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Dhaka, Bangladesh. February 2, 2011: Chobi Mela VI – International Festival of Photography draws to a close on a high note after a two weeks long showcasing of creative talent in 29 print and 31 digital exhibitions. The last day to catch the exhibitions will be 3 February 2011 and they will be at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Alliance Francaise de Dhaka, The Asiatic Gallery of Fine Arts, The British Council, Drik Gallery, The Goethe-Institut and the Lichutola at Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka.
“The overwhelming sense of Chobi Mela VI in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in Asia at the beginning of what has been described as the Asian Century is one of potential. Huge creative potential, the potential to change the narrative of the global community, recast its mythologies and restate its essence,” says visitor Chris Riley from U.S.A.. “From Dhaka the stories must be different; they must be from a different perspective and in a different form. This is the Chobi Mela challenge: to emerge into the world and change it.”
Dhaka’s young band of photographers is more than ready to take up the challenge. There outlook is fresh and the creativity of their work is impressive. The euphoria, the excitement among the young and the veterans was palpable. The old hands were free with their advice but the young were not averse to arguing and holding on to their positions. A comment by Chris Riley sums up the festival aptly. “The brilliance of Chobi Mela persistently emerges as a near contact sport between the past and the future, old and young.”
Dr. Shahidul Alam, Festival Director recalls how people were incredulous when Drik decided to set up its own festival of photography, which would showcase the work of Bangladeshi artist alongside the most exciting work from the rest of the world. Against all odds the Chobi Mela festival has gone from strength to strength. “If impossibility is a criterion for success, then Chobi Mela has all the credentials,” says Alam.
To achieve this success Drik additionally used new technologies to include a global audience by live broadcast on Drik TV ( www.drik.tv) the inauguration at the National Theatre Auditorium, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and the evening presentations at Goethe Institut from 21-27 January.
“Is Pathshala, a part of Drik?” asked one visiting artist at the Chobi Mela Festival evening presentations. That got me thinking that many do not know the history of Drik. … so this post is for ones who don’t know the history.
The Drik Picture Library was started in 1989 as a small homely business, driven by a need to change the identity of Bangladesh as an icon of poverty and also challenging the western hegemony in photography. “The audacity of it wasn’t an issue. We knew the rules of physics could be bent,” says Shahidul Alam Managing Director and founder talking about the setting up of a world class photo library in the hinterland of photography. It wasn’t that he was not aware of the challenge – but Alam, a pugnacious critic and activist wanted change desperately – a change in how Bangladesh’s story was being told and controlled by the Western media, a change and opportunities for his marginalized people. The story, he strongly believed had to be told by Bangladesh’s own people who understood the issues and felt the pain and suffering of their people. “It is a deeply ambitious organisation, aiming on one hand to be a ‘challenge to the CNNs of this world,’ and on the other hand to be a local force for change. This kind of political stance is often deemed passé by established art organizations and agencies in the West. Drik is establishing a centre for photography and ideas which has no problem with ‘audience development’ and which remains unbridled in its politics – against all odds,” observed Michael Munneke, Managing Director of World Press Photo in an article published in ART AsiaPacific Issue: 35, July/August/September 2002.
Twenty one years after many trials and tribulations Drik has come of age. The organisation has grown in stature, revolutionized the art of photography in Bangladesh, and carved a niche for itself in the photography world as a world recognized photo agency. Through it all Drik has steadfastly been with the people — teaching, informing, influencing and changing their lives, through its work. As Drik grew, the network broadened, its influence spread to other parts of Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa.
s journey has been an extra ordinary one, a difficult story to tell in linear text, but the growing social impact of this one organisation locally and worldwide is remarkable.
A Chronology of Ripples
The road Drik chose to travel was not an easy one, but Alam and his intrepid band of followers were more than ready to meet the challenges head on to achieve their goals.
This was 1989, and Drik didn’t have international phone lines, faxes, high quality labs, printing facilities or even reliable methods of delivery. The Internet was changing the world. Countries, organizations, people were setting up networks. Drik wasn’t going to be left out. So they set up Bangladesh’s first email network, their own labs and began training photographers. This enabled Drik to introduce an easier process for selling the work of Bangladesh photographers abroad. Previously many had found it difficult to send their work abroad for sale. Drik acted as the intermediary collecting slides from photographers and arranging for sale abroad in exchange for a commission. This widened opportunities for local photographers to showcase their work.
