Dhaka, Bangladesh based photojournalist Jannatul Mawa raises a powerful voice against many of the issues currently facing her country (and the world) through her work.
After working as an activist for many years and harboring the dreams of becoming a painter, Jannatul eventually found herself in the world of photography, thanks to her education (BA in photojournalism) at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in Dhaka. She started her photography career with UNICEF, and has now had her work showcased in various publications, books and exhibitions around the world.
Through her photography work, she has covered a wide variety of subjects including the rights of women, class divide, and her own personal relationship with her daughter. We connected with Jannatul to talk at length about these subjects and about many other aspects of her life and work in Bangladesh.
Tell us something about your childhood.
I had spent my early childhood in my maternal grandparents’ house. While I began my pre-schooling there, my proper schooling was in Dhaka, where I was brought up in a Bengali middle class family. In my childhood, along with my three siblings, I had to cope up with the strong discipline enforced upon us by my family. This wasn’t an interesting phase for us.
You wanted to become a painter first. When did the interest in photography begin?
Despite my strong desire and dream to be a painter, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to an art school as my family didn’t want me to. This kept me quite frustrated and depressed for some time. However, when I eventually got involved in the struggle for people’s freedom, I realized that I couldn’t have done anything better than that. That was the best time in my life till then.
This insight got even stronger when I joined the work for prevention of violence against women and promoting women’s empowerment. For this, I had worked in quite a few villages. After seven years though, I had to quit the job to ensure better schooling for my child. It was then that I developed the desire of studying cinema. However, after being in a particular profession for so long, moving to the massive field of cinema was quite overwhelming. So during this transition, I decided to come to Pathshala to learn photography. With my natural attraction and passion towards photography, I began working in this medium.
How was the experience of studying in Pathshala?
Like I said, I never had a desire to be a photographer initially. Because of my vision of being in the cinema, I started off with photography. If I had not come to Pathshala, I wouldn’t have continued photography this way.
There are some teachers here whose own passion and energy influence the students to take photography very seriously. The whole environment and culture in Pathshala help the students to develop fascination towards photography. The curriculum is designed in a way that the students don’t have any other option except to get intensely involved with the medium.
When I eventually got involved in the struggle for people’s freedom, I realized that I couldn’t have done anything better than that.
How do you balance between your commercial and personal project?
I usually adopt a strategy — I take long-term personal projects and use my own funds for them, so that I can work on those freely and spend as much time on them as required. My desire and passion for personal work helps me overcome all the challenges they entail. On the other hand, for commercial works, I only do short-term assignments to sustain my livelihood. However, I don’t do much commercial work as I have financial support from my family.
How would you describe your photographic approach?
The content is very important in my photography. Instead of doing work based on a particular aesthetic or language, I take the content as my foundation, try to understand the mood of the work, and then take an innate approach towards it. And, therefore, the style of storytelling doesn’t remain same for any of the project.
I am very poetic and melodious when I narrate a personal story through my photographs. However, when I document inequality, then the work is formal, minimalistic, with less speed, color and drama.
Your project ‘Close Distance’ is quite interesting. What triggered it initially?
At the time when there is so much unrest and political, economic and social crisis all over the world, I felt that it was essential to work on one such issue. I feel that the group that’s powerful continues to be richer by forcing others to be in a helpless situation. Humans create and nurture this human discrimination, and you don’t need to go far to explore this inequity.
In our own homes, our distance with those who give us all comfort and help depicts how immense the class-discrimination is! I personally have been raised with the heartfelt care of housemaids. While my life changed for the better because of that, their lives did not. Today I can earn money, do social work and pursue photography, only because I have someone like them to take care of my house. In general, this was my inspiration behind this work.
A lot of people believe in ‘Art for art’s sake’ and then there are artists who believe that art must reflect and bring about a change in society. Where does your work fall in this spectrum?
There have been a number of debates about this. I take pictures because I am accountable to the society. In fact, an artist cannot be a socially-alienated human being. For example, if class division exists in a society, the artist’s thoughts and creation can’t really stay out of that issue. The artist has to take a position. He or she could take the side of the ruling class or uphold the hopes, desires and expectations of the disadvantaged.
In my case, the class division is reflected in different aspects of our life, including our behaviors and thoughts. From the way I see discrimination as an activist, I try to do everything that’s required to overcome the situation. Not only through the medium of photography, I have kept myself engaged through many other efforts essential to bring about a change.
How much do you think that photo-stories like Close Distance can change things for the better?
I know that a photo can’t create an overnight change in human relations and social discrimination that has existed for generations and has many historical perspectives. Those who are privileged won’t agree so easily to give up their advantages. While I took these photographs of people from two different classes, they are particularly intended for those who are in the privileged position. I would like to think that this work will create an impulse in the society to change our attitudes towards housemaids.
I am also interested to talk about your project Finding Neverland, which is inspired by your daughter.
