1:1 with Sarker Protick

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


I think I became aware of photography in 2008 or 2009, perhaps. Of course, before that, I had seen family albums and they were my only connection to photographs. I started taking photographs with a little phone camera in 2008. It was around then that a friend used the word photography, and I became aware of it.


At that time, I was doing a bachelor’s course in business studies. For the class in ‘advertising,’ we had to go to the library to read and research. On such visits, I remember being drawn to a few particular books that had a lot of images, photographs, and illustrations. To think about it, even before I was fond of such images, I used to collect wallpapers for my desktop. I am sure many do the same to some extent, however I would do this quite fondly. I would collect images and keep them organized in a folder. They were from different film stills or music album covers that I was listening to or just simply landscapes. These were my initial exposures to photography, even though I was not aware of the medium.


2. What was your experience like when you studied photography at Pathshala? How has it influenced and informed your practice?


Pathshala influenced me at various levels. Firstly, it is a school where most often the teachers are themselves practicing artists and this brings in certain energy, which was quite special. Later, I visited many schools (mainly in the west), that provide degree courses for photography where the atmosphere is usually academic or formal. Here at Pathshala, it is quite the opposite — most teachers are practicing artists, and that creates an entirely different kind of dynamic which can often be more practical and energetic, but with many limitations at times too.


Also, around the same time, the school was evolving and opening in many different directions. For instance, many works and practices were inspired by the works of Bresson, Rai, Salgado, and Eugene Smith and their aesthetical vision and commitment to the genre of social documentary. But if I was drawn to the works by someone like – William Eggleston, that was also appreciated. I had the freedom to explore my interest, which the school always encouraged.


In the final year, I had classes with Shahidul, Abir and Munem — all of them are very engaged with the school. More than their works, it is their commitment to the medium and the community which inspired me more. Someone like Shahidul, who makes such important works, but might not be my artistic aspiration. The same can apply to Abir’s and Munem’s work. And the way they all work within the community, how they support, mentor, and guide the students — I think that was crucial for me.


For me, being born in a minority family in Bangladesh, with both my parents coming from the village to the city and trying to earn a living, thinking and discussing politics was a luxury. In any country, if you are a minority, you never have a voice. So, when I was growing up, I was not quite aware of what was happening within the country, or globally.


It was at Pathshala, that I started to think about my own identity and position in society. The school became an important space for me not only to find my voice as a photographer but also learn about myself and gain more clarity. The campus had a simple and open setting and a rare space to find in Dhaka. Before I came to photography, when I was doing music, no space could allow engaging or bonding as a community, which was quite depressing. However, the Pathshala campus was intimate and allowed such bonding to happen and made us feel like a big family. Forming friendships, providing artistic rigor, and enabling me to become socially and politically conscious.


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


Different artists – musicians, photographers, visual artists, and filmmakers have been inspiring me in different stages of life and I continue to be inspired by the longevity of their practice.


I was inspired by William Eggleston’s work. Also, Sally Mann, Robert Adams, Sophie Calle, Duan Michaels, Larry Sultan, Brenda and Hilla Becher were works that triggered something in me. Later, I got to know the works of filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch and I look at the arc of his practice and body of works over the years, which became an inspiration. I was moved by the works of Zarina Hashmi, Naser Mohammedi, and Lala Rukh. There is also a film called ‘Rivers and Tides’ on Andy Goldsworthy’s work that strongly impacted me.


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


Arthur C. Clarke wrote a series of four books and one of these was made into the film A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick which had a huge impact on me. I read the book while I was at university. I realize how a book that I read so many years ago, still stays with me after so many years.


The Bengali writer, Sunil Gangopadhyay has written a trilogy. These novels use historical facts; as he did extensive research on various real-life public figures, from the kings to zamindars to scientists to poets. Using their biographies, he portrays the period and introduces a few fictional characters who become the main protagonists of the stories. I read these in college, and I was mesmerized by my experience. As good books do, they create a world inside your head, and that’s what these books did for me. My work Exodus / Elegy largely came from my having read that trilogy almost 17-18 years ago.


5. What draws / drew you to the subject matter you are pursuing in your current work? Does it come as a gut feeling, or after analysis or research? Memory? Something that bothers you?


I think, in most cases, it starts as a gut feeling to photograph and then the research aspect follows. For example, during the lockdown period, I was going through my archive and looking at the images that I made in 2013, the year after I graduated from Pathshala. At that time, I didn’t have enough money to initiate the works I wanted to pursue. So, I was mostly stuck in the city. As a result, I again started photographing the city during the monsoon without any clear direction. In 2020, when I was looking back at all these images, I realized that they were mainly photographs of my neighborhoods in the Ramna district. It has Dhaka University, Shah Bagh, and Ramna Park, which are all very historically and politically important places. However, at that point, I was doing this without being aware of it.