The connectivity was also a “just in time” move as it provided the groundwork for eventual access to the Internet. “A modem cost more than a cow,” Alam pointed out sharply, but he also recognized that Drik couldn’t let the technology pass by. The Net was the tool to fight the hegemony of the West. Drik’
s work was strongly political and unvaryingly anti-establishment, but was successful in drawing to attention issues that impacted on the marginalized communities in Bangladesh. When HIV/AIDS was a taboo subject Drik went on to portray sensitively the suffering of many. Photo documentaries brought into the open issues of sex workers, migrant labour, child marriages, homosexuality and a plethora of subjects that had stayed opaque.
Seeing with another eye
Parallel to this Drik continued with its informal education process touching the lives of many who lived on the wrong side of life or ones who had not been given opportunities to realise their full potential. In 1992, Drik partnered with Autograph in London to set up a collective of women photographers and ran a workshop with British photographer Poulomi Desai. Their photographic work “Seeing with another eye” (Onno Chokhe Dekha) explored issues of gender and representation and analysed the position of women in Bangladeshi society. The resulting exhibition from this workshop, curated by Shahidul Alam, toured Bangladesh, U.K. and France. Several members of this collective have gone on to build successful media careers.
In 1993, Drik scored big by bringing the first World Press photo exhibition to Bangladesh. The exhibition was a rare treat for photo lovers. But the little known story behind this is a classic Drik scenario of putting the cart before the horse. The rights to show the exhibition was in Drik’
s hands but it had no gallery. Never short of gumption and initiative, funds and architects were found, and the gallery came up in record time. The show did go up on time even though the plaster was still damp.
Drik was deftly chartering its course and 1998 saw the advent of the Pathshala photographic school. Pathshala a Sanskrit word means “place of learning” was modeled on how ancient teaching took place under spreading banyan trees where gurus with long flowing beards imparted wisdom and experiences in an open environment of learning. Pathshala not only allowed students to explore the world of image making but gave them the knowledge and opportunities to question beyond the confines of discipline and scope to think outside the box. The curriculum set for the academy was home grown with practical experiences, and did not adopt the European or western photography education. It was designed for Bangladeshi photographers. But many from other Asian countries too found their way to Pathshala.” Twenty-five year old Arpan Shrestha came from Nepal to find his voice in Dhaka. “Pathshala treats you like an individual, you can try out new ideas, you get motivated, teachers push you to the limit and that is the best thing they can do,”
Pathshala students definitely benefitted from the premier quality of teaching. The giants of photography, Robert Pledge, Raghu Rai, Reza Deghati, Chris Boot, Ian Berry, Philip Blenkinsop, Abbas, et. al., initially formed the high powered visiting faculty. The students absorbed knowledge and deftly learned techniques and regurgitated what they had learned creatively bringing in international awards. Notable among the Pathshala alumni are, Munem Wasif, Andrew Biraj , Saiful Huq Omi, and Khaled Hasan who have kept the Drik flag flying through their sensitive documentary photography. This year Masud Alam Liton, another student of Pathshala South Asian Media Academy won the LUCEO Student Project Award for 2010 for his portrayal of sex workers. The need to give something back to the community is a lesson well taught and learned at Pathshala. This year the Alumni have initiated a scholarship programme enhancing Drik’s ripple effect.
D. J. Clarke, sending a congratulatory message on Drik’s 20th anniversary says that Drik and Pathshala have been a complete inspiration to him. “You’ve done an amazing job and the problem is that you keep getting better and better – particularly Pathshala. I am in photographic education. I genuinely believe that Pathshala is the best photographic institution in the world right now, and we all aspire to be that.”
Pathshala’s reputation had also reached a couple in England who lost their son Sam Banks in a tragic accidental death in India. The Sam Banks memorial fund will set up a bursary for a worthy student to study for a 3 year programme at Pathshala, commencing next year. His mother in an email to Alam offering the bursary said “Sam had been passionate about film and was an activist compassionate for those suffering injustice in the world. The year before he died he demonstrated outside a newly opened Primark store in Tooting against the company’s low pay and poor working conditions for Bangladeshi workers. He would have loved this project, supported your aspirations and respected your work. It seems so right to be breathing life back into his empty space and sustaining his energy and compassion through this award.”
As Pathshala grew the giants of photography were replaced by Abir Abdullah, Munem Wasif, Andrew Biraj, Shumon Ahmed and other former students as the teaching faculty. Abir is vice principal of the school. They admired the masters and appreciated what they had learnt, but felt a new visual language was needed. The changing of the guards was taking place.
The decade or more of Pathshala saw it spreading its wings to get affiliated to Sunderland University and Bolton University in the UK. Oslo University College in Norway, Edith Cowan University, and Griffiths University in Australia  and The Danish School of Journalism. Drik had learned to fly and was flying high.
