SEEING A WORLD IN A GRAIN OF SAND
Photography by Nahid Sultana
Introduction and interview by Karin Svadlenak-Gomez
IN CONVERSATION WITH NAHID SULTANA
Nahid Sultana is a photographer based in Bahrain, though she was born in Bangladesh and has travelled the world with her family - and later with her camera. Always with a creative streak, photography came to her out of a need to capture the places she sees and the emotions she feels and witnesses in others. While her favourite genre of photography is landscape, she is also adept at capturing street scenes and has an interest in expanding into long-term documentary photography. A poet at heart, she translates what she sees in the world into a kind of visual poetry that we adore.
"To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour." -
Hello Nahid, tell us a bit about yourself. Have you always lived in Bahrain?
I spent the earliest and probably most fundamental period of my life in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We grew up in a society where boundaries didn’t exist. In fact, I don’t even think it was a concept. Most days, after school, I would play outdoors with my neighbourhood friends and we wouldn’t come back in until the sun slept. My fondest memories will always consist of spending our pocket money on ice cream and listening to the channel ‘World Music’ on my father’s radio. As I reflect on these memories, I realise a part of me was always creative. I always loved panting. As I got older I found that I could be most creative with watercolour. The idea of having to put precision and thought before starting each piece had resonated with me. I moved to Australia in the late nineties and continued to live in Sydney for a decade where I put most of my attention on my career development. Buying a good camera had always been a want but I never found the opportunity due to the whirlwind of events I had stacked, one on top of another. For the past 15 years I have been living in Bahrain with my family. It has felt like my home away from home. However, I do still call Australia a home, the very home where I began my solo journey. The place that taught me independence and content with my surroundings no matter the situation. I have been asked multiple times throughout my life where I am from and it has always been a difficult question to answer. My replies have continued to shift and change like the tides of the oceans. For every place I have experienced emotion whether it be the happy, the sad or the ugly. I have developed a deep connection with them and each place shaped me and made me the woman I am today.
From your photos we know you like to travel - is that how you got into photography? Or what was it that sparked your initial interest?
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour. - William Blake I am not in control of how the poem is perceived but I believe it is how I can express what I see through photography. As I travel, I document my journey through my photos. Every experience. The place, the people, the emotions. I would find that many times I returned from a holiday with no pictures of myself but a lady by the window in a coffee shop. My passion for photography began to take off soon after my son was born in early 2000. Between the career that I was developing and the other responsibilities, time was not my best friend and so, like most people, I pushed my hobby to the side and focused on my life around me. Eventually, in 2011, I bought my first DSLR, a NIKON D90. I was ecstatic! Through my friends, I met a few like-minded photography enthusiasts. That is when my love for photography truly bloomed. Due to an unforeseen situation, I had to again put my photography on hiatus for many years. In recent years, I bought a FUJI XT4 and resumed my passion. Though Bahrain isn’t the most picture perfect country geographically, I make the most of what the island has to offer.
Talk to us about your life in Bahrain. Are there like-minded photographers you meet up with or do you rather go out alone?
Bahrain is an extremely small island country situated in the Persian Gulf. It consists of 50 natural islands and 33 man-made ones. Bahraini people are amazingly friendly, welcoming and are known in the gulf to have a laid-back lifestyle. You name what you need and it’s a 10-minute drive away. The longest time it takes to cross the island is 40 minutes! From the day I arrived in this country to the day I may leave; I will love this semi-city lifestyle and the hospitality from people with golden hearts. Due to the harsh weather during summer, I don’t go out shooting unless it’s worth it. However, from November till March, the weather is beautiful and if you are lucky, you get to experience sunrises that make the water seem as if it were dipped in gold and sunsets that look like the world was set ablaze. There are quite a few photography enthusiasts in Bahrain. I have friends who I tend to go out and shoot with since the experience is much more entertaining when they are there. We share our knowledge and ideas as we take long walks through the narrow alleyways of Manama or Muharraq! Street vendors and locals in old Manama don’t particularly like seeing large amounts of people with cameras walking around the city so I tend to stick to smaller groups.
