Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio


‘My pictures are inside me, waiting to come out’

If the biography of photographer Morten Krogvold were written, there would be little space in it for the exclusive nature of his still-life images, his powerful portraits and the fame he has achieved, all around the world. Instead, it would be full of stories that belong in the domain of fiction.

It would be the story of struggle and zeal. It would be the story of a seven-year-old boy who spent three years in a hospital room, owing to a severe hip injury. It would be the story of being rejected and yet never giving in. Of a 19-year-old, who worked as a helper, bringing in coffee and sweeping the floors of the Institute of Norwegian Film Board and often longing to be one of the photographers showcased on its walls. It would be about sleepless nights of hard work and learning through mistakes. It would be the story of his passion and association with all forms of art—poetry, music, painting, and above all photography.

This past week, in the middle of the political chaos and blockades, as I walked into Pathshala, the Dhaka-based South Asian Institute of Photography, there were a bunch of students laughing and chatting with a lively and cheerful looking man in his mid 50’s. The most fascinating thing about him was perhaps, the warmth he conveyed through his simple smile and undoubtedly, his gregarious personality and spirit. He is no ordinary man; he is Morten Krogvold, Norway’s leading ambassador of photography and a legendary name across the globe. His photographs, primarily his dynamic portraits, have been celebrated and exhibited throughout the world, including USA, Canada, France, China, Sweden, Iceland, Botswana and, of course, Norway.

Morten, as in the previous years, is here in Dhaka to display his photographs at Chobi Mela, Bangladesh’s premiere international photography festival and to conduct workshops. ‘Being a part of Morten’s workshop is a different kind of experience. You are bound to fall in love with him. He is an inspiration, someone who does not order rather shares,’ says photographer and colleague Momena Jalil, an ex-student and now, a teacher at Pathshala. ‘He makes you think and question. It’s amazing how he assembles the different forms of art with photography. Most importantly, he tells you about life and the mind, which he says is intertwined with photography.’

Indeed, his workshops are the most awaited event for countless students across the world. It’s the intensity and passion that he carries with him in his workshops in USA, China, South Africa, England, Qatar, Greece, Italy, Germany, Bangladesh and many more, that has marked him, as an extraordinary speaker. His students tell me he is restless, questioning, lively and impossible to ignore or be indifferent to.

Our meeting amidst the chaos and activities for the workshop he is conducting, was unhurried, and yet full of energy.

At the age of seven, while other children of his age went to school and enjoyed life to the fullest, Morten spent days and in fact three years, in the gloomy hospital room, owing to the hip injury which had crippled him. ‘My brain did not support my hips, it was a complex case which could not be healed in those days,’ says Morten. He remains silent for a moment, perhaps remembering the most difficult times of his life as a child.

‘Since I couldn’t go to school, I didn’t know how to read or write. My father would then bring me books of pictures and images, which would be my only source of recreation.’ It was perhaps then, that he grew an innate passion for photographs and most importantly, the human face. After the three dreadful years in the hospital, Morten went back to school at the age of eleven. I ask him inquisitively, ‘did you like it?’

‘I hated it, I just hated it and wanted to get away from there so badly,’ he says, imitating a child, who hates school. ‘Horrible.’

According to Morten, his association with art has made him a better photographer. ‘They are distinct artistic media, sharing a common objective—turning a piece of creative work into an experience’. Perhaps, that is what sets him apart from others: his passion for art. While his father was not at all into art, his mother was an amateur pianist, which brought Morten closer to music. It was during those terrible school years, that Morten read poetry, studying painting and music alongside. In fact, he learnt the violin and had bright prospects in the field.

‘But it was time I chose one, photography or music, and photography stood out as a career.’

Why not music?

‘Perhaps the lack of possibilities in that field,’ he adds ruefully. ‘But, I still love music. Time seems to stand still when I listen to music- Mozart, Bach…and the list will go on,’ he says smiling.

