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Life through the lens

Apon Zahir

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, an adage which implies that perhaps the best way to tell a story is through a picture. The use of photographs in news media is nothing new, since the golden age of photojournalism back in the 1930s; the practice of illustrating news with photographs has transcended into matters of artistry, a craft practiced by maestros. Due to the rise of the art form, many prestigious awards and recognitions too have sprouted up among nations, now there are lots of renowned exhibitions and photography festivals which attract photography enthusiasts and appreciators alike; one of them being our own ‘Chhobi Mela’.
In the world of photojournalism in Bangladesh, one very prominent name is Andrew Biraj, a young and talented photographer who has already made a name for himself in the international hall of fame with his astounding, award-winning works.
 Born in the September of 1982, Biraj’s story begins from unequivocally humble origins. ‘I first got acquainted with the world of photography by taking an interest in a new camera my cousin had bought way back in 1999. Photography became a hobby. I didn’t really have any aspiration to go professional at first.’ Biraj shares with Youth. ‘A year later I got the opportunity to see the first ever Chhobi mela exhibition titled “The War We Forgot”. This festival would serve as my single greatest source of inspiration to dive into the world of photojournalism.’ In 2002, Biraj would join a long-term professional course in Pathshala and would eventually transfer to University of Bolton in UK, where he would complete his BA(Honours) degree in photography in 2005. 
By 2006, Biraj was a full fledged photographer ready to share his experiences through his images. Even before completing his degree, Biraj gained experience working for prominent newspapers and magazines like the Shaptahik 2000. After returning to the home country for good, he took on numerous assignments from renowned international news media such as the New York Times and The Guardian and travelled through Afghanistan, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Bangladesh and some parts of Europe to pursue his own work as a social documentary photographer. Over the years, Biraj has documented numerous stories including political brutality, people’s protest against open pit coal mines, cancer survivors, brothel workers, jute mill workers, land mine victims, climate refugees and the solitude of his own grandmother. ‘The people I capture through my camera are the greatest sources of inspiration. They allow me into their lives so that I can tell their stories; what I have in mind eventually changes due to the environment, the situation, the subject I interact with, perhaps what matters most is the attitude of the photographers towards his subject.’
His stories have been exhibited worldwide, in places such as Visa Pour l’Image, Perpignan; France, the Angkor Photo Festival in Cambodia, Yangon Photo Festival in Myanmar, the International Photography Biennial of the Islamic World in Iran, Noorderlicht in the Netherlands, the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts in Japan, the Church of Santa Maria Della Pietà in Venice, the National Art Gallery in Malaysia and Drik Gallery in Bangladesh.
His editorial works have been published in Time.com, The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Guardian, The Observer Magazine, The Times, Asian Geo, Hindustan Times, The Diplomat, New Age and in many other national and international publications.
His work was also selected for the most prestigious World Press Photo JoopSwart Masterclass grant in 2008 and won the first prize in ‘Best of Photojournalism’ from National Press Photographers Association of America (NPPA) in 2008. He followed that up with a third prize in ‘Best of Photojournalism’ from National Press Photographers Association of America (NPPA) in 2010.
To further solidify his credentials, he also won the silver award in the 3rd China International Press Photo Contest in 2010 while also winning the bronze prize in the same contest back in 2007. He also won the Award of Excellence in feature photography provided by Society of Publishers Association in 2010 and South Asian Journalists Association Award for Outstanding Photograph in 2010. In 2013, he won the award for the Best Portfolio at The Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar.
Biraj has been working with Reuters since 2008.
‘Photojournalism is not an easy task’ says Biraj, ‘One does not become a photojournalist overnight. Professionals have to learn to make decisions instantly, often while exposed to significant obstacles and danger. In order to do that, one must possess a certain degree of intellect, a certain kind of attitude and a fair bit of luck!’ Biraj explains that to most people, the camera seems like a weapon, a tool that invades privacy and desecrates secrets, that is why photographers are always treated with a hint of hostility. He too has seen his fair share of hostility, as narrated by him in his recollections of a few of his travels. Biraj shares with Youth the fascinating tales of his exploits in Myanmar when he was sent there by the New York Times to cover the aftermath of cyclone Nargis. He elaborates on the grim visage of the desolation in certain parts of Yangon, on how they had to move from hotel to hotel to stay out of the hands of the military, who were bent on stopping any foreign reporters and journalists from en tering the country. He also describes his experiences during the 2010 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan. He remarks about the photogenic ambience of the country and about how he and his colleagues were frequently threatened and attacked by both the military police and insurgents alike; all in a day’s work. Biraj’s life is indeed one filled with peril and adventure; what he does to capture the moments in extremely dangerous situations in order to reveal the stories of people to the world is nothing short of bravery.
‘For me, photography is more of an addiction rather than an occupation. Being a photojournalist requires a lot of sacrifice and often, it is not financially rewarding. For that reason, photography and professional photojournalism doesn’t have a very strong base here in Bangladesh.’ Biraj tells Youth. For that reason, Biraj has been working hard to establish the profession in the country as best as he can. He has been a teacher at Pathshala since 2007
and co-founded his own educational platform in
photography through an organisation called Counter Foto in November 2012. Biraj gets his inspiration from the people he takes pictures of and through seeing the works of the young and contemporary photographers of today; now he strives to share that inspiration among peers and kindred spirits through his teachings, while continuing his work at

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