Internationally acclaimed photojournalist Khaled Hasan experiences America by way of New London

Photojournalist Khaled Hasan poses for a photo at his Waterford home (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Photojournalist Khaled Hasan poses for a photo at his Waterford home (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

On almost any day of the week, Khaled Hasan can be found working at New London's Colman Street Subway shop. Dressed in his Subway uniform — a bright green shirt and visor — Hasan helps customers with their sandwich orders, asking them with a smile and through a thick Bangladeshi accent which bread and toppings they would like. Though conversation is kept to a minimum, Hasan’s gentle-natured personality can’t help but come across. He rarely tells Subway patrons much about his own life, or about the fact that he is, in reality, a photojournalist — one who has traveled the world photographing everything from the Syrian refugee crisis to the 2013 earthquake that hit Nepal.

As an internationally acclaimed photojournalist, Hasan has freelanced for several daily newspapers and magazines in his native Bangladesh and for publications such as The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, and The Guardian, as well as a handful of other prominent organizations. And working at Subway, he says, is a way for him to assimilate into and observe American culture while going mostly unnoticed, all of which will help him with his next photo documentary.

“I came to U.S. to explore myself, to have an experience completely separate from everything I know in Bangladesh,” says Hasan, who moved to New York City in the fall of 2015. “I’m interested in immigrants here and the many ways that they end up here and for the many reasons. I am working at Subway to help learn about this and about American culture.”

Notably, Hasan's first photography award (one of many), received in 2008, came from the National Geographic Society for a photodocumentary exploring the grueling and difficult lives of limestone miners/crushers in the northeastern region of Bangladesh. This photodocumentary is one of two of his that are in the archives at the Library of Congress; the other, titled "Leave me alone," documents the lives of acid burn victims in Bangladesh. Hasan is also an alumni of a fellowship program at Columbia University’s Journalism School.

“Something poetic comes through the aesthetics of his photography,” says Francene J. Blythe, former director of the All Roads Film Project at National Geographic and a member of the panel that awarded Hasan that first National Geographic Society award for his “Living Stone” series. Hasan was one of four recipients whose works were chosen out of hundreds of submissions in the worldwide competition.

“He brought a human element to it … What I can remember from our discussions back then was that his photography gave wonderful storytelling to the serenity of a place, a destruction of an environment, a beauty in people and a hardship on peoples’ lives,” Blythe says.

Considering the breadth and talent seen in his past works, one can only imagine the stories and perspectives that Hasan will tell here in New London.

Born and raised in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, Hasan, who is 36, has dabbled in photography since he was a child. Experimenting with his father’s Yashica 35 mm film camera, Hasan would photograph his immediate family on regular occasions as well as his extended family during reunions. As Hasan got older, he challenged himself by photographing landscapes, he says, forcing him to start considering things such as the composition of a photograph, lighting and other factors.

He studied at National University in Bangladesh and completed a master’s degree in accounting in 2005. Shortly after graduating, however, Hasan started working as a freelance photographer for non-governmental organizations based in Dhaka, such as Save the Children, Oxfam and Group Development Pakistan — sparking the realization that he wanted to pursue a career in photography. He enrolled the next year at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, where he completed a BA in photojournalism in 2009.

Characterizing Hasan as modest is an understatement. While sitting in his Waterford home, Hasan is humble while discussing his work for publications such as the New York Times.

“These aren’t that great,” he says, showing his coverage of a garment factory dye leak in Bangladesh for the paper in 2013. “These were just photographs that I quickly snapped while on assignment. There isn’t much behind them. I was just there, doing my job.”

In actuality, the photographs display a certain beauty to the environment that Hasan sought to capture.

“I want people to see the photographs and understand the issues. I want them to think about what I’m trying to tell and question what the backstory is,” Hasan says. “That’s always my goal.”

But for Hasan, who inherently appreciates a more artistic aesthetic, a quick shot taken for a newspaper isn’t always enough. The art of documenting the lives of people through photography is where his passion really lies. He prefers instead to spend time with his subjects, getting to know their stories and who they are before capturing them through a photograph.

In many of his photodocumentaries, that care and attention detail to is on full display, as Hasan tends to explore the lives of those who, he says, are nearly “forgotten.”

“I’m only one photographer, so I have some responsibilities for my society and the people. I try to choose stories that aren’t on the surface,” he says. “The Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, for example, everyone is going there to cover that, but I never went. My photography is a social responsibility, but I am trying to give voices to those who don’t have it.”

His photodocumentary series “Tears of Memories: Death of Dreams,” as one example, completed in 2011, documents the lives of Bangladeshi elderly abandoned to a “convalescent” home on the outskirts of Dhaka.

Throughout it, Hasan displays both the loneliness that plagues these people, most of whom were abandoned at the home by their families, and the rare instances when they smile or laugh — one woman thoughtfully flips through the pages of an old photo album (presumably his); others wait to get their beards shaved; some sit on their beds with a deadpan expression; all of them seem to be waiting out the remainder of their lives in silence.

Though the stark realities of his subjects’ lives are difficult to accept, Hasan isn’t afraid to incorporate these aspects within his photographs. Besides using a black-and-white photo style to help portray these elements, the compassion and sympathy that he brings to his subjects makes his photography one of a kind.

“I can’t photograph someone in a meaningful way until I know them well,” Hasan says. In this instance, Hasan would ride out to the convalescent home twice a week to spend time with the people who lived there and “get to know them and their stories.” He didn’t take his first photograph until three months after his first visit. The entire project took him two years, he says.

Though Hasan thoughtfully recounts the many difficult subject matters he has covered over his career, he also exudes a certain joyful, Zen-like aura while in his interview — one that is detached from outcomes, trusting that everything will work out as it should. He acknowledges that this certain “way of thinking” has helped him in his photography and in his current situation.

“I believe in karma and that if you do good things, good things will come your way. But if you can’t get the results, that’s okay, too,” he says. “There is nothing to worry about.”

In that same vein, he tells the story of how he met and married his wife in the summer of 2016, just weeks after meeting her. He had already been living in the U.S. since the fall of 2015 through a EB1 visa (an “outstanding” researcher or professor immigrant visa classification that granted Hasan 10 years to live here) when he met his wife, Rafitul Nishat, a Bangladeshi/American citizen working as a software engineer in Groton.

“My friend in Bangladesh wanted to marry her for a green card visa and asked me if I would call her to see if she would be interested,” he says. “I had only met her a few weeks prior, through another friend, but I called her, and we started talking … A week later, she told me that she wanted to marry me. So I decided to marry her … The day we got married is the day I moved to Groton. And it’s worked out since … She understands me in a way that other people can’t.”

In the fall of 2016, the two bought their house in Waterford, where they live with and take care of her parents. When asked how his current life feels compared to his former fast-paced journalistic life, Hasan says that being here, in quiet Waterford, feels like a break from his reality in Bangladesh — a time to learn more about himself before pursuing other projects.

“I’m still doing my work in my mind but not taking actual photographs. I used to go around so seriously, but I need to calm down from that,” he says. “I used to travel a lot for photography, and it was a lot of stress and a lot to think about. But now, I’m realizing that there is nothing to be hurried.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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