The Social Network

If you take an interest in documentary photography you will already be aware of the rich explosion of talent in Bangladesh since Pathshala, the South Asian Media Academy in Dhaka, opened its doors in 1998. Here’s another one: Nafis Ahmed graduated 2008 and has been feeling his way cautiously into his new career with a quiet aplomb that behooves a photographer with something to say.  

Ahmed’s subjects are familiar and we’ve all seen too many hackneyed representations of kids on the street and same-sex couples, but rarely with the intimacy and obvious delight that Ahmed shares with us. This is not a spectacle, but an enthusiastic sharing, a feeling that through his lens we’re participating in the lives that otherwise we’d be denied by distance, culture or just by attitude. 

When I look at Ahmed’s images I feel as though I want to reach out my hand to touch, to say, “Hello friend.” I can only marvel at the courage of the same-sex lovers who have allowed Ahmed into their lives, but courage is no part of the images. Only warmth and exuberance, represented metaphorically as four hairy legs relaxed and entwined and by the laughs that clearly say, “Come play with us.” 

The dark alleys and grimy stairwells describe the context but this is not the story that Ahmed wants to tell, rather it’s the welcoming smile, the looks between lovers and their gestures that take us to places that few photographs do, sometimes tense, sometimes warm but never aloof nor voyeuristic.

The same is true of his street portraits. I was privileged to meet Ahmed and he described to me an ordinary photographic practice of cruising the streets to find his subjects, but producing results of rare intimacy. He greets people his own age, talks to them and as part of the engagement they make pictures together.

We don’t need to see the words he collects but they exist, written by the hand of the subject describing why they’re on the street in Dhaka. We see it already in the stance, the expression and the attitude. These are not specimens collected in a conventional typology of documentary practice, they are our new friends who we are privileged to meet through Ahmed and the social network of his camera.

— Stephen Mayes