Homayra Adiba on capturing a changing homeland

Matter + Form

Any photographer’s challenge is to capture images that will leave a mark on the public’s consciousness. It takes a great amount of work, and a lot of patience. For Michigan-based photographer Homayra Adiba, the work becomes more interesting if she tries to understand the inner worlds of the people she photographs, rather than just putting together a 'one-size-fits-all' narrative.

We caught up with her to discuss how her life and the way she approaches her art:

Hi Homayra. Could you tell us more about where you live now, and how you pay the rent?

I am from Dhaka, Bangladesh. I am currently nesting here in Michigan, USA.

Photography used to be my only source of income until 2016, but now that I have migrated, I've had to start all over again. I am working at a retail store as a part-time associate. But on the side, I've just started a new business of bookmaking. It’s something I always loved doing and I realized over the time and through social media, that there’s an audience who appreciates this kind of work. It's how I started my journey as an entrepreneur.

What was it like when you just moved to the US?

When I first moved here, the drastic change of geography, people, culture, language, politics, weather, career and so on. Honestly, I was not prepared for it and it made me homesick. I was very depressed in the beginning, but over time these points became sources of hope and inspiration. Even watching the snow on a lazy day is very soothing.

Just after moving, I couldn’t just go and start a new photography project. I needed to make my roots here. It was important to learn what’s happening around me and with me. But at that time, having to stop taking photographs was difficult. I had to do something. I started making little comics about day to day life, making linocuts and prints, handmade papers and I discovered many different interests. So, in a way, this migration gave me the courage to try different things, even though I thought I had found my media.

How do you spend most days?

I love to spend time with the kids in my neighborhood. They are around 10 years old and full of life. Our conversations are mostly about how football is not really football, but soccer - or which superhero is the best. At first, I started taking pictures of them for the sake of taking pictures. It was at a time in my life where they offered a new opportunity to practice photography and have fun.

How did you first become interested in photography?

I don’t know to be exact. As a person, I go with my instinct. It has to do with my childhood, I always liked taking pictures but never really had a camera. I used to write poems when I was little and wanted to become a writer. I think it’s my interest in writing that made me fall absolutely  in love with photography. Once I got a hold of a camera, I never stopped.

I was a student of graphic design at that point and got some experience with photography. I think my friends and teachers noticed this much before I did, that I was only taking pictures! I was taking pictures in the oh-so-boring Typography classes! So I took the leap and dropped out of design school. It took me six months to convince my parents, and started from scratch in Pathshala, a school dedicated to photography. Being from Dhaka and the society I was from, it was hard, even shameful to leave an ongoing bachelor's degree. But I am grateful that I took that step.

How have you nurtured your skills over the years?

Knowing your camera and what you can do with it is a very personal thing. The more time you spend with it the more it becomes your camera, which is why different photographers will come up with different stories with the same camera and different authors will write different stories given the same pen. But to answer the question, the school helped me to understand the process, the politics, the world of photography, technical skills and how to fine-tune my knowledge. How to use that to tell your story, that is something you have to learn yourself.

Did you have a mentor when you first started?

The question should be if I had a good mentor! [laughs] When I started, I was following photographers that, to my knowledge, were very good. When I joined the school, we had mentors who were assigned to our batch. The most I learned about photography is from filmmakers and photographers living far away or in the past. The school helped me discover most of them.

I was a student of Dr. Shahidul Alam, and learned about professionalism through the course. But if you observe him, there’s so much more to learn. I always denied that I needed to be an activist. I wasn’t, I was a storyteller. But aren’t we all activists when it comes to the core of the things we care about? Alam bhai, helped me to merge my philosophy, my aesthetics with my photography. By observing him, I learned to develop that in myself.

I learn every day from Rinko Kawachi and Sohrab Hura. Sohrab was a mentor when I participated in the Angkor Photo Workshop in 2015. It’s not his lessons but observing him as a person and noting some of his words. It has helped me shape my photographic practice.

In every stage of life, we carry a few identities that we are born with, that help us to judge, compare, explore, question and wonder. There might come a day when you hold a new identity, which is not necessarily the identity you were born with.

Being from Dhaka, do you think that's influenced the way you look at things?

Yes, absolutely. In every stage of life, we carry a few identities that we are born with, that help us to judge, compare, explore, question and wonder. There might come a day when you hold a new identity, which is not necessarily the identity you were born with.