You seem quite interested in landscape and architecture photography. What is it that you find especially interesting about that?
My Fuji XT4 is so unique in nature and very different to my previous Nikon that I actually had to learn the technical part of the camera before I could go out and shoot! The first thing I shot with my camera was a landscape and because this was during the peak of COVID-19. We were homebound for an excruciatingly long amount of time so it gave me the chance to break down and learn everything I needed for my camera. The rate at which I was shooting landscape and cityscape in Bahrain was rapidly increasing and I slowly fell in love with it. When finding a location to shoot; walking around and scouting frames, setting up the camera while listening to my favourite songs calms me. I find a connection between me and the ambiance and that helps me take my pictures. That’s why landscape is my favourite genre of photography.
You also have some conceptual pictures - such as your series of a man with a hat against different backdrops. How do you have those ideas?
If I am going to be honest, I was never a big fan of conceptual photography. That is until I came across an incredibly talented photographer Humberto Salo Dominguez. His unique style and artistic shots of a person with an umbrella or a walking stick fascinated me. In fact, it inspired me to start my own series ‘Man with a Hat’ that consisted of backgrounds all around Bahrain. Through the process of editing and planning this series I came to appreciate conceptual and artistic photography. Hopefully I will come up with more conceptual shots in the future.
In general regarding your photography, where do you find your inspiration to create? When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both? Please describe your process.
When I look back at my past, I have always considered myself a creative person whether it be when I used to paint, decorate my house by creating a theme. I believe I have always had a creative and open mind that I wasn’t consciously aware of. I have always loved poetry, music or even a good book. I consistently looked for an escape in art during some of the roughest times of my life… I truly think my creativity stems from love and acceptance of myself, it comes from within.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?
I was introduced to a couple of famous landscape and street photographers over the past two years. I cannot say I was influenced by them to start photography but I appreciate their photos and I try to analyse and understand them. A couple of the photographers I look up to are: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Fan Ho, Vivian Maier, Ansel Adams, Michael Kenna, Takeshi Mizukoshi, Hiroshi Hamaya, Sean Tucker, Bryan Peterson and Elizabeth Gadd.
Where has been your favorite place to photograph?
In my lifetime, I have travelled quite a lot. Unfortunately, I did not always have my camera with me. Most times it was a family vacation and having a camera as well as 2 young children did not work out. Having said that, I had a life changing experience in Masai Mara, Kenya. The national reserve is a whole other plane of beauty, the rugged land, the breathtaking sunrises as well as sunsets. The way the animals thrive in nature, their very existence being what makes the Earth so unique. Masai Mara is God’s canvas, everything perfect in its own way.
What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length? Is there any particular equipment you need or wish you had to help you achieve your photographic vision?
At this moment, I use a Fuji XT4 with a Fuji 16-55 lens. In my opinion, it is quite versatile for both landscape and street photography. I don’t have a favourite focal length as I believe each frame needs to be treated differently. I recently purchased a TTartisan 35mm f1.4 manual lens and I am pleased with its outcome. Since photography is simply a hobby, I feel that whatever accessory I have is sufficient for me. Nonetheless, I hope to buy a medium format film camera later on.
What are some of your goals as an artist or photographer? What direction do you think you will take your photography?
Honestly, I don’t really have a fixed goal. I love photography and the endless possibilities you can achieve with it. I love the idea that you can capture anything you want with the click of a button. Hopefully, I will be able to cultivate my own unique style in due time. I wish for it to be a style that makes people understand what I am trying to portray. I hope that it can move people the way photography once moved me and led me on this everlasting journey.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
Currently, I do not have a singular project that I am focusing on. However, I am planning to start working my way into documentary photography. I hope to one day document a series based on one single topic over a period of time.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…”
I like to bake with my children. The process of it is extremely therapeutic to me. The idea of piecing together parts of what could be a perfect dish somewhat relaxes me. Another thing I love is reading poetry. Though I may not have the skills to write them, I go through them thoroughly trying to understand the emotions the writer evokes."