"A human being cannot really be neutral" , Andrew Biraj in conversation with Contact Sheet


Andrew Biraj is a photojournalist currently based in Washington DC. Biraj has worked for the international news agencies Reuters, AFP, and Sipa Press USA. He holds an advanced diploma in photography from Pathshala, the South Asian Institute Media Academy in Bangladesh, and a B.A. (Hons) in Photography & Video from The University of Bolton, UK.


Andrew Biraj has won numerous national and international awards including Best Portfolio (in 2013) and a second prize (in 2013) in The Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar Contest in the USA, an Honorable Mention (in 2013) in the National Geographic Photo Contest, a third prize (in 2011) World Press Photo award in The Netherlands, a second prize (in 2013) in Pictures of the Year (POYi) by The Missouri School of Journalism, a third prize (in 2010) and a first prize (in 2008) in the National Press Photographers Association of America's Best of Photojournalism awards; a Gold award (in 2013) a silver award (in 2011) and a bronze (in 2007) in the China International Press Photo Contest; an Honorable Mention (in 2015) in the FotoVisura Personal Photography Project Grant, the 2010 Award of Excellence in Feature Photography, from the Society of Publishers in Asia, and the 2010 South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) award for an outstanding photograph about South Asia. Biraj was a participant in the 2008 World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass.




Andrew Biraj was a jury member in the 2020 South Asian Journalist Association (SAJA) Award. Biraj has been invited to nominate candidates from more than 65 countries of Asia and Africa for the 2017 Price Claus Awards in The Netherlands. He was also a nominator of the 2017 UNICEF Photographer of the Year competition and a professional portfolio reviewer for the graduate student in Corcoran School of Art & Design at George Washington University in Washington DC. He has also been on the jury panel in numerous photography competitions and exhibitions in Bangladesh arranged by Dhaka University Photography Society, BUET Photography Society, Bangladesh in Frames by TTL, Rabi Telecom, and many others.

Biraj is a co-founder and a lifetime member of Counter Foto Photography Department in Bangladesh, which was established in 2012. Biraj is a co-editor and co-author of the book “Under the Banyan Tree” published by Pathshala. He self-published his first book “INSIGHT” in 2011. Counter Foto published his second book “Bonded Stitches & Struggle; Testimony of Life in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry“(Bengali Version) in April 2014


http://www.andrew-biraj.com


CONTACT SHEET INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW BIRAJ

by Mustafa Habib Chowdhury


First of all, thank you very much Biraj for giving us time from your busy schedule to participate in this interview with Contact Sheet. I would like to begin with asking you about how you began your career in photography? I know in Bangladesh the financial rewards associated with a career in photography are not very high and so it would be interesting to know how you got to take photography as your career?

Thanks a lot to Contact Sheet for choosing me for this interview. I am deeply honored to participate in this interview.


In the early days when I was studying in Pathshala (Photography school at Dhaka) , there were many senior photographers like Azizur Rahim Piu who were teaching at Pathshala and they were great influences. Also we had many foreign photographers/teachers/photo editors who came to visit Bangladesh every few years. I recall attending Tim Hetherington’s workshop and also being heavily influenced by Morten Krogvold’s work – watching their photos and their projects really inspired me. At that time two major exhibitions came to Bangladesh. One was the World Press Photo exhibition and the first Chobi Mela. These two exhibitions were very inspiring – the first Chobi Mea had a theme of “The War We Forgot.” From the early beginning, I had an interest towards press photography and photojournalism. Also I used to write sometimes for newspapers as a contributor journalist (during my college years 1998/1999). Then I did the Pathshala basic course, went to exhibitions, and saw photographers come and go from Pathshala. Then Paul David Barikder gave me an offer to work as a photographer at the weekly magazine “Shaptahik 2000” and that’s when I got my start. I did not really take photography as a profession – it was like a natural progression of what I already had been doing.


