Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Shehzad Noorani, a freelance documentary photographer with a special focus on social issues affecting the lives of urban poor and marginalised people for over 30 years. Worked in over 60 countries and documented major emergencies resulting from men-made and natural disasters including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Haiti, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Sudan, Uganda,Kenya, Tanzania and more.
Bangladesh-born Shehzad Noorani later emigrated to Canada, roaming around the world with the passion for photography in coversation with Contact Sheet , shared his views in several areas. Interviewed by Saud A Faisal
Hi Shehzad. Thank you for your time, tell me about your start. When did you start shooting and how did you become a full time photographer?
I was in grade 7, I believe, when my class-teacher asked me if I could take pictures. Any answers to a nice teacher like Salim Sir was always a thoughtless ‘Yes Sir!’. In reality, I did not really know how to take pictures. Next day when I went to the school, he handed me a Yashica Electro 35 and asked me to take group pictures of teachers for the school newsletter. It was a rangefinder camera, like Leica, so if you didn’t know where to look, you could not really see focusing through the viewfinder. To cut a long story short, the pictures turned out fine and after that Salim Sir started engaging me for all other school functions. Soon people in the neighbourhood started to request me to shoot their birthdays and weddings, and so on. That’s how my photography career started.
It took me couple of years to eventually buy my first camera. One that showed me focus, as well as made an impressive shutter sound. It was a Cosina CT-1 Super.
I had a new confidence after that. I started to practice shooting manually and gradually figured out how different shutter speeds and apertures impacted my photographs. I stumbled upon some work from a university which had a public health department. They were interested in documenting lives of people living in slums. That lead to my first documentary photography assignment. a major turning point for me. I was young and really poor, which left me with little choices on what I could to do. I used to take on anything and everything, including weddings, birthdays, community events, portraits, school photos, you name it. However, once I stumbled upon ‘documentary photography’, there was no looking back. I started walking the streets with my camera whenever I could manage time, and some money to buy films.
In life, sometimes when you start something, it’s not possible to know what you are really passionate about. If you are out there trying different things, it just appears. It could be food, fixing cars or bikes, leading tours, designing, architecture, or photography. How would you findout what you like if you don’t try different things. It certainly cannot come to you when you are busy staring at a screens on your phone or computer.
Some Photo Books Reference :
Tell us about your inspirations and what motivates you?
I feel I don’t need any inspirations and motivations. I know anything I want to do is and will be a long process. Something that happens over years, not in days or weeks. I am not inspired by money. I somehow always knew, that money has to be the consequence of what I like to do, not my ultimate reason to do something. I always believed that if I did something I like, with my heart and soul into it, work really hard, money will eventually follow, and in my case it always did. And that applies not only to photography but life itself.
I think I am not goal oriented, I simply enjoy the process of getting there. When I am standing under a high hill or a mountain, I know if I look up, my task will look impossible. Becoming great, the best, or most successful, does not inspire me. I only like to think about my next step. I know if I take one firm step at a time, I will be at the top of the mountain, and I also know once I am at the top, even higher mountains will become visible. I will take a break, enjoy the view and start the same process of “one step at a time” once again. I guess that inspires me – the fact that there will always be roads ahead and I will never really reach anywhere that will be a final home. There will always be something new to look forward to. It is the journey that I cherish most.
For last 30 years you have been capturing photographs and documenting human condition around the world. Would you like to share some experiences from the field?
In the last 30 years I have worked in over 80 countries, so there is an endless list of amazing experiences to share. Looking back, the dearest experiences were those that required me to visit a certain place over and over again. Most interesting and exciting work were not paid assignments. They were things I didn’t understand at first. I wanted to revisit those areas or people several times, sometimes with a camera but often even without. I realized that some times same cameras that help open doors, can also become obstacles.
For example, my body of work, the Daughters of Darkness. I was actually looking for slums and by mistake entered a brothel. It was unplanned and I was not ready at all. In the beginning I did not understand anything. I was clueless about what was going on. I kept visiting Kandupatti, the brothel in Nawabpur in Old Dhaka, again and again, until it was shut down. I then started visiting other brothels all over the country, I travelled to India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. I spent weeks living with people dying with AIDS in several different temples and hospitals. I really wanted to understand what was going on, and after spending over 13 years, I still don’t understand. I think not understanding something completely is often a good place to be. It keeps me interested and my fuels my desire to learn more.
Many of my work have exposed me to some really harsh experiences, like aftermaths of wars, cyclones, earthquakes and I have literally seen many people lose their lives as a result. I realized that documentary photographers often have the sensitivities of a surgeon. A surgeon cannot operate if he cannot handle dealing with blood. He has to be insensitive to that otherwise he would not be able to perform surgeries. Over the years I realized that I can deal with the suffering of people as a result of natural disasters. Somehow it is understandable. However, I cannot say the same thing for wars. Seeing millions of innocent people suffer because of the greed of a bunch of selfish leaders, those who, in the end, are only trying to make money, gain power. They don’t care about a girl child loosing her school, her father loosing his livelihood, her brother loosing his leg to landmine. I didn’t know at that time when it happened, but in post 9/11 era, months after returning from my trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, I realized I suffered from PTSD. I was lucky enough that I recovered without treatments or visits to psychologists.
