Capturing Female Identity: An Interview with Tahia Farhin Haque by Jennifer Chowdhry Biswas

Tahia Farhin Haque, ‘It feels like razors on my skin’ from the series Colours of Confinement, 2020

In this interview, visual artist Tahia Farhin Haque from Bangladesh addresses how photography can be used as an agent for change by questioning and challenging gender prejudice and perceptions. Haque believes in the power of women who can influence the world through critical discourse and frequently places them at the centre of her projects in an attempt to counter notions of patriarchy. In this post, she shares her thoughts on representation and symbolism in her work, in order to think broadly about narratives and societal norms.

Jennifer Chowdhry Biswas (henceforth JCB): How did your journey as a photographer begin, and what stands out from that moment?

Tahia Farhin Haque (henceforth TFH): I have been fascinated with photographs and their power to tell a story from a very young age. I found myself drawn to art exhibitions in Dhaka city – at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, and as a teenager I was enthralled by the images on the walls that spoke about the photographer’s journey, as one that was able to capture the subject’s emotions or tell a story with a thousand layers or nuances in just one frame.

I started taking photos when I got my first smartphone. At the age of 19 years, my photos were selected for various inter-university exhibitions in Dhaka. I was chosen for the New Vanguard Special Reportage Prize by Document Journal in 2018 which gave me the opportunity to have my first big exhibition at the renowned Aperture Foundation, New York, in the same year that I was pursuing a Diploma in Professional Photography from Counter Foto – a Centre of Visual Arts in Dhaka, and simultaneously graduating in Biochemistry from the North South University, Dhaka.

Eventually, I started getting international recognition when my work was exhibited at the London Street Photography Festival, 2018; and the Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa, 2019, which, at a young age was a big honour for me. I am a photographer, yes, but I consider myself an artist, and photography is my medium of expression. I do not want to be confined to just one medium in the future and so I sketch and paint as well. Recently I made artworks with expired lipstick and nail-polish! I also incorporate found objects in my compositions (Figure 1).

JCB: How did you start thinking about a ‘woman’s gaze’ in photography?

TFH: There is certainly a ‘male gaze’ as well as a ‘woman’s gaze’. For me, the woman’s gaze is that part of a story which we usually don’t see, as we often have our stories written by men – which are essentially incomplete. A poem that strongly resonates with me is Jessie Pope’s War Girls originally published in the Daily Mail during the First World War wherein she writes about women taking up work that would have been otherwise done by men – but because men were at war, the women were in control back home. The poet expresses how women were highly capable of working independently. The broader perspective of having an independent voice, to my mind, is part of a woman’s gaze.

During the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, photographers did take photos, but when it came to women, male photographers took photos of raped women, bruised and abused. However, the country’s first female professional photographer, Sayeeda Khanam (1937-2020) who inspired generations of Bangladeshi women and opened doors for female photographers and photojournalists in the country, took photos of women marching, heads held high. Women were not just victims but freedom fighters. It took so many years to respect them as such, and I believe photography as a language has role to play in how we remember the past in general.

When I was growing up, even advertisements in leading newspapers and magazines were highly sexist. We live in a patriarchal society and it’s difficult to undo that, but women’s issues and struggles have to be highlighted and respected for a better society to emerge.

JCB: Who most influenced your work at a personal level?

TFH: My elder sister passed away when we were children. I think I was influenced by her. She left a void in my life. As a specially-abled child she was bedridden most of her life. I feel the world never ever gave her a chance. But through my photography practice I have tried to keep her memory alive.

I come from a big family and that itself is a story in itself, many aspects of which condition my own psychological framework. For example, the series Shadows of a Wooden House exhibited at the Dhaka Art Summit 2020, was a project envisioned from the perspective of my grandmother who had to leave our wooden house in Calcutta (present day Kolkata) during the Partition of India in 1947 and was forced to migrate to Bangladesh. The pain and fear she had to face while migrating with a toddler and an unborn child was very harsh. I correlate that moment, even the gaze upon her with all that is unfolding in present times, where women are still forced to feel insecure and humiliated. The abuse may not be seen on their skin, but the very memory of abuse to me is like the strike of blades on skin when remembered.

JCB: Most of your work is monochrome – shadows, silhouettes and veiled figures. Can you talk about this aesthetic?

TFH: I felt comfortable behind the veil. Society may continue to objectify me but it is my choice to either expose or conceal myself. When you try to associate with the bigger picture around women’s narratives, you can’t actually see the whole truth, it is often concealed. Through my work I try to highlight such experiences of obscurity. In one photograph, I depicted many eyes on my face (Figure 2), because I felt that every woman should return the gaze cast upon them!

By Jennifer Chowdhry Biswas

From Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

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