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In God We Trust, Bangladesh
2010

Munem Wasif has been steadily pursuing the work which established his reputation from his very first pictures. He continues to work in his own country, Bangladesh, and while he travels to present exhibitions and give talks, he feels he must report on situations seen from the inside; and since September 11, Islam has become a central issue, seen from the outside, in the context of the “War on Terror,” leading to problems and prejudice.

Wasif, as a bearded Bangladeshi, says he has often been aware of the way people look at him with suspicion or even hostility, for example in the Paris underground, and even more so with immigration police checking passports. This is striking as external signs such as the headscarf, cap or beard can often be interpreted as signs of fundamentalism and therefore danger, rather than as a sign of cultural identity.

These attitudes are obviously unpleasant for Wasif, but they are not found in his experience of his own country. This simplistic misrepresentation is an image found in the media and one that does not reflect the complexity and diversity of the situation. So Wasif decided to observe and show Islam as practiced in his immediate environment.

Munem Wasif was born into a middle class family, and his father is a fervent believer, but this has not stopped him from being broad-minded and tolerant. For the report, he chose to cover two people and their everyday life.

One is his sister, Munmun, who, after her Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca last year, decided to wear the hijab; her brother observes that she now has much more self-confidence.
And there is one of his male friends, Topu, a young photographer who abides by the teachings of Muhammad, the last of the prophets, and is endeavoring to find an orthodox form of his religion.

When Wasif realized that “others,” who were fanatics, fundamentalists and terrorists, were the main influence shaping and spreading a negative image of Islam, he felt the need to tell the story “about us who believe in God.”
“Our hearts and minds, and even our visual constructs are now occupied by Western thoughts and ideas that give the impression that madrasahs are the cradle of terrorism. But the life of children in madrasahs is much the same as the life of other children: they play in wide open spaces, read books, sing out loud and play badminton enthusiastically. In Bangladesh, Islam is like the many colors produced by a mirror in the sunlight. There are both headscarves and lipstick, and we wear jeans as well as having a beard. […] In our country people pray at graves without thinking about reincarnation, but there are also fakirs and saints in mazars who continue to sing and pray for eternal peace.”

Wasif frames his shots very strictly but with flexibility, paying special attention to light; he likes contrasts and there is great elegance in the composition of his works, both classical and discerning. This produces strong visual logic in his stories, making them compelling without being demonstrative. He shows us the presence of Islam as it is in the life of people, not as a sign of oppression.

Christian Caujolle

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