Photographer GMB Akash Flashes The Strength That Lies Behind The Smiles Of The Voiceless
- IWB Post
- August 20, 2018
A photographer is not just a person with a camera, but someone with the ability to share a story through pictures. GMB Akash, an award-winning photographer from Bangladesh captures both people and hearts with his work. He has worked for many prestigious platforms like National Geographic, Vogue, Time, The Guardian, and Marie Claire, etc.
His project, ‘Heroes of Life,’ has touched many people around the world. His pictures display those who smile even though they are stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty. The series also captures the LGBTQ community, the oppressed classes, and women who are forced into prostitution due to poverty.
I had the wonderful opportunity of speaking to him and his story has impacted me in a huge way.
What inspired you to start a project like this?
‘Heroes of life’ is about the real-life experiences of some incredible human beings who encounter hardship, suffering, and struggles but always find their way to love and light. They belong to the lowest chunk of the society and their voices and stories remain unheard and undiscovered. I wanted to be the voice of the voiceless.
To pursue my journey, I have to travel every single day of my life. I continue to knock at the door of every deprived soul I meet on my way. Everyone has a story and some people have extraordinary stories. I pour my heart and soul to bring out those extraordinary chapters of human life from those people who are very ordinary to the world.
Till now I have shared 1% of the images and stories with the world. If I continue to share everything for the rest of my life, I don’t think I will be able to share even half of the memories that I have captured. My mission was not only to document the life of those incredible human beings but also to provide them with a source of income so that they can get a chance to give a fight against every odd they have faced. And I continue walking through the roads of adversity.
With the light of photography, I see things differently, I discover humanity profoundly. In the journey of light, I go into the deep milieu of human existence. I am a light bearer who sees beauty in ugliness, strength in fragility, and love in the lost.
Did you manage to help some of them?
It’s been twenty years since I started working as a professional photographer. I have traveled more than fifty countries and worked on a wide variety of projects. My project, “Survivors” depicts the invincibility of the human spirit to survive against all odds. It focuses on the people at the bottom of societies – those who must struggle on a daily basis, simply to survive. Deprived of even life’s barest necessities, these people still manage to live each day with a smile on their face. I published the project in a form of book in 2013.
It’s been a journey that portrays not just people, but the varied and undeserved circumstances they are in — a battle that is fought in large part, with little more than a fleeting smile.
‘Survivors’ remains close to my heart, but not because it was a long and challenging project. I still bear this to my heart, as I have been able to change the lives of people depicted in the book. I have funded 30 Survivors families with what I had earned from selling my book ‘Survivors’. It continues to fund the people I photograph. Also, a portion of the bookselling price goes for buying food, education material for more than 500 unprivileged children. I am also building a school for unprivileged children. When I see that the book has changed their lives and made them self-sufficient, especially when I see a response in those eyes, I take the pride in that moment. Then I feel that by giving I have already received more.
How do you connect with people you photograph?
With every picture I take, I enter a space that is unknown to me as a photographer. Every person I meet has a story. Everyone has something to convey through their photograph. The person I will be photographing isn’t just a subject. They have their say; they have their emotions. Their consent is equally important to allow me to be their storyteller. I never take out my camera at the beginning. Time is the most precious thing of all to build relationships and it works silently. Time helps to take away anxiety, fill up gaps, and bring validation. I would say that I am a very good listener.
Their expressions become natural and they are no longer strangers, but companions on my photography journey.
What is one story from ‘Heroes of life’ that touched you the most?
There was a sex worker who went through a forced abortion. She had to attend a client the next day after she came back from the hospital. When I visited her she told me, ‘Akash Bhai, I will meet my child in heaven! Do you think he can recognize me?’ That was seven years ago; the day that I started writing my diary. I started to note poignant stories of those miserable souls. I realized that these people are the world’s best philosophers. Life teaches them the best philosophy.
I found out how beautifully they had met pain. From the ashes of unhappiness, they rose again. My emotional thirst and their vulgar realities shook up many nights of mine. The sister in the brothel who keeps sweets for me never wanted anything in return. The people who never receive love know how to love selflessly. Their laughter in the world’s saddest place and their honesty in the most deceiving place made it possible for me to do that series. I wanted to show how beautiful some souls can be and how caring some can be in the world’s most neglected place.
How and when did your journey with photography and photojournalism begin?
Twenty years ago, a boy from nowhere dreamed of having a life that he truly wanted to live. A life that is worth living, worth dreaming. 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’ did not exist in the circles that I was brought up in.
I have been criticized for my dream every single day. When I was working with the gay community, people called me gay, when I was documenting sex workers, people pointed at my character, when I was documenting child laborers, people said he was selling poverty. I only listened to what my heart told me, that is to bring out the truth in the light.
I try to capture the beauty of the people and their souls. Though the real circumstance of some of the people I portray, may be grim, they are all strong individuals with remarkable characters. As a photographer, I feel it is my task to show the world these “unseen realities” and to shed light on what most of us never see with our own eyes. I want to show the things that simply “shouldn’t be.”
My journey connects me with the many characters. Sometimes I had to run, take a ride on the roof of a moving train, sleep on a flooded floor and spend many hours walking the maze of avenues through sprawling city slums. It is the reach of my protagonists, the welcome into their homes and their lives, that makes my work worthwhile. And at the end, if the hand that blocks the scorching sun from their eyes, is mine, and it brings shade for just a single minute, then there’s value in the work I do. During the last twenty years, every person I met had a story to tell. I pour out their soul and I continue to write the narrative of their life experiences. I try to write and capture the beauty of the people and their souls.
