Jannatul Mawa: “Close Distance” – Powerful Portraits of Bangladesh Maids and Their Women Employers

Jannatul Mawa turned to professional photography after years of working as a social activist. Politically active since her student days and a keen advocate for the rights of women, stories she has covered range from her daughter growing up in urban Dhaka, to young Maoists in Nepal.

Bangladesh – 

Historically, domestic servants worked (only) for food and lodging in better-off homes of predominantly rural eastern Bengal. The introduction of wage labour during the British colonial period gradually led to the introduction of wages for domestic service, but even now, after twice-achieved national independence (1947, 1971), no minimum wage has been fixed by the government for those in domestic service (full time, part time), nor weekly holidays, nor working hours per day, particularly for those working full time.  There is no public discourse around this issue either.

Manservants are now rare, domestic service is largely performed by women.  Although housewives, i.e., the mistress of the home, too, perform domestic work, class distance, especially in urban, middle class homes, are insurmountable. While maidservants make the bed and dust the sofa day in and day out, they are not expected to sit or lie on them.


I approached urban, middle class housewives and told them that I wanted to take their portraits together with their housemaid, seated on the drawing room sofa. Through my work I want to break the `spatial’ taboo in urban middle class homes which is basically a class taboo. Although the mistress and the housemaid inhabit the same domestic space, their social and economic privileges, and their ideological worth are poles apart.

Through my work I want to explore the possibility of creating bonds of intimacy among women who, according to dominant norms, are unequal, norms which we ourselves internalise. Even though the duration of this closeness is small, and an occasion as rare as a photographer intruding, and taking photos, will not do away with class distinctions  since they are deeply embedded, I am a believer in the reformist power of photography.

I like to think that my work will help us reflect on the need to change domestic relationships, which are not `natural’ but social and historical.

Written & Photography by Jannatul Mawa 

Related Posts

Douglas Stockdale on Sarah Malakoff’s Second Nature

USA – Sarah Malakoff (b. 1972 Wellesley, MA and resides in Boston, MA) chose to photograph a subject that she …

Colombian Gangsta and other stories – Kosuke Okahara

Japan –  In an attempt to find new ways of communicating a story, Kosuke has recently produced the first issue …

Robin Maddock III

England –                                      …

Colin Pantall on Paul Gaffney’s We Make the Path by Walking

Ireland – Paul Gaffney sent me his lovely book, We Make the Path by Walking. It’s a gorgeous book that creates a …

Robin Hammond : Condemned

New Zealand – Condemned: Mental Health in African Countries in Crisis by Robin Hammond presents a profound body of work …

Colin Pantall on Thomas Sauvin’s Quanshen

China –                                     …

Beijing Silvermine -Thomas Sauvin

China – Beijing Silvermine started in May 2009 out of my meeting with a man called Xiaoma, who works in a recycling …

Sofia Valiente Miracle Village

Sofia Valiente: “Miracle Village – Community of Sex Offenders”

USA –  On the outskirts of a rural town in an impoverished area of Palm Beach County, Florida, lies the …

Asim Rafiqui : Bagram – The Other Guantanamo

Pakistan – They are ghosts, and I have spent nearly two months trying to find any evidence of them. They …