In male dominated oriental societies certain professions are considered not meant for women to pursue a career.
A defiant Syeeda Khanam, the first female photojournalist of Bangladesh, proved such perception wrong.
When a woman working behind lens was almost unimaginable in the country, Syeeda Khanam started photography at the age of only 13 years. She got early inspiration in photography from her aunt poet Mahmuda Khatun Siddique.
“When I was very young, she used to hire photographers to come to the house for taking pictures of the family. They (photographers) used to take our photographs with the big box of camera with black piece of curtain”, the legendary photojournalist told UNB while sharing her childhood memories on the eve of International Women’s Day.
Initially she used to get little nervous being exposed to those big camera boxes. She had no idea then that this camera will eventually become a lifetime partner for her.
“When I visited my sister’s friend Lutfunnesa Chowdhury, wife of Zahur Hossain Chowdhury, former editor of Sangbad newspaper, at their house in Kolkata, they had a box camera in their house. So that was my first camera. I took the camera and went to the street to take pictures. The first picture I took was of two ‘Kabuliwalas’ and that was my first photograph”, she recalled.
Since then her journey began in photography at a time and society where people simply couldn’t think of women’s role behind lens.
Photo: Zarif Rafiul Haque Iraz
When photographers have been few and far between, let alone female ones, Syeeda Khanam went ahead and learnt everything all alone throughout the journey.
At first she joined ‘Begum’ newspaper as photojournalist in 1956. Her photographs were published in many national and international newspapers including the Observer, Morning News, and Ittefaq. She also captured many important events of Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.
In those days photography technology was archaic if compared with today’s modern digital technology. So one had to take care of sunlight, shadow and many other details and tweak things manually rather than depending on cameras to adjust as many of today’s modern cameras do automatically.
In 1956, Syeeda Khanam had her first international exhibition after participating in the International Photo and Cinema Exhibition, Cologne. In the same year, her works were displayed in an international photography event in Dhaka and later exhibited in international competitions in Japan, France, Sweden, Pakistan and Cyprus.
Her works on Mother Teresa, Rabindra Sangeet singer Konika Bandopadhaya and film director Satyajit Ray were also exhibited in Dhaka.
Photo: Zarif Rafiul Haque Iraz
In 1960, she received an award in All Pakistan Photo Contest and in 1985 she was honored with UNESCO Award for photography. She received many other awards from several national and international organizations afterward. She is also a lifetime member of Bangladesh Mahila Samiti and Bangla Academy.
Talking about the current situation of women’s doing photography, the pioneer in this field told UNB, “It feels really great when I see so many girls now-a-days are doing photography. When I started this profession, there was no girl beside me. I was the only one. But now when I see girls are moving with cameras everywhere and taking pictures, I feel happy for them”.
Syeeda expressed her deep concern though over the safety issue of women in today’s society.
Mentioning it as a big challenge for female photographers, she said, now-a-days women are not safe in the society.
“The society was also not totally safe even in our time, but the situation has become much more dangerous for today’s girls, especially for the photographers who have to go to places for their profession”, she said.