Field Notes: Bangladesh 2019

For this year’s edition of my annual Bangladesh photograph tour, I was joined by four willing participants. Each member of this quartet had signed up for one clear reason: to improve their photography skills. Which they did. A lot. 

As a photography instructor, my favourite students are the ones who absorb all the information I provide, like human-sized sponges. Students who improve their photography dramatically every day, and whose photos from Day 10 look absolutely nothing like their photos from Day 1. This group did not disappoint, and I ended the tour a very happy teacher! 

From the overcrowded streets of old Dhaka to the misty fields of Dinajpur, by way of the bustling vegetable markets of Sylhet, we covered a lot of ground, took a lot of photos and captured a wide variety of what Bangladesh has to offer in terms of photography, food and culture. 

Day 1: Boats, Tea, Shipyards, More Tea & More Boats

Day 1 started with a pre-dawn trip to the riverside in the heart of Dhaka’s old town. Catching sunrise in Saderghat is always one of the highlights of any trip to Bangladesh. I love watching my students’ faces when they see the multitude of boats roaming around, from tiny canoe to massive ferry, all carrying passengers from one side to another, while the sun rises over the cityscape offering stunning photo opportunities. 

We hung out by the waterside for quite a while, as it was a great introduction to what we were going to work on a lot throughout the whole tour: layering and layer separation. 

After our first tea of the day (I stopped counting the number of teas after Day 2 as I just couldn’t keep up!) we crossed the river to reach the narrow alleyways on the southside surrounding the sprawling Dhaka shipyard. There we met local people starting their day, some chilling out on the streets and others heading to work. Because of how narrow the streets are the morning sun only filters through onto some walls, making this a great place to work on capturing subjects in the best light. 

We headed back to the hotel for a well-earned rest before starting our very first photo review of the tour. Doing a review on the first day helps me to quickly assess the participants’ level and learn about the way in which they see the world. It also quite often allows me to diagnose their “bad habits”. Doing so helps me to rectify some common mistakes they might make and help them improve their photography from Day 1. 

Later in the afternoon, we drove to a small market on the riverside, where the sunset light hit the food stalls in a perfect way. We finished a fine first day down by the river, capturing lines of boats in the golden light. 

Day 2: Bazaars, Train Stations and Shopping Sprees 

Our second day started with another early start for the group. This time we visited the exciting activities available in Amin Bazar. This place is always very emotional for me. Not only does it offer incredible photo opportunities but we become faced with something which is very difficult to describe to someone who has never been to Bangladesh before. The sight of people working incredibly hard and in very difficult conditions, but who are all smiles and excited that foreigners come and visit them to take photos. I’m constantly in awe of how welcoming these people can be to complete strangers.

After a couple of hours there (I can’t recall how many teas we’d had at that stage), we had breakfast and headed back to town, towards the central train station. As the light had become a  little trickier outside, we felt the station would offer a better variety of light. 

Train stations are always a great place to shoot, and Dhaka’s no exception. With trains coming and going, people jumping on and off, plus passengers to spot through windows, the scene is constantly changing and it’s always a fun place to practice people photography. 

Because we came back to the hotel in the middle of the afternoon, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the day, heading on a shopping trip to Bongo Bazar. This is the place where all the branded clothes made in factories across Dhaka will little defects end up, so you can often find great quality clothing for peanuts. I guess I don’t need to buy new clothes for the next couple of years! 

Day 3: Flights, A Clean City and another Sunset by the River

After two very intense days in the crowded streets of Dhaka, it was time to get out of the capital and relax a little. On the morning of Day 3, we flew to Rajshahi in the West, close to India. 

Rajshahi is actually one of the cleanest cities in Bangladesh. The city has put a lot into tackling pollution and it seems to be working. The people are very chilled, and it felt amazing to simply walk down the streets.

After checking into our hotel we wandered along the riverside, where the locals go and relax at sunset. We discovered a superb area, not far from the river, with narrow streets and colourful walls. We walked around for an hour or so, capturing the local life. I will make sure to take the group back there next year as we all had such a great time. 

Later on, before sunset, we hopped on a boat to reach a more remote beach where local fishermen were cleaning their nets, people were fishing and the kids were playing cricket. This is why I love Bangladesh so much; no matter which direction you go, there are always so many things happening around. And you’re never short of photo opportunities!

