Emerging from the patriarchal society of India’s neighbour and former territory, scholarly artist Gazi Nafis Ahmed invokes photography as a medium to illuminate Bangladesh’s LGBTQ community, and the result is as insightful as it is truly touching. Through his unbiased lens, we gain access into a different world arising out of personal struggle against the boundaries and limitations of a stifling society, as well as the beauty and strength of this community.
“Once during the Bengali New Year, the community takes out a rally wearing Rainbow coloured costumes and masquerade masks.”
While pride parades and organised walks in support of human rights do take place in rainbow-coloured glory, the climate of Bangladesh’s LGBTQ community is one tainted with oppression, both societal as well as legal. Upholding Section 377 much like our own legal brigade in India, which criminalizes such relationships, the country outlaws homosexual unions and more, but as Ahmed elaborates, that mindset is gradually evolving, “The Bangladeshi community’s views about sexuality are slowly changing as time progresses. Most of the people who object to homosexuality do not want people placed in jail for this particular reason. They are not in support of section 377 which outlaws homosexual relationships. As people start to gain more access to the Internet and broaden their views, their opinion on the matter changes too. They believe decriminalizing same-sex relationships would be the first step in making drastic changes in the country. Some believe there is nothing gained in placing people in jail for the alleged ‘crime’.”
As part of his undergraduate degree in Photography at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, Ahmed studied ‘Sexuality and Gender Identity’—a subject which led him to explore the theme in a different cultural context. His journey with this subject led to the birth of ‘Inner Face.’ As he elaborates, “after completing my Undergrad in Photography at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in 2008, I came back to Bangladesh and started researching about the project, collecting data from organizations working with LGBT community, traveling to different parts of the country, interviewing, and it took almost a year. After long hours of discussion, Hero bhai( founder of BSWS) and I came up with the name ‘Inner Face’. The first exhibition in the country on Gay community, Inner Face, took place in 2009 at the Goethe Institut.” Ahmed recalls beefed-up security lining the opening day of this exhibition, as academics, intellectuals, activists, human rights lawyers and members of the LGBTQ community from all socio-economic classes were present to witness and appreciate this bold photography series.
Same sexuality, different names
As it happens within most spheres, despite being bound together as sexual minorities, the LGBTQ community is still differentiated by wealth and hierarchy. As Ahmed tells us about the evident class gap interlinked with sexuality, “There is a difference between the poor and the rich. They are given different labels as well. Men who identify themselves as gay are usually well-educated and have more resources. They access different LGBT communities through travel and Internet. They harbour connections to the global gay community. In contrast, the socio-economically challenged gay men are referred to as MSMs. The term MSM [Men who have Sex with Men] is an umbrella term created by public health officials to describe men who are considered to be high risk for HIV and AIDS. Their economic statuses are usually low and common jobs include cooks, dancers and rickshaw pullers. They do not have any adequate resources and often remain anonymous when visiting health resources and do not provide sufficient details about their lives. These men are usually in secret relationships and sometimes lead double lives if they are married to women. These men also do not have access to books or the Internet unlike the upperclassmen.”
While class hierarchy is one barrier within this community, in the ‘us’ and ‘them’ equation it faces with other sections of society, religion is a whole other barrier. “Public display of affection between friends of the same sex in Bangladesh is commonly approved and does not raise any controversies, but there appears to be a strong objection towards homosexuality as such. The attitude results from religious tradition of the country, with Islam being professed by approximately 90% of the population, and mentality of Bangladeshi society,” Ahmed elaborates. The religious divide extends even to artistic expression of this community, as this bold photographer received a message regarding the 10 commandments and condemnation of the theme of his work.
Still, Ahmed’s series was highly appreciated in the world of art. From the intimate, emotional moments he captures, to the subtle nuances of each picture, to the everyday pain and joy he reveals, each photograph is a touching visual narrative, and this unbridled expression gained much acclaim. “Many of the participants in the “Inner Face” project received job opportunities after the exhibition. The communities started to have more confidence and be more vocal.” Ahmed adds, “The work was exhibited at the Alliance Francaise in Bangalore during the Bangalore Queer Film Festival in 2012, then to Universidad Complutense de Madrid: Gender and Equality Conference – Naming and Framingin 2011, Open University Conference on sexuality in London in 2012, B/Desh show at Dhaka Art Summit curated by Deepak Ananth in 2014, Oude Kerke Amsterdamin 2015.”
Minorities within minorities?
A gorgeous and equally effortless representation of men’s legs interlocked on a bed—Ahmed’s photographs showcase the personal realm of Bangladesh’s gay community. Still, the lesbian community seem to be less forthcoming or comfortable with being in front of the lens, which depicts yet another aspect of this complex community and their struggle—minorities within minorities.
“The camera functions as an instrument for perceiving and understanding the world around us and our fellow human beings. The product of this process which is the ‘image’ leads many actions. It creates an emotional reaction in a person, it communicates persuasive messages and draw people’s attention to critical issues, it challenges ‘collective norms’. It allows to enrich the lives of the ones it encounters with.”
Scroll on for Gazi Nafis Ahmed‘s beautifully captivating photography series Inner Face representing Bangladesh’s homosexual community.
Nafis is a scholar and an artist who works with photography, collected texts & drawings. He was born in Dhaka. He studied Art & Design at the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media & Design of London Guildhall University in London and Photography at the Danish School of Media and Journalism.
Currently he is pursuing MFA in Photography at the prestigious IED Madrid, Istituto Europe di Design on full scholarship. He is a visiting lecturer of Undergrad program at Danish School of Media and Journalism and at IED Madrid.
Words: Rhea Almeida