At 17, Morten had his own dark room where he experimented with photography. ‘And trust me, they were horrible,’ he chuckles. Soon, he got a job at the ‘Institute of Norwegian Film’ as a helper. ‘I would clean up the place and serve coffee and observe the different kinds of people coming to have their portraits done — architects, actors, painters, scientists and all kinds of artistic people. I would finish my work early and try to learn from the people who worked there. I must say it was a unique opportunity for someone as young as me.’ But the best was yet to come.

As time passed, Morten learnt more about photography. ‘I would spend nights in the studio and I must say, those were the best times of my life’. The turning point of his life came, when the famous Polish scientist, Jieremy Sasientinsi, joined the Norwegian Film Board. ‘The photographer who was supposed to take his portrait fell ill, and I was asked to take his picture. That paid off all my hard work’.

Indeed, that single exclusive portrait marked a great significance in his career. ‘Later when the scientist died, the government ordered for that portrait to be put up,’ he adds. It was then, that his ascent began.

Morten booked a studio and started working with his subjects, either portraits or still life images for hours. His unique work through interview and photo sessions with well known faces including actors, directors, writers, painter etc in Norway and abroad, resulted in ‘Images’, a book that features a compilation of his early work.

‘The greatest moments of my life as a photographer has been in the studio; late in the evening, in a darkened room with a couple of subdued light sources, a camera, two people and some music,’ says Morten.

It is perhaps his compelling and lively personality that forms images that speak for themselves. He does so through the use of natural background, the dark room, producing a portrait that not only shows the person or the object, but also exposes the inner being. Morten has also produced powerful works of art such as images of death, the essence of optimism and joy despite the difficult life in Africa and much more. Besides the publication of countless photography books, he has made 16 cultural television programmes presented by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. Among the many other honours, he has been awarded ‘Knight of the First Class’ of the Norwegian Royal Order of St.Olav.

Morten tells me about his recent work. ‘It is in many ways a repetition, yet different. I have been given the project of doing the same work of portraits with young faces,’ he says. ‘Only this time, they are coming to me because I am famous, unlike before when I approached people who didn’t know me, yet gave me a chance,’ he laughs. I ask him which one he prefers more, he remains silent more a moment, and says ‘the first one, because it was more challenging and I was hungry to explore, although I still am but that would be more special’.

Morten speaks of his earlier experiences much more than the present ones. It’s evident, that, in many ways, he loved the struggle, the challenge of breaking boundaries to capture many images. This is his fifth visit to Bangladesh and he tells me that he adores the fact that people love to be photographed. ‘I think the country has bright prospects in terms of everything. Most importantly it has a bunch of vibrant and keen photographers, who will leave a mark in the world of photography.’

He can’t seem to stop laughing when he tells me about his experience in Dublin. In many ways it was a challenge for him to break his single barrier to success, the lack of confidence. ‘I was so nervous. I didn’t know the people or the place. It was then that I challenged my self to go and approach people. The most challenging was however, knocking on people’s door and asking them to let me photograph them!’ he says. ‘…And there were people who asked me to buzz off but I thought it was not all that bad, so I pushed on and as a result met a diverse bunch of people’.

The man who has conducted countless workshops all around the world, tells me about his struggle to speak before a large audience. ‘I still remember the first time I had to speak before a large audience, in New York. And, they told me that just five minutes before I was due on stage!’ he says, excitedly. ‘I could feel my knees shaking, but about fifteen minutes later, I went with the flow and thus came a list of workshop invitations.’

With Morten, stories alone could be his stock in trade. His experiences and adventures from his many journeys, from various tasks and meeting different kind of people in all continents almost have another-worldly feel to them. He tells me exciting stories of being soaked with water and soap and going to photograph the President of Iceland, the tales of photographing people dying of AIDS and cancer and his projects, his experiences in Africa, his time in Italy.

Anything more about photographs? He tells me smiling, ‘they are inside, waiting to come out at all times. They are responsible for the restlessness that drives me to different places and different images. Most people think it’s the camera that does the wonder, but it’s the mind and the soul’. His eyes sparkle with warmth and passion. ‘Remember, if you are taking a photograph for love then don’t use the flash, it’s the natural essence that expresses the true image’.

