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Sarker Protick on River and Lost Lands in Bangladesh

‘Of River and Lost lands’ is a series of photographs, presented at times as a audio-visual installation, that depicts a grey, melancholic landscape by the river Padma in Bangladesh. The river is the central character in the story. At first, the place seems abandoned. Drowned and broken houses, floating trees are all that remains. These are traces of life that was once here. As the series continues, the land and the people come into view and find their place in the story. Together they portray a complex relationship between nature and human beings that is at once intimate and ruthless, defined by dependency and destruction. The river gives so much to its people and at times it takes away everything © Sarker Protick

“The river gives so much to its people, and at times it takes away everything,” says Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick, whose Hamburg Triennial show tells the story of the Padma River, and those who live and work upon its ever-shifting shores

“This isn’t something new or something connected to a particular part of the country,” says Sarker Protick, speaking about his recent work, Of River and Lost Lands, which deals with the contemporary relationship between people and nature in Bangladesh, in the context of the devastating damage and loss of land caused each year during monsoon season.

“The seasonal rising and falling of the many rivers in our country is part of our culture. It’s the first thing we learn at school; we are a country of rivers. Music, poetry, philosophy, folklore, religion – all have key elements connected to the river.”

Protick’s photographs, on show at Hamburg Triennial of Photography as part of Enter, curated by Emma Bowkett and Krzysztof Candrowicz, were all made along the powerful Padma River. “When the famous Ganges flows over the border from India into Bangladesh, it becomes the Padma; a river that many along its banks depend on for their livelihood, but paradoxically the river is also the main cause of destruction.”

From Of River and Lost Lands © Sarker Protick

This extensive series is marked by a pale fog, and by isolated figures either coming to terms with what has passed or awaiting the next deluge. In Protick’s lightness of touch, these places feel sacred and calm, the horizon disappears as the skies blend with the water, and in doing so the photographer creates a theatrical background for the characters.

These stories are not isolated to the Padma River; monsoon season affects the whole of the country, and with climate change, things are getting worse and more devastating each year. Rather than approach this subject matter attempting to quantify the loss, the images take us one step inside, as if we have awoken from the storm and are stumbling from place to place, assessing the damage, and watching people, as people do, returning to their immediate needs – washing, shaving, getting ready for school, tending to their cattle, and other tasks that can’t wait.

Of River and Lost Lands also keenly mixes a grandeur of place with a consistent sprinkling of intimacy. In one photograph, a house sits partially submerged, while in another, a father rests a hand on his young son’s shoulder as he assesses their crops. Protick tells me that this farmer is standing on relatively new land, because “as time passes, and the river washes away most of the places shown in these photographs, new pieces of land emerge from the river.” The monsoon means loss, but also new beginnings.

Protick tenderly guides us through a story of complexity, history, culture, personal loss and relationships. The pale curtain of mist that envelops the players in Protick’s story forms a backdrop for an intense melancholic experience. White, he says, is a colour of loss in Bangladesh, of mourning, sadness and purity.

As he was shooting this story, he was also completing a series on his grandparents, work that uses this same pale aesthetic, and it was also similarly a study of time passing, of disappearance, and an acceptance of this transience of existence. Protick offers no solution or tribute towards resolution, instead Of River and Lost Lands stands as a bleary-eyed poetic wander along crumbling river banks, where stories slip into the murky water and others bubble to the surface in an ancient to and fro. This article was first published in the May issue of BJP, which was a special focus on the Hamburg Triennial The Hamburg Triennial takes place from June-September, with the professional week from 07-17 June

From Of River and Lost Lands © Sarker Protick

From Of River and Lost Lands © Sarker Protick

From Of River and Lost Lands © Sarker Protick

From Of River and Lost Lands © Sarker Protick

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