14 January 2021
14 January 2021 - Written by Lucia De Stefani
Bangladeshi photographer Sumi Anjuman turned to the familiar medium of photography to tell the story of a modern inquisition and its victims - the members and activists of the LGBTQ community in her homeland.
According to Section 377 of the Penal Code in Bangladesh, homosexuality is a criminal act. This implacable stance, stemming from the religious conservatism of Islamic fundamentalism, still pervades many aspects of society.
Those who disseminate ideas supportive of LGBTQ rights - ideas still considered largely controversial - pay for their willingness to speak up, often with their lives: writers, activists, publishers, atheists have been slaughtered by Islamic fanatics armed with machetes simply for expressing support. What’s more, these murders have caused little public outcry; rather, they have been quickly silenced.
Distraught, Bangladeshi photographer Sumi Anjuman turned to the familiar medium of photography to tell the stories of this modern inquisition’s victims - the members and activists of the LGBTQ community.
For Somewhere Else Than Here, Anjuman started by meeting with a close-knit group of friends, then expanded to the larger community. At first, they met in private homes, sometimes Anjuman’s own, and had long conversations before starting the shoot. Deep understanding of her subjects’ status, lives, and situations was crucial to her portrayal.
“How they feel, how they love, and mostly what it is they desire, what they long for - that’s the theme I wanted to create through my photography,” Anjuman says. She aimed to portray her subjects in a very humanistic way, emphasising a compassionate perspective. As she shared their stories, they quickly became coparticipants.
“I always wanted to create a bridge between people from the LGBTQ community and the masses,” she says, “so they can connect with each other through their feelings... I wanted people to feel that they should consider [members of the LGBTQ community] as human, beyond their gender identity.”
Anjuman taped the interviews and then hand-picked compelling quotes. The idea was to consider the emotions evoked by a particular situation and then choose a precise location illustrative of those emotions. “I wanted to connect with their feelings. I've always believed that if you can't connect with someone, then you can't make up the right image of that situation, of that person's feelings.”
To lend variety to the sequence of portraits and choral images, Anjuman adopted a metaphorical language, creating a sense of ambiguity and surprise. Some images even become symbolic, forging a stronger connection with the viewer’s mind. A quote from one of her friends inspired the image of a caged bird, a striking analogy for suffocating emotions. Similarly and yet differently, a butterfly evokes the idea of freedom, a leitmotif of many conversations: “In our country, everybody keeps saying that we're free and that we have freedom. But for the people in the [LGBTQ] community… they lack freedom, they're never allowed to express themselves. Their existence is illegal.”
The double image of a boy reflected in a cracked mirror speaks to this dichotomy, a metaphor for the boy’s dual role in society - he is one person around his family, a different person in his own private space. In another photograph, the view of an unassuming street is lit by a radiant lamp, a spark of hope that LGBTQ members will find acceptance.
In her home country, Anjuman’s work has received both praise and blame. Many have admired her courage to give voice to marginalised individuals; others, still considering homosexuality a perversion, have labeled her project “illegal.” That hasn’t discouraged her, though.
“I believe that my work can change a person's mind,” Anjuman says, “and that will change another person's mind and maybe another person's mind and so on. And for the people in the community, that will make our society a little bit more liberal.”
Sumi Anjuman is a visual artist and activist born and raised in the northern region of Bangladesh. As a woman in an Islamic conservative society, she experiences the kind of oppression and agony, which her work tackles forthrightly. Despite her socially-focused subject-matter, her work is not straightforward-documentary, rather it feels more poetic, often verging on the abstract.
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.