There are few other things that hit me even more adversely than wars. I still find it extremely difficult to deal with individual injustice. I absolutely cannot handle stories of sexual abuse to young children. I don’t necessarily choose to do these stories, but often just end up doing it as a part of something with a wider scope, for example Child Protection.
As much these unanswered questions plague my mind, these are the very human sufferings that keep me up at night and keep me on my quest.
On the field you have experienced different and difficult type of human conditions, how these experiences impact your photography and personal life?
There is dread and delicacy in handling the thread that connects all people in all things, one needs tenderness and tenacity be it visually capturing it or any other ways of telling the story. One needs guts to go up real close and personal. You have to win trust. You walk into people’s lives, laughter and losses and then you leave. But you leave only physically. You leave a bit of yourself behind and take a bit of people you spend time with. Of course it changes you as a person. Often you come back home and cannot relate to things within your own home, families, communities and even countries. People around you cannot relate to your ‘unreasonable’ behaviour, they don’t understand your anger.
I am a runaway. I ran away from Bangladesh because I simply could not tolerate how the rich treat the poor, in their homes, buildings, on the street. I used to be poor, and it was somehow easier, but I can no longer take comfort in my poverty. I still like to pretend I am humble and poor, but financially I am extremely privileged now. I live amongst people who are even more privileged than I am. It’s harder to see people suffer and come back to your luxuries at the end of the day.
Technical question, what is your most comfortable Camera and Lens?
My most favourite camera is Nikon FM2 with Nikkor AIS 28mm f/2, loaded with Kodak Tri-X. That’s my love affair.
It’s a film camera that works best with manual focus lens, thus, no longer practical, specifically for assignments. I now use the next best thing – Nikon Z6, a mirrorless fullframe camera. Best for my purposes and liking only, your best may be, and should be different. We have so many excellent choices today. Here is my current equipment I use for personal and professional work:
Nikon Z6 Body + Leica Summicron 28mm f/2
Nikon Z6 Body + Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/2
Additionally I carry few lenses that rarely comes out of my bag
Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8
Nikkor ED 80-200 f/4
Nikkor 20mm AIS 2.8
For young photographers what would be your suggestion if anyone wants to be documentary photographer? Do you suggest any master photographer to follow to be inspired?
It took me a long time to understand that there is more than one perfect way to do something or get somewhere. A Master Photographer? I am not sure. I didn’t follow anyone, just worked hard. What matters most is to look at whatever bodies of work that inspire you, but more importantly for one to become a documentary photographer, one must read extensively. Read news, stories, fictions, non fictions, poetry, and educate oneself about issues that affects one’s life, and lives of people in the community and the country. With that knowledge and understanding, get out, think, talk and shoot, shoot and shoot. It’s a triple H effect: Head, Heart and Hands. With the burden of information you feel the joy and the jarring of reality; the pain and purpose of it; the anger and the angst; the frustrations and foolishness of human error; the excitement and exhaustion of sharing when you pick up your camera. It has to work together.
It will take a long time before what you shoot falls in right places and start to make sense. That’s how one becomes a documentary photographer. To socialize is another important piece of the puzzle. One has to socialize, spread one’s ideas and work. If you continue to do that, one day it will all click, and your work will see the light of the day.
Being a Bangladeshi Photographer, how do you evaluate the contemporary standard of photography in Bangladesh.
I have travelled the world. I have never seen such talents in any other country besides Bangladesh, especially with such little resources. Bangladesh is a brand new country with enormous challenges of all kinds, and that’s one of the reasons it is full of opportunities for photographers. It’s colourful and compassionate people are extremely friendly and life is full of intensity. There are also lots of clients. One just has to be willing to work hard consistently and be professional in every aspect.
If I can be critical, I think in Bangladesh, we have way too much pride, and we don’t know how to handle success. It hits us too hard, and gets to our head little too fast. Have you heard anyone saying “Tumi aamake chino na? Jano aami ke?”. Ensure that doesn’t happen to you and you will be fine ☺
What will be the future documentary photography in the era of citizen journalism and availability of gears.
What is the relationship between the citizen journalism with availability of gears? Wouldn’t a cellphone be enough?
Apart from photography, tell me about your hobbies and interests in your personal life?
Personal life? I am married. I have a great wife and a brilliant child.
I live in Canada. I love water, nature, and being alone in the wilderness. I like to walk, hike, kayak, cycle, camp and my new love affair is motorcycling. I am a happy and content person.
I am photographer, but I don’t think I am any longer crazy about it. It’s a means to a lot of things in life, but not the only thing I care about anymore. I realize I like photography because it takes me places I would have never seen otherwise, hear stories I would have never heard, it allows me to meet people I would have never met.
Any last comment for our readers? Any suggestion for Contact Sheet?
I wish you luck! It’s a great effort. We all need a neutral platform. Thank you!
Suggestion? Only one. Print. Social media is easy, thus too crowded. Print.
Thank you Shehzad Noorni for your time and sharing some words with us.
Posted and interviewed by Saud A Faisal
All Photos are Copy Righted by (C) Shehzad Noorani