The photographer who swapped rural Bagerhat for the Dhaka metropolis

From The City of Enhancement. All images © Farhana Satu

Bangladeshi One to Watch Farhana Satu documents women fishing and city dwellers with the same intensity

Chila is a small village near Farhana Satu’s hometown of Bagerhat, Bangladesh. It sits in a low-lying coastal region, often framed as the most climate-vulnerable in the world as it is increasingly threatened by rising sea levels; it is also home to Sundarban, the largest mangrove forest on Earth. The village is the location of Satu’s latest project, Chila’s Diary, which tells the stories of locals dependent on its environment.

Satu’s journey as a visual storyteller began with a foundation in law from the University of London, before she went on to study at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in Bangladesh and the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus, earning a diploma in professional photography. Illuminating narratives often overlooked or dismissed by casual observers, she seeks genuine connections with her subjects, aiming to capture the essence of their humanity in every frame.

“The first time I came here, I felt that Dhaka is magical – and crazy busy. No green, no river, but bright lights, big buildings, sound, noise, people, crowds, buses”

In Chila’s Diary, Satu focuses on the women who, due to fishing in a river saturated with salt water, suffer from infections which have led to high rates of cervical cancer and hysterectomy. According to government statistics almost 80 per cent of women from this coastal region suffer from vaginal, uterine and ovarian disease and have issues with reproductive health because of salinity. “This is the village where my grandmother’s house is situated; she passed away in 2016 because of cervical cancer,” Satu says. “I have so many relatives and my nearest, dearest people living there. This is one of the big reasons for doing this project.”

One image depicts Momena Begum, whose house was lost to a cyclone named Komen in 2015. “She fishes in the river for her livelihood and this has caused a severe uterus infection; she had to [have] a hysterectomy yet still has lots of physical problems and hormonal imbalance,” Satu explains. Begum is shown barefoot on the ground between two fishing boats, in front of the spot where her house once stood, draped in a melancholic darkness. In another photograph we meet a girl with a small stray dog companion. The scene evokes a picture book with its playful, mellow tone, but Dipa, who was 13 years old at the time, has since had to leave the area due to climate change. She joins an overwhelming number of climate migrants around the world, especially in west and south-west Asia.

Chilas Diaries
Chilas Diaries
Chilas Diaries

In The City of Enchantment, an ongoing project begun in 2022 with a commission from NGV Triennial, Melbourne, the photographer captures the sprawling metropolis of Dhaka, the city where she is now based. “The character of Bagerhat is absolutely different from Dhaka,” Satu explains. “The first time I came here, I felt that Dhaka is magical – and crazy busy. No green, no river, but bright lights, big buildings, sound, noise, people, crowds, buses.” The country girl fell in love with the big city, capturing its tangled electric cables, crowds of praying men, and lines of cloned concrete buildings.

The City of Enchantment has been enshrined in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria while Satu’s work has been published by The Guardian and The Daily Star in Bangladesh, among others, and showcased at DOK19 in Norway, Angkor Photo Festival in Cambodia, and OUC – Photojournalism and Reportage in China. She has also been awarded grants by Getty Images and the Magnum Heat Fellowship.

She was recommended for Ones to Watch by photographer Eric Gottesman, who met her in Amman, Jordan, where she took part in a Magnum Foundation workshop he co-led with Newsha Tavakolian and Nandita Raman. “I was particularly struck by the intimacy and epicness of the landscapes and portraits of Chila’s Diary,” Gottesman says. “Farhana’s pictures leave you feeling the claustrophobic conditions these women live in, forced to choose between options that hurt them in one way or another, but that also show the resilience of the people in this community despite challenging circumstances.