Sayed Asif Mahmud’s, a celebrated Bangladeshi photographer, presents Bittersweet, A Story of Food and Yemen, a captivating photobook produced by the UN World Food Programme. Through its pages, Mahmud’s evocative photography explores the deep-rooted customs and daily practices of Yemeni life, complemented by insightful texts from Marta Colburn and Jessica Olney.
This new series offers a rich look into the country’s cultural and culinary heritage, featuring scenes from coffee harvesting to traditional Bedouin meals. In Bittersweet, Mahmud strove to move beyond Yemen’s war-torn image to highlight the nation’s resilience and beauty. It can be hard to see past the headlines when they’ve been covering only war and politics for what feels like decades, but through his lens, the photographer invites readers to experience Yemen’s cultural richness and the heartfelt stories of its inhabitants, and offers a fresh perspective on a country often overshadowed by conflict.
In our interview, he discusses the inspiration behind Bittersweet, the challenges of working in the country, and the impact the project has had on his understanding of Yemeni culture. His dedication to capturing the authentic spirit of Yemen shines through in every photograph.
Hi Sayed, nice to speak with you. You’ve just published a book about Yemen, but I’m unsure of your whereabouts. Where are you currently? Are you working on the next project already?
It’s nice to speak to you too. Currently I am in Dhaka spending time with my family. It’s good to be back home.
Your photobook Bittersweet, A Story of Food and Yemen, is out! Tell me, how did this project come about?
The essence of Bittersweet, A Story of Food and Yemen is to present Yemen in a new light, beyond its portrayal solely as a war-torn nation with suffering children. While it’s undeniable that Yemen faces profound challenges (countless lives lost, pervasive poverty), we aimed to shift the narrative. Our focus was on showcasing the country’s rich history, vibrant culture, and enduring heritage. We wanted to focus on its beauty and its strong, resilient people. They still dream, they’re proud, and they’re kind. Despite all the challenges, we wanted to share with the world the heart and spirit of Yemen, even if it’s just a glimpse.
I have to ask: how much good local food did you get to eat while you were photographing? What was your favorite thing that you tried?
I was fortunate to sample a wide variety of foods during my time there. While I wouldn’t call myself a food enthusiast, I particularly enjoyed the diverse selection of breads available. Being from Bangladesh, I have a natural affinity for fish, and fishes from the Red Sea and Arabian Sea were delicious. I was lucky to visit a couple of makhbaza (fish restaurants) in Mukalla and Mocha. And it was a great experience. Also the Bedouin method of preparing meat was quite fascinating and exotic to experience.
You’ve been working in Yemen with the UN World Food Programme since 2022. How was shooting for the book different from your usual work with them, or has this been your focus since you started in Yemen?
I began my career as an independent artist, then became a tutor and worked as a curator. In 2019, I joined WFP Bangladesh, and later in September 2022, I moved to WFP Yemen. Since joining WFP, I've applied my skills as a documentary photographer, focusing on storytelling rather than just capturing individual images. This approach carried over into my work on the book as well. Despite facing challenges and limitations, I strived to connect closely with people and understand their lives.
For me, the most important aspect has been learning what motivates people to persevere despite years of war, conflicts, and now climate change. I wanted to uncover their dreams and the inner strength that fuels their resilience.
You cover a lot of ground in your photos, geographically. How much time did it take to capture all the images seen in the book?
Working on operations in Yemen is incredibly complex and crucial. Our movements were heavily restricted, and organising field trips required significant time and involvement from various stakeholders. The content you see in the book covers only the Southern part of the country; unfortunately, I couldn’t visit the North. In total, I undertook five field trips, spending a total of twelve weeks collecting content. I was fortunate to visit governorates such as Aden, Ma’rib, Hadramaut (Mukalla, Seiyun, Shibam), Tai’z (Turbah, Mocha), Socotra, and Hodeida under the control of the Internationally Recognised Government (IRG).
Most of your photos are in black and white. Why?
I prefer black and white photography because it’s simple and ‘natural’. It allows you to focus on the content and feel the emotions in the images without distractions. Besides aiming for objectivity, I chose to avoid colour mostly because, in my view, it often distracts from the essence of the soul of the image. I’m fortunate that my management supported my decision in this regard.
What was your collaboration with Marta Colburn and Jessica Olney like? Was that an easy dynamic or did it ever feel like too many hands on one project?
