Adolescent photographer and director Jada Imani M sat down with her friend, Debi, to talk about her identity and to also photograph both a representation of her Bangladeshi side and American side through clothing.
Photos and interview by Jada Imani M
What’s your name?
My full name is Deboshree Pryonondini Das, but nobody can really pronounce that so just Debi is fine.
Where are you from? Where are your parents from?
I was born in California, and my parents were born in Bangladesh. We all live in Northern Virginia now.
Tell us about your family history and culture—how have they impacted your life?
My family came from village-y areas of Bangladesh, though they moved into more corporate areas and got more industrial/governmental jobs as the country grew commercially. My parents were raised to focus on their studies a lot, because in Bangladesh, the jobs that get you to success are those of engineers and doctors, with my dad being the former and my mom the latter. That hasn't impacted my life too much, but the mentality they brought to the USA when they moved here a year before I was born has.
I was definitely raised to appreciate what I have, since my parents started not at the total bottom but not super well off either and have now reached positions of success through hard work and dedication to being as good as they can be in their respective fields.
In the cultural sense, we have really colorful clothing and food. I've eaten and worn these clothes for a lot of my life, and have even been sort of criticized for doing so at times by people who didn't understand why I was eating the food the way I was or why it looked/smelled the way it did, or [by people] who were confused [by my] clothing. But there are lots of cultural celebrations that bring us together, like pujas and such, so those are always fun to go to.
How do you feel about your family’s culture and cultural appropriation?
I feel like my family's culture is super diverse and vibrant. Like, every celebration I go to is so colorful and loud, with music and kids running around. It's also very beautiful, as each component of every outfit or piece of jewelry is made with a lot of care by people who have had a lot of practice...it's a very visually appealing sort of culture.
Trying to meld the two components of my identity, being the American and Bangladeshi sides, has been difficult, because for a really long time I felt like I needed to be more American to fit in and thus shunned the other aspect, but I'm trying to become more comfortable with it and bring it more out into the open. In terms of cultural appropriation, I definitely think there's a difference between that and appreciation. I understand wanting to wear the clothes or the jewelry because it's so beautiful, but there comes the expectation of actually appreciating where it came from, the hard work that went into it, and the history behind it.
It's weird to me that things [for which] I got made fun of before, like wearing a bindi on my forehead or wearing salwaars in public, are now being done by people who don't come from or care about the culture and background...purely for the "exotic" factor or whatever. It seems kind of unfair to me.
What cultural garments and accessories are you wearing in this shoot?
I am wearing a lahenga, which is made of a blouse, long skirt, and an orna, or scarf. We bought it in Bangladesh for a wedding this past July. I'm wearing a necklace, earring, and tikka—the jewelry hanging on my forehead—set, which came from South India many years ago when my mom was still into really flashy jewelry. The orange sticker on my forehead is called a bindi. I'm also wearing churis on my wrist, which are essentially thin bangles, as well as some thicker, jeweled ones.