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“Belonging” by Munem Wasif

Meditations of another kind

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 “belonging”-Image by Munem Wasif

Munem Wasif is an eminent documentary photographer in Bangladesh. He has been represented by Agence Vu since 2008,  and is now teaching documentary photography at Pathshala South Asian Media Academy.

belonging by Munem Wasif

The picture is from Munem Wasif’s eagerly awaited book “Belonging”

By the waterside a barber leans over his customer. The barber looks focused. His way of handling the ustra and the way he positions the face of his customer testifies to his expertise. Customer’s head is leaning on a side. His eyes are closed, restfully. An insubstantial sign of strain on his forehead at the junction of eyes and nose punctuates an otherwise blissful expression. He could be a passenger or another boatman. But his face doesn’t show passenger’s anxiety. The coarseness of barber’s shirt, his tangled bristly hair, the crop of their beards helps in situating the photograph. Moving up from there we are lead into the cluster of boats. Each boat looks like a flower petal, their assemblage a flower, moored with thin rope lines to a ragged pole. Moored to their boats with equal lightness,  boat men contemplate on the next journey. Gently lapping water could be the first note of a bhatiali. Moving further up we are in deeper waters now. There are boats, large and small with passengers aboard. Gentle concave forms of small boats run into solid checkered lines of large vessels. Behind them, a city rises, immobilized with anchor in its gut; and strangely though, the vortex of all activity in the foreground. The gaze then reflects from the imperviousness of city’s unheeding white.  Breaking sideways into the chaotic middle with boats in their mid-journeys it folds into the “flower” of boats, finding order and anchor. Finally we return to land where the barber and his customer are still there. One wonders what are they doing here? What’s the connect?

The story begins; each boat must have its own. If I were writing fiction I would love following each one to its story but this being a photo document, subtle and real, I stop here and ponder “what does it mean to belong?” Does one belong to something? Does it have a direction or is it a deeply ingrained sense wherein we just co-habit; the space as much in our pores as our breath in it.  Belonging; does Munem Wasif present a problematic, or its resolution?  To my mind, belonging would be  a sense of homing; an emotional, psychological state which rejects alienation, anxiety or uncertainty.

What possible deduction of belonging can we arrive at by scanning the picture? One obvious thing is the absence of any sign of proclamation or anthem, the characteristic stereotypes of “belonging” so loudly exemplified by “born in the USA” sung by  Bruce Springsteen. Instead we move into a dignified silence of life lived daily, and a deep sense of familiarity & comfort with the surrounding. The boats belong to these waters; most definitely. They are all similar; small, indigenous, functional & unpretentious. Men with casual, nonchalant gaits seem to know their boats. The man on the right is busy conversing with another boatman while he prepares to anchor the boat. His posture as he leans on his rowing pole is one of trust. He seems to know the bamboo pole in an intimate, personal way. In adjacent boat a man walks towards two men sitting with their backs to us. Just look at the way he holds up his dhoti with left hand, again characteristic of the people being portrayed. One doesn’t wear something the way he/she does, just like that. To be able to wear, carry off, and hold it the way he does requires a lifetime of living with a certain sense of clothing.Written in reference to tailored clothes the words of John berger make a lot of sense “The clothes convey the same message as the faces as the history of the bodies they hide…” –The suit and the photograph, About looking.

All around the boat-flower boatmen are seen doing minor mending jobs, preparing for their turn to ferry passengers or simply standing with assured gaits give us a feeling that we are looking at a space which these people know in a “homing sense”.

Between the near and the far end boats set off in all directions ferrying passengers to and from the big vessels seems to be the business here. Big boats carry passengers from far away islands. Small boats ferry them to their personal destinations. Together they move the economy of a nascent nation. Except on the farther side where we see something of a mass everything else is in a flux of arriving and departing. The mood of the scene is definitely itinerant but not in a touristy sense. Geographic location of the place has ensured that the people of Bangladesh are always in sight of water. Well a lot of water. In spite of their water woes from flooding, hurricanes, to rising sea levels the people here have found way to deal with it. What we see in the picture is a water highway on which every kind of business is transacted. People move about in great numbers. There’s a boat for every stop. Every stop has a tale to tell.

Returning in the end to the foreground the barber and his customer so emblematic of the mood set off the viewer to  exploring a slice of life present before the photographer. The barber has no shop to do business just as we don’t find a “ticket window” for the passengers boarding the boats! He arrives on the scene with his implements/equipment and departs after he is done with his day’s work.  The effortlessness and focus  with which he does his job makes us believe that he has known this routine for a long long time. He is equally comfortable with the land he sits on as the shirt he wears. There’s no sign of weariness in his demeanor. In fact he looks rather poised; his  hands  working the customer’s beard with  certainty and deftness. The background which looked rather subdued when we first look at the photograph has now assumed broader proportion. Rather than looking at the barber and his customer as the foreground it would now be appropriate to locate them in reference to the background. The background of the scene is the reason for the two men to appear where they do. Though appearing  in the foreground they belong deeply in  the hinterland.

During my first iteration across the photograph I missed the point that there’s no onlooker. Not even the photographer. The lense man too must belong here. Otherwise what would explain the two men being so oblivious to his presence, even though the photograph is taken from up-close. It seems the photographer descended softly as a cloud and imbibed the scene. The entire picture appears engrossed in itself. There are no outsiders here. Everything and everyone belongs.

By not cropping out parts of half-boats on the left side the photographer has saved a document from becoming a picture. This non-intervention lets him capture the even flow of an average day in un-spectacular, un-obtrusive way.

Nirlep Singh Rai