Working with Marta was truly exceptional; her deep knowledge of the country was invaluable in helping me understand it better. Jessica’s perspectives on various matters were also enlightening for me. I feel fortunate to have had complete freedom in collecting content, editing pictures, and co-designing the book. The entire team was extraordinary. Our country representative, Richard Ragan, and the visionary behind the book, Naila Sattar, were incredibly supportive. They made the seemingly impossible possible. I worked closely with Valentina, my co-designer and art director, whose addition to the team brought a dynamic energy that enhanced our collaboration. To answer your question, I never felt that there are too many on the project.
Can you describe your personal dream photo project?
There’s none. Personally I don’t aim to make projects. My own works are more like a reflection of the life I am living and experiencing. My photography was deeply personal—it served as my journal. While I often simplified it as documentary photography, it was more complex. Initially, I experimented with different projects, using others’ faces to convey my own story, observations, and experiences. I closely observed political and social changes in Bangladesh but also looked beyond its borders. I employed film, digital techniques, screen grabs, GPS recordings, and satellite images to express my observations and relationships. Through self-portraits and performances, I recreated situations to reflect on myself. To understand a little, here’s  some of my personal work.
Initially, it felt like self-obsession, telling my own narrative. Over time, it evolved into self-reflection. Initially focused on depicting ‘outsiders,’ my work increasingly delved into themes like violence, abduction, and surveillance. Then, my perspective shifted when I began working with WFP. In fifteen years, my approach has undergone significant transitions.
Did the political turmoil in Yemen pose any challenges to your work?
Of course it was super challenging from many angles. In many ways it was a roller coaster ride.
You’ve captured a lot of moments really well, with seemingly perfect timing. How long would you spend on one scenario to get the perfect shot before moving on? Is there any shot in particular that you’re really proud of?
In reality, I didn’t always have the luxury of waiting for the perfect shot. Many times, I had to settle for compromises in my photos, reluctantly telling myself, it is what it is. As I mentioned, our movements were severely restricted due to security and logistical reasons, and time constraints were tight. For instance, there were moments when I passed through stunning locations or sensed something that could have resulted in a beautiful image, but stopping and spending time wasn't feasible. However, the warmth, kindness, and hospitality of the Yemeni people made things easier for me.
In Bittersweet, there are shots of families or friends gathered around, eating bread, drinking coffee, cooking, that feel domestically intimate. How did you balance a feeling of intrusion, if there was one, with trying to take a great photo?
Due to cultural and religious reasons, there were additional restrictions, compounded by my lack of fluency in the language. Despite these challenges, I found that simple gestures and smiles could work wonders in bridging the gap. Our Yemeni colleagues played a crucial role in assisting us, but ultimately, forming personal connections relied on empathy and respect. These qualities, along with fundamental photography skills, were essential in navigating these complexities.
You capture coffee harvesting, hives full of honey, and salt being cleaned. What do you hope the audience will take away from seeing and reading about Yemeni agriculture?
This country has endured war, faced near-famine situations, and heavily depends on food imports for most of its daily calorie intake—these are the headlines. Yet many are unaware of its rich contributions to civilisation, music, art, and architecture. It boasts the first multistory cities in the desert, played a pivotal role in introducing coffee to the world, and produces exquisite honey and delicate cheeses.
Were there photos of any scenarios or locations you wanted to include in the book that you either weren’t able to shoot or didn’t make it into the final version?
A lot. I have a shortlist of two thousand images but had to get rid of most of them, which is natural in the editorial process. But yes, we had many different versions of the book, with different images and layouts. But I wasn’t able to visit the North, which is the biggest regret. Also in the South there were hundreds of places and situations I wasn’t able to list or take photos of.
What was the first thing you did when you’d fully finished all your work related to the book?
Wait for the arrival of the book from the press.
How do you think Bittersweet contributes to the conversation or awareness around Yemeni culture? How has it shaped your own conception?
I’ve worked in various countries before, but working in Yemen was truly exceptional. It was a journey of wonder; reading newspaper articles and experiencing the country firsthand is vastly different. Being part of the world’s largest humanitarian operation was also profoundly impactful. Meeting diverse people, exploring varied landscapes, navigating the complex political system, hearing heartbreaking stories, and witnessing inspiring acts in unexpected circumstances, all these created thousands of memories in such a short time.
I wish I could revisit Yemen under different circumstances, without stringent security measures, perhaps on a motorcycle, spending days and nights with people, whether in someone’s backyard or atop the stunning mountains. This country is magical, and unfortunately, I only scratched the surface of what it has to offer.
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