Bangladeshi photographer wins award for Rohingya refugees image

KM Asad won the top prize of the Pink Lady Food Photo Awards 2020, but his archive of images speaks to broader issues in his native Bangladesh

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It is the winning image of a food photography contest, but there is not a meal in sight. Instead, child refugees stand in a row with empty bowls in their hands.

Taken by documentary photographer KM Asad, the image entitled After Exodus captures Rohingya children in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, as they queue to receive food from a non-profit. The image is from 2017, the year when the Rohingya crisis was thrust back into the global spotlight after at least 500,000 individuals fled violence from Myanmar to Bangladesh in the span of a month.

Last month, Asad's image was recognised as the overall winner for Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year awards in the UK, selected among 9,000 entries from more than 70 countries. The photographer, who lives and works in Dhaka, will receive £5,000 (Dh22,980) as prize.

Asad says he has had his eye on the major photography award for the past two years. When Pink Lady added the category of Politics of Food, which looks at issues such as production, sustainability and hunger, Asad believed that his image could resonate. “Every corner of the world, there are people waiting for food. It’s very important to show how food is related to politics,” he says.

The plight of the Rohingyas – a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar – is one that Asad has been following for years. In 2012, he accompanied a friend to the south-east of Bangladesh and began documenting the influx of refugees there. A sliver of river called the Naf separates the two countries, and the Rohingya, driven out by Myanmar’s army, brave crossing it to seek safety.

Their conditions in Bangladesh, however, remain dire. 

“I could not believe this was happening to people. Thousands of people came, women and children,” Asad says about his series from 2017.  “I’ve seen children die on the road after they cross the river. So many problems happened there. And now, I want to see where they will be settled."

Asad's photographs capture human struggle, from displacement to modern slavery and calamities. Graduating in 2008 from the photography school of Dhaka’s renowned Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Asad’s concern for social issues took root when he was still a student. In 2007, he, along with fellow aspiring photographers, documented the devastating aftermath of Cyclone Sidr in the district of Khulna. “We found dead bodies in the fields and forests. After taking the photographs and publishing them, the village people got food. Some of my friends from Dhaka brought food by boat and gave them to the villagers,” he says.

“This gave me strength. This made me feel that maybe my pictures helped the people. After this, I decided to focus on human issues. In Bangladesh, we need to focus on these problems because there are so many.”

Bearing witness to tragedies such as the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, Asad shares the grief of the victims while revealing the magnitude of government oversight in Bangladesh. Located in Savar, outside the capital Dhaka, Rana Plaza was a commercial building that housed shops, banks and garment factories. Deep cracks had begun to appear in the structure, and while the shops and banks vacated, the factory workers were still told by their managers to go in. The next day, the building collapsed within 90 seconds, killing more than 1,100 garment workers and maiming others for life.  

Rescue workers at the site of Dhaka's Rana Plaza, a garment factory which collapsed in April 2013. Reports state that more than 1,130 people died and around 2,500 were rescued. It is considered the deadliest garment factory disaster in history. 
Rescue workers at the site of Dhaka's Rana Plaza, a garment factory which collapsed in April 2013. Reports state that more than 1,130 people died and around 2,500 were rescued. It is considered the deadliest garment factory disaster in history. 

“It was very hard for me. I saw people die in front of me,” says Asad, whose haunting monochrome photos of the incident document the wreckage and the rescue efforts. He also followed the stories that happened after – the funerals and the rehabilitation of the workers.

Among his other projects is Angels with Broken Wings, which contains images of child labourers toiling away in shipyards by the Buriganga River. Melting iron and welding steel, the children work in unsafe conditions with no protective gear.   

“It’s very tough to take these pictures, but I try to tell myself that I need to do it. Someone needs to do it,” he says. “After taking the pictures, when I select the images, this is when it gets even tougher for me, because I recall all the situations. I tell myself, I need to find strength, I just try my best and I tell myself to give passion to my work”.

Asad's images have featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, Time and also the cover of National Geographic magazine in August 2019.

Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic and Bangladesh’s strict lockdown measures, Asad finds himself with fewer assignments to cover. He also worries about risking exposure of the virus to his elderly parents, who live with him.

Still, he has managed to start a new series of portraits entitled Can Covid-19 Stop the Wheel?, which explores the conditions of rickshaw drivers as the outbreak endangers their livelihoods. These cycle rickshaws often crowd and clog Dhaka's streets, but the pandemic has left them with quieter roads and fewer passengers. Their stories echo much of what the global poor are facing – staying at home means failing to earn money for food or medicine.

In his photographs of the drivers' mask-clad faces, Asad once again turns his lens to the heart of any social issue: the people.