Sayeeda Khanam's interest in photography began at a very early age with a Rolleicord camera, which was a gift from her sister. That single camera, and the woman who built a career behind it, inspired a few generations of women to take up work as a professional photographer.
The Ekushey Padak-winning photographer breathed her last at her Banani home on Tuesday at the age of 82.
In 1956, she began her career as a photographer in Begum, the only magazine dedicated to women at that time. She worked as a photographer with the filmmaker Satyajit Ray in three of his films. Beside Ray, she also did portraits of figures such as Queen Elizabeth, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
"Sayeeda Khanam was the first woman photographer in the entire Pakistan. At a time when girls were struggling to go to school, she was walking on the streets with a camera around her shoulders," said photographer Shahadat Parvez, who works as a photo editor at Desh Rupantor.
"She had faced both physical and verbal abuse many times for working as a women photographer. But nothing stopped her for becoming one of the pioneer photographers of the country."
Khanam had her first international exhibition in 1956 after participating in the International Photo and Cinema Exhibition, Cologne. In the same year, her works were displayed in the International Photography Exhibition held in Dhaka and later exhibited in international competitions in Japan, France, Sweden, Pakistan and Cyprus. Her works on Mother Teresa, Rabindra Sangeet singer Konika Bandopadhaya and Satyajit Ray were also exhibited in Dhaka.
Khanam was born Born in Pabna on December 29, 1937. She was the youngest among her two brothers and four sisters. Sayeda Khanam started photography at the age of only 13.
In 1960, she received an award in All Pakistan Photo Contest and in 1985 she was honored with UNESCO Award for photography. She received many other awards from several national and international organizations. She is a lifetime member of Bangladesh Mahila Samiti and Bangla Academy. She covered many important events of Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 through her photography.
She received the prestigious Ekushey Padak for her contribution in photography in 2019.
Parvez added, "For me, she was like the mother of the photography society of Bangladesh. She has done some amazing work for our nation. We have seen her fighting for our nation in 1971, not with bullet but with her camera. Her struggle has smoothen the way for every girl in our country to dream beyond."
Khanam worked as a librarian in the seminar library of Bengali Literature department of University of Dhaka from 1974 to 1986. After the war, she volunteered as a nurse at Holy Family Hospital for a while.
Photographer Munira Morshed Munni said, "Losing Sayeeda Khanam is like losing the light for us women photographers. She had made our path easy and smooth by walking on this field alone for 30 years. Khanam established the idea that, we women can hold the camera too. "
"About a month ago, she fell down the stairs and got seriously hurt. She was getting better with medication, but about two days ago, she started losing strength and stopped talking," said Munni.
I have always seen Sayeeda Khanam as a very strong, and hard-working leady. She is an inspiration for the women of our country. She became a photographer in a conservative country like Bangladesh where a female photographer is still a taboo. Following her footsteps is the only way we can give her the respect she deserves," Munni added.
Imtiaz Alam Beg, Director of Begart institute of Photography said, "Losing Sayeeda Khanam just a day before the International Photography day is very unfortunate for us. She was not only a pioneer female photographer, she is one of the reasons Bangladeshi Photography is acknowledged internationally. She was one of the pillars of this photography society, and losing here has shaken us all very deeply."
The photographer, who was suffering from old age complications, breathed her last at 2:45am early Tuesday.