1:1 with Salma Abedin Prithi

1. What is your earliest memory of how or what attracted you to photography?


I was a broadcast journalist before coming to photography. Once a colleague brought a photo book to the office. It moved me and made me wonder how a set of images could tell a story. Learning photography was never my plan but that book changed my mind. Photography made an accidental entry into my life.


2. What was your experience studying photography at Pathshala, Dhaka? How has this experience influenced and informed your practice?


I was always a less-attentive student and a backbencher. I used to dislike technical classes, but I became interested in the medium through documentary lectures. The diversity of the medium was unexpectedly surprising, although I could not understand some works. I was so moved by my first encounter with Nan Goldin’s work in one of the classes. I also liked Pathshala’s fresh approach to photography education, with its strong modules on regional anthropology.


3. If you were to design a photo program for young Bangladeshi photographers, what would it look like?


I would certainly prefer a small format of teaching modules with a special focus on workshops, as workshops are often intensive, and I like working under pressure. Also, it is quite an open format for professional practitioners to balance their practice with lessons. Learning through practice is always more effective if practical guidance is offered alongside, as well.


4. Who or what inspired you to pursue photography and/or continues to do so?


One doesn’t need to look into other photographic works to get inspired. Music has always provided good healing and hope for me to continue working. Poetry is equally moving, and I often wonder if there is any stronger medium in arts than poetry and music, in terms of their sensorial impacts. Also, one needs to learn critical thinking by keeping informed about social struggles and human conditions and, as in my case, about growing domestic violence, rape, lynching, or class struggles in South Asia.


5. Is there a book, exhibition or body of work that has really impressed you and maybe influenced your work / life?


I would say Chinese photographer Ren Hang’s work gave me courage to produce something out of nothing through a pop-up studio environment. My practice is mostly about staging a situation in my home with minimum resources or props and my beginning in 2014 was very challenging. Ren Hang opened my eyes and I started becoming confident about my limited arrangements.


6. What draws / drew you to the subject matter you are pursuing in your current work?


I would define myself as an intuitive artist who is open to accidental psychological moments even though I stage situations. My depression and anger are mostly sourced from everyday news of domestic violence; however, my expression is imaginative. I want to rearrange the very unexpected moment in an intimate studio environment to explore the mental state of ordinary people during a crisis or struggle. I have always found that aspect often missing in the news while I read a description of a violent or shocking moment.


7. Why did you switch from a successful career as a television news anchor to photography? What has this shift meant in terms of being able to find a space for personal expression?


I struggled with the limitation of news as a medium of storytelling. For me it was important to explore the missing parts of storytelling, which is often about psychological struggles of the victims of violence. Otherwise, the facts remain only as statistics, and the depth of loss is forever left unknown.


8. Your work Elegy is quite layered, wherein you use actual news events, texts, found images and then you bring in your own staged images. How did you arrive at this process? How do you pair your fictitious creations with the real events?


There is a common perception that a staged situation has no baggage of truth and merely presents fiction. My attempt is to find the spaces between fact and fiction and, as a result, to explore the complexities of social struggle. My primary resources are news events, but mainstream news does not explain the very moment of these events. This enactment of moments enhances visual imagination and protests desensitized forms of news contents.


9. Ordinary people perform for you in a staged scenario for Elegy. How did you decide whom to ask and what were their questions and reactions? What were the conversations like and how much did you direct them?


Building trust and comfort with the people I photograph is key to a strong image. We bond through sharing our views about domestic violence and our personal experiences. I explain my purpose and challenges of the project and share a rough sketch with them that I prepare for each frame. I don’t depend a lot on direction, as I expect an accidental moment while experimenting with different gestures. There is always a decisive moment in a controlled situation, which I wait for.


10. Do your projects typically run in parallel, or do you focus on one project at a time?


I don’t see my works as well-defined projects. These are intuitive works, often overlapping each other with sensibility or image construction. The source of each of my works might be different, but all works become one work in respect to my concern or visual choice. Thus, producing multiple works in parallel is not a conflicting process for me. And I don’t prefer any break while I am producing a body of work, as I need mental focus and a coherent mood while working on a specific topic.


11. How do you measure success or that a body of work is going well? Do you share it with colleagues or others? Your own sense of it?


I don’t usually measure success with traditional determinants and prefer focusing on visual and psychological impacts of my work and deciding a volume that would maximize it. I share my work only with a few people who share common notions on psychological work and social crisis.