Now that I was stuck again due to the pandemic, I began to photograph my surroundings and recognized that this is where I have been living my entire life. I started to embrace this area, this neighborhood, this particular part of the city, and then I started to research it and came to know that it was developed during the colonial period. A few neighborhoods have gone through massive changes, with newly constructed flyovers, that have, as a result, ruined the residential area. There is also a long metro line that has been constructed over ground – a park, a railway track, many new high-rises and slums etc.


With my work on Elegy, the idea initially started to form around 2013. I did research to understand how I wanted to navigate between these vast spaces in terms of history, religion, border, and migration. All this was quite overwhelming, and I needed to have more clarity in my head and visually be more capable of exploring that space. By 2016, I realized that several of my works, for example about my grandparents or the river project, carry the thread of ‘time’ and ‘impermanence’ running through them. Which helped me to understand why I am curious to photograph the ruins – the history of power that is related to them and how they are transformed by nature. So, when I began learning more about these physical places, I realized that they were not well documented at all. As a result, my research became twofold – one was based on the available official documents that were accessed from the archaeological department, and the second part of the research was through the public domain and field research.


6. How have music and sound influenced your practice?


I grew up in a family where we always had music in the household. My mother wanted to be a singer and did sing on the radio several times. However, she couldn’t pursue this as she had to make a living — not unlike what I faced when I wanted to do photography. But even though my mother couldn’t sing professionally, she continued to sing regional music by Nazrul and Rabindranath and other modern Bengali music.


On the other hand, my father was listening to the Beatles, The Doors, Deep Purple, and many others. At some point, I wanted to learn a musical instrument. Since my college, I got heavily engaged with music for the next 7 to 8 years, until I started at Pathshala. I was keen on writing songs and musical pieces and later formed a band. Very typical of that age. When I got involved with visual arts, music naturally started to become a part of it. I feel the discipline of music – listening, playing, the structure of writing, and the process of composing / editing is quite close to making a series, too. Generally, when someone writes music, initially it comes from a gut feeling. It could come as a reaction to something, someone or an event or memory. It starts very raw and then slowly you begin to give it a form, which can be almost like math.


7. How did you become interested in presenting some of your works as audiovisual installations? What is the significance of this choice in your work Raśmi?


The first time I made an audiovisual installation was in 2016 at the Serendipity Arts Festival, and then in its full form in 2017 at Chobi Mela. This was the earliest attempt where I mixed images with sounds. Raśmi began where my project Origin ended. For this, I brought in electronic sounds, recordings, and compositions as part of the visual installation. The senses of sight and sound are so different from each other, in the way they perform and how we experience them. Images can show you things too directly at times, but sound can be evasive, which allows each person to interpret as they please.


Raśmi is a little bit of an atmospheric rendition of the current world, where the natural world seems less and less part of our day-to-day lives. Everything is lived in a hyper-real world, based on screens and devices. Initially, it was going to be a book. Later, I started to think of an installation using the images to create diptych and triptych images, turning into a new image in the process. After that, when I am placing everything together, the sound takes over. It dictates the whole progression and I give up my control over the visual to the sound.


8. You have said that time plays a crucial factor at various levels in your series Elegy and your work on the river. There appears to be more than a fascination for ruins at play here, though. What is that ties the elements of architecture, feudalism, Partition, loss, decay, and national history together in your work?


Three of the projects have a straightforward narrative arc dealing with time; how time transforms our surroundings and its impermanence. The work about my grandparents looks at the end days and slow decay of body and memory. In Of River and Lost Lands, I have been photographing the landscapes by the river Padma / Ganga for the last eleven years. It’s about the loss of lands and the rise of new lands. While the course of the river is changing, over a longer period new islands form, too. So, there is a cycle of death and rebirth. Elegy / Exodus is about relics and colonial spaces of the last two hundred years and post 1947 – the Partition and how these structures of power are abandoned and eventually taken over by nature and become a different kind of entity. It speaks of architecture, human history, growth, power, and demise. When all these are seen in the form of ruins, one feels a sense of loss that a nation went through. These three bodies of work are long-term projects done in more than 5 – 10 years. Due to this nature, it allows me to read and see the subjects in different facades – sometimes learning and sometimes un-learning. It is possible to create distance with work and revisit it with a different set of eyes. Because, with time and the subject or story, an individual also evolves in many ways. And these reflections come in and affect the work.


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


Multiple projects at the same time. During Covid, in 2020, I was working on three different works at the same time – one is more like a book, one is a continuation of old series and another one was a video / film. It can get overwhelming at times, so I stop one and focus on the other. Most of the works are also long term so it is all continuing parallelly. Taking a break helps me to unlearn and look at things more curiously with a fresh approach. I think as artists we are always working — even when we are not working, we are still working in our heads.