Day 4: Morning Markets, Saying Goodbye to Comfort Zones and Hello to a Girl in Red 

On the morning of Day 4, we started a little later; the group had earned a bit of a lie-in! After a good snooze, we visited the busy morning market of Rajshahi. 

After three days of making sure all the participants were getting up to where I wanted them to be, it was time to push their photography a bit further. On that morning, we talked a lot about the ways to create more compelling images, applying all the techniques we had previously worked at on the situations we encountered. 

These 4 participants were very willing to be pushed and put out of their comfort zone, which is the main reason I saw such a huge improvement in their images. Once again, I am grateful to have had such a group. 

If you join a Pics of Asia photography tour, you’re signing up to challenged and encouraged past your boundaries, photographically speaking anyway! And when you go with it, not only you will make me a very happy photo instructor but your photography is guaranteed to greatly improve. 

After a rest at the hotel, we started our journey towards Bogra (a 3-hour drive away). We drove through the countryside roads surrounded by sugarcane, rice fields and chilli fields, stopping anytime we saw people’s activities. 

Towards the end of the day, as we walked into a rice field with a big group of people working, we spotted a young girl wearing a beautiful red dress. It was such a contrast between her pretty dress and the raw rice fields around that it provided us with an almost poetic photo… 

Day 5: Morning in the Market, Sundowner by the River 

Rising early, we headed into the heart of Bogra city. The central market there is located along the railway, so there are always opportunities to capture the busy activity, and, with a bit of luck, a train passing by. Inside the market, the light is fantastic as it filters through holes in the roof or bounces on the building’s windows. The people in this city are very welcoming (as they are everywhere in Bangladesh) and very, very keen to be photographed. 

As I wrote a few years ago in this blog post, Bangladesh is, in my humble opinion, THE best country on planet Earth for people photography. Whether you want to compose great images using multiple layers of people or just improve your one-on-one portrait photography, it is just so easy as most people are very keen to be photographed by a visitor. 

After a brief rest at the hotel, we drove towards one of my very favourite areas around Bogra, located along the Brahmaputra river. Over the past few years, this is the place where I’ve ended up taking some of my favourite images in Bangladesh. The peaceful countryside life, reflections in the water and the sheer friendliness of the people we meet make it a photographer’s dream. 

After a short boat ride, followed by a walk through the fields and villages, we ended up along the riverside where the people gather until the local ferry take them on the other side. They are joined by farmers coming to clean their vegetables, fishermen cleaning their nets and multitudes of kids playing and doing whatever kids do. All of this activity takes place with the sun setting over the immense river. It’s just a magical place to be.

Day 6: Tea Shops, Brick Factories and Crowd Control

We checked out our hotel and started our drive towards Dinajpur (another 3-hour drive away). On the way, we stopped to capture the activity in one of the biggest wholesale vegetable markets in the region. It is a very hectic market divided into the meat, fish and vegetable section. On top of that, the tea shops make an excellent brew and are conveniently located at the perfect angle for the morning light to hit them and the people around. Win-win.

We then kept driving towards Dinajpur, stopping en-route when great photo opportunities arose. This is when we visited our first brick factory, where the workers loaded the bricks into the kiln. A great warm-up for all the brick factory action we would be experiencing in the days ahead. 

Before arriving in Dinajpur we stopped in a small village which had a very interesting market. Because the light was perfect, we spend a couple of hours walking around. We could tell that the people in this area were really not used to meeting tourists as we quickly amassed quite a  crowd of followers. They were all very keen to be photographed, and so we focused a part of that afternoon on taking close-up portraits. 

Photographers of the world… can you imagine the following: Walking around a town and being able to photograph any person you see because they actually ask you to?! No? Well then, you need to get on the next flight to Bangladesh. Like I said before, it is heaven! 

Day 7: Foggy Roads, Delayed Planes and Stories To Tell

An hour before sunrise we checked out of our hotel and headed towards the airport. The road leading to the airport is quite exceptional at this time of the year. The surrounding fields are covered in a thick fog, creating a mystical atmosphere for our images. There we could capture the farmers heading to work along roads framed by beautiful trees. 

Later on, we headed towards a brick factory that I had discovered on the previous year’s photo tour, and this year it did not disappoint. It was very busy with a lot of workers in action, and the morning light filtering through the mist created a kind of surreal feel to our images. 

