The LGBTQ Bangladeshis in Gazi Nafis Ahmed’s series “Inner Face” look by turns joyous, tranquil, and carefree, but outside the small worlds of love and acceptance they’ve built together, life in Bangladesh is precarious. Same-sex relations are criminalized in the country, and LGBTQ people there can be arrested based on their appearance alone. They’re also in danger of verbal, physical, and sexual assault, and the threats have increased alongside the rise of Islamist fundamentalism. In April, Xulhaz Mannan, the founding editor of Bangladesh’s first and only LGBTQ magazine, Roopbaan, and his friend, Tonoy Mahbub, were hacked to death by extremists in Dhaka.
“I explore love in my work. Love is what matters—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share. We human beings are here for a certain period of time, and during this time if we’re not allowed to be who we are, we are not appreciating the gift that was given us. We are only saved by love,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed’s intimate black-and-white photographs serve as a rebuke to hatred and discrimination, but they also stand alone as a celebratory portrait of a community on its own terms. Here, in safe spaces and in friendly company, Ahmed’s subjects dress and behave as they like. They present themselves to the camera as they might, one day, to a more tolerant society.
“It works as a catharsis. I spend a lot of time with people reaching deep and opening doors. It’s like a ventilation. Some of the things that have been imprisoned inside you, through my working process, you let them out. You open the window,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed grew up in Bangladesh, where he said talking about sex was taboo and talking about diversity of sexuality was unthinkable. As a college student, he studied photography in Denmark, and in 2008, inspired by the freedom of sexual expression he witnessed there, he decided to seek out the far less visible LGBTQ community in his own country. Initially, the Bandhu Social Welfare Society helped him make connections, and he spent a year getting to know them before he started photographing.
In the years since, he’s established a diverse network in Dhaka and beyond. His goal from the outset, he said, was to tell stories that had not been shared before in Bangladesh and to start a conversation about sexuality and freedom of expression that he felt was desperately needed.
“I grew up in a family with people who are free-thinkers, intellectuals, artists, musicians, and filmmakers. So that has influenced me always to have zero tolerance toward discrimination and oppression. I will never tolerate them,” he said.
Ahmed, who is now based in Madrid, last visited Bangladesh in February to exhibit his work and make more photographs for his series. He says he’s received threats because of his work over the years, but he didn’t take them too seriously until after Mannan was killed. Today, he says, he’d like to return to his country to continue his work, but he says he must now consider his safety first.
“If you want to make a change, first of all you have to live on. If you’re dead, it’s all gone,” he said.
Update, July 26, 2019: The photos in this article have been removed at the request of the photographer.