Drik always on the lookout for breaking fresh ground felt a forum for sharing work and ideas was missing. The Perpignans and Arles’ and Fotofests of the world were on the other side of the globe. Alam wanted a unique event as a birthplace of ideas, a platform for debate. Thus was born the Chobi Mela –
International Festival of Photography.
As with many of Drik’s ventures the first Chobi Mela (Dec.1999-January 2000) was set up on a shoestring budget but has become the most demographically inclusive photo festival in the world. Drik gave space to local photojournalists and emerging artists to share the platform alongside the likes of Salgado, Reza and Parr who had all generously provide their work. The evening seminar sessions were boisterous and vibrant and have become a meeting point for national and international artists. Drik’s tiny budget for the festival necessitated improvisation. Drik wanted speakers of distinction that could energise the topic of” Freedom” at the Chobi Mela V in 2009. But it couldn’t ’
t afford to fly them over, so Drik set up video conferences and speakers like Noam Chomsky, spoke with the irreplaceable Mahashweta Devi, who defied old age, to join on stage.
The success of the mobile exhibitions in a country where textual literacy is low but has a long history of visual literacy was phenomenal. In essence it has now become a knowledge transfer process. The general public and more important marginalized communities not only see it as an open door giving them to access to a world that has been largely out of limits for them. It provided them an opportunity not only to enjoy the outstanding work of national and international photographers but also see it an easy way to gather knowledge of important social issues that affect their lives. The keen interest to replicate the Chobi Mela travelling show had Drik arranging similar shows in Bolivia, Mongolia, Tanzania, Sri Lanka (using 3 wheeler TukTuk’s) and also in rural Bangladesh (using bullock carts).
“I am drawn back to Chobi Mela not only because in it there is a quality of animus, a strong spirit of social engagement, but also because I think Shahidul has been a catalyst for something extraordinarily important – a nascent “Dhaka School” in documentary photography that has only begun to articulate its messages. I feel privileged to have my rather passing association with it all,”says Dick Doughty, Managing Editor of Saudi Aramco World.
Chobi Mela inspired other Asian countries like China, Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia to hold similar festivals. Some were actively assisted by the Chobi Mela team. Singapore held its first festival in October 2008 while Malaysia held its first festival in 2007.
Chobi Mela has had its own ripple effect in Bangladesh –Photography courses have also been introduced in schools; there has been an increase in the intake of students at the Pathshala school of photography and Dhaka University has launched a masters programme in visual communication which is also taught at Pathshala. Fine art galleries, like the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, Dhaka Art Centre and Shilpakala Academy, the academy of fine and performing arts, now regularly hold photography exhibitions.
The festival has also offered scholarships to rural students giving them an opportunity to study at Pathshala. Seven full and five half scholarships have been awarded to students who are now studying at Pathshala, South Asian Media Academy (www.pathshala.net).
Bangladesh Human Rights website; Majority World
The next big ripple came in the form of the Bangladesh human rights website (http://www.banglarights.net) in 2001. This was not viewed favourably by the government but Drik tenaciously held on to this independent platform for media professionals and activists. As early as this Majority World had entered the lexicon of Drik. In coining the expression “Majority World” Alam rejected the West’s “Third World” label for the majority of humankind. Majority World defined the community in terms what it has (the cultural, intellectual social wealth of the nations) rather than what it lacks. www.majorityworld.com, Drik’s online distribution portal came into being in 2007 and the initial idea was beginning to take wing. Majority World online portal provided buyers 24/7 access to images from photographers who understood the language, culture and the underlying causative effects of a given situation. Photographers could also be commissioned through the contributing photo agencies and opened out doors for majority world photographers to do work internationally.
2001 also saw the emergence of the Drik Partnership, a collaboration of media partners which currently includes partners in Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. Through the partner organizations, Drik’s portfolio of activities has been extended to television and radio broadcasting as well as newspaper and magazine publication. Drik India formed in 2003, like its parent organization is also a photography and media agency. The photojournalism department at Ateneo de Manila University is based on Pathshala. Drik’s influence will spread if attempts to clone Drik/Pathshala in Nepal, Nigeria, Tanzania and Sri Lanka materialize.
In 2005 Drik News was set up as an independent news source, with Drik confronting the big players in the media world bravely. This agency, an independent body of Drik Picture Library covers news photography and investigative reporting by disseminating both locally and internationally through the web. Here too the commitment to the community prevails. The DrikNews team has commenced training rural photographers building their skills on covering news events, collecting news, writing and editing stories. Currently about forty percent of newspaper photographers in Bangladesh are Pathshala students, and the aim is to increase the percentage of skilled photojournalists.