Dhaka, the capital is populated, polluted and full of chaos. But Dhaka is warm. When I think of Dhaka, I think of all the friends I have there, what my husband must be doing right at this moment. Who lives in the house that I lived in all my life, where the children of my first cat can roam around?

What about the rest of the world?

When you are from Dhaka and you are a child, the world seems like a place to travel and explore. But in this era, no matter where you are from, the world looks like as one entity of absolute chaos! At least to me. It's an issue worth talking about.

When I think of the world, it seems like an even bigger mess. My land, Bangladesh is one of the first victims of global warming. The beautiful small land that came from the sea could go under in the next fifty years if the rest of the world, especially we Americans, don’t do anything. It seems as though America makes more waste than the rest of this planet united! After I started working in retail, I would observe the shipment of the merchandise for the store. Each product that was already in a plastic pack would come in another plastic pack, wrapped in bubble wrap, wrapped in a paper sheet, wrapped in a plastic bag, in a cardboard box full of similar products. We would trash the plastic and paper packaging, as most stores do.

This is something that I didn’t know was happening when I was in Dhaka. It made me wonder, each day how much waste does just my store make? How much waste from every store of the town combined? How much waste does the state make? And what is the solution?

Do you feel like your personal relationships with your subjects leads in to the kind of work you do professionally?

I work with people and places that are personally close to me, people that mean something in my life, places that have some kind of significance to me. I prefer not to call them subjects. My work is really about my story and my relationship with a place or my journey of trying to find my home. It's places where I would go back in a heartbeat. And then the work leads itself. My work is based on text and photography and a lot of waiting. I try to listen, to know what I am trying to say.

Has living in Michigan changed the way you take photos, do different things catch your interest now?

Living in Michigan has changed the way I see things. It has given me another place to call home. When I first arrived, Michigan was so alien, I was an alien and I thought to myself, America is nothing like the movies! But maybe Michigan is nothing like the rest of the United States. On one hand, Dhaka is metropolitan, it's the capital. There is the traffic, the steam, and the rain. On the other hand, Westland and the trees, the nothingness, the suburb, the snow!

Michigan and I, we are getting to know each other a little. The seasons are very visible. I notice things the way someone from Michigan would see things when they first visit Dhaka. Even the falling of the leaves in fall catches my eye, the changing colors, the details of a snowflake! However, immigrating has changed my life drastically.

If we can agree that photography is a lifestyle, I would say that it was the only lifestyle I lived since I started practicing it. When I had to come to the USA, I was given a medium-sized suitcase to fit all my belongings! Imagine a 26-year-old, all her life living in one place, all the books she saved up to read and all the ones she would read over and over again. All the gifts and cards from people she loved, all the dresses that she wanted to wear, her violin, her tripod, every little thing she owns that had to go through a test. Every little thing she wanted to stuff in her suitcase.

I ended up taking my camera, my lenses 2 shirts, 2 pairs of pants, a few books. That’s it. Which made me realize two things: I am such a hoarder and I don’t need much to live a life. So I started practicing minimalism. I have very few belongings now so that any given day I can fit all of them in one 22/14 suitcase and leave without thinking twice.

My story is not the same anymore, it’s changing, it’s changing every day and I don’t know where it’s going to end. But only because I photographed them, I have evidence of the love that once was there, of a home that once was there. This process helps me to stay alive.

How do you describe your photographic style, what do you look for in a subject?

I try to spend time with a story. In the beginning, I start taking photographs because I felt like I had a calling. Just by spending time, the story starts to reveal itself. It’s not always very comfortable, but it is important to me.

When I started taking pictures of my home, I just wanted to have memories of my father. I was afraid that he wasn’t going to live long. He just had heart surgery and was recovering from it. I was a student and I had to work on a story, but I also wanted to spend as much time I could with my father. So, I started taking pictures of him. The only conscious thing was that he someone I love and I want to capture him. But over time, I started taking pictures of my mother. I wasn’t very close to her. We hardly spoke. I started taking pictures of them together and slowly I realized their relationship was not how it used to be. My family was breaking apart and then we had to move to a different land. I had to go, I couldn’t leave not knowing where the story would go. What would happen to the people I love?

The new life affected all of us, my mother recently moved to a different house and they are looking at a divorce. When I started this story, my idea was of this couple who were in love, the love I was a result of. The love that turned into marriage, made a family, then brought unhappiness and fear of loss. But my story is not the same anymore, it’s changing, it’s changing every day and I don’t know where it’s going to end. But only because I photographed them, I have evidence of the love that once was there, of a home that once was there. This process helps me to stay alive.