Finding Neverland is about a feeling and contradiction that my daughter and I share about our current urban life and the bygone time in the rural area where we lived but can’t go back to now.
There was a time when my work required me to be ‘exiled’ in a small rural town, and my daughter was born there. And for the first time, I had a real relationship in my life. We soon became dependent on each other, sharing an unconditional love. In the course of time, my daughter came to care for me even more than for herself. Because of our limitless tolerance, our lives were wild — more like gypsies. If we had been more courageous, perhaps we would have never returned to the city. But family, relationships and the sense of ‘accountability’ drew us back to Dhaka. In fact, I decided to move here for her better schooling.
Back in the city, the struggle of hiding our true selves began as we got into the mechanized city life. Everything here is measured — home, relationships, and even love. I could often see my daughter’s eyes filled with tears as I was not able to devote too much time to her. Thus, the dilemma of ‘returning to the bygone life’ began. Our former life — our home, the field, the river, the jungle and the broken school with its flag waving in the wind — countless memories beckoned us like a wild kind of love for a place to which we will never return. Finding Neverland is the poetic presentation of all this.
Do you think that being a woman brings any particular qualities or sensibilities to the work as an artist?
In my view, men and women observe things differently. Our society is highly masculine; the boys grow up in a privileged way and girls in a completely opposite way. The girls must always struggle twice as hard as the boys. As a result, men and women have different perspectives on people, society and possessions. The demands, expectations and problems of the two sexes are also diverse. The perspective of a female artist is, therefore, very important. In her view, similarity and difference and what is right and what is wrong are understood differently from the way they would be seen by a male artist.
What has been your most important learning from photography?
I think I have learnt how to move slowly and be thorough through photography. Further, I have learned how to observe things through an impersonal journey.
I take pictures because I am accountable to the society. In fact, an artist cannot be a socially-alienated human being.
How does Bangladesh inspire you and your work?
The birth of our country came through a war. The language we speak today came to us in exchange of lives. As a nation, I feel we are quite the fighters. This inspires me very much, despite the many other limitations we have. The aspect that I like the most about Bangladesh is its incomparable hospitality.
While chaos and anarchy exist in the whole world due to global politics and the practice of greedy/egocentric politics, we are confronting challenges and pursuing our work. Even as many of our progressive friends have been killed, our artists continue doing their work, converting the condolences to power.
Who are the photographers / artists around the world whom you really admire?
It’s very difficult to answer this question — the list will be too long! I love to read all kinds of work. During my student life, one of my teachers gave me someone’s work to assess and when I said I didn’t like it, he wanted to know my reasoning behind that.
When I couldn’t respond to that, he said that in order to like or dislike someone’s work, it is necessary to understand and study the work well. Irrespective of who the artist is, the work that combines concept, content, and aesthetics encourages me. This can be work of my fellow classmates or of an artist from any part of the world.
I am also inspired from the technical skills and aesthetics of many fashion photographers.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on two series currently. I am making a series about middle-class housewives of Bangladesh. I am about halfway through that project.
It hasn’t been long since women used to believe that their destiny is basically living with their in-laws and their responsibility is taking care of everyone. Earning a living, managing social responsibilities and other such areas were meant for men, while women were seen as the homemakers. The world is moving at a fast pace and social structures are beginning to change. That effect can also be seen in the Bengali middle-class households. Women have begun to explore other professions aside from teaching (the profession traditionally considered suitable for a woman). Women’s responsibilities have increased, both at home and outside. Life has become much more complex.
Women who do not have financial freedom are dependent on their husband or other male members of the family. That is why, in many cases, they are not properly respected. But I think it is up to the women to define the mainstream culture. We have to ensure that women are able to enter the workforce. If we fail to do so, the money spent on their education will simply go to waste.
I have also started a new work on the women freedom fighters who were raped during the 1971 Liberation War. But this work is still at its research stage.
The content is very important in my photography. Instead of doing work based on a particular aesthetic or language, I take the content as my foundation, try to understand the mood of the work, and then take an innate approach towards it.
What are some of the things in music / books etc. that really inspire you?
Many things inspire me like nature, music, literature, dance, drama, and movies. These are all interlinked. Sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly we take ideas and inspiration from them.
In fact, all these forms are a kind of emotion and expression taken from life itself. There are immediate effects that move me from my own state to other locations and help me do something new and creative. Especially, any form of literature or write-up — I visualize the characters and even hear their voices.
What is on your mind currently?
The whole world is in a disruptive political situation, and naturally, and its adverse impact has also reached us. It was inevitable due to capitalism and wrong politics. But there’s no way I will accept even a bit of this anarchy, turmoil, sabotage and devastation.
In the past, all this was in a separate land, and only reached me through electronic and print media, but today, these issues are in my homeland. I do feel helpless in this situation. However, I also know that we need to do something more radical and effective. It is essential that we get involved in everything that’s needed for the good and well-being of humanity, not just photography.
You can read the rest of the Issue 1 here.