Living on the Edge
Brian Palmer left his job at CNN in 2002 and arrived in Dhaka with not much prior knowledge of the country or Drik. Arriving at Drik he found he had travelled half way around the globe to be on familiar ground. He was “stuck by the openness, the matter of fact internationalism, of the people and the place. …” He discovered Drik’s unapologetic focus on documenting its own stories, the South to South communication, and the conviction that “our story did not need to be mediated.” He praised the directness of Drik’s approach and the confidence that this task should fall to Bangladeshi photographers –they had the passion and the right to do so –and were the best equipped to talk about problems, virtues and the actuality of Bangladesh.
However, reporting with passion and conviction put Drik and its photographers at risk. As first comers to a scene when news happens they captured the unvarnished truth and now had the capability to tell this story globally. The norm is that of serving the “embroidered truth” and not the ‘unvarnished one”. Many at Drik have received death threats from powerful politicians. The government has turned against Drik and closed down its shows. Drik took the government to court and challenged the legality of their actions, forcing them to back down. Spontaneous protests in the streets reaffirmed the public support for Drik. The government knew they were taking on more than a few rebel photographers; it was a movement they could no longer ignore.
The tough, stressful and controversial situations saw Drik actually achieving the most valuable results. “Now I think we have been able to create a profile for ourselves; the network we have gives us a sufficient nuisance value, unless we go beyond a certain edge,” says Drik’s maverick founder Alam. “Talking of edges, that’s where you need to be to feel the heat, the minute you back off you become ineffective.”
What started off as a dream in 1989 is now a showcase of Majority World Success, albeit a hard earned one. The agency still clings tenaciously to the one term “social equality”and refuses to be complacent. In a fast changing world where geopolitical borders are being newly drawn and media plurality has been phased out in the name of security, Drik will continue to ask hard questions, live on the edge and feel the heat.
For More About Drik
Onno Chokhe Dekha: http://www.drik.net/new/ini-onno-chokhed-ekha.php
“So, tell me… how does a Masters in Economics gel with highly acclaimed photography?”
Sohrab Hura, now in his late twenties grinned and replied,
“I did it for fun. I also wanted a PhD in Economics, but ended up not going for it.”
Born in October 1981, Sohrab Hura is acknowledged as one of the most exciting of the new generation of photographers. Indian by birth, he draws on his learning in his visual story telling adding an economic dimension to real life stories. Hura believes it’s important to remain honest and shares stories where personal connections are indelible.
His work was exhibited at Chobi Mela V, and he returned to Chobi Mela VI to conduct a workshop for students at the Pathshala South Asian Media Academy.
We met at Pathshala on a lazy afternoon while his students were busily preparing their work for a ‘street exhibition’. Hura encouraged his students to move out of the box of exhibiting photographs only in galleries or defined spaces, and make it available for public viewing – even if it were only a fun experiment.
“When I came to conduct this workshop at Pathshala, I was hoping I will be able to encourage students to think about their photographic works at greater depths. This does not necessarily mean the quality of each photograph, rather the thought process that goes behind producing it. I want them to experience photography as storytelling, and be honest about what they’re offering. We discussed how a physical or psychological space can be used to interpret the stories, and how an average viewer might perceive it. That is why we decided to hang photos on walls and streets, and invite random pedestrians to take a look. It will help the photographers to understand how their work is communicating with others.”
However, I was a tad perplexed. Hura is a self-taught photographer who has not been to any formal school to learn photography, yet finds himself ‘educating’ photography students. How does he see such contradicting pieces fitting into the picture?
“I think it’s important to get some level of formal education in photography to understand its parameters and ethics. I may not have been to a school like Pathshala [because we didn’t have such an institution in India] but I was well guided by very influential photographers, such as Raghu Rai. I am extremely privileged that way – I won a fellowship that allowed me to learn things from brilliant artists in a more informal setting.”
“I believe there are different ways of reaching the same destination. It’s the same with learning photography formally and informally,” added Hura. “I recommend people to gain some organized experience in the field before moving onto to exploring their photographic identities. However, I don’t think one needs to spend a lot of money going to an expensive school to learn those things. It can happen with a small investment, where not too many things are at stake and you have the opportunity to unlearn as you learn.”
As the evening sun was setting in, we could hear the bustling of the students outside. It seemed they were ready to show their work and had already gathered some audience. Hura’s experience with photography amongst the younger generation in Bangladesh was limited, but he recalled his time in Pathshala as intriguing. I was keen to know in what regards does Hura – being young and dynamic – perceive the nextgen photographers from Bangladesh?
“The work is definitely good. However, many students are gradually experimenting with different formats. They’re cropping images into different sizes without realizing how it will appear on an actual print of that size. For me, the process is more important than the product. I pay attention to the formats. I think these photographers need to understand different formats in their actual dimensions and decide whether it suits their images or stories.”
