News Column

Through the photo lens: Life soldiers story told through shadow and light

June 1, 2014

By Joy Hampton, The Norman Transcript, Okla.

June 01--OKLAHOMA CITY -- Photographer Prito Reza has a heart for lost causes. He also has a perspective on life and the people living it that transcends stereotypes and cultural barriers. His photo exhibit, Life Soldiers, showed recently at the Paseo Art Space in Oklahoma City. In this startling and emotion-provoking exhibit, Reza humanizes people on the margins of society and gives them a voice by telling their stories through his photos.

Life Soldiers focuses on two separate photo stories, the sorrow and loneliness of elderly people abandoned by their families and the hopefulness of an indigenous people living happily off the land with no electricity or modern conveniences.

Reza said he wanted to show the stories of the elderly abandoned by their families because he thought Americans could relate to the emotions captured in his photos. In Reza's homeland, Bangladesh, extended families live together. Unlike the U.S. where generations are less likely to live together, homes for the aged are rare in Bangladesh. In the home he visited for his photo shoot, the elderly have truly been abandoned. Their families feel shame and do not visit.

In "Waiting" Reza pictures the feet of a woman who continually asked him if her son was coming. Another photo shows the flow of life and is shot through a wind whipped scarf with a woman in a wheelchair as the central focus.

Some of the shots are people's shadows -- like the shadow existence these helpless and forsaken persons live.

"I felt so sad when I was doing this story," Reza said. "I want to show this story here, because here people don't live with their parents."

The photos of the abandoned and waiting elderly are printed in black and white, bringing home the stark reality of their hopeless situation. Reza hopes the exhibit encouraged viewers to reconnect with their families and mend severed ties.

"If I don't look after them (my parents), my children will do the same to me," Reza said.

The photo shoot of the Murong -- a small ethnic minority of indigenous people in rural Bangladesh -- is more hopeful, he said. They are energetic, producing food and taking care of themselves with no help from the government and no electricity.

The Chittagong Hill Tracks in Bangladesh are home to the country's largest concentration of indigenous people including the Murong, who live in the hill district of Bandarban.

The photos exhibit featuring marginalized persons is a departure from his early work. Reza's career started in a very different vein. Initially, he earned his living taking photos for newspapers.

"When I started my career, I worked with several dailies," he said.

Bangladesh -- particularly the crowded capital city , Dhaka -- has numerous newspapers.

People looked up to him as a photojournalist, but he also earned money on the side to pay for college by shooting weddings. In contrast to his newspaper work, people looked down on wedding photography as lacking in prestige.

That presented a challenge, and Reza decided to take on those social attitudes.

"I did the first wedding photography exhibit in Bangladesh," he said.

He believed people underestimated and undervalued the art of wedding photography. No one would sponsor the show, so he put it on himself with only a small monetary contribution from a relative.

"I had to face a lot of problems, but I made a boom," he said.

In a bold move, he made the exhibition look like a wedding hall which garnered a lot of attention from the public and drew people in to view the show.

Two to three years later, Reza was hailed as a "young icon" by the same newspapers that had originally given him mixed reviews for the unique show.

"Right now, people consider me as a pioneer of wedding photography," he said. "Now I'm looking for new challenges."

Photographing marginalized sections of society such as the abandoned elderly and the indigenous group is a step in that new direction, but the young artist is open to what life inspires in his art. In 2013 Reza expanded his work internationally. He has covered events in Thailand, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the U.S.

Reza was in Oklahoma as part of a professional and cultural exchange hosted by the University of Oklahoma. The program is offered through a grant from the U.S. State Department.

Joy Hampton




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Source: Norman Transcript (OK)

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