12. Do you ever find yourself creatively ‘stuck?’ Is there something that is particularly helpful to you in overcoming this?


I am often creatively stuck, but as an imagemaker I try to embrace that struggle. It is never easy to make an impactful image in a world bombarded with images. I accept this as an ordinary struggle and focus more on thinking and reimagining a visual moment. Watching a film or reading a poem definitely helps me to overcome the situation. But one shouldn’t overly force oneself and should meditate more often.


13. How much effort do you put into getting your work shown? Is this important to you? Does showing your work feed your creative process, or does it distract you from it?


I am a lousy promoter of my work. However, my intent is to always protect my freedom and have full authorship of my work while publishing it and exhibiting it. Showing my work to a general audience always strengthens my purpose of making the work. But there needs to be a good and sensible platform to show the work, rather than just showing it at any spectacular space. For me, showing work to ordinary people is equally as rewarding as receiving an award.


14. Do you feel that there are adequate opportunities and avenues to share / show your work in your home country, or do you always look for such opportunities abroad?


I don’t look at it as home or abroad as I don’t have any nationalistic agenda. Any sensible place with a relevant audience would attract me to share and show my work. As a global citizen it is my fundamental right to claim support from a platform that I admire or feel aligned to. Good and meaningful places are shrinking day by day for artists as the power game of art relies largely on market value, iconography, and networking.


15. We know that fine art or documentary photography is not always enough to make a living. Some do commercial work, others teach. Are there other photography related areas that you work with in order to supplement your living? Some that you would recommend aspiring photographers might consider?


I take commercial assignments to make a living – some are editorial and some are NGO works. I am currently working for the World Food Program. One needs to be very dynamic to work commercially in terms of technical as well as communication skills. This is never an easy path if one doesn’t nourish multiple skills. There is no formula for young photographers, and they need to combine their niche and strength. I would just remind that they keep their personal visual language separate from a commercial assignment. Otherwise, there is a risk of confusing the audience with commercial interest and credible voice.


16. Digital technology has changed photography drastically over the last few years. Did you initially embrace the changes or resist them? Do you believe the changes have been good for the medium or not?


I don’t believe much in this binary debate of digital and analog. All art media go through technological innovations and artists also respond with time by embracing the changes. Lens-based media like cinema and photography face more drastic changes, but these are all technical shifts. Digital is merely an upgrade of support systems for us, and one needs to learn how to maximize it. We need to humanize technology rather than fear it.


17. Do you think there is a universal language that photography uses? Do you think that Bangladeshi photographers are finding that they are judged by western criteria and standards?


There is of course a western canonization of thoughts, standards, and acceptance; and one needs to understand contextual practice by looking into local movements and diversity. Some artists are conscious and concerned about a local identity, while some are not and are more open towards a hybrid practice. I don’t have many nationalistic interests to define Bangladesh as a specific practice, but I truly enjoy diversity. Photography is definitely a universal language for its simplistic and realistic form; however, ignorance of regional knowledge makes it quite a naïve depiction of universality.


18. With your years of experience (perhaps not so many), of the lessons you have learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


I think one needs to trust one’s own intentions, have patience to think and reflect, and search for an appropriate language to express it. There shouldn’t be unnecessary pressure or a rush, which our industry often imposes on young practitioners. Experts usually don’t have the time to truly listen to a beginner about her/his purpose or intention before any guidance and, as a result, most rely on prescribed formulas for a quick growth and fail to work on a sustainable vision.


19. How has it been for you, living through the lockdown period and the pandemic in terms of your practice and/or producing work?


The lockdown period was not a slow time for me like many, as I suffered from COVID along with my family members. There was also no time for grief, as I always had to be mentally alert to continue the battle with this deadly virus. I’m still suffering from long COVID syndromes including eye inflammation, rheumatic pain, etc. At one moment, I felt a compelling need to make images to share my own mental experience and started producing new work for the Joop Swart Masterclass. This work looks into my personal experience in the hospital and the challenges of mental health that I faced as a result.


20. If you didn’t do photography, what other career might you have pursued?


I am not much of a careerist. I like teaching photography to children, which I may continue. I love reading books, especially detective stories. I want to travel extensively, walk miles after miles to see civilization and nature.


21. How would an interested collector go about buying your work?


I’m currently not represented by any gallery. The collector may contact me directly to know more about my process, and I would be happy to walk her/him over to my practice.



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Copyright © Salma Abedin Prithi

Date Published

20 November

Brief Biography