A native of Old Dhaka, GMME Karim never became a widely known photographer during his lifetime. But recent discovery of a vast photographic documentation he created and preserved enthralled photography and history enthusiasts, leading to the ongoing exhibition 'Random Harvests', organised by the Bengal Foundation.
Born in 1919, Karim gallivanted through the undivided India, and later Pakistan, throughout the 1940s to the 60s, which is also when he found his passion for photography. This resulted in him getting a Rolleiflex camera that he took along with him – documenting everything he found interesting during his travels, which included photos of tea workers, construction of various sites, hard-to-reach ethnic groups in the hill regions among many other subjects – and in the process taking highly valuable and anthropologically significant photographs.
"When the Bengal Foundation asked me to curate this photography exhibition, I unfortunately had no idea about Mr Karim. When I started looking at his photo album, I literally found Bengal, undivided and divided, from the 1940s to 1960s, preserved in his work," said Samsul Alam Helal, the curator for the 'Random Harvests' exhibition, which began on 9 September.
"If you look at Karim's pictures you can see a comparison between where we were in the 40s, 50s and 60s and where we are today. Besides, you will also find the evolution and development of Bengal after 1947's partition in his pictures" Helal added.
The 87 photographs being exhibited, all taken between the 1940s and 1960s, include photos of the Kaptai Lake being mined, women working in the tea gardens, a singer in a village singing and playing the dotara, and the lifestyle of ethnic minorities in the hilly areas among many other photos.
Karim also captured various family events, journeys to different parts of undivided India by train, forest and river trips in the Sundarbans, Sylhet and Chattogram. Photos also include valuable images of famous structures like the Shahbagh Hotel (currently Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Medical University), Adamjee Court, Asad Gate, etc, which the photographer carefully arranged and preserved with handwritten titles.
He also recorded videos with an 8mm film camera. Three of these films, seven to eight minutes in length each, exhibited at the event show clips from the photographer's travels in the Sundarbans, Bandarban, and parts of India.
Because of his reputation as an expert explorer he got the chance to work for a Hollywood production. When a few scenes for the famous "Around the World in Eighty Days" (1956) movie were shot in tlocations in Sylhet and Chattogram, Karim worked with producer Michael Todd and the film crew to help arrange the shoot.
Karim, who died in 1999 at the age of 80, left the incredible treasure trove of his works to his family who finally brought it to public attention.
"We were not aware of photographer GMME Karim. His works were brought forward by his son Iftekharul Islam. And when we saw Mr Karim's collection of photographs, we felt like we were travelling back in time. However, we decided that these works of Mr Karim should be presented to the public," said Luva Nahid Choudhury, Director General of Bengal Foundation.
Iftekharul Karim believes that the photographs taken by his father are amazing windows to the past and will be treasured by future generations.
Although the late photographer did not get recognised for his work, he was noted for his contribution in pioneering tourism in the country. Karim played an important role in initiating the Directorate of Tourism in Dhaka in 1961.
He was one of the two members for the only two wildlife expeditions conducted in Pakistan by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1966 and 1967, and was later made an Honorary Consultant of WWF in Bangladesh in 1973.
Karim was a founding member of the Wildlife and Nature Conservation Society of Bangladesh, and an active member of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The multitalented photographer and explorer was also an official of Pakistan's Shooting contingent in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and was involved in establishing the National Shooting Federation of Bangladesh.
A photo book, also titled 'Random Harvests', featuring the displayed photos was unveiled during the launch of the exhibition, which is scheduled to go on until 15 October.
The TBS Picks features three photos from the exhibition. All photos are undated, but were captured by GMME Karim from the late 1940s through to the 60s.