We caught up with 29-year-old Daniel Njegich, who has won the SUNSTUDIOS 2018 Emerging Photographer Award with a moving series on the impact of political unrest and low-cost/high potency weapons on the civilian population of Bangladesh. Exhibiting until 17 October at SUNSTUDIOS Sydney.
When beginning his first series in photojournalism, Daniel Njegich was greeted by hundreds of injured people and the smell of burning flesh.
He’d arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh, within a hospital with the country’s best burns unit. But it was a very different hospital to his experiences back home in Perth.
“It was a sensory overload,” he recalls. “And seeing a lot of people in great pain was a gut-wrenching feeling.”
The day he arrived a woman had died from asphyxiation resulting from injuries and a media scrum had gathered outside to cover the story.
Njegich, 6-foot-6 and the only western photographer present, felt conspicuous, confronted, and very new to this type of work.
“When they mourn in Bangladesh they sing. The sister was singing and there was 10-20 photographers in her face, taking photos and trying to get stories, interview her."
Inside the hospital was quieter but no less confronting. He took a different approach to the local media, spending days getting to know the people in the ward before introducing a camera as discreetly as possible.
“I found it hard at times but I got over it because I knew that what I hoped to produce could be seen and be a message across to people at home and other people who don’t know too much about the issues faced in Bangladesh.”
The lack of attention (and tourism) in Bangladesh is also a big part of the appeal of a country that has captivated Njegich for around a decade. He initially studied photography at Edith Cowan University in Perth under lecturers including Max Pam and Kevin Ballantine.
After graduating he continued to pursue his photography practice alongside a career in teaching, using holidays to work on self–initiated assignments including a trip to Bangladesh to complete a summer school at Shahidul Alam’s Pathshala photojournalism school.
There he met other photojournalists and fixers who helped line up the chance to work within the hospital on his return, years later.
His SEPA 2018 winning series, Victims of Politics focuses on the circumstance and relationship between Mohammad Rubel Mia and his wife Nasima Begum – in hospital after a petrol bomb on his rickshaw left Mohammad with burns to 25% of his body.
“It costs 500 taka a day ($8AUD) to stay in the hospital which does not include medicine and antibiotics. With their young children so far away and no source of income, the thought of staying in the hospital was becoming a burden they could not ignore.”
But the burns on Mohammad’s legs were not healing, staffing restrictions meant that dressings were rarely changed and hospital meals were not substantial enough to promote healing.
The role of carer was largely left to Nasima, who would do her best to relieve the constant and excruciating pain.
“In an open environment it’s difficult for them to share an intimate moment together but the connection they share is palpable. Although they are staring down the barrel of a future without one another, their love for each other provides a sense of calm in the turmoil.”
The judging panel praised the photographer’s sensitive depiction of the relationship between husband and wife outside a domestic setting, showing both technical ability and narrative strength.
“I tried to build a quick, I wouldn’t say it was in-depth relationship but we did achieve I think, a respect and a trust between us,” said Njegich.
“One of my favourite images is one where they are looking into each other’s eyes. It looks a bit staged maybe but it was shot from my hip as I was walking up and down the unit. It was very quick."
After leaving he made an anonymous donation to the couple to help them stay and receive continued treatment, but was unable to maintain contact after they returned to their home on the other side of the country.
After he too returned to his home in Australia, the experience left a permanent impression on the photographer.
“It built determination,” he said.“ Photojournalism is something I want to do. I love teaching especially at the school I am at, which is an arts school in WA so the kids are passionate for photography, design and film. I do want to have a go at doing photojournalism full-time for a period and getting a few projects on the run. And that trip made me more determined to slowly plan ideas and get connections with NGOs or people who have interesting stories here in WA as well. We have rural and Indigenous stories a-plenty.”
Amazingly, in taking home the $10,000 value prize from SEPA, Njegich has won the very first prize he has ever entered.
He plans to use the value of the prize at SUNSTUDIOS services to further his next project – a portrait work involving studio lighting.
“This is a huge leg-up not having to pour all my own money into the stories I produce as I’m self funded. It’s just a bit of recognition too. As a photojournalist it is a lot about who you know and building up a reputation as someone who can go out and do stories. There are a lot of really well-known photographers to have come out of Perth like David Dare Parker, Philip Blenkinsop, Richard Wainwright and Patrick Brown. Its great to see that it is possible. But it’s also a different time compared to when they started their careers.”