The light fantastic: A glimpse of Bangladesh through photographer Sarker Protick’s eyes

Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick’s work offers intimate glimpses of his country.

Written by Somya Lakhani | New Delhi | Updated: February 10, 2016 3:08:50 pm
In 2015, Protick won the World Press Photo award for What Remains, an intimate series on his ailing grandparents. In 2015, Protick won the World Press Photo award for What Remains, an intimate series on his ailing grandparents.

On a hot afternoon in 2009, a bored college student in Dhaka, Bangladesh, pointed his cellphone camera at the sun and took a photograph. His phone crashed within minutes, trapping within it several of his other photos. This was Sarker Protick in 2009, a 23-year-old studying business management, with his heart set on music. But he persisted with photography and bought a basic DSLR camera.

In 2015, Protick won the World Press Photo award for What Remains, an intimate series on his ailing grandparents. With his camera set on a tripod, and long exposure that let more light in, the series on John and Prova — cancer and heart patients, respectively — consists of photographs in which the dominant mode is white, lending them an almost angelic mien. “When I started taking their pictures, they had something to look forward to. My relationship with them changed, as did the way I look at people their age,” says Protick. Prova passed away months after her grandson began shooting her. “When their illness worsened, I stopped shooting them. They looked so vulnerable, and I didn’t want to share that with the world,” he says.

This story has two primary characters, a river that represents nature and a community representing the humankind. Here, all these different people have a same voice, the same state. The narrative evolves between men and river and their relationship. It’s intimate and it’s ruthless. We find dependency and destruction at the same time. It’s a contradictory affair. The river gives so much to its people and at times it takes away everything. Riverbank erosion generally creates much more suffering than other natural hazards like flooding; as while flooding routinely destroys crops and damages property, erosion results in loss of farm and homestead land. In the winter of 2011, I travelled to the villages near Ishurdi district. Padma, the largest waterway of Bangladesh flows right beside. At first the place seems abandoned. Drowned and broken houses, floating trees are all that remains. These are traces of life that was once here. Slowly I discover life in the villages. People who are still living here, many as refugee in others land. They have lost their house, farmlands almost everything. Some has left the places as they ran out of all the options.While a global warming, climate change is still being questioned, here, like many other places is facing consequences. Over the years the river changed it’s course. While doing it, it has taken so many. When the monsoon arrives and the river runs fast. The lands get washed away and disappear. Places I have photographed do not exist any more. River erosion continues with dire consequences for this land and community. A photograph from Of Rivers and Lost Lands, a series on the Padma.

Since he took up photography seriously in 2011, Protick’s work has stood out from the clutter. It represents a new, more intimate way of looking at Bangladesh. “The traditional approach focusses on the misery here — acid attack victims, collapsing governments, and so on. That work is also mostly in black-and-white, while mine isn’t,” says Protick. What Remains won the World Press Photo award for a deeply personal story. “When I get an award like this, I feel as if the world is ready and eager to see this nation in a different light,” says Protick.

At the Delhi Photo Festival earlier this month, validation came in the form of crowds thronging his exhibition on the lawns of IGNCA. Starkly different from What Remains, this one had a rather bright colour palette. Love Me or Kill Me is a series on Dhallywood, the Dhaka film industry, but not its stars. With tight budgets, OTT costumes, dramatic action sequences and linear storylines, Protick found an industry in flux. “More than the lead actors, what really interested me were the extras, those behind the scenes, the fake-gun-toting gang members. They act and also work in the production team,” he says. While working on the series, he also ended up acting in a movie called Warning where he plays a journalist. “It’s just a small appearance. I was a asked to play a journalist because I walked around the set with a camera. And also because I have a beard,” says Protick. The series was exhibited at the Paris Biennale.

The Bangladeshi film industry—based in Dhaka, and so known as ‘Dhallywood’—has been going since 1956. Dhallywood movies have fallen out of favor among the richer classes, who prefer foreign films. The growing influence of Bollywood (Hindi cinema) films in Bangladesh has also had an adverse impact on the local industry. Yet the Dhallywood industry produces around 100 movies a year, and does still enjoy the support of many ordinary moviegoers.‘Love Me or Kill Me’ is the title of a Dhallywood film, one that expresses the extreme emotions that define the genre. Love and revenge are the core ingredients of our movies. The stories do not change much: boy meets girl, falls in love, bad guy takes girl away, and hero fights to get her back. There is always similar climax and a happy ending. People love it.When I was growing up in Dhaka, there was no cable TV except the national channel. Bangla film was for us the height of entertainment. Slowly, other films and TV channels took over. We didn’t think Dhallywood movies were cool anymore; they no longer played a part in my life. In the process of making photographs of Dhaka city I visited a film studio in F.D.C and was captivated by the colors, the light and the atmosphere. The events and details were odd, sometimes bizarre. The costumes are flashy, the sets and effects are cheap, and the colors are daring. There seems little contact with real life but I found it full of life. An image from Protick’s series on the Dhaka film industry.

All of his series are works in progress, and Protick keeps going back to them every few months. “Not taking pictures is also a part of photography. Sometimes you just have to forget about it and look at it from a fresh perspective later on,” says Protick. Currently, he is back to shooting Frantic, an early-2014 series on his relationship with Dhaka, and the people who are building it.

Like most of his generation, Protick is a product of the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. In 2009, with a DSLR in hand, but little idea of what to do with it, he applied for a three-year-long photography programme there at an uncle’s suggestion. In 2011, a visit to Chobi Mela, Bangladesh’s premier photography festival, inspired him to pursue the art form more seriously. He now teaches two courses at Pathshala and curated a projection of works by his students at the photo festival in Delhi recently. The recurring theme in Protik’s work is death and disappearance — from What Remains to the fake blood splattered on the floor in Love Me or Kill Me, from the disappearing banks of the Padma in Of Rivers and Lost Lands to his love-hate relationship with a city losing its innocence in Frantic. “Loss is a part of me. It has had a mark on my life, it haunts me. Death is every artist’s fetish because it’s the ultimate thing,” he says.

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