Bangladesh Through an Immigrant’s Lens

Zakaria Ahmed in front of one of his photos on exhibit at LaGuardia Community College. (Photo by Rahima Nasa for Voices of NY)

Zakaria Ahmed in front of one of his photos on exhibit at LaGuardia Community College (Photo by Rahima Nasa for Voices of NY)

Although Zakaria Ahmed knew he wanted to photograph Bangladesh when he made the trip back last March – his first visit there in 11 years – he had no idea that those photos would adorn the halls of his alma mater.

“The Other Side of Me” is a collection of photos shot by Ahmed on his trip back to his childhood home in Sylhet, Bangladesh, earlier this year. The photographs document the lives of Bangladeshis living in the outskirts of the city in rural areas as they go about their daily activities. Ahmed’s photos also serve as a reminder of the detrimental effects of climate change as many of Ahmed’s subjects have had their homes destroyed by floods and other forms of severe weather.

“The way that the climate is changing, they will be the first one to face this, the West will face it later,” Ahmed said while gesturing to a portrait he took of children playing by a riverbank.

One of Zakaria Ahmed's photos in the exhibit "The Other Side of Me" at LaGuardia Community College (Courtesy of Zakaria Ahmed)

One of Zakaria Ahmed’s photos in the exhibit “The Other Side of Me” at LaGuardia Community College (Courtesy of Zakaria Ahmed)

Bangladesh precariously sits on the world’s largest river delta and between several tectonic plates making it vulnerable to natural disasters like tsunamis, flooding, and soil erosion. Climate change will exacerbate the intensity of these disasters in the coming years and displace millions of people in the country. Ahmed did not begin his project with climate change in mind. Rather, he was moved by the stories people shared with him about displacement and their resilience in the face of hardship.

He began the project by photographing a brick factory, where a handful of workers lay out thousands of bricks each day by hand. Ahmed recalled feeling out of place initially but was able to build a connection with the brick workers he would later photograph.

“As soon I went to the center of the factory and saw everything I couldn’t stop,” Ahmed said about the moment he realized he wanted to photograph the series.

While the exhibit puts a face on those on the front lines of the damage caused by climate change, it also serves as a milestone for Ahmed. This was the first exhibit that his family visited. He admitted that his parents weren’t very supportive of his desire to a be photographer and preferred he study law or medicine instead. However, he was able to gain support from other members of his family.

“It was my grandmother who gave me my first $100 to buy my first camera,” Zakaria said proudly. “But this was the first exhibition [at which] everyone in my family showed up and I could see that they were happy.”

On a more personal note, the collection of photos serves as bridge between Ahmed’s worlds in the U.S. and Bangladesh. The exhibit being shown in LaGuardia Community College made it more meaningful to Ahmed because of the number of Bangladeshi immigrants and immigrants from other countries who went to the school, he said. He recalled a woman from Latin America pointing to one of his photos and saying it reminded her exactly of her motherland.

From the exhibit "The Other Side of Me" (Photo courtesy of Zakaria Ahmed)

From the exhibit “The Other Side of Me” (Photo courtesy of Zakaria Ahmed)

The collection is currently on display at LaGuardia Community College, where Ahmed first studied when he and his family immigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 2004. It was at LaGuardia Community College that Ahmed began to hone his skills by studying commercial photography. In the past, Ahmed’s photos have been exhibited at other venues including City Hall and the Queens Museum.

Javier Larenas, the curator of the exhibit and one of Ahmed’s former photography instructors, describes him as one of those rare students who stood out from the crowd. It was Larenas who encouraged Ahmed to exhibit the photos he took in Bangladesh. Larenas was drawn to Ahmed’s photos because of the intensity of the subjects Ahmed captured.

“All of us have this inner quality, as immigrants, of wanting to reconnect and rediscover roots and that’s kind of the purpose here,” said Larenas. “We all need that at some point in our lives.”

The Other Side of Me” will be on exhibit at LaGuardia Community College until Sept. 30 and can be viewed during these times: Monday – Thursday, 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Friday 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.

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