Deep-rooted familial trauma is the impetus for Faysal Zaman’s acutely personal work

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“I have always tried to feel the pain and then make the photographs,” says Zaman, whose project unpacks his childhood trauma

“The camera was on a tripod and I was sitting on a chair. When everything was staged and ready, my whole body started to shake,” remembers Faysal Zaman. “I was crying like hell. And I couldn’t stop crying.” The 26-year-old, based in Bangladesh, has been working on a deeply personal project, Red, since 2018. The work is a disorientating, emotive exploration of a legacy of abuse by a family member. “Childhood was very traumatising for me; also for my mother,” Zaman explains. “When I grew up I realised the things that had a huge impact on me, and shaped me as who I am today.”

Photography was a quiet presence in Zaman’s young life. He recalls an uncle whose photo albums were kept in the house; Zaman spent time with them, developing a steady fascination with the medium. Later, his grandfather gave him a film camera, and he began taking pictures of his family. “When I was a little kid I took their photos: my father and mother together,” he describes. “Those photographs became the most powerful things.” After finishing school, Zaman studied for a degree at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in Dhaka, where he began work on Red.

The graduate project combines staged imagery, found photographs and archival material, individual images often burned, scratched or rephotographed to add multiple textural layers. In Red, Zaman is creating an atmosphere of buried trauma slowly coming to light, alternately receding and then growing in intensity. There is a sense of a profound grappling with elemental symbols, a young consciousness which has been betrayed and so can no longer rely on a straightforward reading of the world. A dead bird appears, as does a fish, headless, resting upright in a tank: small animals made vulnerable, defenceless. Of course the colour red itself, shot vividly through the project, is intensely ambivalent, suggesting love, menace, the colour behind eyelids shut tight. Zaman was inspired in part by Rothko, whose use of the colour was something that the photographer reflected on extensively.

“Red is not only a photo project; it’s a kind of autobiography,” says Zaman. “It’s about me and my mother, how we have been and how we are now.” He is conscious of the collaborative nature of the work, how entwined his experience is with his mother’s: her input has been crucial. Zaman showed her each image while making the work, discarding those to which she did not respond. “I have always felt that it’s her that this project is about,” he says. “She needs to understand it; somehow to connect with it. Then the project works.”

A mentor at Pathshala counselled him about the tumult the process could cause. “He warned me not to make this project now because I am not emotionally ready. But I know how I feel and I wanted to put this pain in this project,” says Zaman. Photography offered him a language for his trauma which other outlets, such as writing, had failed to provide. “This is the project I always wanted to do, before I even started photography. I want to do it my whole life,” he says. The emotional upheaval is no deterrent. The work must be made this way; he has no other method. “I have always tried to make it from the inside of me,” he says. “I have always tried to feel the pain and then make the photographs. That’s how the process has been – always.”

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.