With sightseeing foiled for the day, we only went out for lunch. Looking for a restaurant, we turned right outside of the hotel and walked to the corner. No restaurants. We turned the corner, and were greeted by slums. The smell of sewer and garbage was quite poignant. I was surprised to find it here, so close to everything. From the side of the road though, it didn’t last long and we were onto a dusty back road. It felt surreal – how is this right behind the hotel?
As many other times in Bangladesh (or on this trip, really) I felt hesitant to take out my camera. It was for two reasons really: 1) I didn’t want the people to feel exploited by taking pictures of their grim environment and 2) I didn’t want to put a target on my back. Again, I had foolishly forgotten that in Bangladesh, the best way to make friends and make people happy is to pull out your camera.
As soon as I gathered the courage (or stubbornness) to put my camera around my neck, the city opened up. The dusty street transformed itself in a dusty potato district. Stores after stores, filled with overflowing jute bags of potatoes. Rickshaw loaded with bags of potatoes. It was potato central. And then, greens started to appear. A whole truck, filled with papayas. Dykons. Piles of squashes. Mountains of spinach. The odd thing is, it didn’t feel like a market at all, but like a street filled with produce suppliers – like where the supermarket would go to stock up on produce to sell.
As the street turned itself into purveyor street, people started to be very friendly, posing for pictures and asking where we are from. Children followed us down the street. One person even tried to give us a gigantic eggplant.
Eventually we reached a corner, and the street to our right was a market street. I love markets, so this whole area, which started grim and depressing, had transformed itself into my idea of happiness. As we turned the corner though, the camera really attracted attention. As we processed down the street, stall vendors after vendors wanted their picture taken. People posing with peppers, cauliflowers, chickens. People bringing us down narrow lanes to check out livestock. People holding out fishes and shrimps.
Just when I started to feel a little overwhelmed with everything going on around me, things stepped up a notch. People started asking more and more for pictures, and asking that I take pictures of other people. It became a hilarious thing to them, the white girl taking pictures of people. Someone would point to someone, I would take a photo, and everyone would laugh, clap, or both.
Near the end of the street I started to wish for the street to end. It’s not that this wasn’t a great experience, but it was exhausting. It started to feel like I was just doing what was asked, rather than exercising any creative license. It was as though I was to document everyone on the street – a weird feeling, although that could make for a pretty amazing project.
As the street ended, I was relieved to be back on the main street, heading to a restaurant. I was beat! But I was so glad that we had taken that route, and had that experience. People here are so warm, proud and generous, and again I was reminded that I’ve never been anywhere else where people want to be photographed so much.
Usually I leave markets with loads of pictures of produce, and maybe a couple pictures of people. Today was the opposite. I went to the market and left with pictures of people, and just a couple of produce. It’s a fun change, but I think it’s quite reflective of this country. The scenery might be nice. The streets might be interesting. But what really makes the country special are the people, and today made me realize that I might leave this country with more portraits than anything else. Might as well, because when all is said and done, I really think that the people is what I am going to remember the most about this country.