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Sayeda Khanam: Through a different lens

  • Published at 11:53 am March 8th, 2018
Sayeda Khanam: Through a different lens
In many male dominated societies, women were and still are not expected to pursue certain professions. A defiant Sayeda Khanam, the first female photojournalist of Bangladesh, proved that perception wrong. When a woman working behind the lens was almost unimaginable in the country, Sayeda Khanam started photography at the age of only 13. She got inspired to pursue photography from her aunt poet Mahmuda Khatun Siddique. "When I was very young, she [Mahmuda] used to hire photographers to come to the house for taking pictures of the family. They [photographers] used to take our photographs with the big box cameras which had black curtains," the legendary photojournalist told UNB while sharing her childhood memories on the eve of International Women's Day. Initially, she used to get a little nervous being exposed to such big box cameras. She had no idea then that this camera would eventually become her lifetime partner. "My sister's friend Lutfunnesa Chowdhury, wife of Zahur Hossain Chowdhury, former editor of the newspaper Sangbad, had a box camera in their house in Kolkata. When I visited their house, that became my first camera. I took the camera and went to the street to take pictures. The first picture I took was of two ‘Kabuliwalas,’" she recalled. Since then her journey began in photography at a time and society where people simply couldn't think of women's role behind the lens. When there were few photographers, let alone female ones, Sayeda Khanam went ahead and learnt everything about photography all by herself. At first she joined magazine “Begum” as a photojournalist in 1956. Her photographs were published in many national and international newspapers including the Observer, Morning News, and Ittefaq. She also captured many important events of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. Back in those days, photography was not as modernized as today. So one had to take care of sunlight, shadow and many other aspects, and tweak things manually before using the camera. In 1956, Sayeda Khanam had her first international exhibition after participating in the International Photo and Cinema Exhibition, Cologne. In the same year, her photos were displayed in an international photography event in Dhaka, and later exhibited in international competitions in Japan, France, Sweden, Pakistan and Cyprus. Her portraits of Mother Teresa, Rabindra Sangeet singer Konika Bandopadhaya and film director Satyajit Ray were also exhibited in Dhaka. In 1960, she received an award in All Pakistan Photo Contest and in 1985, she was honoured with Unesco Award for photography. She received many other awards from several national and international organizations afterwards. She is also a lifetime member of Bangladesh Mahila Samiti and Bangla Academy. Talking about the current situation of women doing photography, the pioneer in this field told UNB: "It feels really great when I see so many girls doing photography now-a-days. When I started this profession, there was no girl beside me. I was the only one. But now when I see girls are moving with cameras everywhere and taking pictures, I feel happy for them". Sayeda expressed her deep concern though over the safety issue of women in today's society. Mentioning it as a big challenge for female photographers, she said, now-a-days women are not safe in the society. "The society was also not totally safe even in our time, but the situation has become much more dangerous for today's girls, especially for the photographers who have to go to places for their profession," she said.