A storyteller at heart, Hura shares how photography has changed for him over time. From being intrigued to recording personal incidents to finally settling into an international standard, and recently into a more emotionally connected space – he feels his journey has been privileged, interesting and surprising at the same time. In his work, he prioritizes context over other photographic aspects, and feels that one should remain clear about their intentions before actually beginning to photograph a story. “A strong foundation will certainly guide the story better,” he says.
The students and crowd gathered outside was getting noisier. I could feel Hura’s excitement rising. The random pedestrian is an audience without baggage and often the most difficult viewer to communicate with. Both Hura and I were beginning to get anxious to witness how people were reacting.
While we sipped the last bit of cha in our cups, Sohrab Hura summed up our conversation. On a final note, what advice would he give to aspiring photographers?
“Be honest. That’s it.”
The overwhelming sense of Chobi Mela VI in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in Asia at the beginning of what has been described as the Asian Century is one of potential. Huge creative potential, the potential to change the narrative of the global community, recast its mythologies and restate its essence. There are two powerful forces in the room: An historic force that has molded and inspired photographers around the world. It is a narrative art form that has its roots in the technologies and culture of print media but that lost its way in the television age. Those roots are deep and they tend to be Western. There is also a future force, a force that is economic and technological. It is a force that will only retain history’s molds and inspirations if they remain relevant in a new global multi-culture driven by fresh voices from all sectors of the world. The media that defines the future of photography is a digital internet distributed media. It is the hybrid of and tension between the past and future media that will create new work and new forms of photographic storytelling.
The new technologies, as Drik so aptly demonstrates, is changing the audience from being secluded in a region to being global in influence. From Dhaka the stories must be different, they must be from a different perspective and in a different form. This is the Chobi Mela challenge: to emerge into the world and change it.
The context for creativity is a large part of creative energy itself. The Vietnam War created photographers who indelibly imprinted a view of the war in our minds. As Chobi Mela closes the Middle East is burning, another example of a serious shift in the dynamics of the global economy. The reaction against a narrative stolen by the West is part of a broader power shift away from the dominating economies of the West to growing economies offering individuals more say in how they are governed, more hope for how their children may live and bigger dreams of what kind of lives and identities they may have. In forty years Bangladesh has gone from famine, floods and war to an emerging creative class. It is a story of people rising. The photographers who come to show and teach here do so because they want to. They want to be seen here and they want to be part of the creative rising that comes from here. The students welcome them as teachers but the teachers are here also to learn.
The creative energy at Chobi Mela has some anger, and rightly so, there is much to be angry about. But it also has a wisdom and beauty that makes the message potentially more powerful. There is a history of non violence in this region in a world where violence has become the norm. Non violent creative expression is a powerful way to engage the world in a conversation about the future. There is power in beauty, as the student show demonstrated. As violence again breaks out in The Middle East and violence ignites the borders of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan it could be the Dhaka voice that rises for peace.
Outside of Chobi Mela, Dhaka was engaged. Not only by rickshaws carrying examples of work in the show but by the energy of youth. Being part of it was fantastic. The crowds outside The Goethe Institute and the march on opening day made the city feel special. I think the young photographers who connect here, not just the Bangladeshi’s but the Nepalese, Indian and any other nationality, are potentially creating a scene in this corner of civilization, a scene with its own agenda, to bring the beauty of life to the problems of living. We are human, We are flawed. And we look to our creative people to pull it all together. I think photographers have that chance.
And so I leave Dhaka. I will return if they have me. I love good music so I need to say one last thing. The music here is amazing. The idea of an all night frenzy of spiritual music, the Baul music I heard for example, is a perfect companion to the idea of a photographic vision. I can see them fusing into a multi media whole, an energy that attracts young and old alike to a place where the vision is as warm as it is clear: we are all one.
To Debasish Shom, photography is the interpretation of a state of mind. He believes the physiological and emotional thoughts of the mind influence images greatly, and photographs act as a medium to unravel and express these thoughts.
A Bangladeshi photographer, Debasish Shom is a graduate from Pathshala South Asian Media Academy. Since childhood, Shom has always felt the need for a medium to aptly convey his emotions. When he graduated from university, he began taking interest in pictures and got admitted to Pathshala. Unlike many who have grown up with photographs, Shom’s first exposure of the art came through the institution.
Soon, photographs and stories were beginning to take shape. His exhibition at Chobi Mela VI, “Dhaka: My Dreams, My Reality” at the Drik Open Air Gallery is on till 3 February 2011. It embodies the psychosomatic war between his dreams and reality. He portrays how a person under the influence of drugs perceives his space in the bustling city of the rat race. There is a sense of isolation, illusion, depression and emptiness everywhere that largely contradicts what one knows Dhaka city to be.
