Islam captures Bangladeshi sea tales through photography

One of the photos from Islam’s series “Songs of the Sea.” The photo is of one of Cox’s Bazaar’s fishermen as he rests after sailing his boat into a sheltered canal after a day on the sea. Photo By: Imrul Islam
One of the photos from Islam’s series “Songs of the Sea.” The photo is of one of Cox’s Bazaar’s fishermen as he rests after sailing his boat into a sheltered canal after a day on the sea. Photo By: Imrul Islam
One of the photos from Islam’s series “Songs of the Sea.” The photo is of one of Cox’s Bazaar’s fishermen as he rests after sailing his boat into a sheltered canal after a day on the sea. Photo By: Imrul Islam

For Imrul Islam ’17, photography is a way to tell stories. While he was home in his native Bangladesh for the summer break, Islam undertook a project to recount the tales of the local fishermen near his home in blog post featuring a series of photographs that he titled “Songs of the Sea.” The series is slated to appear in a Bangladeshi national daily newspaper within the next few weeks.

“Songs of the Sea” features nine photos of Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar, the longest sea-beach in the world, and those who live and work on the beach. Islam spent four days in Cox’s Bazaar. Each day he would spend traveling to a different part of the beach, talking to everyone he met who might have a story to tell, and then tried to accurately portray that story through his photography.

According to Islam, Cox’s Bazaar and its environs are an extremely popular tourist location,. The local fishermen whom he interviewed live only five miles away from the most frequented spots by tourists. Having heard of them as a kid growing up nearby, Islam decided to take a trip to visit the fishermen and hear their stories.

Islam felt that it was the sheer adversity of the area that he found so compelling that he made it the subject of his project.

“There’s a sense of drama about the seas and the beaches,” said Islam, who was raised and still lives not far from Cox’s Bazaar. “The area is under constant struggle.”

The fishermen Islam talked to and photographed survive by setting sail every day in ships—that Islam described as awful—to support their families through their fishing. The crabs and fish they catch bring them barely $0.25 each when they are sold to the local vendors; who turn right around and sell them to tourists and restaurants for a much greater price. Not only are the fishermen barely scraping by on a good day, but they must also contend with the cyclones and tornadoes that frequent the area which, when combined with the already questionable ship-worthiness of the fishermen’s boats, leads to many deaths.

The fishermen of Cox’s Bazaar know they are being effectively cheated by their buyers, and they know they work a dangerous job; yet Islam was struck by their persevearance.

“They take it all in their stride, which is humbling to see,” said Islam.

Going into the project, Islam didn’t have a concrete plan as to what story he wanted to tell or how he would go about telling it.

“I feel like [a predetermined plan] limits my ability to take photos for myself,” Islam continued. “My photos have to satisfy myself first.”

After he had taken all the photos he needed, Islam went through them, searching for photos that had strong relations to one another and that fit together. One of the relationships common throughout them was that of the children living, playing, and going to school by the sea and how they manage to stay alive. Islam believes that his photos should be able to construct a narrative after he has taken them.

“The idea is to go back to Bangladesh and tell stories that I feel are important and often overlooked.” Said Islam.

Islam knew that he wanted to make sure that these accounts were heard due to his time here at Vassar. After arriving at Vassar, Islam took a political science course and heard his classmates discussing things such as child labor, which he had grown up bearing witness to, and holding some widely divergent positions.

“We label it ethnocentrism, but it’s more a lack of information,” Islam said. “I feel a human perspective helps to comprehend.”

When posting “Songs of the Sea” to his blog, Islam discussed this issue further.

“But in retrospect, I don’t think anyone can be blamed for being ethnocentric (unless it is rampant ignorance) … especially those you can reason with.” Islam wrote. “The flow of information is vital; it is important to understand rather than assume.”

During this past spring semester, Islam founded the “Superhumans of Vassar” Tumblr blog. Based upon the popular “Humans of New York” page, “Superhumans of Vassar” is comprised of short quotes from and photos of various members of the Vassar community. Conceived one cold night in January when Islam struck up a conversation with a janitor in the basement of Josselyn House and got to hear his story, Islam claims that the blog was in part an effort to meet and get to know a lot of people during his freshman year. Now, it has become another way for him to help tell stories.

After graduating high school, Islam took a gap year before beginning at Vassar, during which he moved to New York City to stay with family and intern with a local doctor for nine months. During that time, he realized that he was very interested in researching various neurological diseases and their cures.

“I took Bio classes and learned about all these cool technologies coming out and I realized that I was very interested in them,” said Islam.

Even though he doesn’t plan to make a career out of his photography, even though several of his series of photos are beginning to win awards back in Bangladesh, Islam says that he won’t be giving it up anytime soon.

“It’s a serious hobby. Even though I’m not going to pursue it professionally I will always do it.” Islam concluded. “The ideal project would be to combine the two. Even if I never use neuroscience to help my photography it will always help me relate better to people.”

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