Farhad Rahman wears many hats. The travel and documentary photographer works as a lecturer at Pathshala, Bangladesh’s eminent visual arts school, as well as freelances as an assistant curator and graphic designer. Interested in transitions and the effects of urbanisation, he has personal work on Cambodia and Myanmar but is best known for Song of a Coast, a lyrical on-going project documenting the changes to Bangladesh’s coastal areas.
Welcome to Kuala Lumpur. You’ve spent the past few days walking around and taking photographs. So which comes first? Travel for photography or do you photograph while you travel?
I travel for photography. Where I go depends on the situations and the projects that I am working on. For example, when I’m working on the coastal line of Bangladesh, then I’ll travel along the coast of Bangladesh. I’ll be more focused on my project, looking for subjects that will enrich my project. For new places that are not related to my work, something will come to mind that will build a relationship with my other work as I’m out exploring.
Photographing while travelling gives me a feeling that it’s not only about photography but about the relationship between myself and that place. For example, when I was taking photographs of Kampung Baru, I realise that I’ve never seen Kuala Lumpur in this way. Now I’m more attached to the ambience of the city.
Let’s talk about your project Song of a Coast. What was the genesis of this work?
Honestly speaking, a lot has been done in Bangladesh. We have a very good photography school and many good photographers, so everyone is always searching for a new project or a new theme. When I was a final year student of Pathshala in 2014, I found that so many projects have been done on Bangladesh’s coastal area. That time I was very much influenced by Carl de Keyzer and his work Moments Before the Flood, documenting the European coastal line. I really love this work and thought why not document my own place in my own way. I started with Kuakata in the Potuakhali district and Munem Wasif, who was my instructor, wanted me to concentrate on this one place. I’ve since decided to expand the project to include the entire coastal area, from east to west. I want to continue shooting this project for the next ten years.
You work in the deadpan, or as you call it, slow aesthetic style, which has a poetic quality to it but there can be issues in weaving a narrative together. How do you tell your story with this series?
There are so many aspects to the issues surrounding Bangladesh’s coastal areas. How is global warming affecting the lives of the people? What about the tourism industry in Bangladesh that is reliant on the coastal area such as the beaches, the resorts? My focus is on the effects of climate change and how it is changing the coastal areas. As sea levels are increasing and the land is disappearing into the water, people will have to move from their homes. If I travel to a place and return to it a year later, I will find a completely different landscape. The slow aesthetic helps me to relate and document the remaining past of the people with the landscape as they are going through this transitional stage. With the slowness, I’ve tried to weave it together like a musical composition.
You said in another interview that you didn’t want to represent Bangladesh as all about suffering or devastation.
Yes. It is the same thing with the Rohingya issue. There’s a lot of controversy about the images online about how the refugees are depicted. People are suffering but why do I only have to show the suffering? Every photographer has been there but I don’t want to go there only to photograph. To volunteer, yes. Someone told me that images glamourise poverty but I never see people in that way. I just see them as people.
How did you get started with the slow aesthetic?
It was during the Angkor Photo Workshop. Before the workshop, I worked with a wide angle lens and was more into street and people photography. But I was getting bored of doing that kind of photography, and I wanted to learn something more. Inspired by Eggleston, I tried my hand at the deadpan aesthetic photographing Dhaka. I wanted to be an architect, so I have a strong understanding of perspectives and I see things in a structured way.
At the workshop, I met with my tutors, Kosuke Okahara and Andrea Star Reese, and showed them my latest work. Kosuke said they were just OK. I was a bit demotivated because I thought the photos were extremely good. But after six days or so, I realised that they were right. I had to learn how to see, feel and take images in the slow aesthetic style. I don’t work with a large format camera, which requires you to slow down; you could be taking one image an hour, and it is more organised and calculative. I started following the works of Alec Soth and Stephen Shore, and how they work. I even did a road trip in the United States, following Shore’s road trip along Route 66.
Why do you think this style suits you?
It depends on the personality. If you know me personally, you’d know that I’m not a fast-going guy. I love to stay and travel alone. I can stay in the corner of a room, just observing, or just to feel the ambience before taking a photograph. Your personality would influence your choice of aesthetics.
What would you say is a recurring theme in your work?
All my work is related to transitions, changes and urbanisation. If you see my work One Last Playground, it is about urbanisation; the children won’t have a playground anymore because of development. I tried to fantasise about their childhood and relate it to my own, hence putting everything into a kiddish way. It’s not simple. I spent four months working to gain their trust, which I eventually did, and they were soon giving their own ideas of what to work with for the photographs. It’s an interesting two-way communication happening. It was not only about me. They helped me build the images.
You took a circuitous route to photography, having studied leather engineering then working in advertising before settling on photography.
I have been doing photography since my 12th grade. But I never thought of being a photographer because I thought I wanted to be an architect or to do my PhD and be a scientist. Photography was my last choice.
In 2010, I was selected for a TV reality show based on photography. I made it into the Top Ten. Before this, my parents never wanted me to pursue a career in photography because it was not accepted as a profession. But during the reality show, I was on TV and on the billboards, so my parents felt they had a celebrity child. I didn’t win the competition but I was the first runner-up. After I had completed my graduation finals, my parents actually asked me if I wanted to pursue photography or to stick to my field. I said I still wanted to do photography as a hobby.
I then worked for an advertising firm as a marketing planner but eventually wanted a change. I saw an advertisement about a photography programme in Pathshala. I talked to my parents about it, nervous they wouldn’t approve of it but to my shock, they said OK. I realised then that this was the field that I wanted to be in because every time I do photography, I have all these new feelings and I never become bored. Photography changed my life.
You’re a lecturer at the influential Pathshala South Asia Media Institute. What would you say are Pathshala and founder and director, Shahidul Alam’s, influence on photography in Bangladesh?
The school has different techniques of doing photography but the most important lesson they teach is helping you learn and fall in love with photography. They will light the spark inside you. If you have a passion and dedication for photography, the school will increase it. Taking good images is not the big deal. If you practise the technical parts of it for a few months, you will definitely learn something good. But how can you be different from the others if you don’t know yourself and don’t know how to see the world in a different way? The school teaches you how to find yourself, see the world and fall in love with the medium.
Shahidul Alam is the main man behind all this. He doesn’t teach at the school anymore but comes by once in awhile to teach some classes in the third year. He teaches the business side of photography, how to sell and market yourself, and how to survive as an artist and photographer. He has a big number of soldiers to help him educate others about photography. If he hadn’t founded the school, the situation of photography in Bangladesh would not be like this.
As a young photographer in Bangladesh, what are your opportunities?
For people like me who do only personal work, we have to depend on selling stock images and on publications. So besides being a photographer and a teacher, I also work as a freelance designer and a freelance assistant curator, working with Drik and Chobi Mela. I have to do so many things. You have to be day labourer if you want to be able to pursue your own projects.
What project are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a project called Dreams. It’s about the subconscious state of mind. I’ve always been into fantasy and the imagination, to see the world from different perspectives. It started when I saw a white peacock. It gave me a different feeling, almost dream-like, and I took the photograph. For this work, I’m not looking for images all the time, only when I come across a situation which gives me a dream-like feeling. In two years, I’ve only made 12 images for the project.
Finally, why do you photograph?
That’s a big question. Put simply, it gives me peace of mind. When I started taking photographs, I was frustrated by so many things; my career, my personal life, my relationships. But one thing that has never betrayed me is photography. It gives me this energy that I can only get from photographing. I choose photography as my way of expressing myself and how I see the world. Rather than talking about my feelings, I prefer to show my images.
Published in January 2018
*Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.