My first day in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I walked out of my hotel with a camera around my neck and was immediately approached by a man who said, “Hello sir, what country?”
“USA,” I replied.
“Oh, very nice country,” he said.
The friendly man fired off rapid-fire questions – “What are you doing in Bangladesh? What do you think of our country? How many children do you have?”
As we were talked, a crowd of bearded men gathered around and stared at me unselfconsciously. Eventually, I posed for a selfie with the friendly man, then posed for selfies with several of the bystanders, and the crowd dissipated.
Then, a serious-looking man walked up to me, straightened his shirt, ran a hand through his hair, and peered at me with a blank expression. It took me a moment to realize that he wanted to me take his photo. I snapped a portrait, and he immediately burst into a smile, “Thank you, thank you!” he said while giving me a thumbs up sign. I showed him the image on the back of the camera, and he looked at it with childlike wonder.
And that is how I spent almost all of my time in Bangladesh.
I went to Dhaka as a part of a photo workshop with five other people. Aside from our group, I saw only three other tourists during the week. Everywhere we went we had an entourage and an audience of local people.
If I paused to take a photo, I’d attract a crowd who stood behind me looking at what I was doing. Often times, locals would follow me for several blocks just watching out of genuine curiosity. As soon as a member of my entourage would lose interest and leave another would appear to escort me down the streets. Even cooks and servers at restaurants stopped working and watched me eat.
My first morning in Dhaka, a group of men invited me to drink tea, and as soon as I left the teashop, another man invited me for a cup. After that, I started turning down the many invitations to drink tea; otherwise, I couldn’t take photos! However, sometimes turning down tea wasn’t an option. About once a day, I was wrestled into a tea shop and forced to drink tea with friendly locals who refused to take no for an answer.
Dhaka is maybe the easiest place in the world to take photos of people, but a challenging place to photograph. Men would see my camera and shout “selfie” or “photo” and pose for me. Women would see me, wrap their scarves around their heads, and wait for me to take their photo. At first, I was disappointed in my inability to get candid photos, but I began making “group photos” of the multiple people striking a pose and staring at me.
The people that didn’t strike a pose were usually open to being photographed. Countless times I walked right up to a photogenic person and started snapping photos. Often, they didn’t even react. I was living the photographer’s dream of being invisible. The guy in the photo below, for example, was just chilling in the market. I walked directly up to him and snapped his picture. I thanked him, and he gave an approving nod but otherwise didn’t react. Photographing people is almost too easy!
On Friday, we visited a local park that was full of middle-class families. Everyone was dressed nicely since they typically go the mosque in the morning, have a family lunch, then head out for a social evening. The park was a cornucopia of photogenic people, but I barely took any photos because one local after another approached me, asked for a selfie, and talked my leg off. I was overwhelmed with kindness and curiosity.
Even though almost everyone is open to being photographed, the city is so bustling and crowded that it is difficult to get an uncluttered image. Dhaka is visual anarchy; It is colorful and cluttered in the extreme.
Dhaka doesn’t have traditional tourist sites, and visiting the city is a challenge. There are no ancient buildings, grand temples, prestigious museums, and only a few parks. Trying to go anywhere in Dhaka is a disaster. Traffic grinds to a halt in the afternoon and doesn’t let up until after well after dark. The sidewalks are so congested that people walk in the street, and the street quickly fills up with vendors and pedestrians, thus eliminating a lane of much-needed roadway.
The buses in Dhaka are built like tanks and for good reason. Every bus bears deep scars and scrapes, a testament to side-swiping other buses and trucks. All the newer plastic Hondas and Toyotas have an auxiliary steel bumper on the front and back to protect from the inevitable collisions.
Dhaka isn’t a tourist destination and never will be. But, it is a street photography paradise and a thrilling place to visit for adventurous travelers who want to see something out of the ordinary. And the beautiful people make it well work a visit. I know I’ll head back in the future, and this time I’ll have dozens of newly acquired Bangladeshi friends to meet up with. ♦
Have you ever been to Bangladesh or a place well off the tourist trail? I’d like to hear your comments.
