Documenting Liberation through his Lens
Your photographs are witness to the momentous incidents of the history of Bangladesh, and an inspiration for many as well. Tell us about how your career in photography started.
My mother passed away when I was only four years old. I had a rough childhood and could not study for long either. I had to go to Kolkata to my maternal uncle who used to have a studio, that is where I learned the nitty gritties of photography. After coming back from Kolkata, I started doing business. I would buy things from Chawkbazar, and sell them in stores. I learnt tailoring and worked for a tailor shop. I was from Jashore, had no one in Dhaka, so I did whatever I could, to stand on my own feet. I even worked at a spectacles factory. Then I went over to Tongi, where I used to supervise at a mill. The salary was only a hundred taka. We were the ones who worked, and those from West Pakistan would just sit there, and take thousand, five hundred taka for doing nothing. I did not like that one bit, so I quit. Finally I came to Dhaka, got a job at a studio in New Market - Studio Sartaj. I would take photos there, develop them, and retouch them. Nowadays retouch is done on computers. Back then we used to retouch with pencil, we would even use lac-dye. Reproduction was done there as well. Rashid Talukder would come there sometimes. He was a darkroom man at that time, the government used to employ darkroom men from PID (Press Information Department ). He knew reproduction work very well. In the evenings, he would visit all the studios and look for work. After I had been working there for sometime, a friend of mine told me one day, “Dainik Paigam is looking for someone. If you want to, you should apply.” There I got the job, and that is how I became a photojournalist. That was in the year 1965. And in 2000, I retired from the Daily Janakantha.
You have taken many photographs of Bangabandhu when you started working for newspapers. When did you see him for the first time face to face?
After a few days of joining Dainik Paigam, I got an assignment. I was supposed to take Sheikh Shaheb’s photograph, for print purposes. I headed over to road number 32, his home. That was the first time I saw him face to face, and that was the first picture I had taken of him. A few days back I posted that photo on Facebook, Bangabandhu was sitting on a chair. At first, he sat a bit sideways, resting his face on one hand. I put my hand on him to straighten him up, and said, “Not that way, this way” - using my studio experience. I did not know back then that he was going to be the father of the nation! He said to me, “You have to give me the photograph. Everyone takes photos, but I don’t get any copy from anyone.” I said I would, but depressingly I could not. Ever since then when he saw me, he would often ask, “Why, I never got that photo from you?” Even though I said I would, I never really got around to it. Now I feel bad about that. Even Sheikh Hasina asked me once, “Did you give him the photo?” I let her know I never did.
A photographer has to do all sorts of jobs while working for a newspaper, has to take different sorts of photographs. Which of these did you prefer most?
I always preferred taking feature photographs, I would love to go from one village to another taking my camera. Such as those schools under bare trees, no roof, no nothing. I have taken many pictures like that. I had fun taking photos like these. There was no fun in taking protest photos. Protest photos and feature photos are completely different subjects. But due to the unrest all around, there was less opportunity to take feature photos, so I had to take protest photos mostly.
I started working for the newspaper in ‘65, and the movements had started a few days after that. The pictures of the movements were important then– the 1968 protests, then the mass uprising in 1969, shoot outs. I was at all the spots in Dhaka City, such as the New Market area, Dhaka University, Gulistan, in front of GPO. I remember the boy who was killed in front of GPO. The street kid giving slogans, Rashid Talukder took that photograph, it became quite famous. I was there as well.
Everyday there were meetings and protests -in front of Baitul Mukarram, Paltan field, in front of Shaheed Minar. Meetings were being held almost daily, torch-lit protests were happening. I am talking about years 1968, 1969. Dhaka city was on fire! There were shooting, people were dying. Once gunfire broke out in Tongi, a man was shot dead, his absentee funeral was held there as well.
Were you working at the Dainik Paigam at the time of the Liberation War in 1971?
No, I did not have a job at that time. I worked in Paigam, then I worked in the Daily Observer for a few days. There was the Dainik Azad, I have worked in different newspapers. I never could survive in one place, my luck was bad that way. Sometimes I would work by myself without being associated with any newspaper, I would get paid if any of those photos got printed, and the negatives would stay with me. I used to be a stringer at the Pakistan Times as well, my salary there was seventy five taka. When I worked as a staff, the newspaper had the right to keep my negatives if they wanted. But if I worked independently or as a stringer, then the negatives would always remain with me. That is how I managed to keep so many photos. Many would take photographs at that time, but never realised their importance. Even I never realised how important these pictures would become today.
