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|Volume 12 |Issue 01| January 04, 2013 ||
FROM DISASTERS TO PRESIDENTS
In an exclusive interview with the Star Jewel Samad, a Bangladeshi AFP photojournalist, shares the story of how a teenage boy looking to support himself came to become the first Asian photojournalist to cover the White House in Washington.
"I have never bought a camera in my life,” says Jewel Samad candidly, a Bangladeshi photojournalist whose 20-year-long career has taken him from Dhaka to the White House. He shares, “After my SSC exam, I had this idea that I would support my further education by myself. My dad had passed away at that time and my mum was a teacher, and you know how teachers' salaries aren't much.” Inspired by his father, also a photojournalist, Samad joined the profession while still a teenager. “I started photography in 1993 when I was 15 years old, an age when most teenage boys play soccer or cricket and go to school. Photography was my playground, honestly. I grew up with my friends going to a soccer game and me going for an assignment.”
He began working in the dark room of a newspaper called Morning Sun. “I don't know what the chief photographer at Morning Sun saw in me but he said 'ok, so you want to learn photography? What you have to do is work in the dark room for one year, you can't go out shooting pictures.' And that's what I did,” says Samad who went on to work with other newspapers before being picked up by Bengali daily Janakantha in 1996. “I believe now there is no other way to learn editing other than through a dark room, developing a film and making your hands dirty with those chemicals. It's a craft and that's where I learnt my photography ABC.”
After four years of working with Janakantha, Samad's work was spotted by John Mcdougall, an AFP chief photographer based in New Delhi. “When the chief photographer in Bangladesh retired, John Mcdougall came to Dhaka in 2000 to interview 20 photojournalists for that post. I learnt after joining AFP that he hadn't liked any of them and one day saw a picture of mine in Janakantha and wanted to meet me.” Mcdougall tested Samad by sending him out on assignments but was quick to offer him a job as a stringer (a part-time freelance correspondent). “I was happy with that because I had a good staff position at Janakantha and this way I could get some extra money. At that time AFP and Reuters' photographers were working two jobs so I thought I could do that too,” explains Samad, who successfully supported himself in getting a degree in Political Science from the Open University. Unexpectedly for Samad, Janakantha weren't happy and insisted he choose between the jobs.
The life-changing decision of staying in a staff job or taking a gamble on an international employer was one Samad could not take lightly. “My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, reminded me of a time we were on a rickshaw passing the AFP office and I had said to her then 'I'm going to work in this building one day' and she told me she wanted me to keep that up, to make that happen. She said 'Janakantha is like a pond and AFP is the ocean so I want you to pick the big thing.'” Even with his other half's support and push towards the gamble, Samad was almost set to turn down the opportunity which has since changed his life. “John realised there was something holding me back. I told him about my choice and he offered me twice my salary and to pay per picture used. He later told me he liked me so much he didn't want to lose me.”
The gamble paid off and Samad says he's been very lucky with his bosses, “John gave me the big break and I've been lucky all through my career.” He recalls his first foreign assignment, less than a year into his job with AFP, “John was actually the one who fought to send me to the Gujarat earthquake in 2001 when others worried I was too fresh into the job and inexperienced to do it.” One of Samad's first pictures of the disaster was of an old man walking with a cane with ruins and a sunrise behind him. That picture made the front page of many international newspapers and was proof of Samad's talent.
“After three years, when I covered the Afghan war my regional chief realised I speak Urdu and that's when he wanted me to get the job as chief photographer for Pakistan and Afghanistan. That's was the beginning,” says Samad who now lives with his wife, Farzana Godhuly, also a well known Bangladeshi photojournalist, and their two-year-old daughter, Ayaan, in the USA. Samad spent three years in Islamabad, where he jokes Pakistanis didn't like to hear he had learnt Urdu through watching Indian TV and finding Hindi and Urdu very similar. After another three years posted in Indonesia as chief photographer, during which he covered the devastating tsunami, Samad went to the West Indies to cover the Cricket World Cup. “That's when I met my regional director for North America and that's when he said 'I want you in the USA, I don't want you to be wasted on Asia,'” remembers Samad. Samad spent eight months in Los Angeles where he fondly remembers covering the Latin Grammys and the Oscars. As soon as an AFP position at the White House opened up in 2008 though, Samad was given the job.
“I was definitely excited,” says Samad with a smile, whose pictures have since won international awards. “There is only one other photographer who is Thai-American, which doesn't count as an 'Asian' I guess. I still have my Bangladeshi passport; I am purely Bangladeshi so I am the first Asian photographer to work covering the White House.”
Four years on and Samad is still just as happy. When asked what he thought of US President Barack Obama, he says, “He's good, personally I like him.” As part of the 'travel pool' of journalists and photographers that make Obama's press entourage, Samad has had the privilege to travel on Air Force One, the President's private plane. “On the way back from Cambodia after our Cambodia-Myanmar-Thailand trip we were all tired and he came back to our Press cabin to say 'hi'.” Samad shares how his seat in the Press cabin revolves 360 degrees, “It doesn't matter how much money you have, you can't just fly on Air Force One.” He adds, “it's fun.”
“Most of my friends and people I grew up with either became engineers or doctors and I could've been like them but honestly, I'm happy with what I am,” says Samad who plans to work in the USA for a few more years. “I've been married to my wife since 2001 but couple life only started in 2008 when she came to live with me in the US and my wife likes the US because of our daughter Ayaan.” He does however harbour a desire to return to this part of the world, “I would love to go back to Asia. Photojournalism in Asia is so strong and there are so many events to cover. Take the White House for example, things are structured in a way that it's very difficult to do something different, like the President will be a certain place at a certain time and the work is similar but in Asia you can go around and there's lots of ways to cover one assignment.”
Despite a successful career in photojournalism spanning twenty years, Jewel Samad remains humble about his achievements. “It's been almost twenty years I've been working? Jeez, I'm really old,” says Samad, who is still in his thirties, with a chuckle. “I can only tell you about myself and I am learning every day. Every time I shoot an assignment it's new to me, that is how I try to think of it.” He adds, epitomising affability and humility, “I'm an average photographer, trust me, I'm an average journalist; I just try to do my job as well as I can do.”
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