“The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way. Who are not, but could be... Who are not human beings, but human resources. Who do not have faces, but arms. Who do not have names, but numbers. Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police blotter of the local paper. The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.” – The Book of Embraces, Eduardo Galeano
Simone Weil, a French philosopher, once said: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” These words of Simone Weil might give us a clue of the urgency of the photographs by the great Bangladeshi photographer G.M.B. Akash. For days now I have been looking at his collections. They register something of what seeing images demand of us.
The neoliberal-economic system that is forced upon us today is “a great slaughter-house,” in the words of the Marxist philosopher George Lukács, “where thousands of human souls are murdered every day.” Part of this immensely tragic world of the nobodies is the subject of Akash.
Akash photographs the nobodies which are constantly forgotten in our civilized, progress-obsessed world. (The nobodies and the forgotten borrow each other’s identity.) The dimension of social concern present in these photographs is a testimony of the photographer’s serious interest in his subjects: the social and economic arrangements of the world they inhabit.
There is nothing foreign or dramatic in his pictures, rather simple, unaffected angles that come out naturally in the act of photographing itself. The titles of his photographic collections are recognizable for their commonness, their simplicity: “Home for Elderly People in Nepal”, “Sex Workers in Bangladesh”, “Child Labor in Bangladesh”, “Nothing To Hold on To”, “Hell for Leather”, “Plight of Rohingya Refugees”, “Ships Graveyard in Pakistan”, etc... Titles which one often encounters in the sidelines of newspapers and magazines. Akash said in an interview:
“I concentrated on people living on the edge of society because their faces, lives, and living conditions held a particular fascination for me. Gradually I became absorbed in their daily lives for months on end, learning from their experiences. My desire to capture it all on film pushed me to go to places and meet people I never would have encountered otherwise. Each visit gave me a deeper understanding of humanity.”
There is a strong sense of tenderness in the way Akash sees his subjects. The conscious choice of photographing in color rather than black and white makes these photographs more timely: more urgent. Each of the photographs carries a kind of clarity like remembrance which insistently takes recognizable shape in the memory as though grappling against refusal.
This tenderness is what gives his pictures their expression of humanity. His camera knows where the pain hides in the surface of a situation, like a doctor who delicately examines the body of a patient for symptoms of injury or disease. He photographs to lay bare the unrecorded pain of the nobodies. Firsthand experience and contact with his subjects perhaps explain this quality of tenderness. This is what makes Akash, a unique figure in the field of photojournalism. “I want to show the things that simply shouldn’t be.”
To see clearly: the quintessential goal; the driving force; the supreme command to be acted out constantly in the field of photography. Akash’s gift of clarity, of seeing the nakedness of a situation allows scope for the images to speak for themselves. A boy exhausted from a whole day’s work, a girl begging an apathetic customer to buy her flowers, prostitutes waiting for prospects, an uprooted tree, a make-shift house under the flood, cataract and trachoma patients in India, lonely old men in Nepal... Naked situations which do not allow any allusion to romanticism or literature. The photographs themselves are tragic realities that are stripped of any ideological ambitions. They do not demand sentimental viewing. They command attention.
Like Van Gogh, Akash avoids any calculated attempt to sentimentalize his subjects. Both intelligent men knew that sentimentality doesn’t help one to get to the soul of things. Sentimentality sets a comfortable distance between compassion and imagination.
Art critics often refer to Van Gogh’s illness (or “madness”: post-modern critics’ favored term) to interpret his “violent” manner of painting. I find such reference quite misleading– a form of mystification. I see no “violence” in the artist’s strokes rather an inner tension which punctuates most of his paintings. His capacity to fully enter into and live the human experience without having to analyze or theorize his subjects allowed him to pay attention to them, to care for them.
Van Gogh’s inner tension emerges from profound compassion for all existing things: sunflowers, wheat-fields, ivies, worn-out boots, wooden chairs, olive trees, vineyards, cypresses, mental asylum, gloomy cafés, peasants... I think this can be explained by the way he lived. The close contact with the impoverished peasants in Nuenen gave Van Gogh a painful, compassionate sense of the reality of rural life. He painted with the ache of a laborer tirelessly and sometimes fruitlessly tilling his land. Even in pitiful moments of intense mental and emotional upheaval his works are always on the side of tenderness. “I want to do drawings which touch some people,” Van Gogh wrote, “I want to progress so far that people will say of my work: ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly…’”
Van Gogh learned that peasants who are in direct contact with the land possess wisdom distinct from that of the so-called “educated” men. The wisdom which is the fruit of centuries of practice, of experience, of tradition, and of perpetual communication with the sun, wind, rain, and soil. In other words, a wisdom that is truly rooted in the land.
This wisdom is being marginalized today as traditional practices in agriculture are being eliminated by technology-driven agriculture that is totally foreign to the life of the land and culture of the local people. It is precisely this marginalization that drives many farmers to total despair. “Indian farmers have never committed suicide on a large scale. It’s something totally new. It’s linked to the last decade of globalization, trade liberalization under a corporate-driven economy,” says Vandana Shiva, a world-renowned environmental activist and physicist. She explains how this gradual destruction of indigenous culture affects the lives of local farmers:
“The seed sector was liberalized to allow corporations like Cargill and Monsanto to sell unregulated, untested seed. They began with hybrids, which can’t be saved, and moved on to genetically engineered Bt cotton. The cotton belt is where the suicides are taking place on a very, very large scale. It is the suicide belt of India… And the high cost of seed is linked to the high cost of chemicals because these seeds need chemicals. In addition, these costly seeds need to be bought every year, because their very design is to make seeds nonrenewable, the seed that isn’t renewable by its very nature, but whether it’s through patenting systems, intellectual property rights or technologically through hybridization, the nonrenewable seed is being sold to farmers so they must buy every year… because the price is so high, farmers necessarily get into a debt trap… this is what is killing Indian farmers.”
The large scale migrations to mega-cities, the expanding urban slums, the problem of increasing population and food price crisis, crimes, the augmenting class of rootless laborers, and the seemingly irreversible ecological crisis are faithful reflections of the staggering despair in the countryside caused by intensive industrialization and the general collapse of rural life. The nobodies, the victims of this relentless globalization are the subjects to which Akash tirelessly devotes his attention with compassion and rage.
Photography, alongside cinema, is perhaps the most exploited art form in our culture today; the most susceptible to the conditioning of greedy multinational corporations, advertising companies, and the entertainment industry by subverting the imaginative and compassionate approach of photography into blatant instruments of profit-making and mindless consumption. At the same time, photography is the most capable art form that can illuminate, through its accessibility, barrierlessness, and sociability, the uncritical nature of contemporary society. Just because, rarely, one encounters a photographer like Akash:
“Our simple work may be the greatest inspiration to become a better human being each day. By making some effort through photography in changing the world even if little, for better can find a way of Love and Peace. I see the beauty of people and the human soul in the pictures I take. And though the circumstances of some of the people I portray may be grim, back-breaking, depraved, the people themselves are always remarkable characters and souls. And it is my duty as a photographer and artist to point with my pictures at every aspect of existence in the society and world I live in, to show what can be shown, to go deep into every milieu and also into every aspect of poverty, deprivation, and hardship that I encounter – because the only sin for a photographer is to turn his head and look away.”
Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. He regularly contributes to journals in the Philippines, writing politics, culture, and art. He also writes for a local academic magazine in Tuscany that is published twice a year. His articles have been published in magazines in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Visit his website or follow him on Instagram @carlo_rey_lacsamana .
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