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‘I haven’t changed much but life has’

As a five year old she would spend afternoons with her father singing folk songs and Rabindra Sangeet in the idyllic village of Keshobpur in Kushtia. She would play with her friends and run in the open fields of her beautiful village. Life was simple. She loved singing with her father, who was passionate about music. She loved the river and most of all she loved her village. In the span of a year Nasrin Akhter Beauty’s life has changed at such a fast pace, in spite of her fame and all the praise it has earned her, she is struggling with her new surroundings.

In 2005, soon after she had completed her school leaving exams, Beauty’s father made her sign up for ‘Closeup1-Tomakei Khujchhe Bangladesh’ the popular musical talent hunt which had the whole country riveted to their television screens and sending in their SMS votes to determine the outcome. Her first rendition of classic Lalon geeti ‘Itorpana Karjo Amar’ created a stir among the judges and audience nationwide. It did not take them long to realise that she had talent, and sure enough she became one of the winners.

More affectionately termed ‘Lalon Kanya’, after her lauded renditions of Lalon songs during the competition, Beauty has become a household name, in a span of one year. For most people, she is the simple Bangladeshi village girl. There is something about her simplicity, her humble personality and her innate passion that has earned her considerable fame, in a short time.

Despite being the second runner-up, experts see real promise in this young artist. Not only has she gained popularity here, but also in the US where she has performed twice already. At present she is preparing for her next album with the eminent singer Mumtaz. ‘It is an honour to be able to sing with some like her in the same album,’ says Beauty.

Despite her reputation as a rising star, there is not much that has changed about Beauty. She seems to be the simple girl she was, when she had stepped into the spotlight, for her first audition for Closeup1. ‘Even though I have not changed much, life has changed a lot,’ she says ruefully. ‘I like the attention, the fame and the whole idea of being in this new world, but at the end, my heart longs to go back to my village, to live there forever; there is nothing like the village life’.

Beauty grew up with her five siblings in Keshobpur. Her mother, a housewife and father, a farmer, had always been supportive of her singing. ‘I learnt my first song from my father. So basically he was my first teacher,’ says Beauty. Despite, having no professional training, Beauty was in constant practice with her father, who encouraged her to take part in small competitions in her school and community programmes. ‘Music had become an integral part of my life by the time I was around seven. We would hum songs all day and my father would explain the significance of the lyrics — most of which would be about our land and culture.’

It was not until four years back that Beauty took professional training in music. ‘It was more because of people in my village, they felt I had a great future. So, I received further training from Amanullah Khan, Rezaul Karim and Abbas Ali. It was because of my music training that my family had to move to Morbhanga, a small village close to Keshobpur. The place is equally beautiful and peaceful.’

‘Singing was more of a hobby but I wanted to be a nurse. I guess, the inspiration came from people around me, who felt I had the rare gift of caring and healing. Although I am not pursuing nursing as a career now, I feel I will be able to heal people through my songs. Songs are a medium of healing and loving are they?’ she asks.

Beauty speaks of her family and village in almost every experience and achievement she describes; it is evident that she has a strong bond with both. ‘My family has been everything for me and nothing can change my affection towards them. In the last one year, I have been away from home for my recording and shows in Dhaka and abroad. I wish to go back home all the time. Back home everyone is happy with little things and I am everyone’s favourite- my parent’s are my biggest support system,’ she adds with a hint of sadness, perhaps yearning to go back home.

If anybody has been Beauty’s strongest support and inspiration in being what she is today, it’s undoubtedly her father. ‘He has always supported me. Even a year back, it was my father’s confidence that made me take part in Closeup1. I still remember how terribly nervous I was,’ she giggles like a teenager as she recalls the experience. According to her, the opportunity of being a part of Closeup1, made her realise her true talent. ‘Somehow, the seven months of the rigorous training during the competition, gave me an immense confidence in myself. It made me realise that music was my true calling.’ But there remains a hint of disappointment when she speaks of her feelings of being the second runner-up. ‘I guess, my expectations were higher. I felt that even if I received less votes through sms, the marks I had received in the three rounds and the judges’ comments would enable me to have

a better position. But, now that I look back, I don’t have regrets; a year back, I couldn’t ever imagine that I could achieve so much. I am content with what life has given me.’

She also speaks of the accident that her family had met while coming to attend the final round of the competition. ‘When the winners were being announced, my family was in the hospital. At that moment the only thing I wanted was to see them fine. Although they were upset about the results later on, I was happy that my family was fine.’

There is no doubt that Beauty’s voice has the making of a true artiste. As the renowned artist and judge of Closeup 1, Agun, had put it, ‘she is the one who just does not sing but believes in music and most importantly can get the message of her songs across the audience well’. This was proved in the very first audition of Closeup 1 in Faridpur, where she created quite a stir nationwide singing Lalon’s timeless classic, ‘Itorpana Karjo amar’.

‘I had no idea of what I should be singing. I found out from a contestant that the judges were looking for a versatile singer who is comfortable with different genres. I had heard the Lalon song and liked it very much. I bought the tape and learnt the song. I sang that in the first round and it changed my life forever.’

It was in the first round that the noted artist Agun, was moved by the passion shown through her voice. ‘It was Agun bhai, who made me realise that my strength is in Lalon geeti.’

What remained to be memorable moment and brought tears to Beauty’s and many others’ eyes, was renowned artist and one of the judges, Ahmed Imtiaz Bulbul’s comment. ‘He said, I sang so well that if I was his daughter, he would have been a proud father. He also said, if he were to reincarnate, he would pray that I get to be his daughter’. For me that will remain to be one of the rare achievements of my life,’ she says holding back tears of pride. She remains silent for a long moment, perhaps reliving that cherished moment. ‘Yes, that was the best moment of my life. I came from a village. I was just an ordinary girl; the fact that I have been given the opportunity to pursue my talent is the greatest gift for me.’

While talking about her recent visit to the US, her mood brightens up. ‘New York is the city of dreams,’ she giggles. ‘I had never imagined that I could go to USA. I loved the people, who made me feel like a part of their family. Before going there I use to think, they will not value my songs, but I was taken aback by their love for Bangla music. There were times we could not satisfy them, as they would ask for more songs,’ says Beauty beaming.

Beauty visited the US with seven other contestant last year as well. ‘It was right after the competition. The last visit was much more fun because we all performed together and stayed together. I didn’t miss home much. But this time we all had to sing in different places and in many occasions, I missed home terribly.’

Beauty’s recent visit to USA was right before Eid. ‘That gave the opportunity to shop for Eid. You would not believe the kind of jewellery, cosmetics and perfumes they have. It’s simply amazing! I bought a lot of those for my sisters and mother,’ she beams like a child who has discovered a new world.

So how was Eid this year for her? ‘I spent this Eid in my village and as usual it was wonderful. I bought a lot of gifts for everyone, other than myself! That’s because I was showered with gifts from everyone, including my fans,’ she says laughing.

‘I didn’t feel like coming back home. I just sometimes wish I could work there, do the recordings and shows in the village. Everyone thinks Dhaka is a great place to be in, but you only realise it once you stay away from village,’ she adds.

So, what is it about Dhaka that she wants to get away from? ‘It’s the crowd, the busy life, the loneliness and the complexity. I guess its part of the city life. But in village, you are happy with little things in life that sometimes slip away. I still remember Eid a few years back- it was about red bangles, a red hairband and a red dress. These would make it the best Eid for all of us.’

So what’s next for this young artist? ‘I want to continue singing. I am inclined to songs that speak of this land and render a message of love and peace. As I said before, I want heal people through my songs. If my songs can touch even a handful of listeners, I’ll consider my purpose of singing justified.’

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