Once ABM Musa, the news editor of the Daily Observer, bought a photograph from me personally, and sent it abroad. The one where Bhutto was leaving with the arms guarded protocol. He bought one print with ten taka. That photo was very rare, no one else had taken it. It was in Hotel Continental. I was sitting next to the elevator at the downstairs waiting for him. The moment he got out, I clicked. That one click! The flash used to have bulb system back then, the bulb would burst in one click, the flash would not work after that. If you miss that one shot, you miss your desired photograph. it is a matter of luck as well. But if you have the experience, luck can be in your favour.
I have taken photos of many leaders. During the time of independence, when the presidents and leaders of various countries that were recognising Bangladesh started arriving, I took many of their photographs with Sheikh Shaheb at the airport, I still have all those pictures.
There must have been a lot of risks at that time, being a photographer.
With age, I have forgotten so much about those days. But I still remember, there were many times I would risk my life for work. And then there were the times when I could not take photos out of fear. At the time of the crack down on March 25, a few photographers came from India. Some were able to capture some pictures, others could not. When the curfew was lifted on March 27, I took out my Vespa. I kept my camera in the toolbox on the side. I had one other person with me. He said, “Let’s go and look around.” We went over to the staff quarter beside Shahid Minar. There was no one there, just blood on the stairs, torn up pillows. When we left the place, I let go of my companion, and went over to TSC by myself. The army was camped at the field in front of TSC. I boldly parked my Vespa on the street in front of the nearby temple, and headed inside. That is when I saw the heaps of dead bodies, one on top of the other. The army camp was right outside, so I did not have the courage to take any picture. I had taken many photos of movements, but it was quite a shock on the 25th. On the 27th I did go out, but it was in vain. I could not take photos for many days after that day. The situation was so bad that it was not possible to take photographs. Once a boy was shot dead right in front of me! He was on his Vespa, he was ordered to stop, but he did not listen, so they shot him. I do not know if he had anything incriminating on him, he was probably trying to run away in fear. They just shot him dead! Is it possible to take pictures after seeing that? Many newspapers had stopped publication by then, most of us did not have a job. Many had escaped. The curfew used to start from 6 PM, so everyone had to return by 5. I again started taking out the camera from or around December. This one time, photographer Mohammad Alam, a newcomer back then and very young as well, had heard that there was a camp at the foreign ministry office in front of Press Club, so he climbed over the wall and got caught. He got severely beaten up.
What sort of censorship was there when it came to printing photos taken throughout your career?
Of course there was censorship. Such as, the newspapers would print photos where Sheikh Shaheb is giving speech or holding meetings but would not print photos of protests or dead bodies. Then again, many photographs never got published here, we sold them to be printed abroad.
A few days back I saw that you had gone to the Prime Minister with photographs.
Not one, I took with me a lot of photographs, of Sheikh Shaheb. She became very happy, which made me happy as well. She gave me a pension-based savings certificate. I get a certain amount of money from that every month. But unfortunately, I have not been able to redeem it. Apparently it cannot be redeemed.
Has our National Museum or Liberation Museum been in touch with you regarding these photographs? Or are you interested in providing them with these rare images?
I myself wanted to give some of the photos. But no one wants to give credit for the photo or mention the name of the photographer, nor do they want to pay the price. Bangabandhu Museum’s curator NI Khan came to my home once, to talk about collecting the photographs. Later my son and I also went over to see him regarding it. But they want the photos for free even with the negatives. Even, there is a photograph taken by me in Bangabandhu’s room, of him giving a speech, but there is no credit given to my name. There is another photograph where he is hoisting Bangladesh’s flag, no mention there either. Then again, there is a photograph taken by Pavel Rahman, where of course he is properly credited.
It is my good fortune that my negatives are still in good condition. I have been very careful with cleaning and preserving them. Golam Mawla was a very good photographer, from the Dainik Bangla. I have learned a lot from him. He used to say that negatives should be washed under running water. After fixing with hypo, I would always wash the negatives under running water. And now my son is the one scanning those negatives.
Your works are a testimony to much of our history. What have you thought regarding these photographs?
I have done two exhibitions. Then again, one day someone from the Kaler Kantha, proposed another exhibition alongside a book publication. Later it did not pan out due to lack of sponsorship. It is not possible to say if these things will happen in my lifetime. The character of our country is such that we can never properly evaluate anything on time.