The fact that it took so long to felicitate someone who introduced proper portrait photography in Bangladesh way back in 1972 is beyond many critics. Yet, the fact that Nasir Ali Mamun was the recipient of Shilpakala Padak 2017 for photography is a searing testament to his legacy as a legendary Bangladeshi photographer, and also that the authorities are finally starting to acknowledge the significance of photography as a genre of art.
Speaking to Dhaka Courier, Nasir Ali Mamun had a surge of emotions about the prize. “I feel very honoured. To receive this from the President is very prestigious. I had received two Lifetime Achievement Awards at Chobi Mela and Daily Star-Standard Chartered Celebrating Life last year, so this accolade is right up there with them.”
At 65, he feels that the award rejuvenated his love for photography and will help him to go on striving for excellence, regardless whether he receives anymore awards or not.
Mamun’s early days were spent staring at photographs in national dailies, wondering what was going through each photographers mind before they took their photos. “How did they take it? What were their thoughts when those photos were taken? What were they focusing on when they clicked that photo?” After spending a long time fascinated with these photographers and their work, he finally began pursuing photography 47 years ago.
Firmly believing the camera to be a “magic box”, Mamun noticed that major photographers of our country only worked on capturing elements of nature. “What are we really specialising on?” he wondered. He aspired to find a new, fresh signature style for himself. The pioneer of portrait photography in Bangladesh, he introduced this style of photography back in 1972.
Chasing his dream of capturing a story with every photo, he worked with subjects and leading artists from different fields of work. Deep down inside he felt that he could connect with these people. He could really understand the hidden truths, could unearth their feelings and could connect in a way that was special. One click and he would capture it all in the form of a photograph, one that was close to his heart. When asked about the secret behind how he finds stories in each photo, he said: “Although the people I shoot are from the higher echelon of society, they usually started with humble beginnings and I can relate to that. There is an undeniable chemistry between the hidden lacking in their life and the ache I feel from knowing where they come from. Even though they’re all intellectuals and leaders in their respective fields, their lives ended in negligence and they were to some extent, not given the due respect they deserved.”
The bright side of all this, according to him, is that everyone is starting to consider photography seriously. “Photography in Bangladesh had been out of the limelight for a long time now, but as it is becoming immensely popular, they have no choice but to acknowledge it as a mainstream part of art. But more can be done to truly popularise it in the country. To make it more accessible for budding and future generation of photography aficionados, it should be promoted academically, for example, as a full-fledged department in Dhaka University.”
Policy-makers who were previously not interested in photography are finally witnessing the popularity, but it is the future generation, who Nasir believes will determine its worth in Bangladesh, as photography is very distinct, as it can be easily resized, cropped or reprinted as required. In the ever-growing global art market, it is considered a serious industry, as its prominence is very evident in places like London National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, etc.
As for the future, he believes is extremely good, as a lot of talented youngsters are entered the field for both passion and profession. But the professional side has room for improvement, as the consumer market for photography is still limited in Bangladesh. Art connoisseurs still prefer to buy art pieces over photographs, and photographers cannot find viable buyers for their photos as most organisations dealing with photos usually have an in-house team for such tasks. Hence, the amount of buyers for photos must increase, as well as increasing promotion. The authorities, for example, can construct a photography gallery in the Shilpakala Academy or the National Museum, or as mentioned earlier, a fully fledged photography department in Dhaka University.
He has big plans for a photo museum, or “Photoseum” as he proudly calls it. “Now, I have a new dream- to establish a museum of my portraits of celebrities. I dream my photographs would be the objects of aesthetic beauty and would hold great historical value. I don’t know of any museum in the subcontinent which is dedicated to portrait photography. While shooting portraits, I kept collecting paraphernalia relating to famous people.Future generations, fifty or hundred years later from now, will recognize the famous people of our times through my portraits. I want people to not only glance at the portraits, but to actually read them, feel them,” said Nasir Ali Mamun about his works.
Mamun, who pioneered portrait photography in the country, has shot the portraits in his signature style with dim, natural light on the subjects’ faces. He has displayed thought-provoking images of founding president of the country Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, former US president Bill Clinton, social worker Mother Teresa, artists like Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin, Patua Quamrul Hassan, SM Sultan, national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, poet Jasimuddin, Syed Shamsul Haque, novelist Humayun Ahmed, Humayun Azad, classical maestros like Bismillah Khan, Alla Rakha, Pundit Ravi Shankar, Pundit Hariprasad Chaurasia, actors like Asaduzzaman Noor, Ferdousi Majumder and others in 57 exhibitions till date.