, even if it is a small part of my assignments, I always give time to the project I do. I take time to understand the circumstances. I often study the strengths and weakness that the project has. While doing any project or assignment I am always seeking out human dignity through my lens.

7. What do you try to capture in a person’s portrait for you to be satisfied with your photograph?

I see the beauty of people and the human soul in the pictures I take. And though the circumstances of some of the people I portray may be grim, back-breaking, depraved, the people themselves are always remarkable characters and souls. There is great pleasure in meeting people who are despised by the world, in sharing a cup of tea with them and discovering that they are still capable of affection, though they themselves go unloved.

8. How do you cultivate your vision? What inspires your work?

My thirst to discover something new helps me to grow my vision. I can consistently work in one place, on one subject for a whole day. I believe every photographer should develop their senses in order to explore their images. Many things inspire me. It can be beautiful colors, wonderful light or unusual compositions. But the main inspiration lies in my heart.  The moment I feel something tug at my heart is the moment that inspires me the most.

9. It is only because of the works of photojournalists such as yourself that the third world problems get to see the light of the day. Which other photojournalists do you admire and why?

I very much admire Sebastiao Salgado. His work is a rich resource of inspiration. Also James Natchway is one of the most inspiring photographers as well as person for me. His every work inspires me. This photographer evokes the wars of the world but delivers the message of peace for the world.

10. The way you use natural light and colors in your photographs is inspiring. How do you use the available light and make the most of the available colors to your advantage in your street photography, which includes taking candid shots?

I am always fascinated by color.  Color arouses the depth of the sight that I get in my work.  I capture color in different moods in different parts of the world. But I discovered that people who are fighting endlessly to survive are more colorful than in many other parts of the world. Because of this, color is more challenging to me. I take this challenge to explore the unrevealed spirit through every capture of mine. I realize I have no power to deny the color of these colorful people who are struggling in a colorless, hopeless world. Nevertheless they live and smile. So I cannot ignore the yellow balloon of a homeless child or even a red bowl of a beggar on the street. This inspiration inspires me to work with color. Therefore, I continue my journey on the path of a colorless world to meet with all these colorful souls. For getting magical light I always shoot just before sunrise or just after sunset. It is during these times that light is truly magical. Besides these times, I always love to experiment. While I am shooting in the street I try to use the best available natural light and color in my images.

11. Considering our contemporary market forces, must a photographer compromise between his/her passion and salary? Perhaps you have an observation on the larger economic incentives at work?

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, ‘dreams and money both’. Now I have enough to live my life and live my dream. It did not come in the 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 luxurious home, photojournalism is not for you. Yes, competition in the field makes everything complex. A lot of cliques and biases are slowing down otherwise promising photographers. Oftentimes new photographers are providing images to websites 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.

12. What equipment and software do you make use of in your work flow?

Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon 5D mark II camera, Canon 35mm f/1.4 lens, Canon 24mm f/1.4 lens, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 Mark II lens, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 mark II lens, Light room for processing my work.

13. Do you have any kind words of advice for our readers who are inspired by you and would want to follow in your footsteps?

Never take life for granted. Take a moment to realize how blessed you are. Appreciate what you have. A meaningful life is not being rich, being popular, being highly educated or being perfect. It is about being real, being humble, being strong and being able to share ourselves and touch the lives of others. It is only then that we can have a full, happy and contented life. Let us all unite in the name of Humanity! May our daily choices be a reflection of our deepest values and may we use our voices to speak for those who need us most: those who have no voices, those who have no choices!

14. Where can our readers keep a track of all your works and the news you make? (Please share all the links to your online presence here)

GMB Akash

Web:        www.gmb-akash.com

Archive:    www.akash-images.com

Blog:        www.gmbakash.wordpress.com

School:     www.firstlightphotoschool.com

Face book: www.facebook.com/gmb.akash.9

Twitter:    www.twitter.com/gmb_akash

https:  //instagram.com/gmbakash/

More Photos by GMB Akash

  • Something you’re still learning as a photographer: How to become a good human being every day. My photo journey compels me to discover smallest pleasure of life that I was never aware of. Thus seeking humanity on me is a everyday learning process for me. 
  • Favorite photographer: Steve MacCurry ,Sebastiao Salgado and  James Nachtwey. And all other Photographers who are asking the world to wake up.
  • Favorite shoot subject: Human faces. Portraits are always precious to me as subject.
  • Best appreciation you have received on your photograph: 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.
  • One photography achievement you are fond of: When a sister from brothel keeps sweets for me, a child labor offer his bread to share, all love and respect I receive every day for my works are  my achievements bigger than any awards.