Interview: Ismail Ferdous, award-wining photojournalist
'It's essential to be curious, limitless, and unstoppable'
Ismail Ferdous is a Bangladeshi photojurnalist living in New York. This year his documentary photo project on Immigrants Working in American Meat Processing Plants won the prestigious World Press Photo Award. This is the first time ever a Bangladeshi photojournalist's work on American social issues got this biggest award in photography. Ismail speaks to Ayesha Kabir of Prothom Alo (English edition) about the award, his work and a bit about his life.
Ismail, first let me congratulate you on winning the World Press Photo award this year. Can you tell us something about the award and how does it feel as being the first Bangladeshi ever to get this award?
Thank you! It feels great to be interviewed by the most read newspaper in Bangladesh. To be accurate I am not the first Bangladeshi who ever won this award but I am first Bangladeshi who won this award for documentary reporting abroad. I feel very honoured to win this prestigious award in my career.
It was your documentary photo project on the Immigrants Working in American Meat Processing Plants that clinched the prize. How did you get to select this particular subject matter... in Bangladesh we hardly relate to immigrants in this industry so it was quite an eye-opener. Do tell us more, both about your project and topic.
I have always been curious about borders, migrations, refugees and the big business supply chain. As a photojournalist, I have worked on a long-term project on Fast Fashion exploitation related to Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. Since moving to New York, I have been increasingly interested in the mega consumption of food - especially meat - and the questions it raises about the food industry. During the pandemic I got interested to know more about it when meat processing plants had become of epicentre of Covid outbreak in the Midwest. I started digging into it more and started to find out all cruel facts - how this industry is been exploiting immigrants workers from Africa, Latin America and South Asia who fled war and violence. This is something which you would never imagine living in Bangladesh- that this could happen in the US. Perhaps most of the Bangladeshis would think that America is just a land of opportunity and happiness. I did my first trip South Dakota with a grant from National Geographic Society.
This documentary project aims to reveal the people behind the supply chain of the US meat industries. The goal of this project is to show the life of the people and let the voice be heard of these people who work in this meat industry in the US. This project shows the immigrants' life in the Midwest. Oftentimes in traditional US media we see reporting when they arrive as refugees, but with no deeper understanding of their life afterwards, after they move into America - how are they surviving in the new culture or assimilating, what is their life like here, is the American dream really coming true for them?
It couldn't have been easy working on this project, especially where there is exploitation of immigrants concerned. The immigrants may have been reluctant to risk their jobs by revealing their predicament and the employers definitely would not want their darker side to be exposed. What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome all this?
It was not easy at all. I was not allowed to enter to the factory at all. Even no meat processing plants in the US allowed any journalist inside last 15 years. Consequently, I gained a more in-depth understanding of the lives of these workers. Even though I could not show the working conditions in my pictures, I felt that I had a better understanding of their situation.
The narrative is not only controlled by only certain cultures and group of people. Not only white people are telling the stories of black and brown people, black and brown people telling the stories of themselves and also looking into the problems in white society
How does it feel to be an Asian, a Bangladeshi, clinching an award in a, generally speaking, white male domain?
It feels great! This is one of many reasons why I have become a photographer - to be the voice of the change. I think the time is a changing time in journalism and photography. The narrative is not only controlled by only certain cultures and group of people. Not only white people are telling the stories of black and brown people, black and brown people telling the stories of themselves and also looking into the problems in white society. This is something - the balance that was missing for a long time. We needed to have our own voice to tell our story. And now we are starting to see that change. In photography, we are seeing a lot more black and brown photographers from all around the world getting involved with different aspects of photography, whether it be fine photojournalism, documentary photography, etc. I believe this shift will continue and we will continue to see even more diversity in who is behind the camera telling the stories.
This achievement is an inspiration to young photographers all over, not to mention Bangladesh. Any words of advice or tips for them on how to develop their skills and also gain exposure in the world out there?
It's essential to be curious, limitless, and unstoppable in today's ever-changing landscape. With so many different stories being told, it is important to have an open mind and be willing to learn new things or have new hobbies. It is also essential to believe in yourself and your creativity. There are endless possibilities for what you can achieve if you set your mind to it. Excuses will only limit your potential. This is a global world, so it is important to expand your horizon and tell stories that you are passionate about. Reading as much as you can will also help you become a better storyteller. Do not believe in all the advice you get, choose what you need and forget rest.
Any new ventures or projects in the pipeline? Do share.
I have been working on Ukrainian refugees for the past two months in Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland. Now I am ready to go back to my meat processing plant workers project in the Midwest and am planning to make a full length feature documentary film. And later this year I would like to follow up Rana Plaza.
Now a bit more personal -- where were you brought up, where did you study and how did you come into this profession? I mean, we Bangladeshis are notoriously prone to take up medical, engineering, IT careers or business. But you broke out of the 'safe zone' to take up photography. How did your family take it?
I was born and brought up in Dhaka. Went to East West University for my BBA and I started photography quite accidentally - my hobby became my profession. Well, I was defiantly a dream breaker of my parents initially ha ha! I had to lie to them for the first six years of career - saying every six months give me an extension and I will find a real job. Eventually my mom got me and told me - I appreciate your lies since you did not want to hurt us by saying that you don’t want to work in a bank, but kept pursuing your dream until what you have become now - we are proud of you! My running joke is I am an artiste until I find a real job!
Thank you, Ismail, and good luck for all our endeavours in the days to come...