A migrant photographer’s guide to survival from Bangladesh to New York City: 'Do it yourself'
NEW YORK — Long before he became an esteemed, internationally-recognized photographer — or even long before he owned a camera — Amir Hamja spent his college years in pharmacy school absorbing articles, books and tutorials of photography online.
Gripped by an obsession with cinematography, Hamja confided in his older brother about his doubts studying pharmacy at the University of Science and Technology Chittagong--a school based in a port city on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh.
“I laughed and said, ‘You are in third year now,” Hamja’s brother Imran Hossain said. “‘Too late mate...finish it first. You are only 20 years old now. You have enough time to make [your] life bigger. Don't worry.’”
Hamja agreed, but asked Hossain to buy him a DSLR camera to “keep [himself] busy.”
“I laughed again cause [at] that time every teenager of Bangladesh was following the trend of having DSLR [and] doing photography (most of them were wedding photographers),” Hossain said, “but I told him if you end up following others then I am not buying it, do something different. [And] on his birthday I bought him that DSLR Canon 600D.”
When Hamja finally got the camera, the Bangladeshi native felt ready to give his home town streets a shot.
With few in-depth photography schools offered, Bangladesh boasts, instead, a large street photography community, one that Hamja quickly figured out how to join.
“You have to do it yourself--no one is giving you ideas,” Hamja said.
He began following other photographers that he admired and attending workshops held by locals. By coordinating to shoot various events and festivals on Facebook, Hamja would meet other photographers in different cities.
“I know it was not easy for him,” Hossain said.
Hossain recalled Hamja working overnight at wedding shoots to help support his family and afford various camera equipment.
Heeding his own advice, Hamja read online for ideas on how to grow in his career as a photographer. He came across the idea of submitting his work to various photography contests.
After a couple of submissions, Hamja’s work was picked up by the Sony World Photography Awards in 2015. He won third place.
“Since [I got him the camera], he never stopped to amaze me with his photography skills and talent,” Hossain said.
As part of his award, Hamja was gifted a small Sony a6000 digital camera. With that same camera, Hamja would go on to take a photo two years later that would win him the Bangladesh National Award at the 2017 Sony World Photography Awards.
“Everything happened super fast,” Hamja remembered, grinning. “Like, what is going on!”
After the win in 2015, Hamja resolved to get serious about photography. He wanted to study at the Sydney Film School. He gathered all the necessary paperwork and applied for a visa, but he was rejected.
“He had to struggle so much to come to this place,” Hossain said. “But he was strong enough saying, ‘Something better is waiting for me, don't worry. I will apply for scholarship [in] USA.’”
So Hamja began applying to every possible film school in the U.S. in the hopes of receiving a scholarship. Incidentally, a professor of photography at Utah State University noticed Hamja’s work on Instagram and recommended he apply to the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.
In 2017, Hamja received an official invitation from Sony to come to London, on a fully compensated trip, for the SWPA Photo Exhibition and Award Ceremony, where his work was on display.
But Hamja didn’t make it to the United Kingdom that year. He was denied a visit visa. Twice. “He was very upset [and] broken,” his brother said. “But he believed something better was waiting for him.”
“I just felt disappointed,” Hamja said. “They don’t have any option to look at the matter on artistic ability... They should understand how much it’s a struggle for a freelance artist in a developing country. And such kind of big events [like the Sony Awards] are always a great opportunity to get to know other artists and photographers, which might lead to future collaboration and other possibilities.”
His spirit subdued, Hamja suddenly learned he was the first ever Bangladeshi student to be accepted into ICP on nearly a full scholarship.
Resolved again to pursue photography seriously and move to the States, Hamja applied for the first time for a U.S. F-1 student visa in August of 2017. He was rejected, something his brother said they expected. So he applied a second time, but was rejected again.
“We had nothing left, no words to keep him strong,” said Hossain, remembering the hardships his entire family faced as they watched one of their own struggle to fulfill his dream.
“I thought, what should I do, what should my life be--I needed a back-up plan,” Hamja recalled thinking in a panic.
The “plan B” was to forget photography school and focus instead on long-term projects like covering the Rohingya crisis, one of Hamja’s most significant portfolio pieces.
Taking a chance, Hamja applied for a visa a third, and final, time.
“I was so angry. If I hadn’t gotten it, I would never have applied to the U.S. again,” Hamja said.
His efforts were not in vain. Hamja’s visa was finally approved and he moved to New York in September that year.
“I always believed in him. He is special...he got his tickets to go live his dream,” Hossain said.
“Then--I came, struggled, survived,” Hamja said, laughing.
ICP classmate Lanny Li recalled studying alongside Hamja.
“I first saw Amir’s work in a class we took together,” she said. “His work has such a mature and well developed style that makes [photos] stand out from almost all the others’ works…I started to know Amir better after we graduated and I moved to his neighborhood. It turned out that he is not just a magician of light, but also a magician in life. He went through three tries of visa application, late enrollment, financial difficulties, and a lot of other setbacks along the way as he [pursued] his dream as a photographer in New York. But he always keeps a big smile on his face and finds a way to overcome the obstacle in front of him.”
Apart from financial struggles, Hamja described the reality of adjusting to culture in the U.S.
“Being in the states, it was quite a cultural shock for me,” he said. “Everything was happening so differently. For the first time I met queer, Jewish people. I just always heard or read about those, but when you know they are your classmates…[I] got amused seeing New York for the first time. It’s wonderful to know them, and realizing it’s all equal and normal.”
The transition meant adjusting his style as an artist, too.
When you live in a city for a long time, you develop a certain kind of eye for its cultural detail, Hamja said.
