Charge Of The Light Brigade

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 19, Dated May 16, 2009
CULTURE & SOCIETY  
photo essay

Charge Of The Light Brigade

Bangladesh’s award-winning photographers are subverting the first world lens, says SHAHIDUL ALAM

LATE IN 1990 we knew we had a photographic movement on our hands in Bangladesh. General Ershad had imposed strict censorship laws and in protest all the newspapers had stopped publishing for a few weeks. But everyone was still working. We planned to paste the photographs that we took of the unfolding events, surreptitiously at night on the Press Club walls, knowing the police would take them down as soon as they were spotted. We hoped at least some people would see them. Then, suddenly General Ershad stepped down. So we showed the photos at the small gallery of the Art College, Dhaka. We printed on cheap paper and had a crude, impromptu show. Over the next three days four lakh people saw the show. We nearly had riots.

The photographic movement in my country began with the Bangladesh Photo-graphic Society in the mid- 1970s, largely as a camera club where professionals and amateurs got together. I’ve been judging camera club contests around the world. Except that in Iran they do not have pictures of naked women by waterfalls, camera clubs do not vary much from country to country. In 1984, when I joined I was very interested in introducing documentary work and photojournalism. At the time there was considerable friction between Bangladeshi photojournalists and the camera club.The camera club thought their work contributed to the art form and the photojournalists thought the camera club was only into pretty pictures. (Which was the truth, as you would guess from photographs titled Composition 1, Study 2).

BUT SEVERAL events contributed to the growth of the Bangladeshi photography movement. In the mid 1980s we started some basic courses in photography. We set up a very bare, basic gallery. In 1989, I set up Drik, a photo agency. For each of these initiatives we built infrastructure from scratch and got nothing from the government. In 1993, Drik even created Bangladesh’s first email network — how could we run a photo agency without communicating with the world?

We had a crude, impromptu show. Over the next three days four lakh people came. We nearly had riots

In 1998, World Press Photo kicked off a training programme in Bosnia, Peru, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. We were already conducting workshops but felt our students would benefit with continuity. So we took the plunge and started Paathshala, a photography school in Dhaka. We had one room, some bricks for another room, an old slide projector and 12 students. But we had fine teachers from Bangla desh and abroad. Later, we made another leap and start ed a selfproclaimed BA course. Today we have nearly 140 students, and all the photographers in Bangladesh’s media houses are former Paathshala students. We teach the MA photography course at Dhaka University though the government has still not recognised our programme!

When Chobi Mela happens, all of Bangladesh talks about nothing else. Chobi Mela is the annual photography festival which we have organised since 2000. This year, there were over 60 exhibitions, 35 participating nations, well over 1,000 images, over 50 visiting artists from Asia alone and two lakh visitors. Mahasweta Devi, Noam Chomsky and Stuart Hall spoke via live video broadcasts.

Decades ago, I invited the security guards and caretakers from the company I worked in, to my first show. Later I found out that none of them had even attempted it because they were sure they would not be let in. So to me it is very special that this year I walked into a gallery during Chobi Mela and saw a bunch of street children capering about. Ensuring the general public’s access is an important and complicated task. We try to have photo exhibitions in open-air marquees. Our mobile exhibitions is now a trademark of the festival, where 10 rickshaw vans, plying the streets of Dhaka, move the festival away from galleries to the more public spaces of football fields and open-air markets. Another way in which we’ve made inroads: a monthly television programme. In each episode we introduce a major Bangladeshi and international photographer and something that the ordinary person would be interested in, such as wedding photography or how to get better prints. And this is as important to us as the high-profile guests at Chobi Mela.

Leaning to the other extreme from our camera club days, today most of our best work is being done in documentary photography and photojournalism. Today our photographers have won awards in every international contest and there is a lot of pride in that. And in the fact that I, a Bangladeshi photographer, am the only non-white person to have been the chair of the World Press Photo international jury.

Poverty is a commodity in the world of photography. We started Majority World, a photo agency, with the intention of fighting the making of the images which are the most popular among Western photographers shooting in Bangladesh. Even the name Majority World is a response to the phrase First World. At the same time, we do not deny poverty and we teach our students to photograph people with dignity and to understand that the issues of poverty and exploitation are intertwined.

When we put together the exhibition The War We Forgot on Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971, the government asked us to remove the images which showed revenge killings by Bengalis against Urdu speakers. We pulled the exhibition from the National Museum and held it in Drik’s gallery instead. The government was left with egg on its face because visitors kept asking why such a show was refused by the National Museum. The British Council asked us to not show an exhibition criticising the invasion of Iraq on their premises and we refused. This year one of the shows was by a Swedish artist examining terrorism. But her work was strongly sexual, using images involving much nudity. The Indian government was a partner in the Chobi Mela until we had a show of photographs taken by children of sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata. Years ago, one night after Drik had hosted a press conference criticising the government, I was stabbed on the street. But we know we are here to push the envelope constantly and we won’t stop.

(Alam is an award-winning photographer and activist)

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