When the media talk about Cox’s Bazar, it is usually in reference to one of the largest refugee camps in the world, where close to one million Rohingya have found refuge, escaping from the genocide in their home country of Myanmar. Most Bangladeshi, however, connect Cox’s Bazar with the promise of a relaxed holiday at the beach. The name of the town comes from a local market, founded in 1799 in memory of an officer of the British East India Company. Today, two completely different worlds exist there. The photographer, who grew up in Bangladesh, knows both of them very well. Sea Beach is a homage to the popular recreation spot.
You’ve known Cox’s Bazar Beach for a long time.
My connection to Cox’s Bazar Beach spans a considerable period, and the story behind it is quite intricate. As far as I can recall, I have been there for all my memorable vacations up until my late teenage years. From 2017 to 2020, I made multiple trips from New York City to Cox’s Bazar to photograph refugee stories for various newspapers and magazines. Although I stayed in hotels near the beach, I never found the time to actually visit the beach itself. It was not until my January 2020 trip, just before the global COVID-19 lockdown, that I had some free time during an assignment. I decided to seize the opportunity and explore the beach. I experienced a profound sense of cultural shock within my own familiar surroundings. Moved by my emotions, I began photographing the beach.
Did you immediately realise that you were developing a series?
Yes, I curated a short selection and shared them with a photo editor friend in Paris, who appreciated the series and encouraged me to the possibility of continuing the project. Unfortunately, at that time, the world was grappling with a complete lockdown due to the pandemic. Being in New York, I would often spend hours contemplating those images, reminiscing about my memories of that place. Finally, in November 2021, the time came when I was able to fly to Bangladesh to reunite with my family and photograph the beach at Cox’s Bazar. Thus, I have been dedicated to working on this series for a period of many years.
Can you briefly describe the particular atmosphere?
The beach culture at Cox’s Bazar is a unique blend of various subcultures, creating a melting pot of traditions. In many ways, Bangladeshi beach culture shares similarities with others around the world. You’ll come across beach vendors selling their wares, fishermen going about their work, and people engaging in beach games like football or cricket, as well as children and adults happily playing in the sand. Despite these shared elements, Bangladeshi beach culture retains a distinct Bengali identity. For instance, it’s common to see people dressing up in their finest attire for a leisurely stroll or a picturesque photo with the sea in the background. The Bengali beach culture goes beyond dressing up. It’s a place where families, not only immediate but extended as well, come together, often wearing matching outfits.
The light seems to be especially important for this series.
For this project, I deliberately chose a specific type of lighting. Instead of opting for the expected yellow light with its vibrant colours and contrasting mood, I wanted to capture the cultural vibrancy in a different light—specifically, a neutral or white light. To achieve this, I photographed the series exclusively during the winter months in the middle of the day at Cox’s Bazar, when the light is warmer and whiter. Additionally, I incorporated artificial lighting. The choice of lighting also influenced the overall feeling conveyed in the pictures, evoking a sense of vacation-like serenity, relaxation, and a floaty atmosphere.
How do you rate this series in comparison to your entire body of work?
This body of work truly stands out from my previous projects, as it’s something I’ve been eagerly anticipating since 2018. Over the years, I’ve covered emotionally weighty subjects, like refugee crises, wars, natural and man-made disasters, and the injustices within the fast fashion and meatpacking industries. As a photographer, I’ve always been drawn to contemporary projects that embody a journalistic spirit. Engaging in this project has given me newfound confidence to explore opportunities with galleries and publishers, with hopes of eventually creating my first photo book.
How did you become a photographer?
Ever since I was a young child, I’ve always been curious about the world and fascinated by people’s stories. This curiosity played a significant role in shaping my path as a photographer. Prior to discovering photography, I constantly felt unsatisfied with whatever I was pursuing as a career. In search of direction, I ended up studying business because I was unsure about what I truly wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t until my second year of university that I stumbled upon photography, and everything changed. I finished my bachelor’s degree to make my parents happy, but I made a promise to myself that it was time to follow my own dreams and find satisfaction in my life by becoming a photographer. I just self-taught myself and pursued photography as my career.
What hopes do you associate with the LOBA?
I think this is the most prestigious and profound award I have ever received in photography. It is truly rewarding to be recognized for something you love and do instinctively. It also serves as a sign that you may be on the right track, creating meaningful work.
Born in 1989, and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Ismail Ferdous decided to become a photographer while studying Economics at business school in Dhaka. He is a member of the Agence VU’ in Paris. His photography and film projects are dedicated to social, cultural and humanitarian themes. He works for the most important international newspapers and magazines, and his work has received multiple awards. Ferdous has been living in New York, since 2016. Find out more about the photography of Ismail Ferdous on his website and Instagram channel.