You’ve talked about moments when you and your subject were simply sitting together without speaking a word. What was one of the most meaningful silences that you can recollect?
Sometimes silence speaks louder than words. I was out of words when I listened to experiences of rape victims, sex workers, acid survivors, mostly women. Listening to such trauma caused me heartache, too. I often felt an unbearable pain that causes me to be breathless. That’s why we remain silent at the time. Those silent moments help me to recover my existence as a photographer who has a duty to show the truth to the world. The most difficult job is to hold that emotion and continue to document their life that the world knows nothing about. The most interesting fact is that after some period of silence most of them smile to me, would ask me if I wanted something to eat. Suddenly, we would stop talking about those incurable scars that were stubbing our hearts just minutes ago. They would smile at me with the tears rolling all over their faces, those moments are precious and I am unable to depict that in my camera or by my words.
What difference do you observe in people once they open up their tragedies?
Pain changes people. Heartache has brought a difference in every human soul I met. I saw how tragedies deeply affect human psychology and their philosophy about life. Often time I witnessed how people opened up their wound and then shine through it. Sometimes someone may cry an ocean, sometimes someone remained just like a stone. But I saw the light on them. They were different people, very different than you and me. The tragedy changed them as human beings. Theirs wound turned into wisdom, and their sufferings became their strength. Magnificently, they rose above everything.
What did you learn from women that you have photographed?
I have learned that a beautiful soul is always beautiful. No amount of dirt can stain a pure heart. A woman can fight any battle for the one she loves. She never quits no matter how hard the struggle may seem.
And beauty? Do you see it differently now?
There is a beauty about a woman whose confidence comes from experiences; who knows she can fall, pick herself up, and move on. I had a conversation with a sister from a brothel. She told me that her beauty comes from heartbreak and betrayal. Then I learned it’s important to have heartbreak, it’s important to be betrayed, it’s very important to learn you can survive any form of suffering. Pain helps you grow; it takes your soul in a place where nothing and no one can reach you anymore.
Have you ever fallen in love with your photography muses?
I am a very emotional person. I fall in love with the people I work. I easily become a friend to them. I have lunch with day laborers and have chai and bun with street people. All the time, I fall in love with the charismatic characters I have met. Whenever I am going to attend any talk, to exhibit any of my exhibitions I take all of them with me, their words, their warm hugs, their sweaty smiles glued on my eyes and I never can take off my eyes from them. When I speak, I speak for them. There are many people I have already lost, and have no contact. I have no idea if they are alive or not, but I never let them go from my heart.
What is that moment when you take your camera out of your bag? Do you ask them to pose, or does it happen naturally?
As a photojournalist, I am supposed to ask rational questions as a pattern of the interview. But I never did that. It’s a conversation of a fellow human with another human; it’s a connection from soul to soul. Why you would open up to a stranger, especially to a man with a camera?
Nobody opens up in such a way. Everyone has a story and some people have an extraordinary story, until you go close to them you would never know that. I never asked anyone, ‘What is your most memorable life experience?’ never. I invite them for a conversation.
The evening light or my friendly gesture, or our jokes and smiles help the other person to open up, open up about the biggest tragedy or memorable moments of life. Honesty is very important. When someone looks at me they can see how honestly I want to hear them and how much dedication I am putting into the work I am doing to reveal their life experiences.
I have never been rejected by anyone to speak to me. And they have to be natural in my camera. I take time, a lot of time to go deeper into the milieu. I never take pictures instantly because they would not be good. I wouldn’t know the people I met nor understand the place I had just entered – my photography would be bland and meaningless. But there is always that moment when it feels completely natural to open my camera. With time the people around me become relaxed and the curiosity of their eyes is replaced with a warm welcome.
Suddenly, I have a friendly conversation, or the afternoon light makes them feel at ease. Then I take out my camera and for me and everybody around me, it is the most natural thing to do. There is consent. People don’t accuse me, or reject me or pose for me in unnatural ways. They are just there, doing what they normally do. Then I click away. It feels like a conversation; a conversation between me and the people, between me and the location, between me and the light, between me and the souls that make this place alive. During such moments a landscape becomes a ‘soulscape’.
What are the stories of the youngest and oldest women you captured with your camera?
‘I got married at the age of twelve. My husband was twice my age. I cried the whole night by sitting on my wedding bed. He was embarrassed. He shyly said he would allow me to do whatever I wanted to do. He kept his promise. He brought me dolls to play with. But my in-laws did not like my freedom. They asked him to send me back to my parents. When their torture became intolerable, by holding my hands he left his parent’s house. Here, we built our heaven fifty years ago. I played with dolls and then with my five children. By fishing, he earned a living for us. Every corner of our hut was built by him. I used to sit beside him, singing songs and he continued to repair our broken bamboo walls. One night he left me alone, he died in his sleep with a slight smile on his face. Our house was his existence for me. I used to touch the fence, the wall and could feel him there. During Aila, the flood washed my hut away. Now there is no sign of my home. Still, I come here to find a sign of my existence, try to find him in my lost home’ – Saira Begum.
Can you show us pictures that depict the following?
Akash continues to be a voice for the people who are unheard. You can follow his work on Facebook, Instagram, and his blog. You can also find more information about his school and his work on his website.
This article was first published on June 1, 2017.