Story: Bonded Stitches & Struggle

Rahela Akhter, a garment worker, tries to resist beating from the police during a protest in Dhaka June 30, 2010. On 30th June, 2010, a huge protest took hundreds of workers to the street in front of Outright garment factory in the capital’s Shewrapara. Began with objection over unbearable oppression, the demonstration also highlighted minimum wages and other issues of negotiation. Police and factory authority smeared the protesting workers with blood.

Picture taken on June 30, 2009.©Andrew Biraj


Since you are very experienced in the field of photojournalism, given the strict rules on photos for journalism like not moving any objects in the composition, not adding any external objects for dramatization effects and the restrictions on post-processing in Photoshop or Lightroom, where do you think is the space for expressing artistic creativity in photojournalism?

I think the main art behind photojournalism lies in being able to give life to a story that you are involved in or have been following for a long time through photos – the visual storytelling itself. The ability to blend a candid unplanned photo with visual aesthetics so that it is rich is information and is visually stimulating, this is where artistic creativity lies in photojournalism. It is very important to have the correct information, the narrative storytelling, the background context in the photo together with the visual aesthetics of photography such as light, color, decisive moment – when all these aspects are aligned well, only then can great photojournalistic work be created.



A man stands with a disinfectant spray as he helps to clean the polling stations before anyone use them to cast their votes at a polling station located in the City of Bowie Gymnasium, in Maryland, U.S.A. Picture taken on November 3, 2020.©Andrew Biraj


A woman looks on as she takes part with thousands of people, after news media declared Democratic candidate Joe Biden to be the winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, at BLM Plaza in Washington, DC, U.S.A. Picture taken on November 7, 2020.©Andrew Biraj

A couple takes part with thousands of people, after news media declared Democratic candidate Joe Biden to be the winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, at BLM Plaza in Washington, DC, U.S.A. Picture taken on November 7, 2020.©Andrew Biraj

People react as holding each other’s handwhile waiting for the results of 2020 U.S. presidential election, at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, in Washington, U.S., November 7, 2020.Picture taken on November 7, 2020.©Andrew Biraj


All these aspects that you mentioned about great photojournalistic work is clearly obtained at the end of or during an evolutionary process that involves great application and practice through many years – in your photographic evolution over the past 20+ years, was there a point when you were satisfied with the quality of your work and decided that you had finally found your own aesthetic style in your photos. This is a very common question for many photographers – that is what is their own unique style of work?

Honestly, I was never consciously bothered about creating my own style. I

think being able to tell the story properly and effectively is the biggest art in photojournalism. I think often many photographers in order to develop their signature aesthetic style dilute the story telling capacity of their photos and thus miss out on the real value of photojournalism. There are many examples where photos can have masterly aesthetic quality but from a photojournalism standpoint do not have much impact. At times, the converse is also true where there are many photos that might not be of a high aesthetic quality but are very powerful from a photojournalistic standpoint. Ultimately, I think style is something that does not come with a conscious effort to create it – rather it is something that evolves into being organically and automatically after many years of hard and honest work.


Photojournalism is not a genre where I think it is possible to create a style through deliberate effort or via the use of different kinds of modern gadgets. For example, I try to make my pictures such that I can tie them together in a thread like a necklace to tell a coherent story. In that effort, I want to make sure that if I have 12 photos describing a story, photo number 5 does not seem out of place or taken from another story. So in my opinion an honest effort to keep visual and informational coherence within a set of photos to effectively tell a story leads to the eventual development of a style for a photojournalist. So a unique artistic viewpoint is created through years of practice and that unique viewpoint is ultimately a photographer’s style. The choice of what stories one wants to cover, what stories resonate with a photographer's principles and viewpoints – this choice itself has a significant impact in creating the photographers style. As a photographer matures with time and experience and delves deeper into the art and philosophy of photography, their choice of subjects to cover and the manner in which they cover these subjects – these also evolve. So their styles can also evolve with maturity and the personal inner transformation of a person. Hence, the way I look at photojournalism now has changed significantly since my early days or even from the past 5 years. So the personal life journey of a photographer is very important in developing his style of photography as it dictates his philosophical outlook of the world.


