For over two decades, award-winning photographer GMB Akash has been preoccupied by the lives of marginalized people in his home country of Bangladesh. Akash has spent 17 years documenting the plight of child laborers. His work has culminated in a heart-rending series of before and after photos, depicting children who are now able to attend school.
After seeing the same little faces time and time again, representative of the four million Bangladeshi children forced into labor to support their families, Akash intervened. He started helping impoverished families establish profitable small businesses, getting their children out of the labor force and into the classroom.
His photographs tell the tale. And the children’s transformations are nothing short of breathtaking.
Growing up beside the biggest red-light district in Bangladesh, Akash, 44, heard the cries of women every single night. “I wanted to know more about the lives of those women who lived inside those walls,” he explained to My Modern Met.
He also spent “sleepless nights” thinking about the Dalits—people belonging to the lowest caste in India—ostracized by all but their own community. “[The] camera became my passport to go to the places that I could never go to otherwise,” Akash explained.
We are all human beings, he reasoned; nobody chooses a life of marginalization.
Building a relationship with his subjects over time became very important to the photographer. Owing to these sustained relationships, it wasn’t long before Akash realized that life wasn’t changing for child laborers.
“In order to get children out of the factories and brickfields, I needed their parents to make enough money to support the family and have their children attend school,” he explained.
Akash began using his own income and donations to give families small business opportunities—cows for milking, tuk tuk taxis, and vegetable stands at the market—plus training on how to make a business successful and sustainable. To date, he has established 150 different businesses for 150 families.
Despite the illegality of child labor in Bangladesh, some of the parents took some coaxing to get their kids to school. In order to facilitate this, Akash even assumed responsibility for admission fees, tuition fees, daily food, books, and clothes.
“By the grace of God, I have admitted a total of 30 working children to school and I am monitoring them very closely,” he told Bored Panda. “I am regularly visiting their homes and schools to assess their situation. Hopefully, in a few months, I will be able to admit another ten child laborers to school.”
Akash also provides scholarships to hundreds of students, allowing them to pass exams and attend university. He distributes clothes to the needy, sandals to street kids, and essentials to elderly couples with no children of their own.
“Whenever I get any money, I try to help people,” he explained.
Akash’s passion has earned him over 100 international photography awards. Today, he spearheads GMB Akash Institute of Photography in Dhaka, and with the support of several partners, a rural school building outside the capital city for children from eight neighboring villages with no access to education.
“This rural branch of the school was started five years ago under a tree, with 30 eager students,” said Akash. The student body has since increased to 160, plus ten paid teachers.
On Feb. 17, the photographer posted an update on 23 former child laborers, now thriving students, on Facebook. “[They] have been promoted to their new classes and they have received their new books. With happiness they all were shining like stars,” he wrote.
“It’s a great pleasure for me to share these radiant faces with my friends,” Akash continued. “Without you, nothing was possible.”