What is beauty? What does it take to be beautiful? And who do we become when we try to be beautiful? These are some of the questions I ask myself when I look at the dizzying, creepy portraits of anonymous women by the Bangladeshi photographer Habiba Nowrose.
In Nowrose’s ongoing series Concealed, which she started in 2013, she reflects on the female persona, capturing how women are often compelled to alter their appearances based on family, social as well as personal expectations. In unframed portraits, a woman is seen sitting, draped in arrays of fabric and glaring patterns. Nowrose’s choice of adornments—intentionally blending into the background—gives the sense that individuality is being stripped off her subjects, whilst remaining concealed.
Unsettling and claustrophobic, Nowrose nails that feeling of dread when a woman becomes gradually submerged into her many roles. She’s currently updating the project for an upcoming exhibition. I recently caught up with the 29-year-old as she prepares for her new exhibition on the Concealed series:
VICE: Can you explain to us who you are and what you do?
Habiba Nowrose: I'm a photographer and researcher based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I have learned Photography from Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute also from Danish School of Media and Journalism. I also studied Women & Gender Studies from University of Dhaka. I use this academic background as a frame for exploring human relationship and gender fluidity. I am mostly inclined to take portraits as it allows me to address and incorporate the issues of representation I research. The keenly prepared staged settings arrive from mental notes I made of certain objects seen or specific places I once visited.
What was the idea behind "Concealed"?
My idea behind my portrait is that, as women we are often compelled to portray our beautiful selves. In that path to avail beauty we are made to strip off our individuality, stories and traumas. Eventually we lose ourselves and be one with that fabricated image. We become anonymous even to ourselves and our identities remain concealed. My series Concealed started from a deep-seated realization of helplessness women experience in my society. At least that was how I felt as a woman at that time. I somehow wanted to give visibility to that experience of helplessness, loss of identity through my photography.
Why did you choose such lurid patterns for this project? What do they symbolize?
The cheap fabrics I used in my work are not considered very tasteful in our country. I have seen women coming from lower middle class or lower class using this kind of fabric with chaotic patterns and colors. I remember an incident from my childhood when during Eid holiday my mother received Saris to give to our housemaids. The Saris did not have any prints and had one or two solid colors only. She mentioned with regret that she can not give it to the maids because they don’t like anything without chaotic prints and chaotic colors. This incident stuck with me, since then I wanted to use those cheap looking fabrics in my work.
How does this project speak to the women in Bangladesh and women everywhere?
I have gotten mixed responses for Concealed. Some could feel the suffocation I tried to portray in my images, some could connect with the loss of identity and also some of the viewers mentioned that although the images are really beautiful they were frightening as well.
How are female photographers and photojournalists perceived in Bangladesh?
Photography for women is still a relatively less explored field for women in Bangladesh. Dhaka has an interesting demographic composition where there are scores of people who uphold conservative views about what a woman should or should not do. There are also scores of people, although they may be small in number, who can appreciate a woman and a feminist photographer.
Could you describe the current state of photography and arts in Bangladesh and Bangladeshi communities around the world?
Currently we are experiencing a shift in the photography practice in Bangladesh. Not only the photographers are becoming more and more open to new medium of artistic expression but also their work is being exhibited along with the artists from the fine arts background. In Bangladesh Photography is no longer confined to traditional journalistic and storytelling format. It is certainly a very exciting time to be a photographer in Dhaka.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To see more of Habiba Nowrose's work, go to her website.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.