I caught up recently with 2018 SIPA honoree and overall winner KM Asad, an independent documentary photographer based in Bangladesh. He generously agreed to answer my questions via email. –Gina Williams
GW: Congrats on your amazing winning image from SIPA last year (“Battle Victim”). I understand it is part of your personal project, “Rohingya Crisis.” Is it correct that you decided to pursue this project independently? How difficult was it to get access? Have you continued to document the Rohingya plight since then?
KM Asad: As a professional photographer, I have a responsibility for my society. So when I find any news or issues about the Rohingya situation, I try to go there and (do something) document this complex and difficult situation through my camera to find out and to share actual stories of the people behind the issue. In 2012 I first got the news from the local news channel that the Myanmar Muslim people (Rohingya) were being tortured from the Rakhine people and the army. For this reason, the Rohingya people started to come to the Bangladesh Teknaf border by crossing the Naaf River. In these circumstances, I decided to go there and to find out the actual facts and what was happening there. Finally, I went there and captured images of what I was observing. It was not just important for me to report this human tragedy. Above all, I wanted to show the people behind it. People who, like each of us, have a right to a free life and wish nothing more than to live in peace and security.
–KM Asad on documenting the Rohingya Crisis
Above all, I wanted to show the people behind it. People who, like each of us, have a right to a free life and wish nothing more than to live in peace and security.
KM Asad: After 2012 the situation became quieter. And since it is very difficult to enter the protected refugee camp I didn´t visit during a long time the camp. But when the situation got again very difficult and the exodus increased highly in 2016 I started immediately to cover this exodus and worked on it in 2017, in 2018 and 2019. Until now I am working on it constantly. And yes this is my ongoing intense and personally very important project. On the one hand, this project is very important to me because I accompanied the difficult situation of the Rohingya refugees from the beginning of 2012 onwards. On the other hand, I live in Bangladesh and it does not leave me untouched — what happens to people in our neighboring country. I want to show this ongoing human tragedy to both my own people in Bangladesh and people in other countries. Every single refugee has their own tragic story. And I want to share at least a few of them and give these refugees a voice through my photography. Because when they escapes, they often lost everything. Although it is not easy for me to work on this issue, I will continue to work on it. Because the life situation of the refugees must not be forgotten. I will continue this long-term work as much as possible.
GW: I understand you had plans to pursue a project around the Environment. Is this still in progress? Can you describe what this project involves?
The climate change issue is my second ongoing project. But I just started with this project and still in the research and the planning phase. But my aim is to show the climate change from the view of a “victim country” like Bangladesh. My country is not an industrial country. It is one of the underdeveloped countries of our world, but we have also to face the changes due to climate change like rising sea level, heavy rains, and unusual storms. My idea and my focus might be: Who are the victims of climate change?
GW: Was there a particular moment or event that led you to pursue documentary photography?
In 2007, Bangladesh was hit by a major catastrophe, by the cyclone SIDR. When I heard this news, I went directly to the affected places to report about the tragic situation and the difficult condition of the local people after the cyclone. This was my first photographic documentation during the time when I studied photography. These pictures were published in local newspapers in Bangladesh and hundreds of people received humanitarian aid. After these pictures were published, I realized that some people have been helped or even saved their lives because of my work. At that time I realized that photojournalism was my duty and I wanted to do just this kind of photography. Strong pictures appeal to us, they do not need long explanations. They can even change a lot, can evoke emphasis on us and show humanity.
GW: What do you think makes a great photo?
I think everyone will answer this question differently. For me, a good photo is a photo that you look at longer! When you get questions and where you want to understand more. A photo is good for me, if it has a power and manages to touch one and trigger something inside of oneself. In addition to that power, there must be conceptual strength, strong composition and technical perfection. Then, it is a memorable picture.
As a photojournalist and documentary photography, I try to become invisible as a photographer. As far as possible, I try to put myself in the middle of the situation in order to capture the most authentic and real moments possible. I want to be as close as possible to the people I photograph and try to gain their trust. That’s why I only start photographing when I explore and observe the new location. I first try to get a feeling for the place and for the people. I also try to familiarize people with the topic (why I am there). They should feel comfortable with me taking pictures of them. Documentary photography is very slow and careful work. While the journalistic work is often the opposite: the right moment is crucial there.
GW: Who are other photographers you most admire, who have influenced your work?
I admire the works of the great masters of photography like James Nachtwey, Don McCullin and Sebastiao Salgado. They have shaped the classic style and developed their distinctive style. Today we are surrounded by a flood of images and we are overwhelmed with pictures. But these photographers have created unforgettable images. Their pictures will remain and will continue to stand out.
In addition, I got to know two of these Master photographers personally and I am impressed by them as persons, by their humanity. I worked with James Nachtwey for a pretty long time. It was an incredibly enriching and educational time for me, which greatly changed my photographic perspective. I am convinced that every photographer can learn from a Master’s experience.
At SIPA, I once again experienced how photography can bring together people from different countries with a wide variety of backgrounds.
GW: How was your experience with SIPA last year?
SIPA was an unforgettable experience for me. It’s a special moment for any photographer to win a photo contest. But being named Photographer of the Year is a great honor. I’m not happy in the first place on the valuation of my years of work, but above all the fact that the Rohingya subject was brought into focus, and I am very grateful. I hope that my series, especially the picture of the traumatized girl, shows both the tragedy and humanity. SIPA has made an incredible contribution to highlighting this issue.
The whole organization of the competition was very carefully prepared from start to finish. I enjoyed every moment of the festival in Siena. It was a very beautiful organized festival full of emotions, wonderful encounters and the start of new friendships. At SIPA, I once again experienced how photography can bring together people from different countries with a wide variety of backgrounds.
*Gina Williams is a Portland, Oregon USA based journalist. She covers photography and photographers internationally. She is also a member of the 2019 SIPA Jury.