Note: I’ll be sharing photos and stories from my week in Dhaka over the next series of blog posts. Stay tuned by following me on Facebook and Instagram.
The color is astounding! And maybe this is where I should go to get over my fear of taking photos of people!
Absolutely! It is far and away the easiest place I’ve been taking people photos.
Nice story and wonderful photos.
Thank you Nasraul.
I just realized that you join Majiec’s workshop in Dhaka. I hope there will be more stories about it since it always is amazing to read your stories and see your beautiful photographs 😀
I have several posts coming up with photos from the trip. Have you done a workshop with Maciej yet?
I never done a workshop with him. It is a week long workshop and also not cheap. But I plan to join his workshop someday. I know your blog when I read your post about Majiec’s workshop in Myanmar, and it seemed an amazing experience to join his workhop 🙂
It is a pretty great experience but yes, it isn’t cheap. He will be doing another one in Bangkok next year which saves money on flights. I actually shot with him this morning near Bangkapi and it was good fun. Always nice to shoot with such a great photographer.
I saw his facebook story that he walked around Bangkok today 555+
Amazing work. Great backstory. I just pinned two of your photos and tweeted your article. enjoy! 🙂
Thank you Mark, I appreciate it.
I very rarely photograph people since I don’t want to be intrusive. But sounds like here they love the camera. We got many great photos, colourful, unusual, interesting.
The vast majority of the people are very open to photos. I suppose when 150 million people occupy a tiny piece of land they are used to not having any privacy! Thanks for commenting.
Sorry I meant to say “you got many great photos ” my fingers are too fast sometimes
How nice not to have to take people photos on the sly! Great photos and story. I hope you like tea!
The tea is amazing – usually black tea with lots of sweet milk. I was sad to turn it down.
Yes, more than ten years ago. It does not seem to have changed. I could almost think that some of the central city photos of yours, were mine. It is a pathetically poor place, all those tricycles hoping they’ll get a ride so they can feed their family tonight. And yet the people are so generous.
I was amazed at how cheap those bike taxis were – on a few pennies for a ride. As you say it is shockingly poor and yet everyone is positive and generous. Great country.
Great post, and love the photographs!
Thank you for the comments!
Wow what an experience! We met a Lonely Planet author in Nepal who suggested we add Bangladesh to our trip but we couldn’t fit it in, and we were a little concerned at how we’d manage and how safe it would be. Maybe we’ll have to look at it for a future trip.
I think it is extremely safe. The biggest dangers are getting run over crossing the road. Yes, try to go next time if you want an adventure!
Oh Jeff!! What a wonderful post and what a terrific opportunity to practice your photography skills. I have been itching to go to Bangladesh for a couple of years now and it is after all “right in our neighborhood” of South Asia. There is a kinship between Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans because of an intertwined history.
Love the photograph of the rickshaws all lined up and as well the one with the little girls in the park. The little girl on the left has such a lovely colorful head scarf. I also like the photo in the brickyard with the rust colored background of the bricks. We had a similar photographic experience of people being open and happy to have their portraits taken, in Flores Indonesia. I think when a place does not see a lot of tourists, it makes a huge difference.
Your comments remind me of how different the photography experience was when Peta was using an ipad to take photos which enabled her to instantly share large sized photos with people she “captured”… it was an instant mode of communication, no language needed.
Looking forward to more, much more of your photos of Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi people reminded me of the people of Sri Lanka. I was only in Dhaka, but I think the countryside has some beautiful and peaceful places to visit. I think you’d enjoy it.
I should have gotten a portrait of the girl with the headscarf. She had an amazing look! The brickyards were really fascinating. I’ll be posting about them next.
Thanks for the comments!
It is a photographer’s dream! Paradise, really. As far as off the beaten track, I’ve heard it from the BF about his expat years in the middle of nowhere China. I think the photographing of you as a foreigner gets old after awhile or offense depending on your personality. He talked about folks openly gawking at him. But don’t get me wrong, he loved his years there. I think sometimes the more challenge the place is the more you end up making it your own, if that makes sense.
