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     Volume 6 Issue 18 | May 11, 2007 |

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Munem Wasif
Photographs and Stories
Nader Rahman

There are too many clichés to use, every now and then a picture will speak a thousand words, but more often than that, the words are not even needed. The picture itself becomes the story, and Munem Wasif is a master of that art. His pictures are not mere collections of words, his pictures are captured moments which have a past, a present and a future. They breathe with life and the stories behind that life, and for this immense talent he is being recognised internationally.

Munem Wasif

For the stories that are his pictures Munem Wasif has recently been selected for the prestigious 14th Annual World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass Grant 2007. The participants were selected by an independent, international selection committee consisting of Carolyn Cole (USA), photographer of Los Angeles Times, Frédérique Deschamps (France), picture editor Le Monde, Susan Meiselas (USA), photographer Magnum Photos, Adriaan Monshouwer (the Netherlands), commercial director Hollandse Hoogte and Aidan Sullivan (UK), Vice President Photo Assignment Getty Images North America.

While the selection panel was a star-studded affair, how his name got there is another story completely. He says “the editor of Mare magazine in Germany Barbara Strauss was fond of my work and she asked me to send in a portfolio of my work. The reason behind that was that she wanted to nominate me for the award, which came a huge shock for me. I thought at one time or another I would try for the award, never could I imagine that I would actually receive it.” Wasif goes on to say “she took and edited three of my stories; they were Old Dhaka, Jute Mill Workers and Fishermen of Dublar Char. Along with those I was asked for published work, and that made me quite nervous.” With the three stories he sent in his published work, which appeared in magazines such as Himal, Slate, Daily Star, Asian Geographic, Politiken and pdfX12.

His humility pushes him to say that he never thought he would win, but from his vast and powerful photographic work the decision was decidedly much easier for the selection panel. His portfolio was sent in by the end of March, and then almost a month later the news came. He says with an embarrassed smile on his face “on the 23rd of April at seven in the evening I got the news. They sent me an e-mail, but I had to read it four times before I actually believed it.” With that he became the first Bangladeshi to win the prestigious Joop Swart Masterclass but this is all way from his humble beginnings.

Born in Comilla, this 24-year-old's early life was nothing out of the ordinary. But it all changed with two events, his moving to Dhaka and one course in photography. “After my SSC exams my youngest uncle who was a photographer enrolled me into a basic photography course. The instituition was called Beg Arte and there I became very close with my teacher Imti Bhai. That was really the start.” From one basic course came the next big step, Wasif enrolled himself in Pathshala. As he says “Pathshala is not a traditional school, the space is open, it is open to meet people and share experiences.” When asked about his experiences there and how it shaped him as a photographer he says “it provides the environment needed to create a photographer, it was so much more than just being taught. We argued with our teachers and it was something like a melting pot of ideas.” He is deeply indebted to the institution “Pathshala builds up the professional within, it gave me opportunities to link with various projects.”

While Pathshala started him off on his artistic adventure, he had to earn a living to keep mind, body and soul together. His next move took him to the Daily Star where he worked for one and a half years. One might be tempted to say he forged much of his reputation there with his outstandingly powerful work. About the experience he says “to be published every week was very good for me, it gave me confidence and even though the salary was not very much I enjoyed my work.” Since then he has won two bronze prizes in the 3rd China International Press Photo Contest 2007, along with the 1st prize in Contemporary Issues in the Polish press Photo Contest 2007. His pedigree proves that he is no stranger to international success, but the Joop Swart Masterclass tops it all.

Along with Wasif, 11 other international photographers will take part in the masterclass. As World Press Photo says "The purpose of the masterclass is furthering young and talented photographers' insight in photojournalism. In preparation for the meeting, the participants will execute a photo essay on one single theme, which for this year is: 'Fragile'. The essays will be discussed during sessions with the masters and edited into a publication.” He has already started work on the theme and roughly by the end of August he would have sent the story in.

When asked about the portfolio that won him the award a faint smile trickles across his face. He says “the Old Dhaka project was emotionally very important for me, the theme was the nostalgia of my childhood, a childhood spent in Comilla.” Wasif adds “when I first came to Dhaka, everything was new to me, but the feeling of community I felt in Comilla was lost. There were high-rise buildings everywhere and everyone lived close to each other but kept their distance. I just could not fathom it.” From these feelings of disjointed community he searched for his childhood in Old Dhaka, one might say that was what made the work so powerful. Every picture is a story of life and community and as he says they serve to reconstruct his childhood memories. With the world at his feet it would seem logical that his next step would take him to an international photo agency. But he steadfastly says no “an agency is not really a big thing, it may help one professionally, but to be a real photographer it is not needed.”

On his business card beneath his name in small fine print is the word “Photojournalist”. He claims that it is slightly misleading “I want to be a documentary photographer, I like to take pictures behind the stories. That is the real story.” While photojournalists usually take pictures of hard news he is far more interested in what goes on behind the news, the heart of a story, rather than the story itself. Munem Wasif is a rising star in the world of photography and while he silently clicks away, his pictures do all the talking.



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