“When I photograph, I always try to redefine my space. What is seen and experienced is reconstructed and a contradiction created. That is how I feel I am most involved with space and matter.”
The exhibit encapsulates complex struggles into simple photographs that strike the viewers almost instantaneously. They are powerful and potent, providing an indiscreet insight into undiscovered realities. To interpret the mind’s transition and turmoil is exciting and difficult at the same time, and Shom has rather effortlessly captured it in his frames.
Shom has held exhibitions at Drik Gallery Bangladesh and Kiyosato Museum of Arts in Japan. His work was also showcased in Chobi Mela IV. As a successful artist, would Shom recommend a career in photography to others?
“If someone is passionate, I believe a career can be built through photography. There is a lot of opportunity in commercial photography that can be approached alongside documentary photography. I only speak from my experiences, and I still believe I can make it as a photographer. However, it is important rethink carefully before making up one’s mind in this field. There is a lot of hard work involved.”
With the rampant growth of digital technology, the field of photography has become increasingly competitive over the past few years. There are more people taking pictures now.
“I think it’s great so many people are taking pictures. It makes them value pictures. Photographs then become significant in their lives and they can appreciate the art better.”
Debasish Shom currently works for CANVAS – a fashion and lifestyle magazine.
Munem Wasif broke into an abrupt reverie. A set of forty images were collapsing in front of him creating a nostalgic motion in his mind. Yet he remained perfectly calm. He knew each image through-and-through, he knew all the pieces. How could he not? For years, he had kept them on his bedside, sleeping and waking up in their presence. These were the images that inspired and influenced the photographer in him. They could be in the past, but he could feel their presence often… almost instinctively. Over time, they had become personal.
In fact, so does any photograph he produces.
A Bangladeshi documentary photographer who is represented by Agence VU in Paris since 2008, Munem Wasif is also a graduate from Pathshala South Asian Media Academy. Young and intense, his work is characteristic of deep-seeded emotionalism, personal struggles and social turmoil. From an early age, Wasif recalls being disinterested in textbooks. On completing SSC, he was admitted to BEGART – a local photography school based in Dhaka. There, he discovered his love for pictures and eventually, was admitted to Pathshala.
“Pathshala changed my life. I had a potential that the institution carved carefully and I ended up producing the photographs I produce. I remember when I began my work on Old Dhaka, I used to go back each week and my teachers at Pathshala would provide me with constructive feedback. This allowed me to think and improve. I owe much of what I am today to Pathshala.”
As a result, Old Dhaka has truly been a prolific and captivating body of images. Question arises, as a documentary photographer, to what extent does personal connotations conflict with social interpretations?
“When I take photographs, I do it from my personal sense of that story. For instance, when I covered the protests in Fulbari, I remembered those who took photographs during the 1971 Liberation War. My photographs on tea garden labourers came from my urge to know and show the blood and effort that goes behind producing a simple cup of tea. When I worked with labourers from jute mills, I remembered how we read about jute in school as the ‘golden fibre’ of our economy. I saw the jute workers dying from hunger, and I had to document the story. I don’t produce my work as a photojournalist, rather as an individual. If I were a poet, I would write poems about these issues. If I were a musician, I would make songs. Because I know how to photograph, I express through it.”
Perhaps his intimate experience with his photographs has led to stunning reflections of unheard stories and emotions in them. Munem Wasif’s unique capacity of storytelling often allows the viewers to become as involved with the situation as he was. They are potent yet poetic, harsh yet absurdly acceptable and most importantly, extremely honest. His images are able to create an environment where framed conditions seem leap out of closed boxes, and faces and landscapes are more than mere documentation. They are able to connect with the curious viewer, thus leaving a tinge of the same emotion that the subject or creator of the photographs has experienced.
During Chobi Mela V in 2008, Wasif held a solo exhibition in Old Dhaka depicting a series of images that documented the decaying trade of jute. I remember visiting the exhibition on a horse-driven chariot. The photographs were real and loud, and on leaving, I felt a small part of me was beginning to perish in the same way the life of jute was.
Similarly, in Chobi Mela VI this year, his second solo exhibit “Salt Water Tears” – being held at Drik Open Air till 3 February 2011 – tells a moving a story about victims from a recent cyclone in Bangladesh and the tragedy resulting from the introduction of shrimp farming . The vast emptiness in a context of abundance, contradiction between presence and absence, conflict between social, emotional and political justification of it all were intrinsically embedded within the photographs. It’s almost difficult to leave without feeling a hollow punch somewhere in the heart, much like the essays that were being exhibited.