While checking in for our flight to Sylhet we learned that because our flight was delayed, we’d miss our connection in Dhaka and the next flight out wasn’t until 6 pm. So, instead of shooting in the countryside of Sylhet on that afternoon, we decided to explore another train station and its surroundings in Dhaka, close to the airport. And wow, such a great idea it was! 

This train station and the surrounding streets were so busy that we spent 3 hectic hours capturing images of the trains and their passengers, as well as the street life around it. We used this opportunity to discuss the concepts of street photography, and how to capture compelling images in any environment. 

We ended up chatting with the passengers and the street kids who live around the train station. These people live a very hard life but would not miss an opportunity to be photographed. There are a lot of stories to tell around these people, and they definitely could use help in getting their message out. I am hoping to be able to come back and build a more comprehensive story around them soon. Unfortunately, this time, we had to rush to get back to the airport and catch our flight to Sylhet. 

Day 8: Vegetable Markets, Band Photos and the Downside of Celebrity

On the morning of Day 8, we left the hotel early for the quick walk to Sylhet vegetable market. This is a very busy place to photograph but as it is surrounded by tall buildings, the light around it can be very interesting. 

We quickly attracted crowds of people, which can sometimes make it difficult to take photos. Our strategy was to spread ourselves around the market in order to “divide the crowds” of curious people, allowing us to take candid images of the scenes. 

But as Bangladeshis love to pose so much, it was a good opportunity for us to capture images of entire groups of people posing. This allowed us to sort of make images that look like album covers of bizarre bands. 

After a rest and lunch, we headed into the countryside and to a new area I wanted to explore. We stopped in a village surrounded by rivers, but we all found it almost impossible to take any candid photos. The people in the countryside here never meet foreigners and we were constantly followed by a huge crowd of adults and children alike. It was fun and friendly, but we quickly gave up trying to capture any candid images. 

Later on, we reached another riverside at sunset and managed to capture some great cricket games as well as the people bringing their herds of cows back home. 

Day 9: Morning Coffee in the Tea Plantations, Colorful Clothes and A Brick Factory Frenzy

The tour was almost coming to an end, and this day proved to be a very intensive and fruitful one for our photography. We started very early in the morning to reach the tea plantations in the area of Sreemangal. We first encountered a group of men pruning the tea trees in the beautiful morning light. 

After a tea and breakfast (and a few cups of the Vietnamese coffee I always travel with!) we drove into a tea estate to capture a huge group of women picking up tea leaves. The light was already getting harsh but the fact that they were wearing very colourful clothes helped our compositions a lot.

Later on, while driving back towards Sylhet and keeping an eye out for the smoking stacks of brick factories, we found the ultimate one. It was a frenzy of bricky activity. Some workers were busy loading and unloading the kilns, others were setting the kiln on fire, adding coal into it. While a third group was grinding the coal into dust so that it could later be used to stoke the fire.  With all this going on it was a fantastic opportunity for the group to work with layers and light, and try to tell complex stories with their images. 

Before we left we spent some time around the people in charge of the coal. The conditions they work in is very difficult to describe, yet they were very friendly and curious towards us. 

We shot wide images, portraits, details; everything was so photogenic in the golden light of sunset. This was truly a glorious day of photography. 

Day 10: A Fish Start, Final Reviews and One Proud Teacher

On our final morning, we headed to the fish market in Sylhet and wandered the narrow streets leading to it. I got some kind of food poisoning so I left the group to go back to the hotel. These kinds of things happen… 

After checking out we flew back to Dhaka and decided to sit in the Meridian hotel to run our final photo review in a more comfortable location. We saw great photos from all participants, and the evolution of all their photography skills from Day 1 to Day 10 was, quite frankly, dramatic. 

As a photo instructor, this has been the best tour of 2019 in terms of the evolution of the participants’ skills. In the other tours this year, most of the participants already had a fairly advanced level of photography. But for this one, we went from beginner level to a very advanced level in just 10 days.  

I am very proud of the students on this trip. All four pushed themselves very hard to achieve an amazing level of photography. Well done, team! I am one happy (albeit tired) photography teacher. 

Now, home to Hoi An!

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Etienne

Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

2 Comments

  1. Nancy Brandt on December 31, 2019 at 1:31 pm

    Once again, your trip description has me captivated. I hope I can join you sometime, particularly on a trip to Bangladesh. I especially like your goal of taking the participants to the next level as photographers.

    • Etienne on January 3, 2020 at 9:53 am

      Thanks, Nancy, we hope to see you on a tour with us somewhere in Asia 🙂

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