Wow, just wow. Amazing photos Jeff. And I want to go there!, but right from the beginning I started thinking – oh it’s ok for him, he’s a man and can go where he wants, but is it ok for a woman? Were there women in your group? How did they fare? Sorry, but I’ve become very conscious lately of blogs written by men who probably are unaware of the privilege, and access, they have in situations like this simply because they are men. There’s no judgement here. I get it that it’s just the way it is.
This is a great comment and I’m glad you brought it up. I nearly entitled this post “What it is like to visit Bangladesh as a white American male.” I realize that my experience is different than that of women or a Chinese male, for example. I found this blog post here that is a great read https://www.lostwithpurpose.com/female-travel-bangladesh/ It is by a western woman who traveled solo in Bangladesh. She certainly encountered problems, but also met many wonderful people as well. I think some of the places we visited, like the local park and some of the markets filled with women would actually be easier to visit as a woman tourist simply because you can more easily meet local women and children. But yes, I am sure female travelers face tons of challenges on the streets that I didn’t have to deal with.
Thanks for your thoughtful response Jeff. I was thinking it may be a bit like India and I’d be ok travelling there solo (with some common-sense restrictions of course). Thanks for the link. I’ll take a look.
Hey Jeff! Are you still in Dhaka? Just curious if you’d be up for a chat sometime if you want. I don’t have a lot of photography experience but I’m always curious about talking to people who visited this part of the world.
I already left but I’ll be back someday! I’ll look you up when I visit.
Probably not a place I want to visit but how cool for you to go! I really like the photo captioned “An example of the Dhaka “group photo.”” Nice shot.
It certainly isn’t for everyone. I’m glad I went and I’ll probably go again if a photographer friend wants to join but I’m 99.9% sure Kristi won’t go 🙂
Regarding your entry, it appears you live in a most interesting city. I like the virtual tour. Thanks for sharing your photographs here. artfromperry
Amazing photos, Jeff. Both the random and posed shots are equally stunning. That is hilarious every time you stopped, poised your camera and took a shot, you’d attract a crowd – and they’d follow you around 😀 I have heard of that happening in India and China, but haven’t seen anything like that when I lived in Malaysia and Singapore.
I like Alison’s comment about traveling as a man and as a female. Well, I identify myself as female and while I am game to travel anywhere, it is worth keeping in mind people treat you differently in different parts of the world. And as you might know, in some countries people seem to worship certain travellers. When I visited Indonesia, I noticed locals gravitated towards Westerners. When I was visiting Borobudur, I got mistaken for a white western celebrity and had a bit of an entourage follow me around hiking lol.
I’ve really been thinking a lot lately about how I get treated differently being a white, American man in his early 40s vs. how women and men who look differently get treated. My wife has very pale skin, naturally blonde hair and blue eyes. When we went to China the first time, she posed for dozens and dozens of photos with locals. No one wanted a photo with me, just her! My American friend of Korean descent says he can walk through Asia and be invisible. It is interesting how our experiences are shaped by our appearance sometimes.
Do you know who the celebrity is you were mistaken for? That is hilarious. When we were at Borobudor, Mark Zuckerberg was about 5 feet from us watching the sunrise. I wasn’t sure it was him at first then I saw his body guards with earpieces not taking photos of the sunrise.
Thank you for your comments!
That is so amusing your wife got asked to pose for photos with locals, but not you! 😂 Some of my white western friends have told me as they traveled through rural parts of China and the Philippines, locals just gaped at them as if they were from another planet. You are so right, experiences can be shaped by our experiences – sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse.
So amazing you got a glimpse of Mark Zuckerberg at Borobudur! When I was there, I heard the posse following me around whispering, ‘She’s Nicole Richie’. I certainly look very much Chinese, but I guess they thought otherwise 😂
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Tourist or traveler ??
Yes, Bangladesh is a country full of adventures and thrilled. Who visit this country will be amazed by the natural beauty of Bangladesh. I love Bangladesh.