Letter from Dhaka: careful photos

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Letter from Dhaka: careful photos


How can you be true to yourself? Parsa Sanjana Sajid thinks about the answer from the bright lights of a photo studio.

Minutes pass. You go in and hear the instructions from behind the curtain. ‘Move right, turn your face to the left, a little to the left, look at me, look a little at a right angle…’ The people wait for their photo and begin talking: ‘Brother, where are you going?’ ‘Student?’ ‘Going on holiday?’ ‘Do you have family there?’

Inside, there is no air. Quick Photo Studio is less than 10 minutes away from the embassies if you walk quickly. The studio has large wedding pictures taped on its glass front entrance and does mostly passport photos. The customers share their stories about why they need the passport photos, they collect their pictures, and leave. They will never meet again.

There were a lot of photo studios in the 20th-century but they are disappearing in Dhaka and also in other places. There’s no longer the need to travel a long way to have careful photos of yourself with friends, family, or just alone. Now you can take careful or carefree or carefully carefree photos with your phone. But passport and visa photos are a different kind of careful photo with exact specifications from governments. Your identity card makes you a ‘real’ person for the government. These photos need careful hands – and studios. The studios remaining in Dhaka do most of this business of photos for the government, the passport-sized photos.

Quick Photo Studio’s bright lights hit a row of glass shelves with gold frames making a hard light for the eyes. The staff work quickly and take photos which are ready in about 10 to 15 minutes – that is why the studios have their name. Customers can wait and talk but the staff cannot. And of course, the boss could arrive at any time.

At these studios, there are no background pictures with mountains, fields of flowers, and lakes, that later were Microsoft screensavers in the 1990s. The mountains and lakes looked like Europe or America, but maybe they were in Nepal or Kashmir. These background pictures took the customers to the places of their dreams.

Now there are Instagram filters, and real life photo walls and backgrounds for social media. But also many more people from Bangladesh are travelling, on real journeys and not just from their dreams, and careful photos are a very necessary, and sometimes boring part of their travels. Most of the places they travel to would prefer Bangladeshis or people from the Global South to stay at home. A passport power list had the Bangladeshi passport 97th for 2019 for visa-free journeys to other countries. The UK was sixth. This makes it clear how life is now after colonisation.

Because business comes before beauty, the studio walls for passport photos are now white. But the dream background pictures may one day return as interesting objects from the past like the popularity of other past objects or cultural moments. It would be nice if passports were the same – only objects of interest and not necessary at all.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)