A photograph captures as much as it reduces. Much like a breath exhaled, photographs are a reminder of one that doesn't exist anymore, that moment it was taken. With life, there's yet another step towards death and an impulse to preserve, the reserve of photographs, is also shot through with a feeling of impending departure. Safder Hossain's first solo exhibition at the recently concluded popup exhibition space Longitude Latitude 6 was a deft gesture towards that fissure – between preservation and departure.
A collection of black and white stills, mostly portraits, body parts, and objects, captured with Hossain's box camera vie for attention with a spare colourscape that haunts and enlivens in equal measure. A hand, held up, palm facing the camera draws you in with its poise – it is not simply a desire to know who the person is because that is besides the point, it is that the hand itself tells a story. Where it rested, whose face it touched, whom it drew close and then pushed away, what it looked like held by another – a disembodied embodiment. And if one were so inclined, the lines on the palm could tell you more – power of divination ceded to the viewer. Yet something that tells you so many things can still tell you nothing because that hand alive with those stories are still imperfect overlays, though not quite artifices. That's not necessarily a problem, at least not with Hossain's photographs – they imbue the photographs with a much-needed fantasy.
In fact, the slightly off, there-but-not-quite fantasy saturates the photographs propelling them to that place between preservation and departure. A series of passport size negative images – portraits – arrayed carefully in glass boxes but not framed, alludes to that fragile balance. From the depths of their Day-Glo eyes as if lit from within, the subjects announce a presence, here I am, even when 'here,' 'I’,and 'am' have all decamped to a newer present. The negatives work because they are a reminder that the self is never a complete version of itself, can never be, instead it is constantly becoming, always partial. A negative, or any photograph, is a 'narrowly selective transparency,' (Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977) but so is the self.
Safder Hossain is an old hand at photography – he's been a professional photographer for over 60 years relying on his box camera and the exhibition included over 100 images from his long career. For practical and other reasons, he stuck to his chosen technology although during this time the available technology multiplied, mutated, and leapfrogged many moons over. Sixty years is a long time when some of these changes are dramatic even in four-to-five year spans.
Yet, it would be too easy to view these photos as an homage to the past, to use that clichéd expression, walk down the memory lane. Nostalgia is frequently a conservative impulse and there's nothing inherently honorable about clinging to the past. Removed from an interest in the complex, it can stand for ignorance rather than knowingness.It is no wonder that such past-facing projects are often uncritically self-indulgent. Nor the proliferation of new technology and the fact that anybody can take photos, beautiful ones, using them are a bad thing. Thankfully Hossain does none of that. One gets the sense that he does what he does not simply because that is the thing he's learned to do and enjoys doing but also because of practical considerations. His is not an ardent stance against the changing world and a refusal to participate, but more an avowed practice of his craft because anything else, acquiring a new skill, learning a new craft, would be costly. And that is refreshing.
Curated by Shumon Ahmed, Safder Hossain's first solo exhibition ran from July 15 to August 3, 2015, at Bay's Bellavista, Banani, Dhaka, home to Longitude Latitude 6 for a string of exhibitions, events and talks over a four-month period.
PARSA SANJANA SAJID teaches at Independent University, Bangladesh and Jahangirnagar University. She's the co-convener of Bayaan Collective and a novice here: