Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio

16May/080

An abiding passion

This past week, when twenty-six-year-old Andrew Biraj picked up his phone, in the middle of his sleep, in muffled voice, he heard something that took him hours and, in fact, days to absorb. For a young photojournalist like him, the Joop Swart Masterclass grant of the World Press Photo Foundation is indeed a dream come true. ‘It is yet to sink in,’ says Biraj, a week after the news broke. ‘I am not sure how to react.’

Biraj is among the 12 journalists, aged under 30, who have been selected by the foundation from among 132 photographers of different countries, and the only photographer from Asia Pacific in the group.

Biraj is no stranger to accolades. He has bagged the first prize in the ‘Environmental Picture Story’ category of ‘Best of Photojournalism’ by the NPPA this year, bronze in the third China International Press Photo Contest 2007; second prize in the photojournalism category in the Venice International Photo Contest 2007 and a lot more.

His recent fame is not what defines him; his abiding passion for photography does. The passion began long before anyone even heard of him and finds expression in his exuberance whenever he talks about his work and years that he spent clicking away, trying, in the process, to discover and rediscover himself.

‘Had it been a profession, I would not have been able to find myself, my own identity in the photographs. I guess more than anything else, it is that zeal with which I worked that pushed me forward despite the barriers,’ he says.

Biraj focuses on people living on the fringes of social, political, and environmental spectrum. His ongoing work on ‘State Excluded’ that captures the lives of the Bihari community, the jute mill stories, or even the aftermath of cyclone Sidr bring across powerful messages and have stories to tell.

Apart from New Age, where he has been a photojournalist for about five years, his work has also been featured in reputed international papers and magazines such as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Guardian, The Observer Magazine, Courier International, Saudi Aramaco World, and Himal Southasian.

Biraj’s interest in photography grew when he was a student of Notre Dame College. ‘Before that I had never thought of photography. I had wanted to be a truck driver. Apart from, of course, the constant struggle of being able to pass my exams at school,’ he says. ‘But when I saw my cousin’s Pentax K1000, I grew immense interest towards photography. I would hold it and click various scenes and capture random objects.’

In just a few days, Biraj knew he wanted to learn the trade and joined the South Asian Institute of Pathshala for a basic course. ‘It was also then that I began to discover the pleasures of photography. People like Shahidul Alam, Azizul Rahim Piu inspired me greatly and there was no looking back.’

Biraj would pass days going through books of photography, observing different forms and styles. ‘I realised that photography had the power to speak the thousand words. And the next step for me was to explore through my lens.’

Taking up photography as a degree was a challenge itself, says Biraj. ‘At that time – and, to some extent, even today – it was certainly not acceptable to middle-class families who prefer degrees in, say, business administration. Had it not been my mother’s support and trust, I would not have been able to move forward and be able to do it.’

He started his photography diploma in the same institute that had instilled within him the passion. While studying, in 2000, with the SLR camera that his uncle had gifted him, Biraj started out with street photography — photographing people, places, incidents and events. ‘I had the chance to travel a great deal and experiment. I took all sorts of photographs, of events, of countryside, of just inanimate objects.’

To afford the cost of photography was difficult. ‘I had to teach students and gather the money so that I could continue photography,’ he remembers. Having grown up in a middle class family it was always difficult to maintain a hobby and passion alongside education.

Later in 2001 he joined Shaptahik 2000 and in the same year, the students of Pathshala together formed a group and arranged an exhibition. The theme of the exhibition was ‘how do we see freedom’. ‘My participation in the exhibition inspired me even further.’

By 2002, Biraj had experienced a transition. ‘That was the time when I began to find myself and my values and beliefs began to be stronger and led me further.’

In 2003 was a turning point for Biraj. ‘Joining New Age gave me a new dimension to photography, because it was ready to accept photographs that break local conventions and so the scope was immense.’

At New Age, Biraj captured powerful and varied images — of city, natural disaster, people’s movements, events, glitzy shows, and on human rights.

In 2004 he finished his BA in photography on a full scholarship to the University of Bolton in the UK. ‘Coming back was a new opening. I was more flexible as I was done with studies and I had the opportunity to visit places, and capture even more varied and powerful images through the lens,’ he says.

While his award winning works define his independent style mostly in the form of photo essays, some of the powerful works he finds in his collection are the personal projects. ‘When my great grandmother was 95 and was practically counting her days, I worked with her and captured her expressions —her fine lines of age, her hands, her smile and every little expression. That work remains, till date as the most important work to me, partly because personal works tend to be more challenging.’

Biraj remembers another work of his own fondly — on cancer. ‘I was photographing this boy of my age, Shaon who was suffering from cancer. This was an assignment for Shaptahik 2000, but in the process of that work, I bonded with him so much that, it made each of the shots more meaningful. And at the end he died.’

He begins to pack up and rush to get his visa for Myanmar, where he is assigned to capture the aftermath of cyclone Nargis— a project for New York Times. So, what next? ‘It is a journey— you never know what I do, but wherever I go, I will always be back home and work here. As long as I have the zeal, both photography and I will move forward.’

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