Bangladeshi photographer Shadman Shahid was recently selected by the prestigious British Journal of Photography for its Ones to Watch–2016 list of emerging global photographic talent. A graduate of Dhaka's famous Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, his work emerges from a deeply personal space and expresses itself in moving documentary as well as intimate and carefully constructed psychological imaginings.

Last week, had a conversation with Shahid about his work, his vision and the challenges of being an artist in contemporary Bangladesh.

Tell us a bit about your family background. Was it artistic? And what drew you to the camera?
I was born to two loving and overprotective parents. They are both journalists. I grew up in a joint family and my paternal uncle was also living with us. He was an artist. I enjoyed his company and he was the resource for art, music and culture for me. However, I was too safe and satisfied with my life to be interested in art at that point. I started photography after he died very young. I like to think growing up watching him influenced me.

At one point in my life, I had decided to become a filmmaker. I wanted to hone my film-making skills. One of my Pathshala teachers introduced us to the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. About her photograph "The Echo”, the teacher said that “it’s one of those pictures that will haunt you at night when you are trying to sleep.” I could see what he meant and why he was so passionate about photography. It was one of the moments that drew me closer towards the camera.

'Untitled' (from Ajna)
'Untitled' (from Ajna)

Your work is characterised by a strong psychological and emotional undercurrent. On your website, you talk of turning the spiritual and invisible world into physical forms and about how, in that process, you confront entities and beings that you then try to describe with your camera. Some of these images are quite unsettling. This approach is in stark contrast to the traditional documentary style of much of South Asian photography. Your work, instead, appears to be a way to express your psychological dimension. Was your need to bare your soul a reason for taking up photography?
Yes, I agree completely. Most times my photography is personal and/or psychological. But, I am not sure if there was ever a need to “bare my soul,” really. My life has always been mundane and boring. And all throughout, I have been doing things to escape that boring reality. For me, photography was, and still is, one of the most efficient ways to escape. I find pleasure in experimenting, exploring and trying new things.

"Untitled" (from Ajna)

How has your work, especially the deeply personal work, been received back home? Given what we read about violent attacks on free thinkers in the Bangladesh, do you and others feel safe any more in your own country?
The work has gotten mixed reactions in Bangladesh. I think the most backlash this work got is from some of the more traditional photographers of this country. You know the ones who think that because I am an so-called Eastern photographer, I should photograph a certain way with a certain approach and philosophy. For them the work was a bit hard to swallow, I guess.

As for the second part of the question, I think you are gravely underestimating the situation here in Bangladesh. I can understand why – it’s because of what the international media deems newsworthy and what it doesn’t. But to answer your question, no, I don’t feel there is safety for me. Not because I consider myself a free thinker who poses any threat to a certain group of people but because it feels like there is no safety for anyone.

I can explain this better with an example. Almost two months ago, a man named Irfanul Islam was abducted from outside a bank in broad daylight, murdered, and his body was then dumped on the side of a road. He was a family man who worked a 9-5 job and never did anything to offend anyone in the slightest way. It has been almost two months and there has been no progress in finding his killers. This is just one of the many murders that have gone unpunished in recent times that you never read about. So there is no reason to feel that there is safety for anyone.

"Untitled" (from Ajna)

Another Day in Paradise, the title of your project, strikes me as ironic. Is it so? But I also get a feeling of familiarity with and affection for the landscape and people in those images.
I wouldn't call it ironic – at least, it wasn’t meant to be. The story is about the St Martin’s Island in Bangladesh. Locals say that the island appeared out of the sea after an earthquake a few hundred years ago. Legend has it that at first, the island was only inhabited by animals, fairies and other fantastical creatures. Then slowly, humans started to inhabit it. Now, there are almost 3,700 people living there. Their relationship with the island is a complex one. I wanted to document that.

"Untitled", from Another Day in Paradise

The series is a documentary, but it also includes strong surrealist images, like that of a man wearing a snorkel, the boy crouched on the sand etc.
Yes, you're right. When I was taking pictures of St Martin’s, I thought that taking that approach would communicate most clearly how I perceived and felt about that place.

"Untitled", from Another Day in Paradise

In your more private projects, Ajna for example, there is a strong glow of light emanating from the centre. How did you manage that effect? Indeed, your photography is very deliberate. Many images are constructed rather than captured. Does that pose a practical challenge for you?
The glow is achieved by a simple light-painting technique. For some of my photographs, I use multiple artificial lights to get the kind of picture that I want. It is a bit of a logistical challenge to create certain images sometimes, but I enjoy that.

"Untitled", from Another Day in Paradise

Finding people willing to be naked in front of a camera strikes me as a challenge and feat in itself. Can you share a bit about your process and way of working as an artist? What’s involved? Do you work with others as part of a team or alone?
Well, for example, I can’t just post an ad online saying nude models needed or something like that! Usually, I would find someone who knows someone who can help find the people or things I need to photograph. There are other challenges as well, but for me, they add to the enjoyment of the process. The picture that you're talking about with the nude women was a particularly challenging one. It was shot in the beach in Cox’s Bazaar and it wasn’t easy to manage. For most of my stories, I work with an assistant and I rely heavily on my friends and family.

"Untitled", from Ajna

The British Journal of Photography showcased your project White Elephant, about the new city of Chenggong in China, which is virtually a ghost town. That, by its very nature, is surreal. The project is closer to the straight documentary style. What compelled you to do this in China? And why move more towards the so-called mainstream (if we can consider documentary to be mainstream)?
I was part of a collaborative workshop between Oslo University College, Norway, Pathshala and MINO Art Center in China. It lasted for three months and I produced the work during that time. The content appealed to me because it sounded like a magical-realism story – a wholly functional city made for thousands, yet almost uninhabited. The premise had an apocalyptic vibe to it. It intrigued me and I wanted to know what the lives were like of the few who actually lived there.

"Untitled", from White Elephant

As for why I approached White Elephant differently… at that point of my life, I was bogged down by the pressure to create images. Prior to starting the project, I was working on another story on violence against women in Bangladesh. It was a fictional story, but the pictures were a retelling of real events. I was failing miserably, I felt stuck and suffocated and felt like I wasn’t progressing photographically. I wanted to go out, take as many pictures as I can and breathe a little. For White Elephant, I photographed every day for at least eight hours and it was very therapeutic for me.

"Untitled", from White Elephant

Do you see any connections between White Elephant and your other projects?
I do see connections, but I don’t want to spell them out. I would prefer if the audience make the connections themselves.

Is there a vibrant photography community in Bangladesh? Do you network or communicate with each other?
Yes, I think the photography community that I belong to in Bangladesh is very lively. It comprises mostly of alumni and current students of Pathshala. The members of the community are very supportive of each other (in most cases) and we are in almost constant communication. It’s like a family of Meerkats.

"Untitled" (from White Elephant )

Are there other surrealist (or at least non-documentary) photographers in South Asia that you are inspired by, or communicate with regularly?
I think these labels are limiting. I get inspired by photographers like Munem Wasif, Sarker Protick and Sohrab Hura. They are so-called documentary photographers, some might say, but there are surreal aspects to their works as well I think. I mean, for me it’s hard to put them in a box with a neat label you know, and that’s what I admire most about their work. There are a couple of other young photographers like me, whose work and approach towards photography I find very interesting. Debashish Chakrabarty and Mahtab Nafis.

What are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on a short film based on the story of a boy named Jihad who fell down a water pipe and died after the authorities were unable to rescue him. This happened almost a year ago. It’s going to be a fictional take on what his last moments might have been like. I am also working on a photographic project on body and our idea of beauty and deformation.

"Untitled" (from Ajna)