Samsul Alam Helal, a young visual artist talks about his journey in exploring the art of capturing light and about his most recent photo story, ‘Disappearing roots: stories of displacement’ with Nahid Riyasad
New Age Youth: Would you like to briefly describe your career in photography and visual art so far?
Samsul Alam Helal: In the late 90s, an elder brother of mine, Yousuf Tushar, the-then secretary of Bangladesh Photography Society who gave me the photography bug. Even though I graduated in management, I was unable to keep a formal job because of my orientation with photography at an early age. Tushar bhai and his friends used to gather in our neighbourhood and talk about photography. Tushar had a photo lab in Purana Paltan area which was frequented by many prominent photo journalists and photographers, as I used to spend a lot of time there, I become acquainted with the Dhaka photography scenario.
To make my dream come true, after finishing graduation, I admitted myself in Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in 2009 and completed the three-year photography course. It is there I get to explore different avenues of the art of capturing lights.
New Age Youth: Your interest lies in portraying different minority (economic, sexual and ethnic) communities and complexities hovering around the identities through use of vibrant colour. Tell us about your aesthetic choices as an artist?
Samsul Alam Helal: For ethnic community or economically marginalised people, vibrancy of colour and their identity are intrinsically linked. I grew up in the Postogola-Jurain area, which is predominantly inhabited by economically marginalised people, as well as other minority communities. I have observed their culture, their everyday life and their life stories from within, rather than being an outsider.
Vibrant colours have a serious play in these people’s everyday attire, as well as their home interiors. I have been to so many people’s houses which are decorated with electric blue or crimson red — again use of vibrant colours.
As a result, I have adopted using energetic colours when portraying these people.
New Age Youth: What kind of social transformations, as you have been living there since the 90s, have you observed in your locality’s lifestyle?
Samsul Alam Helal: Inside a studio in my neighbourhood, I documented people who came to get photographed. I worked on a photo-story titled ‘Love Studio’ in which I narrated the dreams of these people, who have come to Dhaka with their dreams that never became a reality for them.
I have found these people are trapped inside their dreams and the harsh reality of making the dream real. There is a photo which shows a tiger, a goat and a deer symbolically portraying the helplessness of these people. I have observed that people struggle only to fulfill their dreams even when there is very little to no chances of ever achieving them.
New Age Youth: What inspired you to work on this photo story ‘Disappearing Roots’?
Samsul Alam Helal: I first visited Rangamati as a tourist in 2000. Couple of years later, I came to know about the history of Kaptai dam and the displacement it perpetrated. The dam has grave psycho-social impact on Jumma community. I also came to know that the palace of Chakma circle king was completely drowned in the lake.
The story never left my mind as I traveled through Chittagong Hill Tracts in regular intervals. Tthe changes I have observed with each visit prompted me to work on the historical incident.
In my later travels, by then, I have had an understanding of cultures of Jumma people and complexities of development projects there. In 2000, Ruma, Bandarban was an entirely different world, the newly constructed road changes the entire scenario now. That road running through three villages and local bazaars are killing them. These kinds of development and history of development in CHT and its complexities with local people inspired to explore the history.
New Age Youth: In a number of photographs of this exhibition, there are covered faces. How do you justify such portrayal for people who are considered minorities because of their ethnic identity?
Samsul Alam Helal: For being minority, they are already living behind an invisible curtain, moreover, many of them have been subjected to different incidents that changed their lives forever. For example, what happened to the Marma sisters last year, do you think, an artist could freely show their face in an artwork? Would that be safe for the victims?
Through my ‘Disappearing Roots’ I wanted to symbolically depict different incidents that took place in CHT that victimised local people — starting from the Kaptai dam and including a number of mass-killing and present day tourism.
When you see a face is hidden in this photo story, it is symbolically indicating to a specific incident which forced that person to hide his/her face.
Also, I wanted that the audience would be intrigued by the hidden faces and would dig deep on their own to know more about the political and cultural reality of CHT.
New Age Youth: Bengali presence in CHT is not a new phenomenon. Despite this, your story seems to omit the presence of Bengali people? What is your reasoning behind this?
Samsul Alam Helal: The way I work is I fix a story first and then ponder on selecting a narration to go with the story. My story for this work was the forced displacement of Chakma people perpetrated by the construction of Kaptai dam.
For this work, as I am narrating the stories and pain of those who had suffered and being uprooted from their ancestral lands, I feel that stories of Bengali communities are not relevant here.
I would also like to mention the fact that I have worked only a year on this story. It was difficult for me to incorporate the stories of Bengali communities in this short period of time.
New Age Youth: Your work metaphorically uses a throne to portray stories of sufferings of ordinary Jummas. Do you think, despite Chakma people’s relation to their royalty and their identity, a throne can successfully depict faces of the mass?
Samsul Alam Helal: The chair has got a variety of responses from the subjects of the photographs. Many just refused to sit on it out of respect, some say only elders can sit and some have happily sat on the chair.
I gave the subjects freedom with the chair and most of them instantly recognised the chair as the throne of the king. Even though, it was made in Dhaka, later taken to CHT through the mountains.
My storyline goes as this — the chair is currently looking for the people who are lost from the land because of forced displacement. The chair is also a symbolic representation of the unification of people, once they were, before the large scale forced displacement of 1960s.
New Age Youth: Would you care to elaborate on the video of the submerged palace?
Samsul Alam Helal: This work depicts the palace of the Chakma circle king that actually submerged during the 1960s under Kaptai Lake. The music used here is important because I segmented it in three parts.
The first, I recorded a music session with a Chakma community which was interrupted by three gunshots. The second is the traditional funeral flute music of Bawm community and the third is silence. It portrays the everyday reality of CHT people through the story of a drowned place, it invites viewer to think about the displacement of the community, the displaced roots from the development of a hydraulic dam.
New Age Youth: Any future projects you are considering at this moment?
Samsul Alam Helal: I have managed to work a full year on this project because I got a scholarship from British Council and Prince Claus Fund. However, I am not done exploring this subject. I think, I have managed to document a very little part of the reality in CHT. Currently, I am thinking to extend my project and work more on this subject.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth.
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