Photos by Daniel Njegich
If you’re going to jump in the deep end of photojournalism, an understaffed burns clinic in a politically unstable country is about as deep as it gets.
That’s where Perth-based photographer and media arts teacher Daniel Njegich found himself a couple of years back, confronted with the backlash of political violence that had erupted across Bangladesh during the lead-up to government elections. Petrol bombs, a weapon used to cause maximum havoc with minimal effort, were proving to be the most popular, and the most deadly. “It was all random, they just did it to cause unrest and to slow down commercialism as well,” Daniel said of the attacks. “There were bans, curfews… it was putting a halt to the city, it’d take about an hour to just drive 10 kilometres in a rickshaw.”
It was Daniel’s second time in the country, after having spent his first visit in an exchange program at the Pathshala photography school in the capital, Dhaka. A valuable contact he made during the two-month program, a journalist from the only English speaking newspaper in Bangladesh, was able to get him access inside the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital on his return trip to the country.
Though the largest burns unit in Bangladesh at the time (and the only government funded centre in a country of 150 million people), the hospital was under-resourced to the point where “it was left to family members to be able to help out,” with medical care, and with bomb attacks happening with frightening regularity throughout the capital, it was no way near enough to keep up with the demand.
“Everyone that I photographed were victims of some sort of political violence,” Daniel tells me. “One of the older gentlemen—there’s a photo of him just showing his hands—he was a freedom fighter back from 1971 back when Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan to gain independence. He thinks that he was targeted.”
The photos that Daniel captured during his 10 days are shocking to look at—and that’s said with the relative detachment that a computer screen and thousands of kilometres provides. Witnessing the damage first-hand, though, was an understandably confronting experience that never lost its punch to the gut. “Shooting in a foreign place, I’d never really seen the stuff that I saw there,” Daniel says. “I spent some time in the morgue, in the government section of the building where there were just hundreds of people littered throughout the hallways, in makeshift beds, on stairs… it was really confronting.”
At 6’6, with a beard and tattoos, Daniel’s not exactly a regular fixture around a Bangladeshi hospital, but the time he spent getting to know the patients and their families (often without the presence of a camera) gave him an intimate insight into their day-to-day struggles. Some of the most moving moments in the burns unit—a series of photographs that have just recently seen him win the 2018 Sun Studios Emerging Photographer Award—was of husband and wife Mohammad Rubel Mia and Nasima Begum.
Arriving at hospital with burns to 25 per cent of his body after a petrol bomb was thrown at his rickshaw, Mohammad’s condition was worsening with inadequate medical care. Still in excruciating pain after months in hospital and under visible distress, it was largely left to his wife Nasima to tend to his wounds and provide care that the understaffed nurses weren’t able to.
Telling the stories of the wounded patients and their devoted families, though difficult, has inspired Daniel to continue to keep documenting the lives of others both abroad and at home; his next project focusing on an Iranian pathologist who fled his home as a refugee and now owns a successful food business in Perth. “He spent two years at Christmas Island and Curtin Detention Centre,” Daniel says. “He’s only been here for four years and he’s on his own two feet and doesn’t have any government assistance, he makes all of his own money from his stalls.”
See more from Daniel on his website or Instagram @danieln_photo