Story: Ship Breaking Yard


Workers take a break at a common residence nearby a ship-breaking yard in Chittagong. The ship-breaking industry has been polluting the environment of the locality since it started in 1971, posing a serious threat to the health of nearby residents, according to environmental non-governmental organizations. Around 40,000 workers engaged in the ship-breaking industries of Chittagong are now still working in hazardous conditions, risking their lives handling old equipment to scrap ships, and being vulnerable to harmful chemicals in their daily work.

Picture taken on August 21, 2009.©Andrew Biraj


Story: People Power at Phullbari

Housewives of Phulbari town came out on streets to save their land against a section of the Bangladesh government’s deliberate attempt to grant a coal mining project to the UK based Asia Energy Corporation. Phulbari, Dinajpur; Picture taken on August 30, 2006.©Andrew Biraj

Story: Living with Water


11-year-old Hasan was suffering from diarrhea on the hospital bed. With the monsoon floods every year, thousands of children are diagnosed with diarrhea and other waterborne diseases. Many were admitted into hospitals like this, the ICCRB in Dhaka; those in outlying and remote areas usually don’t have available medical care. In Bangladesh flood has become a common phenomenon, a natural calamity which over the years has only worsened by the effects of global climate change.

Picture taken on September, 2004.©Andrew Biraj


You raise a very interesting point about taking a step back and developing as a person that can allow a photographer to choose a story that he or she resonates with. But I feel this is a luxury afforded to a photographer once they have achieved a certain degree of success and recognition in the field. This success can allow them the space to impose their views of a subject they want to cover. But young photographers who are starting out really cannot afford this luxury as they are mostly burdened with the demands of the agency or media they are working for. Is that not so?

This is of course true. The pressures from one’s job responsibilities are always there to deal with. For example, if a photographer is working for a news agency, he or she might have to work on a project from a specific perspective, using a specific style and dealing with the rush of submitting the photos within a specific time frame. We actually have a wrong understanding of the concept of a “photojournalist.” We have this understanding that one can be a photojournalist only if he or she works with a newspaper or other such media outlets. This is a wrong concept, especially in the modern digital era of so many different kinds of social media platforms. I think a photographer can only become a true photojournalist who despite the pressure of professional workload, they can create a different body of work from the same subject that might be different from the work he is submitting to his or her agency or news outlet. This can create a body of work that is unique to the photographer. Only this type of person can become a “true” photojournalist because he/she does not take photo making as merely an assignment but makes it as part of the personal journey of his life and thus can give a different “personal” interpretation to a story or subject. Only then can one create a unique pathway to delve deeper into the story being explored.

Even in the case of commercial photographers, it is important for them to include photos taken from their assignments but with a different perspective which can be termed as unique. Simple including commercial photos submitted to the client (in fulfillment of assignment) in one’s portfolio does not add much value to it as a portfolio for any photographer or artist should represent the artist and thus should contain his/her unique signature. The portfolio should include the photographer’s story and not the client’s story. Hence, all the major photographers of the world, be it photojournalists or art photographers or even wedding photographers are very focused on creating their own style and perspective in their work even when they are working for clients.


In the modern world of mixed media and social media platforms where besides still photographs, many other forms of media like music, written words, animation, voice dubbing can be used in the storytelling process, what is the role of still photos in the storytelling process as compared to the past? Is still photography alone powerful enough to create an effective story? Is the term “photojournalism” still a relevant term today or rather we should move to a new term…..maybe something like “mixed media'' journalism?

Yes. At one time when printed magazines and newspapers were widely read, still photographers, photojournalists or press photographers had their own genre. In today’s digital world of mixed media, traditional photojournalism has mixed with art to form a unique and interesting blend. Sometimes when I see the works of contemporary photojournalists, I find it difficult to classify the work as traditional photojournalism or art. They are so adept in mixing traditional still photos with other kinds of media to create a powerful story that is definitely very artistic but I also can classify it as an elevated and highly evolved form of photojournalism.

