It only takes a single glance to recognize a classic. The confirmation can be seen here, in this direct, forthright photography — the same quality that came through in the series devoted to “Salty Tears,” in which Munem Wasif examined, documented and questioned the situation regarding water in his country, Bangladesh. Classic by choice, starting with the choice of black and white, whose relative distancing from reality demands exacting precision in the composition. Arising, as always in photography, from a succession of rejections, eliminations and decisions, this choice precludes the picturesque quality that too often prevails when lands and peoples are viewed through the prism of exoticism. But black and white, while it places the photographer within a documentary tradition long associated with journalism, obliges him to go beyond merely transposing a visual record of the world. He must take a position, and he does, deliberately and consistently.
The first element of this positioning is the choice of framing, clear and precise, defining the space allotted to the image. This generates a rectangle in which the eye can proceed from one detail to another, to connect them and give them meaning, while ridding the delineated scene of dross so that nothing extraneous can disrupt its comprehension. This frame takes on a surprisingly organic quality, as though breathing, seeming at times to expand, then reduce the field of vision. It affirms the photographer’s position, his physical point of view that delineates an outlook on the world. He can then select one part of a visual agglomeration, to reveal as the central element a sinuous network of necks and crops of unplucked white birds, or, from further back, behind a splintered window, a horse-drawn cart making its way through a crowd. At the same time, the framing is an exercise that, here, recalls classics in the vein of Cartier-Bresson in the way that it imposes a geometrical form and embarks on an investigation of frontality and the slightly elevated view. One of the most telling examples is given in a striking view of the river: a cluster of long, narrow-bodied boats fans out in the center of the image while, in the foreground, oblivious to the photographer, a barber pursues his delicate task. This rightness of this image lies in its distance from the things it portrays, its distancing of the space, and its capacity to stratify its different levels without resorting to optical artifice for their separation and organization. This photo inevitably evokes one of Wasif’s earlier works in which a boat lies aground on the cracked earth, bearing silent but poignant witness to the extent of the ecological devastation in Bangladesh. This choice of position, seeking out a precise distance, non-formalist despite the exacting organization of the shapes, this internal structuring of the image that cultivates a much more subtle complexity than first meets the eye, is ultimately not so classic after all. Here we have a photographer who knows and obviously admires his classics, who learns from them but who devises his own visual grammar to serve as the basis for an exploration that, as we shall see, is not eminently classic. Dhaka, or Old Dhaka, was a rather unlikely subject. I live here. It existed all around me. It was almost trying to find the unseen within the everyday. Old Dhaka had made me appreciate properly cooked greasy food, the sleaziest of slang, and it is where I had come to rediscover the same small town pulse of holding on to things rather than letting go. My own childhood years in Comilla, a small town mostly surrounded by countryside and steeped in customs and traditional lifestyles, had made me not just appreciate but feel at home with relations which grew over time and bordered on tradition more than trend. But through the frames, my Old Dhaka started to divulge unseen lives and throw back at me more agonizing questions of assimilation, and even worse, deletion.
Excerpts from the book Belonging, preface by Christian Caujolle