I first saw Ismail Ferdous’s photographs of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in a New York Time’s Op Doc, The Deadly Cost of Fashion. It was released in conjunction with the anniversary of the tragic collapse last month. The photos disturbed me, not only because of their horrific content, but also because of their beauty. Some of the corpses in Ferdous’s photographs appear as beatific as enshrined saints, and even the images of those still living and suffering have an almost otherworldly quality.
When Ferdous agreed to discuss his photography with me, the only explanation that he could offer for the dissonance was that photography is not only his way of documenting his country’s tragedies, but also of coping with them. His work speaks for itself. In this interview for The Aerogram he discusses his current plans, the experience of photographing the collapse and a protest he helped to arrange during New York Fashion Week.
Where are you right now, and what are you working on?
I recently returned to Dhaka from New York City to continue my long-term project on the Rana Plaza victims and their stories. Though one year has passed since the collapse, many still suffer, and I hope to bring more awareness to garment industry practices. After making The Deadly Cost of Fashion film, we now have a plan to make a full future film on this. It’s kind of in the initial stage now.
The photographs on your website all seem to depict tragic events. What draws you to tragedy?
As a photographer, I think of myself as a storyteller. The stories might not bring immediate change Photography definitely has the power to raise a question. or miraculously solve a social injustice, but photography definitely has the power to raise a question, create a social consciousness for viewers. It’s like scratching an unscathed surface. When I photograph, I mostly travel to the people, listening to their stories, trying to document their lives through photography.
Can you tell me about your mental and emotional state while taking pictures of the Rana Plaza Collapse?
As a photojournalist, the Rana Plaza Collapse is the most traumatic event I have ever experienced. I can still remember when I started shooting, I was shaking so much during the first three or four hours, I couldn’t absorb the situation at all! I was trying to help survivors with volunteers in the rescue process. There were hundreds of volunteers, but it was not enough. Around 7:30 p.m., two volunteers showed me two dead bodies under the rubble. It was a man and woman huddled together to survive. That moment jolted me. I started shooting again.
Even though the subject matter of these photos is quite tragic, some of them strike me as very beautiful in terms of composition. Do you think there’s any tension between the beauty of the photos and the horror of the subjects they depict?
It was not a comfortable situation for me to take pictures, but I was just trying to work my way through it. I often got nervous and emotionally drained, but I always tried to channel that stress through photography.
One photo in particular struck me. It depicts the corpse of a young woman amid the rubble of a building’s ruins. She has white dust in her hair. It is a beautiful photo. Do you remember what was going through your head when you were taking this picture?
Thanks for asking me this question; she was the first dead body I photographed in the collapse. I remember exactly how I took her picture. This picture always stays on my mind.There were two bodies side by side that I saw from the roof of the building beside Rana Plaza. I went down to the 4th or 5th floor and jumped over the broken window and walked through the ruined beams to get close to the bodies, but I immediately realized where I was: in the middle of the rubble where the huge building had collapsed hours before. It was still shaking. So, I stepped down, a couple of feet away from the bodies, for a few minutes to calm myself down, but I kept thinking about the bodies hanging in between the beams. My mind was racing with thoughts, like how quickly life can end and how they were too young to die. It was heartbreaking. I ended up spending about an hour taking pictures there. This picture always stays on my mind.
You staged a protest during New York Fashion Week. What was the reaction to this protest?
Well, I wanted to take this issue further than a photograph, not only because I have seen the unjust lives of garment workers, but also to relieve some of my personal distress from experiencing this traumatizing event in my own country where I often felt like I couldn’t do enough. This urge to do something greater became even stronger when I visited New York only a few months after the collapse. I had lots of questions. Seeing all the big, fancy stores with their windows lined with sale and discount signs, I couldn’t help but think about the labels I saw in the rubble, the faces of family members who lost loved ones and the inhumane working conditions of garment workers back in Bangladesh. Seeing the contrast between these two worlds made me feel very unsettled.
So, my good friend Nathan Fitch and I, in collaboration with The Illuminator and 99 Pickets, arranged a protest My photos were the voice and language of the protest to remind people about the cost of their fashion.on the first night of NYC fashion week. We projected my photos from the collapse onto the building of the Lincoln Center and some stores, such as The Children’s Place, who had clothes in the Rana Plaza collapse and who still owe compensation to the victims. My photos were the voice and language of the protest to remind people about the cost of their fashion. We got great reactions from people and I feel grateful that we were able to carry the voices of the unheard victims a bit further.
While you were taking pictures and helping people after the collapse, did you meet anyone who you stayed in touch with later?
I’m still in touch with many victims since the collapse. Rebeka Khatun is one of them who lost her two legs and also five of her family members in the collapse. She still hasn’t found any of their bodies, and she is still physically and emotionally traumatized. She can never work again. Sadly, Rebeka is but one story out of hundreds. As a global society, we should not allow another tragedy like Rana Plaza to ever happen again.
Hannah Harris Green is a writer in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in American, Indian, Pakistani and British publications. You can follow her on twitter: @write_noise.