In many ways, the Sidr cyclone that devastated Bangladesh in 2007 was responsible for developing the photojournalist in KM Asad.
Barely 24 at the time and a student of ‘Pathshala’, The South Asian Institute of Photography where he was studying photojournalism at the time, he remembers grabbing his camera and rushing off to document the scenes of death and destruction that the cyclone had wreaked in the capital Dhaka and across the country. For the record, more than 2,300 people died in the catastrophe.
"This was my first big professional photographic documentation during my studies," he says, in an email interview with Friday as he prepares to participate in the Xposure International Photography Festival 2021 scheduled to be held from February 10-13 in Sharjah.
Some of his pictures, published in local dailies, told the poignant and heart-rending situation the affected people were in, and helped bring in humanitarian aid for hundreds of people. "I realised that [my work] helped people; it even helped save a few lives and that made me realise photojournalism was my duty and I wanted to do just that kind of photography," he says.
Beginning his photography journey with a Yashica MF-2 film camera that his father presented to him when he was 18 years old, the multiple award-winning lensman still remembers the first picture he took: "It was of my father and mother together."
If the pictures he took in the aftermath of the Sidr cyclone spurred him to become a photojournalist, it was his portrayal of the plight of Rohingyas – the refugees displaced from Myanmar who flooded into Bangladesh – that brought him into the international limelight.
Living in Dhaka and seeing up close the tragic situation of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, he believes it is his responsibility to report on the ‘humanitarian disaster’.
"I’ve seen how so many of the Rohingya arrived in Bangladesh with nothing. I have also seen their will to continue after they arrived in the refugee settlement," he says.
While getting permission to access the camps was a major challenge, once he did receive permission, seeing the desperate conditions in which the homeless people were fighting off death and disease every second of their life left him shocked.
He recalls how in 2016 he and a journalist friend visited a camp and saw a 22-year-old woman, Nur Begum, in shock and crying desperately after she had lost her child, "The mother’s cries of pain… I cannot forget that. For a moment, I thought of my own mother, how news of her child’s death would shake her… break her."
That profoundly moving moment affected him so deeply, he froze with shock and pain. "I put my camera down; I couldn’t take any pictures [for a while]. I [felt I had] failed as a photographer in front of this mother."
Clearly, he didn’t.
The National Geographic published Asad’s photograph on the cover of its August 2019 issue with several more from his detailed coverage of the Rohingya refugees on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. It was the first time an image from a Bangladeshi photographer was making it to the magazine’s cover.
However, the pictures almost did not make it in print after the magazine’s editor asked him to produce a model release document before they could use the image in the magazine. Seeking more time, Asad rushed off to the camp in Cox Bazaar in Bangladesh where he had photographed the woman hoping to find her there. But he realised it was like looking for a needle in the haystack – there were about a million people in the camps.
He then wrote back to the magazine making it clear that "this is a pure journalistic image that captures precisely the moment when a woman on September 14th is walking towards the shore of the Shawporir Island with her toddler shortly after she left the boat that brought them to Bangladesh."
He had documented several other refugees in a situation that was comparable to any other tragic moment, even a war-like situation. "We are primarily concerned with showing what we have seen at this moment, in this place."
Convinced, the magazine went ahead with publication.
Asad has received several honours and awards over the years. Apart from having a permanent collection in the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts in Japan, he has also bagged the Unicef Picture Of the Year ("that was one of my best achievements"), China International Press Photo Contest, Picture of the Year International, Days Japan International Photojournalism Award, New York Press Photographers Association and the Lucie Award.
"My next target is to receive the World Press Photo Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It is essential in the international photography world to have a diversity of photographers from all parts of the world."
An independent photographer, Asad also works as a Zuma Press contractor and Getty Images contributor, and is a fixed-term consultant for the World Bank in Bangladesh. Among his clients are the United Nations, European Union, International Monetary Fund, Agence-France Presse Service.
With the advent of social media platforms, does he think photojournalism will become irrelevant?
"I don’t think photojournalism will ever become redundant," says the cameraman whose work has graced magazines such as Time, NYT, The Guardian and Wall Street Journal.
"Photojournalism makes it possible to draw attention to so much – on the situation and conditions of people in which they find themselves, on events, on problems. The images can get the viewer not only to remember but in the best case to act."
Asad believes journalists have a very responsible job right now. "We can help ensure that we have to face the global problem of climate change. And our task will remain to encourage people to act positively through visual language. But I believe that journalism is changing, and there are many new reporting approaches now."
Asad also believes that the smartphone has made it easy for just about anyone to take a high-quality photo, presenting professional photojournalists with new challenges. The mode of our visual language has changed, he says, adding, photojournalists need to be prepared for these challenges.
Tips for amateur photojournalists
Timing: You need to be at the right moment at the right place to get the right click. Later, getting it published in the right publication is essential. Otherwise, your work remains unseen.
Becoming invisible as a photographer: As far as possible, I try to put myself in the middle of the situation to capture the most authentic and real moments. I want to be as close as possible to the people I photograph and gain their trust. I only start photographing after I explore and observe the new location. I also try to familiarise people with the topic. They should feel comfortable with taking pictures of them. Documentary photography is very slow and careful work.
Well-founded research and accurate preparation: Before I start with new documentary work, I do extensive research. I have to be very well informed to create a strong result. I also think in advance about how I would like to realise this topic, this issue photographically. If I also have to travel for this job, I have to make very good preparations in advance.
Award-winning photojournalist KM Asad will be sharing his thoughts and tips at the Xposure International Photography Festival 2021 scheduled to be held from February 10-13 in Sharjah. More details at xposure.ae.