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.
Then 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 frequent 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 manhandled 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 very difficult 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 taking “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. Usually, they didn’t even react. I was living the photographers 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 took a photo. 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 completely overwhelmed with kindness and curiosity.
Even though almost everyone is open to being photographed, the city is so extremely busy and crowded that it was 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, important museums, and 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 desperately 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 wonderful 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.