“I LOOK AT THINGS IN A MORE SUBTLE WAY NOW” – an interview with MUNEM WASIF by Daniel Boetker-Smith

In our second installament of APPA interviews Archive Director Daniel Boetker-Smith recently caught up with Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif. The two met briefly at last year’s Angkor Photo Festival in Cambodia, where Daniel first saw Munem’s book ‘Belonging’. Munem’s book was published last year by Clémentine de la Féronnière, and recently the two got talking about Munem’s career to date, and his thoughts on photobooks.


Where did you study, and was photo books something you were introduced to at university/school?

I studied in Pathshala (South Asian Institute of Photography). 10 years back photo books were not that fashionable, and are still not so in Bangladesh. Of course we have photo books in our library but when I was studying it was more about looking at a body of work rather than looking at the book as an object. It was more about a solid body of work, one that could really move the viewer; like the work of Josef Koudelka or Nan Goldin’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’. I guess the change for me was Dayanita Singh’s books, especially ‘Sent a Letter’.

How did you become interested in photography with a documentary style?

I don’t know, I guess it grew spontaneously. I think I was inspired by beautiful, strong, humanistic photographs that were being produced by photographers in Bangladesh and abroad at that time. I suppose a big influence was that my friends and colleagues were writers, poets, and political activists who were involved in social issues so we naturally tended towards that type of photographic work. Also a lot of course content at Pathshala, and the work we were exposed to, was concerned with the politics of representation, so I guess all these factors influenced me when I was choosing subjects to document.


How has your work developed through your career?

Oh! That’s a difficult question. I guess teaching has changed my life. Teaching has taught me to look at a photograph more objectively; developing an understanding of the history of photography has been invaluable. I guess my work has become more subtle, I look at things in a more subtle way now. I don’t know it’s a difficult question to answer, to appraise your own development, I think about the visual language more. And I am constantly thinking how I can push photography more.


How did the Belonging book come about? How did you develop a relationship with the publisher?

I was working in Old Dhaka for 12 years and when I was in Europe, I was looking for a publisher, Agence VU introduced me Clémentine de la Féronnière. Of course I met a few other publishers in Arles also. But Clémentine got back in touch with me after a few months, and then we talked over a long period of time. Clémentine was really cooperative, so we didn’t fight much! (laughs). But of course it was difficult to work mostly online and you don’t know get a real sense of the actual objects, the fabrics, and the papers. But that’s the reality, living in Bangladesh, it had to be that way. Agence VU’s Patrick & Patricia helped me a significant amount. In Bangladesh I am hoping we can soon find our own system, where we can publish our own books.


The book is beautifully printed – what was the process and discussion about how the final book would look?

We thought a great deal about the size of the book. We talked a LOT! I wanted to have a book that you can hold easily in your hands, simple but intimate. I spent a quite bit of time sequencing all the photos trying to generate an underlying poetic thread. I talked with few different people and their feedback completely changed the way I was looking at the book. I then sent the test prints to Clémentine. Then Patrick from Agence VU looked at the all the machine tests, we even changed the paper stock at the last minute. The fact that my publisher was in touch with Agence VU made a real collaborative process. The difficult part was book cover. At the start I was very sure of the kind of cover I wanted (in my mind), the fabric, the mood, etc. I was working with Nelly (the designer), she did more than 15 different designs; it was very complicated, and not an easy process.


What has the response been locally to the Belonging book?

I haven’t launched the book yet in Dhaka. Maybe I will do in Chobi Mela VIII next year! I was hoping to do an exhibition and book launch together this year, but it didn’t happen mostly because I wanted do so many things in the show. And now the book is published I am feeling like I need to move on, so I have stopped thinking about the book and now I am just focusing on developing the exhibition. Another point to make is that the book is so expensive in Bangladeshi currency, I feel a little awkward selling it there, there a lot of people who want to buy it, but can’t afford to.


What is your next/current project?

I have been doing a project on Islam for last 5 years. It’s a complicated project, which is about the multiple layers of beliefs we have in our country. Its looking at some of the contradictions in this belief system, but its so deep-rooted in our society I’m afraid someone from outside will have difficulty reading the complexities. I am wary of using too much text to explain it so at the moment I am working on the form of the work, and working through these issues. I don’t want to publish any more books in the near future. It’s suicidal to publish a book, there is no way back! It’s tempting, but I want to wait as I feel I have published my last two books in rapid succession. I also think there are too many books being published now but not enough good work. There is also too many ‘best of’ lists, and competitions, and too much focus on the editioning; nobody seems to be talking about the actual photographs, and the work itself.

I am also researching some others projects, hoping that they will evolve into something in the future, but I am not in a hurry.

Munem Wasif won the ‘City of Perpignan Young Reporter’s Award’ (2008) at Visa Pour l’image, the Prixpictet Commission (2009), the F25 award for concerned photography from Fabrica (2008), the Joop Swart Masterclass (2007). His photographs have been published in Le Monde, Sunday Times Magazine, Geo, Guardian, Politiken, Mare, Du, Days Japan, L’espresso, Libération, Wall Street Journal and many others. He had exhibitions worldwide including, Musee de elysee & Fotomuseam Winterthur in Switzerland, Kunsthal Museum & Noordelicht Festival in Netherlands, Angkor Photo festival & Photo Phonm Phen in Cambodia, Whitechapel Gallery in England, Palais de Tokyo & Visa Pour l’image in France and Chobimela in Bangladesh. Since 2008, he is represented by Agence Vu in Paris.