6 months ago

From film to digital: Bangladesh's photographic journey

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As human beings, storytelling is an inherent part of our existence. The countless cells within our brains and bodies each harbour distinct tales. Indeed, the entire framework of civilisation is crafted from these narratives or stories. 

Individuals have endeavoured to encapsulate and communicate stories throughout different eras and cultures through various artistic mediums. While poetry, novels, and other literary forms serve as traditional instruments of storytelling, this writer would like to explore a different narrative tool—photography. 

When we encounter an image captured by a photographer, it freezes moments steeped in memories and, ultimately, narratives that tell a story.

However, photography in Bangladesh is a journey through time with a rich history, which began in 1971 with the creation of the country through the liberation war against Pakistan. 

From its early inception to the contemporary digitalisation era, the story of photography is rich, diverse, and deeply rooted in the country's history. Through the emergence of new mediums and instruments in photography, Bangladeshi photographers and their way of photography have changed a lot from time to time in the sense of models of camera and subjective matters.

The first photography in Bangladesh started in the late 19th century, during British rule. Formally, it was a tool the colonial elites used for documentation and anthropological studies. Early photographers from this period predominantly portray the urban elite, significant landscapes, and colonial infrastructures. 

Following the partition of India in 1947, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) grew a lot of interest in photography, and this era saw the emergence of photojournalism and documentary photography with a focus on social and political issues. 

East Pakistan Photographic Society was established in Dhaka as a branch of the Pakistan Photographic Society in East Pakistan in 1950 and also played a crucial role in promoting photography as an art form. Although limited in scope, some popular camera models, such as the Bolex H16 film camera, Kodak Box Camera, and Canon camera, were newly started production of cameras, Contax S Camera, etc.

The indicative turning point in Bangladesh's photographic journey was the country's struggle for independence in 1971 when photography played a vital role in documenting the struggle and atrocities. 

During this period, photographers like Shahidul Alam, Naibuddin Ahmed, Rashid Talukder, Sayeeda Khanam, Haroon Habib, and Aftab Ahmed captured iconic images that became symbols of the struggle and independence, which heightened the awareness and significance of photojournalism in the country.

Post-independence, photography in Bangladesh began to evolve rapidly, with a focus on exploring and establishing a unique Bangladeshi identity expanded in scope and depth. This era, mainly from 1972 to 1980, established Institutions and organisations dedicated to photography, such as the Bangladesh Photographic Society (1976). 

Photographers had the chance to explore diverse themes, including rural and urban life, cultural heritage, and the natural environment, as the style of photography primarily focuses on the realistic portrayal of life, socio-political changes, cultural transitions, and everyday struggles and triumphs of the people. 

The photographers of this time predominantly used manual film cameras like the Nikon F series, Canon FTb, Pentax Spotmatic, etc., where mainly black and white photography was prevalent, driven both by artistic choice and practicality of life as it was and the colour film was less accessible and expensive.

From 1980 to 1990, Bangladesh saw significant developments in the photography industry, marked by technological advancements and diversification of themes and styles.

The focus of photography expanded from purely journalist and documentary styles to include artistic and experimental forms. Photographers began to explore daily life, cultural traditions, and Bangladesh's rich rural and urban dichotomy. 

The technological shifts include introducing more advanced camera models like autofocus SLRs. Even colour films became more accessible, leading to a gradual change from black and white to colour photography. 

During this period, there was a transformation of using more advanced and automated equipment commonly used: Canon AE-1 Program, Nikon FM and FE Series, Minolta X-700, Olympus OM Series, Pentax K1000, Nikon F3, and several other models were famous among the photographers. This time also saw the emergence of prominent Bangladeshi photographers who gained international recognition, placing the country on the global photography map. 

The digital revolution and the growing influence of globalisation made the 2000s a momentous time for change in Bangladesh's photographic landscape. This era witnessed substantial changes in photography technology and the photographers' thematic content. This was the time of the rise of social media and online platforms like Facebook, Flickr, and later Instagram. 

These platforms provided amateur and professional photographers new avenues to share their work, gain visibility, and connect globally with the audience. With more accessibility to photography, the range of subjects captured by Bangladeshi photographers expanded significantly. 

At the same time, traditional themes like cultural festivals, rural life, and landscapes continued to be more popular. New themes emerged, like urbanisation, the effects of globalisation, environmental issues like the impacts of climate change, and socio-political narratives. In this era, photographers began exploring more personal and reflective themes, moving beyond purely documentary styles. 

Bangladeshi photographers have gained more international recognition; many are featured in international exhibitions, winning awards, and participating in global photography workshops and festivals. Many international workshops have been happening in Bangladesh with the collaboration of many famous photographers and organisations. This increased exposure contributed to a richer cross-cultural exchange and provided inspiration and learning opportunities for local photographers. 

Likewise, the establishment and growth of photography schools and institutions like Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and Drik Picture Library (mentioned earlier) played a prominent role in educating and nurturing new talent. Moreover, events like the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival became vital cultural landmarks showcasing works worldwide and promoting dialogue and exchange among photographers. 

Popular models such as the Nikon D series and the Canon EOS Digital Rebel combined excellent features with an affordable price, winning over enthusiasts and experts alike. The Nikon D90 was the first to include video recording in a DSLR, but the Canon EOS 5D was notable for offering full-frame quality at a reduced price. Because of their portability and ease of use, compact cameras like the Fujifilm FinePix and Canon PowerShot have become increasingly popular. 

Technological developments in this era have made photography more accessible in Bangladesh, enabling a wide range of people to document their surroundings and share their stories.

In Bangladesh's vibrant and evolving photographic scenario, transitioning from traditional Cameras using reels through DSLRs to modern smartphones and mirrorless cameras has radically transformed. Gone are the days when bulky DSLRs from the Canon EOS or Nikon D series were the main tools for capturing images. 

Today, the photography scene is dominated by the sleek convenience of mirrorless cameras like the Sony Alpha, Fujifilm X, and Olympus OM-D series. These models blend their DSLR predecessors' high image quality and advanced features with a more portable and user-friendly design, appealing to professionals and enthusiasts. 

Parallel to this, the rise of smartphones has been a game-changer, lodging photography into everyday life. With their improved sensors, multiple lenses, and advanced processing software, smartphones enable anyone, from casual snappers to severe hobbyists, to document their world with ease and flair. This technological shift has not only made photography more accessible but also broadened its scope, encouraging a diverse range of subjects and narratives. 

Photographers are now capturing everything from intimate personal moments to broader themes like social change and environmental challenges, all shared and celebrated in a globally connected community. This era in Bangladeshi photography demonstrates the power of technology in democratising the art of storytelling through images, making it more versatile and inclusive than ever before.

Photography in Bangladesh has come a long way. From the early film cameras capturing the nascent stages of a new country to the latest digital technologies portraying a rapidly evolving society, each period contributed a diverse and compelling photographic narrative. 

With the ever-evolving advancements in camera technology and the ever-changing societal landscapes, the potential for storytelling and artistic expression in Bangladeshi photography is limitless in the future.

Kazi Abdus Samad has completed his BSS (honours) in International Relations from Jahangirnagar University and is a freelance photographer.

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