“There are many things to shoot back home; I grew up there, and I see many things. The visual language and culture is different [in the States]. And approaching with same style is not the best way,” Hamja said.
Hamja’s love for his home is evident in his work, Li said.
“His work has a heart,” she said. “Putting the love and care for his homeland and his own people into his work, Amir is able to bring new life to those in the photos through his mesmerizing visual language.”
On a weekday in July of 2018, Hamja was on his way home on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village around 1 a.m. when he noticed famed American-Indian comedian Hasan Minhaj walking by.
“I was sure it was him,” Hamja said. He had seen Minhaj on TV many times before.
Excitedly, Hamja approached Minhaj on the street and asked to take his photo.
“He thought I was going to take a selfie with him--I got out my camera, snapped the portrait, and someone came to have a conversation with him and I just left,” Hamja said.
Hamja then posted the photo on his Instagram account, which has nearly 3,000 followers, and forwarded Minhaj the photo on the social media platform.
According to Hamja, the next morning, Minhaj saw the photo and told him, “Hey man, let’s collaborate.”
After meeting him in the street, Hamja traveled with Minhaj around different cities in the U.S., documenting the comedian on his tour.
“Everything that happened to me was through Instagram,” Hamja said, who has nearly 3,000 followers on the platform.
Since Hamja can’t frequently go abroad to meet other photographers due to visa problems, he has since learned to make the most of his Instagram as a platform for connecting with others, which often means big career opportunities.
Hamja, who considers himself more of a photographer than a photojournalist, explains his passion for setting the “mood” in photography.
Photojournalism has less room for taking creative liberties with editing due to ethical boundaries when it comes to maintaining authenticity. Hamja explained that when doing documentary photography--photography that chronicles history--little retouching is allowed, except for the occasional adjustment of brightness or contrast.
Hamja loves the possibilities of color, lighting and framing made possible with photography. Similarly, in cinematography, “you have to create the mood,” he said.
The photographer’s work is human-centered and characterized by pops of softly vibrant color, portrait lighting and chocolate and reddish-brown undertones.
“Looking at his photographs is like drinking wine, it can ease your body and soothe your soul,” Li said. “He loves to play with light in his photographs. Any kind of mundane moment with a touch of light through his eye will become magical.”
Being in the States, Hamja said he has experienced a certain kind of privilege. The stark contrast alone between one U.S. dollar and a Bangladeshi taka makes him realize life is not always fair.
“Everyone gets what they want [in the West] easily,” Hamja said. “That’s prone to waste. Like something happens, people just replace [whatever it is], [they] mostly don’t want to repair--just throw it out. Anything didn’t work back in home--we always sent to repair shop to fix it. But the life style is very different.”
Hamja remains filled with questions about foreign countries’ visa applications and screening processes. Why are the qualifications for a visa not based on the merit of his work? Why else must he prove himself?
Most recently, Hamja applied for a tourist visa to go to Australia to see Hossain, whom he hadn’t seen in four years. He was rejected.
“It takes so much energy. Sometimes you get depressed. Like f***, what's going on, you didn’t do anything wrong. It feels like a big punch,” he admitted.
Hamja explained the significant impact a passport has on one’s ability to travel, and thus, their career.
“Who’s gonna get the better work? On the basis of who got the better passport,” Hamja said. “If some story is breaking anywhere in the world, some people can jump and fly there. What do I have to do? I have to sit and wait for a visa.”
According to the Passport Index, a real-time global passport ranking tool, the Bangladeshi passport has a low Visa-Free Score (VFS) of 43, compared with the significantly higher U.S. passport score of 165. Bangladesh’s VFS does not land far above Afghanistan’s, the last in the ranking at a score of 29. A Bangladeshi passport’s power ranks only 88th, compared with a U.S. passport that sits fourth behind the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Germany.
“He went, he is there, he will be there until he reaches his destiny,” Hossain said. “It takes a lot of willpower to stay strong after so many failures. I guess he held to the belief that failure is the key to success and kept himself positive [and] strong all the way.”
Hamja has been in the States since 2017 under an F-1 student visa, which is good for up to five years as long as he maintains the status of a full-time student. Since graduating from ICP this year, Hamja now also has an Optional Practice Training (OPT) visa extension, which gives him permission to work part- or full-time.
Hamja continues to freelance at places like Sahed Photography, where he shoots various events and weddings, and collaborates with other creative artists.
To date, Kolkata has been his favorite project. Hamja was invited by a friend to travel together to Kolkata, India, for three days in 2016. There at Howrah Bridge, on a chilly, foggy morning on January 23, Hamja would capture the unforgettable photograph that would win first place at the Sony Awards the following year.
“Kolkata is an ‘old city.’ It feels like I’m time-traveling,” Hamja said of its ancient architecture, colorful street-side antiques and hundreds of hand-pulled rickshaws.
In the future, Hamja hopes to attend cinematography school and eventually make documentaries and movies.
In the meantime, he is working on writing short scripts and practicing cinematography.
“His determination, dedication, and positive energy is like a torch, brightening the path of people around him and people like me who are on a similar journey,” Li said.
Hamja’s work was on display in an exhibit at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts from December 2018 through mid-January 2019.
Moving forward, Hamja intends to create a new Instagram account for his cinematography in the hopes of getting his work noticed.
“I did it all by myself. No one can claim, ‘I did it for him,’” Hamja said matter-of-factly.
Anastassia Gliadkovskaya is a recent alumna of The King’s College in NYC. She interned at EuroNews in Lyon, France, in the summer of 2018 and will intern at IndustryDive in Washington D.C. this coming Summer.