Actually, we are well into an era where the traditional strict (orthodox) rules of photojournalism are being regularly challenged where photojournalists are trying to go beyond the orthodoxy of photojournalism to create new powerful stories. Of course there are still the traditional practitioners of photojournalism, myself included. But outside this group, there are others who approach photojournalism in new ways by regularly merging many different forms of media. This is leading to new innovative and powerful stories. For example, using videos or presentations now are a regular part of photojournalism. This period of transition did not start now but rather has been ongoing for the past 20 years. We were under the impression that the digital era technological revolution was the major change in this field. But what we see now is that the technological change has brought about a far more long term change in the artistic form that is still ongoing and will have a long lasting impact on the concepts and philosophy of photojournalism itself. So I think it will take many more years before a new complete solid era of photojournalism will come. But until that era arrives, we will undergo many more transitions and experiments. Many new concepts will arise and may also fade away before we can settle into a new solid era of photojournalism in the digital age like we had the solid era of still photo-based photojournalism in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

So in my opinion the main focus of photojournalism is not merely taking aesthetically pleasing photos but rather to take an effective story. As the world is advancing, the importance of telling stories is ever increasing. Here, the choice of what stories to tell is important but also the manner of telling the stories. In today’s world photojournalism has taken a personal context. For example, if you look at the work of the late Bangladeshi journalist Monajatuddin Ahmed who wrote very personal stories of people in the rural areas of Bangladesh. Monajatuddin Ahmed used to wander around on foot in the different villages primarily of northern Bangladesh to document the stores and thus is widely known as “Charon Sangbadik” or wandering journalist. Hence, he could create a unique body of work because he could incorporate the personal stories of the daily life of the common people in his journalistic work. I think photojournalism today is headed in that “personalized” direction via the help of technological development.



Story: Cambodia-Landmine Victims

41-year-old Phornvana has lost one of his limbs by stepping on a landmine at the age of 15. He was wounded in Angkor Thom district while looking for sticks to boil rice.

Cambodia is the home to an estimated 4-6 million landmines and has the highest per capita number of amputees in the world – one of every 350 people.

Picture taken on November 23, 2006.©Andrew Biraj

Story: State Excluded


Mizan, who lives in the tiny enclosure on the right, plays with his pigeon. Despite a lack of living space, an affection for animals and birds, especially pigeons, feature strongly in their lives.

Bihari Camp, Mohammadpur, Dhaka; Picture taken on June 29, 2006. ©Andrew Biraj

Story: BAHINI


Children play soccer at a drug rehabilitation center in Manikganj, Dhaka. The APON drug rehabilitation center in Manikganj, near Dhaka, Bangladesh works with street children, helping them fight drug dependency and providing basic education and skills training. The children come together in a support-group called a Bahini, a Bangladeshi word that means battalion, or a strong fighting force. In the Bahini they learn to share their experiences and feelings with each other.

Picture taken on July 25, 2008.©Andrew Biraj


Since we are talking about the subject of storytelling, do you think photojournalists by their choice of subjects to cover and the perspectives they present in their work can be called “pseudo” activists? There are criticisms from some quarters that many journalists are actually activists with a pre-set agenda and not neutral observers and reporters of events. If you look at the example of Salgado, when he released his book “Genesis,” he received many accolades for the aesthetic quality of his marvelous photos, but he said that he was not really interested in receiving such praise for his photos. Rather he was more interested to raise social awareness about the environmental destruction human activity is causing on Earth so that serious mitigating efforts on a large scale can be inspired and implemented. So this is a form of activism. In this context, do you think a photojournalist can approach a subject neutrally without any personal bias or activism?

