GMB Akash is a documentary photographer from Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has won over 100 international awards and his work has been featured in National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, The Guardian, and many more well-known publications.
He’s a busy man, but kindly took the time to answer some of our questions. I’d been dying to ask these ever since featuring him in my list of 10 of the Best Street Photographers You Should Be Following in 2017. Check it out here if you missed it.
Hello Akash. Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. First of all, I’d like to know more about life in Dhaka. What makes it such a compelling place for photography?
Dhaka is a city full of emotions. It’s a city that never gets tired. You will see colour, happiness, and excitement in all their forms. The people are expressive, welcoming and passionate. For photographers, coming to Dhaka will be the best investment.
You may travel to hundreds of countries, meet unforgettable faces in your life but after visiting Dhaka, the memory of this place will undoubtedly hold a permanent place in your heart. Dhaka people know magic; the magic of being happy in whatever condition. This makes the city the best destination for inspiration. You just need to be in the right place with the right people. In short, it’s ecstasy for Street and Documentary photographers.
I’ve heard you talk about the importance of building relationships with your subjects before photographing them. How do you begin the process?
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. Besides, I am a very good listener.
For building relationships, you have to understand your subject, their situation and most importantly you have to respond genuinely. There is a certain moment when you will feel natural in the scene; a moment when you are there invisibly though everyone can feel your presence and they know that you are seeing them from the core of your heart.
I approach honestly, listen without questioning, and give all of my time to let someone open up their soul. The moment they feel how much dedication I am pouring into building this connection, they become their best selves.
Their expressions become natural and they are no longer strangers, but companions on my photography journey.
You’ve documented some emotive and shocking subjects, such as in your series ‘The Bitterest Pill‘. How do you separate your personal feelings from your ability to take the pictures and tell the story? Or, as a photojournalist is it okay to be angry and emotional about the story you’re telling?
There was a sex worker who went through a forced abortion. She had to attend to a client the day 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 will be able to recognize me?’
That was seven years ago; the day I started writing in my diary for the first time. I started to note down the stories of these poignant souls.
I found these people are the world’s best philosophers. Life teaches them this philosophy. I found how beautifully they met with pain, and from the ashes of unhappiness, they rose again. My emotional thirst and their vulgar realities shook up many of my nights.
The sister in the brothel who keeps sweets for me never wanted anything in return. The people who never receive love deeply know how to love selflessly. Their laughter in the world’s saddest place, combined with their honesty made me able to do that series. I wanted to show the world how beautiful and caring some souls can be in the world’s most neglected place.
You run First Light Institute of Photography in Dhaka. What kind of people join your workshops?
What is required to be a student of First Light Institute of Photography? A photographer who is honest, a hard worker, a dreamer, a giver, and a self-believer can join us. First Light Institute of Photography started its journey in August 2013. We now have hundreds of students from all over the world.
After completing workshops, students of First Light establish a portfolio of impressive images, acquire technical proficiency, develop a refined artistic sensibility, and gain a practical understanding of the business of photography.
I mainly teach street and documentary Photography. I’ve also launched an exclusive One on One Photography Workshop a year ago and since then the program has been received with excellent reviews. So far, participants have come from Germany, the USA, Spain, Switzerland, Indonesia, Netherlands, Austria and Puerto Rico.
I have given this workshop in Bangladesh and have now designed it to go abroad to other countries. During six days, one participant has the opportunity to learn photography under my seasoned professional guidance. I spend six days sharing and teaching all my photography knowledge and secrets by taking participants to places where photographers dream to be. Check out my One on One workshop website with more details including video reviews here.
We are pleased to say that all income from First Light goes for giving free education to working children. First Light has sponsored more than 500 unprivileged children and continues to help them for a better future.
What has been your most inspiring encounter since you began your photography journey?
Twelve years ago I was doing a story in a slum. Black and white photography had been my preference up until then. I took a picture of a young woman who was a garment worker. While I went to take the picture of her, she suddenly disappeared. She showed up half an hour later in her new clothes, her hair tied in lace and wearing a gold earring.
Before I left her place, she excitedly requested to get some prints of her photos. The following week I made the prints and showed up at her door. I happily put the prints in her hand. In a second, her face clouded over and with a cold, sharp tone she said
“Do I only look poor to you? Don’t you see your picture has nothing? I saved a year’s salary to buy that gold earring, so where is it in your picture? Where is my floral red dress? And my yellow hair ribbon? Your picture is a lie.”
Those few sentences changed my perspective, technique, my images, and my entire reality.
You’ve won over 100 international awards. How did it feel the first time, and how did it feel the 100th time?
I never do photography to gain any award. My first rule is to capture what my eyes and heart catch. Taking photos to feed passion may be the most important invisible factor to win competitions. As a photographer, I learn to surprise myself. The work for any competition is worthy when you are reflected in your images. From the first to the hundredth award, recognition works as great inspiration. However, appreciation from individual people brings the best out of me.
Awards inspire me to go ahead. However, my main reward is when I reach people with my stories and open up a path to bring positive changes to those unfortunate fates of some people’s lives. I do not do photography as an art form to pursue certain goals in themselves, but to assign the power to myself in order to live my life through photography.
Many members of the PhotoBlog community are keen to improve their ability to tell stories through their images. What are the main challenges involved in storytelling?
Being a photographer is one of the best and most interesting professions, but also one of the most challenging. Overcoming these challenges is the most exciting thing you can do. It’s being able to go beyond your own borders. To me, unless I can elicit the feelings of the photograph through my camera, the picture seems meaningless. The main challenge is to communicate the deepest meaning of the photograph to the viewer’s heart. I want to present a photo that contributes magic and tells a story; an image that lights the viewer’s heart and mind.
Discover More From Documentary Photographer, GMB Akash
Thanks to GMB Akash for taking the time out to answer our questions. You can see even more of his incredible documentary photography on his website and Facebook page – be sure to follow him while you’re there!
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