Indeed, why should not one feel? What is a photograph if it cannot communicate? What is a photographer if he or she cannot be truthful with their photographs and its audience? Munem Wasif’s most striking gift comes with the ability to interpret what is seen, heard and felt with a sense of precision. His work communicates in a way that each viewer leaves with a burning sensation of what was expressed in the photographs. The fact that it can inflict even the slightest tension between the viewer and the photograph proves his remarkable quality to create expression and impression simultaneously.
An accomplished photographer from today’s brigade of “thinking photographers” , Munem Wasif has held exhibitions worldwide. He has also scooped several awards and recognitions, and his photographs have been published both nationally and internationally. He is currently a teacher in documentary photography at Pathshala South Asian Media Documentary.
The exhibition of the Morton Krogvold ‘s students work opened at the Asiatic Gallery of Fine Arts in Dhaka on the 25 January, 2011 – 5th day of the Chobi Mela VI – International Festival of Photography. The work is a result of a workshop conducted by Krogvold at the Festival.
No doubt it was a day of joy and triumph. The day belonged to the First Year students of Pathshala, South Asian Media Academy and their most loved and admired teacher Morton Krogvold.
Chris Riley, a presenter and a visitor from U.S.A. describes it best: “…it was a euphoria of images that told of life and love, of death as life and of the sheer bloody brilliance of the human spirit. It is a body of work that is as unified as it is diverse, representing the innocence of young artists and the seriousness of their intent. Sure, they had been whipped into shape by their frustrated teacher but the whipping had been to a frenzy of creativity, personal, explicit and powerful. It was a joy to behold and, for me, the thrill of Chobi Mela. All the exhibitions of work are carefully curated and thought through. The talent is indeed international. But all of it is a background and stimulant for what is actually created here in Dhaka by an international group of students from far and wide. It is a hint of a future Dhaka, a city of light that is beginning to attract the storytellers of future history.”
Chobi Mela has over the years survived through sheer ingenuity – “ By the skin of its teeth; “With seconds to spare”; “In the nick of time,” “ By a hair’s breadth”; “At the last possible moment;” “In the best possible way” — and yesterday was no exception. The photographs were printed, framed and hung in record time of 48 hours after a five day workshop. And then at the last possible moment it was discovered that the Chief Guest had forgotten about the invitation and was still at home. But in true Chobi Mela style, a phone with a good audio facility was found and he joined in by phone to declare the exhibition open.
A trip to The British Council to see work by Gareth Phillips and Joanna Pettrie turned into a haunting journey into the macabre side of our, ok, my, dreamworld.
While Phillips showed images from a hospice, Petrie showed work from her own shadow world. She talked gently about her task of bringing half experienced dreams into reality through staged photographs in a Lancashire quarry. Your humble correspondent is from Lancashire and was startled to find the images familiar and also meaningful in the context of Lancashire’s history as being a notorious home of witches and the occult. The Witches of Pendle, 12 of them, were executed in the mid eighteenth century in the biggest witch trials in English history. The hangings took place a few miles away from Joanna Petrie’s location for her work. A coincidence? I looked at the work again and again … and invite you to come to your own conclusion.
Chobi Mela VI evening presentations at the Goethe Institut continued with a historical presentation by Robert Pledge of work by David Burnett, also showing at Drik. Having had a conversation about archives only a few days ago it was delicious to be sucked into this history. As far as I can tell, Robert’s selection of 100 Burnett images from John F Kennedy to Barack Obama by way of the Olympics and what seemed like a permanent war somewhere, was a helter skelter descent into the abyss of recent history. Punctuated by athletic prowess and the dawn of the space age it was a depressing and gorgeous presentation. Images of Burnett himself told a tale of technology, reducing in size increasing in power but seemingly decreasing in influence. Not that the work decreased in power, it was a spell binding slice of an American photographers sense of the real.
Which, of course, is the point. This archive is the archive of an American and as such reflects the world he created through the art of photography. I was personally stunned at how accurately it reflected my own sense of it all. Then again, he created that sense in no small way. Pledge also entered into a friendly spat with Pedro Meyer about photography before the shot and after the shot for an audience of photoshopping multimedia artists. Interesting.
Multimedia slideshows seem to be evolving the art of photography itself. There were several good ones at Chobi Mela. The story telling skills of the photographic mind are not the same as film makers. If film is the art of time then photography, being the art of light, is about being still, even when presented as slide show multimedia.
In one show computerized voices drifted across everyday Japanese artifacts and rooms creating a spectral presence of the banal which in it creating its own beauty destroyed the social asphyxia it represented. A mix of stills and very short form video added to the disturbance of a piece about the sexual objectification of, well, objects. The slide show as art form is here. Its very good. I would like this on an iPad.