Do you think it’s important to find a different angle or approach for every project?

For me, the story tells me what to do. Sometimes it requires a certain kind of light, sometime it would ask for writing. I think it's very important to listen to the story, and understand what it asks for. I might have tried different approaches, light or framing in the beginning. But over time, when I have spent enough time with the work, I have an idea of which approach I am going for and why.

For commercial projects, it’s comparatively easy. You learn what the client wants and you work for them. For your personal projects, you really need to listen to your instinct as well! Sometimes, what it’s asking for, might sound absurd… but give it a shot, it’s worth it.

Do you follow any unsaid photography "rules" or is it just that you've developed a certain eye?

I try to follow a ritual that in my case has given me beautiful photographs back. If not photographs, I would always come back with a moment or a feeling of contentment. The ritual is to go. To the place, I want to take pictures of or to the people I want to portray. Spend time, listen and observe, you don’t have to bring your camera, just bring yourself, completely, absolutely present. Magic happens in little things.

How does your home and your space influence your work process?

My home and space are my work. A camera sometimes can work as a little time machine. When I started taking pictures of rooftops, I was chasing my past, the sweet memories on rooftops. There were little games, little moments of absolutely nothing. Every evening I and my cousins would go to the rooftops, it was my favorite time of the day when I was little.

We would make up our own games. For example, once Plabon bhaia was a detective and was investigating how the gemstone got to our rooftop and who this gemstone belonged to. And we were all his assistants. Another night, my mother would set some shitol pati [a kind of mat] and we would just rest there counting the stars. When there was a load shedding, we would go there with our candles lit. Some afternoon we would fly kites.

We were not special, our rooftop wasn’t the only rooftop that experienced all these little events. That was the time when almost every rooftop had a story just like ours. I wanted to live that again. In a way I was reliving the time that was gone. Through different rooftops of Dhaka city, I found the same stories, the same characters that I am familiar with, the same sense of nostalgia.

How does your family feel about your work, are they generally supportive?

It’s a very good question, one that makes me feel different emotions. We, the children of the subcontinent, would agree that our parents are a very strong part of our life. No matter how old you are, there’s always this one string that is attached to your parents, and they control you in many ways.

My parents were never very happy about me being a writer or a photographer, or me doing anything with art. I remember burning my diary of poems when I was sixteen because I couldn’t take my mother’s criticism of how I was wasting my life. What I loved doing so much was such a pain point for my mother! It was always a fight with myself, and wondering whether what I am doing is worth it. I am still doing it.

But slowly, I started to learn to question their behavior. Why they do it? One day I was recycling my papers when my mother came in and started telling me how she used to make papers when she was a kid. It made me very curious. She seemed to know the whole process that I had just learned after months of self-research. I could have just asked her, but no, part of me knew she was interested. I always thought my mother was against art and anything creative. So why would she do something creative in her early years? So I started investigating. It turns out my mother is like most mothers. Probably like your mother and the person who is reading this, like hers too. She was a victim of society. Our parents, being Asian parents experience a lot of pressure. They expect their children to have a steady job. The community will criticize parents if their children are not doing well enough in the required fields. We are the product of our parents and the expectations they put on us knowingly or unknowingly. Their parents must have done the same with them.

There is no way of proving what’s worth it and what’s not. I think if we all collectively keep doing what we love to do, there’s a hope that we might build an infrastructure for future artists. And may be we don’t have to put our child through the same pressure. It won’t happen in one day, it requires time.

On the other hand, my other half, who is also a photographer, is not only supportive of my photography but also very encouraging towards the new mediums I am trying.

Can you describe some of your favorite projects or commissions you have worked on?

As a photographer, I haven’t really worked on many commercial projects! The personal work that I do, most of the stories are just unfolding themselves. It always goes the same way for me. I start to look for the idea of home and somehow it takes me to my childhood, then starts to give way to something new that I wasn’t expecting. Where Blue Birds Fly is my only work that has seen some sort of ending. I looked at my home and the people who live there as a photographer, then slowly I started becoming more myself and more the daughter I am to my parents. Before this work, I had a complicated relationship with my mother and it’s still complicated, but it's being untangled. I have come to see my mother with more clarity. I had to accept a few facts about my family that I denied for the majority of life. It's been difficult, but sometimes it gives me ease. But my new stories are just taking shape.

Images by Homayra Adiba.
Edited for clarity.

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