In Bangladesh, we held our breath and prayed our impoverished and overpopulated country would somehow be spared from yet another disaster, but when the government enforced a nationwide lockdown on March 26, we found ourselves homebound as though we were living in a cage. Today, we are still fearful to leave our home or allow others to visit. “Life in the Cage” is a visual personal project about my family and me. It documents the interaction of our relationships during these ongoing pandemic days in our home in the coastal city of Chittagong, Bangladesh.
I have spent my career as a photojournalist documenting the struggles of others for the world’s major news publications and teaching and mentoring other aspiring photojournalists. Now, for the first time, I stood on the other side of my camera.
I struggled to focus my lens on my own story, embracing the power of photography as a motivation to survive. This new experience felt awkward and at times uncomfortable. My photographs show slivers of our daily life, hope, disappointments, expectations, loneliness, frustration and fears. Our joys overshadow the uncertainties we face.
These months in isolation, I’ve also explored my relationship with my wife, Negar, and our children, Hossain and Imran. I was able to observe my family closely, and I’ve discovered my weaknesses deeply. While struggling to capture this moment in history, I dreamed of a downpour in the desert. I felt as though I was drowning and tried to stay alive through our story.
Just a week before the lockdown began, I was preparing to take a job as a photography teacher in the Bangladesh Air Force and curating and directing the Voice of Humanity and Hope (VOHH) photography festival. It took a lot of personal financial sacrifice to pull the festival together, but it felt so rewarding to witness how many people were affected by the display of stories that were hung throughout the city. I watched as even street children stop and try to touch the images.
My brothers, Arman and Ataul, and I live with our wives and children in the same building as a joint family; it’s a great source of support. But in my society, a man is taught not to speak about his own worries, which at this time are many. During the lockdown, our children became ill with fever, coughing and shortness of breath linked to allergies. We were afraid to seek treatment because of fear of being infected with the coronavirus. We tried home remedies. In fact, my wife and I really had no choice: Our family doctor has been absent from his clinic for over two months. It was terrible, because of unavailable health treatment in Bangladesh. Patients aren’t getting treatment; even those who aren’t coronavirus patients are dying without treatment because of the panic in hospitals and at doctors, and the lack of empty seats.
As each day passed, our fears grew as we listened to the reports of the rising numbers of those infected and the lives claimed. Our rooftop satellite dish caught images on our television showing so many other countries far more advanced and supposedly economically secure than Bangladesh digging graves. It was hard to imagine we were not watching a war.
A recent survey found that 72.6 percent of Bangladeshis are suffering from insomnia; covid-19 has a significant detrimental effect on the mental health and psychological well-being of the people of Bangladesh. The money my wife had hidden away for potential disasters is now almost gone, but we pool together our strengths. “Life in a Cage” is intended to capture our resilience.
You can see more of Shahnewaz’s work here.
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