I don’t really think that it is possible to be neutral in everything in life. A human being cannot really be neutral in the true sense of the word toward any event or story. I believe from the moment photographer’s start working, they embark upon a form of activism. None of us are outside politics or our personal views on different matters. The topic a photographer chooses for his work, the way he holds his camera, where he points his camera – these are all informed by the internal politics and world view of the photographer. The way a photographer is brought up, the place he lives, his family background, his socio-economic condition, his schooling – all of these factors unconsciously influence how a photographer chooses a subject to work or and what story he chooses to tell. As the photographer chooses a subject, he is already going through this unconscious political and philosophical filtering process in his mind. For example, I can say that all the photographers working for National Geographic magazine are activists and have very strong political views and viewpoints on environmental issues. There are many famous photographers in the world who actively work as activists. You mentioned the name of Salgado and he is a prime example of this kind of “activist” photojournalist. Generally, the famous master photographers you talk about tend to pick a story to work on that resonates with his/her inner principles, in their own life story or their interest. For example, when photographers in Bangladesh take photos of different kinds of brick fields, they focus on the life of the daily laborers in the brickfields. Rarely do they go to the affluent homes of the wealthy brick field owners to do a photo story of the owner’s life. This is itself a political statement – a personal choice the photographer makes to show one side of this story of brick fields.


You will see today that many photographers are dealing with not only current events but are also dealing with political and historical events. I am seeing a lot of historical work by photojournalists which amaze me. We think that photographers capture time – by time we mean the current time. But a photographer can only be a mature photographer when he can point his camera at events which have already happened before his life (in history) to create a new story or give a new perspective of a story already told in history. Capturing photos of the events in front of one's eyes is one thing and telling the stories of events that have occurred in the past and not in front of the photographer’s eyes is a different thing altogether. This involves a lot of study and research about different kinds of topics – historical, socio-economic, political, economic, environmental, etc.



A worker leaves a shipyard after finishing his work by the river Buriganga, on the outskirt of Dhaka.Picture taken on May 19, 2014.©Andrew Biraj

Story: Black Lives Matter; George Floyd Protest

Demonstrators protest peacefully as they gather outside of The White House and merge to the U.S Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S.A. Thousands of people protest against the death in Minneapolis custody of George Floyd, in Washington. Pictures taken on June 1, 2020.©Andrew Biraj

Story: Gabura; Cyclone Aila Aftermath


People displaced from their homes by a huge tidal wave caused by cyclone Aila, wait for relief food in Shatkhira, some 450 km (280 miles) from Dhaka. Millions of people in India and Bangladesh remained marooned without food or water on Friday, four days after cyclone Aila hit them, and authorities said disease was becoming a serious problem. Picture taken on June 2, 2009. ©Andrew Biraj

Story: Gabura; Cyclone Aila Aftermath


Hamida Begum chops wood to build a temporary shelter on a river dam, as she displaced from her home by a huge tidal wave caused by cyclone Aila. Picture taken on June 3, 2009.©Andrew Biraj

Story: Ship Breaking Yard


Workers rest after work at a ship breaking yard in Chittagong. Bangladesh is dependent on ship breaking for its domestic steel requirements. Chittagong ship breaking yard is a highly polluted coastal belt of 20 km. The number of accidents and casualties at the yard is believed to be the highest in the region, environmental organizations said.

Picture taken on August 19, 2009.©Andrew Biraj

 
Some Photo Books Reference :
 

This is a very interesting point you have raised and is quite inspiring. In this context, can you give us examples of a few master photographers that we can study who have this depth of understanding of history and the ability and vision to work on such historical projects?

There are many such photographers all across the world. For example, if you study the work of Simon Norfolk, he has portrayed war and it’s reality in such a powerful manner. I can see many layers in his work – both visual layers and conceptual layers that deal with politics, history and sociology. I think one needs a mature and experienced eye to really appreciate this kind of powerful work. In contemporary photographers, I can talk about one of my students, Soumya Sankar Bose, who has a body of work on the historical Marichjhapi massacre on Bengalis in West Bengal (the forcible eviction in 1979 of Bengali lower caste refugees on Marichjhapi Island in Sundarban, West Bengal, India and the subsequent death of thousands by police gunfire, starvation, and disease). He portrayed powerfully the story of a massacre which happened a long time ago. These types of works that are on-going today are out of the scope of so-called “traditional photojournalism” as we know it.