10. 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?


Sometimes I share my work with close friends but only after working on it over a long period. I think it is always good to share work that is in progress with people whom I trust. With Raśmi I made about two hundred prints after two and a half years of working on it and showed them to my close colleagues at Pathshala. I wanted to see how people would read it since this work is quite personal and abstract. I was curious to see how different people would interpret the work, which also helps in getting varied perspectives.


I think an important factor for me is to show the final work in a relevant context. Also, if the work can transcend beyond my geography, I feel good about it. The more audience a work can build for itself, that can truly mean something for an artist.


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


What I find scary is when I see artists past a certain age who have stop exploring and get stuck at a point where they were maybe ten years ago. In my case, my practice is only at ten or eleven years now and I wonder what will happen ten years from now. Will I be able to simultaneously sustain and continue to learn and make interesting works? Perhaps what it means to be creatively stuck is to lose interest and curiosity.


12. 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?


It is important because it’s one way to let your work be part of the public domain and build an audience. I wish I could put in more effort, but that urge is not as strong as the urge to make the work. Showing work can be a strong part of the creative process.


13. 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?


No, not at all. In my own country, I had once shown in 2013, in 2017, and then in 2022. The main events here are the Chobi Mela and the Dhaka Art Summit and that’s about it. This can be frustrating as I want to show my work in my own country.


14. 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 in to supplement your living? Some that you would recommend to aspiring photographers?


Besides practicing, I teach at Pathshala. Sometimes, I teach workshops. But they are not that realistic for earning a living. I do editorial work and assignments. I enjoy it as they can be interesting and challenging. It has to be a mix of a lot of these things. It can be tricky to sustain, pursuing only with an art practice.


My advice to younger photographers who are just starting will be based on my own experience and everyone has different experiences. I always continued to work on my projects and with time I came to be known to editors or curators for these works which they cared for and trusted. I kept making works that were close to me and of interest and made no compromise on my artistic choices. These were acknowledged and noticed in time and led me to an audience. I think it is important to decide, based on your own practical circumstance, what is it that you want to do, then focus and invest accordingly. If it is fashion that interests you, then immerse yourself in that.


15. How does it feel to be teaching the final graduation class at Pathshala so soon after your own completion of your studies there, and to have curated the Chobi Mela twice so early in your career? Has this impacted your own practice?


This is a question that I have asked myself on many occasions. I have been teaching since 2013 and I have only taken a 6-month break. There are times when I wish I had not started teaching that soon. Most teachers start to teach only after having a practice of 5-7 years of experience in the practical field and building careers accordingly. To teach and practice at the same time is exhausting. So that wasn’t fair to my own practice. I was too young and when I think of the methods of my teaching in 2014, I would not teach in that same way now. I am more practical and patient these days. When I look at this journey, the one good thing I can say is that teaching always kept me connected to the medium, to young practitioners. And seeing students making good works or growing up as artists or photographers is a good feeling. Sometimes, that can make it worthwhile.


I have worked with the festival since 2013 in various roles but began curating in 2017. The first project was called Bengal Divided which looks at post-Partition Bengal. This was in collaboration with Munem Wasif and more than curators, it was two artists collaborating and looking at other artists’ works that have been happening in the region and building context and form. In the ensuing years, curating became part of my larger practice.


16. 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?


Like art, there is a culture of labeling things with geographical or racial identity. For example, Indian photography, western photography, or Japanese photography. If you look at photography, it is still Eurocentric and the presence of South Asia or South Asian practice is much less. To be frank, how much interest in Bangladesh is there in a global context, let alone Bangladeshi photography? I think everything is generally judged by western criteria and standards. For instance, funding or residency programs require very critical and complex applications and proposals written in English. I wonder how many talented artists from my country, and many others, including myself, have studied it as their main language or have that much control over it?


17. Of the lessons, you have learned since beginning your practice, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


I wish someone had told me the importance of taking breaks to maintain a healthy work-life balance.


18. How was it living through the 2020 lockdown period for you, in terms of your practice and/or producing work?


For me, the lockdown period was a much-needed break. I was at home for six months without any traveling, and this was quite nurturing. I could rest and I worked on things that I could not earlier because of travels and other obligations. The experience grounded me and I continued making work. I also got to work on an exciting short film. The period was productive as well as reflective.


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


Perhaps I would do music, but when I think about my country the possibility of that becomes less. Sometimes I think about graphical designs and forms, so perhaps maybe a designer.


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


They can reach me or the gallery [info@shrineempiregallery.com] that represents me.



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Photograph © Aishwarya Arumbakkam

Date Published

20 November

Brief Biography