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Illustration: Sarah John

Letter from Dhaka: the careful image

Dhaka

Moments pass. You go in and the seasoned instructions come at you from behind the dust-encrusted canvas curtain hung for heft, but also to block the light. ‘Move right, turn your face to the left, slightly to the left, look at me, look slightly at a right angle…’ These precise and familiar injunctions are also an opening of sorts for a fleeting camaraderie among those queueing up to get snapped. ‘Bhai (brother), where are you going?’ ‘Student?’ ‘Berate jacchhen?’ (Going on vacation?) ‘Do you have relatives there?’

Inside, it feels stuffy. Less than 10 minutes away from the embassies at a brisk walk, Quick Photo Studio welcomes visitors with blown-up wedding pictures taped askew on its glass front entrance and trades mainly in passport-sized photos. Having shared fragments of their stories, primarily around what the passport photos were for, customers collect their pictures and leave, never to meet again.

Once a familiar 20th-century sight, photo studios are disappearing in Dhaka, a phenomenon unfolding elsewhere, too. There’s no longer the need to traverse any distance to preserve carefully constructed depictions of your persona (surrounded by friends, companions, family, or just solo), when careful or carefree or carefully carefree images are just a scroll or tap away on the phone. But passport and visa photos are a different breed of careful, produced to satisfy exact specifications set by governments; your identity card or biometric information marking you out as an ‘authentic’ person for the government. These unadorned facsimiles, whose purpose is to authenticate the self, require steady hands – and studios. The ones remaining in Dhaka rely mostly on this business of government-ordained photo needs, the passport-sized photos.

Quick Photo Studio’s fluorescent lights hit a row of glass shelves stocked with gold frames, creating a kind of visual noise that stuns one’s sense of sight. The hard light coats the studio with pallor and haze. The staff work the screens with a practised and quick gaze and turn around photos within 10 to 15 minutes, making the place live up to its name. Customers can idle and chat but no such luxury for an employee. Besides, the boss could turn up at any time.

At these studios, gone are the elaborate, variegated backdrops meant to transport the photographed subjects to lands of confectionary fantasy – snowcapped mountains, tulip fields, lustrous icescapes made shinier on vinyl, lakeside vistas as serene as at the beginning of horror movies, scenes that would later emerge as Microsoft screensavers circa the 1990s – evoking Europe or America, though the mountains and lakes could just as well have been in Nepal or Kashmir. These backdrops were meant to summon a staunchly unattainable fantasy. They transported the sitters to places which could only be visited in dreams.

Now there are Instagram filters, ‘curated’ IRL (in real life) photo walls and backgrounds for social media circulation. But there are also many more people from Bangladesh on the move, the fantastical replaced with literal journeys, and exacting photos are an essential, if tiresome, element to their voyages. Most of the destinations to which they are headed, though, would rather Bangladeshis or generally denizens of the Global South just stayed put. A passport power index ranked the Bangladeshi passport 97th for 2019 based on visa-free access to other countries; the UK in comparison ranked sixth. Post-coloniality and its illusions are suddenly clarified in this context.

Because business dictates aesthetics, the studio walls nowadays are stripped to a sterile and splotchy white to cater to the whims of our passport-controlled regimes. But the fanciful backdrops may one day see a revival as artifacts, similar to the burgeoning resurgence of other past objects or cultural moments. A similar fate for passports – to exist only as objects of curiosity and not as necessities – would be nicer.

New Internationalist issue 519 magazine cover This article is from the May-June 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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