Ashraful Arefin’s is a fine art photographer from Dhaka, Bangladesh. His photographs, both stunning and unique, capture the grounded reality of life in Indian cities such as Kolkata or Jodhpur, yet, with the combination of color, lighting, and shadow, hint at a world of the fantastical. Though his main focus as a photographer is still life photography (where these fantasy elements are even more prevalent), his street photography is what caught our attention here at Resource Travel.
Arefin began drawing and sketching at a young age and initially had hopes of becoming a painter. But while pursuing a fine art degree, the battle with perfectionism caused him to lose interest in the craft. Eventually, using a camera that he bought to take photographs of his artwork, he registered for a 365 photo project and learned photography through taking photos and engaging with the online community. And most importantly, because he had to post photos every day, Arefin stopped worrying about perfection and instead begin to focus on the process of creating. Eventually, this choice led to his unique style–which, knowing he has a background as a painter, makes sense.
We sat down with Arefin to ask him about those interesting elements of photography, what he looks for in the city streets, and what he hopes to achieve as a photographer.
It seems most of your pictures are taken at the beginning of the day or the end. I’d imagine this is partly because of the good lighting at that time of the day, but do you feel it goes beyond that?
It’s true that the main purpose of shooting either in early morning or late afternoon is the amazing quality of light. But at the same time another important reason is the mood and the ambiance. The light I work with is perfect for the soft, serene, and whimsical kind of look I want in my images. Also, personally, I feel that that particular light makes the images look a bit wistful and adds a certain kind of emotional aspect. It’s also great to capture the details and richness of colors.
The shadows and lighting and colors in your photographs are amazing. You kind of touched on this in the previous answer, but can you tell me a little bit more about why these elements are important to you?
Well thank you and yes, certainly these elements are the most important parts of my images. I’m especially obsessed with light, it’s probably the most important thing I pay attention to when I photograph something. After all, photography is painting with light, right? A dramatic use of light can turn something mundane and simple into something extraordinary and telling. Personally, I love shooting with backlight. For me, that dramatic contrast between light and shadows adds much depth and mystery. For color, I think if the light is the soul of a photo then color is the heart. Color can trigger human emotions and that’s how I try to use it. I use the tones and colors according to the mood and emotion I want to express through my image.
Your website describes your photography as “often whimsical, with a dreamy feel, yet the elements are utterly taken from real life.” When you set out to take pictures, are you mainly focusing on the real-life element and then later, in the edit, try to find the whimsical? Or do you have an idea about the whimsical and go looking for it in real life?
It’s actually a bit of both. Most of the time I try to take an ordinary everyday object or element, shoot and edit it in a way that makes it look whimsical. My idea has always been to make people believe that, if you open your eyes, you can both find beauty everywhere as well as see your surroundings with a fresh, different perspective. But yes, sometimes it happens that I get a certain concept in my mind and for that I need some unusual objects and props. For example, in the past, I created some fairy tale type images inspired by Harry Potter or Beauty and the Beast and for those images I had to collect props related to witchcraft and fairytales. So yeah, sometimes it’s taking something very ordinary and trying to represent it in a whimsical way and sometimes its about coming up with a concept and trying to find fitting elements to make that idea happen.
Did your street photography always have the whimsical dreamy feel as well? Or did you take the fantasy elements from your still life photography and try to apply it to people and city life?
The miniature or still life photography is something I started with and has always been the main focus. I love to work with still life objects. In all objects, there is a sense of human presence, emotions, and stories. You can tell a whole story through your images without even using people. As far as the other account, I actually started shooting street in 2016 when I took a solo trip to Kathmandu, Nepal. So by the time I was shooting the streets I already had developed a personal style and tried to apply that there. I wanted to see how my street shots would look if I shot them in the same manner of my still life photos. For both styles, I try to find something simple and and try to make it look beautiful and moody.
With a few exceptions, your photography, though never claustrophobic, does have an element of containment. For example, narrow alleys or the walls of a city seem to confine the subjects in your photographs. Living in New York City, I sometimes feel a little trapped, or restricted by everything around me. Is this something you are trying to capture or convey in your imagery? Or is it just a natural result of taking photos in a city?
I have never thought to confine the subjects. Personally, I just love narrow lanes and streets. This love grew when I was traveling in Varanasi, India. The whole city is full of really narrow streets, lanes and alleys. It was incredible to see how happening and lively the space can be. I enjoy shooting these places for few reasons, one is the way sunlight leaks through the narrow walls and you can actually create beautiful dramatic lighting effects. Secondly, I love vertical compositions and narrow lanes are perfect for that. And lastly, usually the kind of stories and events I look for, happen in those places. You will often find people doing everyday chores, chatting with other people, or just taking a break and having tea, or maybe someone is just sitting on his/her doorstep at the end of the day. For me these places are full of emotions, stories, and the unique essence of local lifestyle which I don’t find in the main city streets. So yes for me, it’s more about seeing life happening rather than getting restrained.
There is a contentment and serenity in the people going about these everyday task, which is partly what makes them special. I see it as these little moments that might seem like nothing but are important because they are part of life. Or maybe that even the little moments in life can be beautiful. Am I way off?
You are absolutely right. I truly believe that it’s the little things and little moments that make living beautiful. And to find happiness you don’t really need to do much if you know the importance of simple small moments. As I mentioned my photographs are a reflection of my own personal realization: I realized that being happy and creating something perfect, didn’t mean I had to do something big. It’s just enjoying what you have, and looking at your surroundings with a positive mind.
Okay, loaded questions. What does photography mean to you? And what do you wish to do with it?
Well I started photography as another medium to express myself and to create my art. I know that one way or another I’d still create no matter what, let it be photography or through drawing or painting. But yes one thing photography did for me is give me creative freedom and open up both my heart and eyes to find the beauty around me. I also overcame many of my fears, traveled to unknown places, and met so many wonderful artists and people who I really admire and am proud to call my friends. So yeah, photography is a world which, right now, I just can’t live without. In my artwork, I always wanted to create something that’s meaningful to other people and that’s what I want to continue with photography. To create images that will make me, and at the same time, other people happy. Through my work, I hope I can add a little beauty to their lives. This world has so many problems and bad things are happening everyday, if my work can make people feel happy and appreciate the beauty of life even for a moment, I’ll be happy.
Ashraful has definitely given us a chance to appreciate the beauty of life and find a moment of happiness with his imagery. And whether it is still life or street photography, we’re excited to follow his journey as a photographer. Now, if only we could convey his message about appreciating the little moments to almost anyone who rides the subway in New York City.