The brilliance of Chobi Mela persistently emerges as a near contact sport between the past and the future, old and young. The best of this was to come: Under the expert tuition and mentorship of Morten Krogvold the students of Chobi Mela produced a stunning show of staggering genius. Old hands were left “jealous” of a body of work that made the sublime out of the tension between the telling of a hopeful elevating story and the context of a sometimes hopeless situation: Dhaka itself. The city is its people, fifteen million of them living in an urban environment that redefines the idea of mismanagement. It was the people of the city that the students brought into the show.Yet the predictable images, those that dominate a western view of the world, a view that would focus on the squalid, the decayed and the hopelessness, were totally absent. Instead it was a euphoria of images that told of life and love, of death as life and of the sheer bloody brilliance of the human spirit. It is a body of work that is as unified as it is diverse, representing the innocence of young artists and the seriousness of their intent. Sure, they had been whipped into shape by their frustrated teacher but the whipping had been to a frenzy of creativity, personal, explicit and powerful. It was a joy to behold and, for me, the thrill of Chobi Mela. All the exhibitions of work are carefully curated and thought through. The talent is indeed international. But all of it is a background and stimulant for what is actually created here in Dhaka by an international group of students from far and wide. It is a hint of a future Dhaka, a city of light that is beginning to attract the storytellers of future history.
One day in 1946. an 11-years old boy receives a present from his father. It’s a camera. Intrigued, he begins taking pictures. Over time, pictures become his becoming, and a legend is born. The boy is Pedro Meyer.
This year, we are fortunate to have with us Meyer at Chobi Mela VI- International Festival of Photography, as a visiting artist. He is also generously giving his time conducting a workshop for students on Digital Application in Contemporary Photography at Pathshala, South Asian Media Academy.
Pedro Meyer is acclaimed as one of the most innovative and accomplished photographers in the world. At the beginning of the digital revolution, he launched the first ever CD-ROM that combined sound and image to produce an emotional photo essay (I Photograph to Remember) depicting his parents’ lives, then suffering from terminal cancer. As a result many contemporary artists consider him the ‘Digital Guru’ — one that forged a bridge between the analogue and digital era of photography.
In 2004, Meyer set himself to host the first world wide simultaneous retrospective. The project, titled Heresies comprised over 60 simultaneous exhibitions in 17 countries around the world.
Meyer is currently based in Mexico and received the Chobi Mela VI Lifetime Achievement Award at the inauguration ceremony in Dhaka on the 21 January, 2011.
Meeting him at Goethe-Institut a couple of days back, I was immediately struck by his energy. He gave us his full attention and immersed himself in the conversation. That put us at ease. We discussed photography, art and storytelling. An obvious query was his decision to continue taking still pictures, when clearly a combination of sound and moving images could produce dramatic motion pictures or videos.
“It’s because I began with still photography and felt passionate about it,” explains Meyer, smiling. “I don’t think videos or motion pictures have the same depth or emotional connection with its creator. It’s somewhat very passive. But with still photography, I can feel passion, emotional involvement and personal connotations.”
That said, does digital photography allow the same intensity of personal attachment between the photographs and the artist? A 2010 editorial piece from ZoneZero (the online photography platform that Meyer founded) eloquently summarizes his take on the boom of “photographers” everywhere. He feels gratified and elated with the fact more people are taking interest in pictures. In his opinion, any simple image – years from now – maybe an important document in history.
“It’s amazing how technology has allowed people to become part of an extraordinary ability to tell stories through images,” adds Meyer. “I remember on the boat trip I went [in Bangladesh], I took a picture of a man in a different boat on the river. He also took out his mobile phone and took a picture of me. This is exciting! Technology has allowed people – irrespective of economic conditions – to somehow be engaged in the photographic process. This was unimaginable even a few years ago!”
“So, what makes a photograph the photograph?” I asked.
“Well, first of all, the photograph does not exist. The photograph that we like is based on our cultural differences, age differences and other contextual factors,” Meyer replied. “A fifteen year old boy in Mexico will like a very different photograph from a fifteen year old boy in Bangladesh because they belong to different cultures. For each of them, at that moment, that photograph is significant. As they grow older, the photograph may no longer be significant; another photograph may seem more meaningful. The photograph is anything that we like, and our likings change as we settle into different contexts.”
True, the way we perceive our surroundings change over time. Yet the restless dynamism of the 21st century makes me wonder whether we are changing too fast. The younger generation experience rampant mood shifts. What would Pedro Meyer’s advice be to the next generation of photographers? How will they keep up with the rising demands of the world around them?
“That’s simple! You have to keep learning. You have to be genuinely curious and continue learning as you age. In the analogue era, there were a few techniques you’d need to master. In the digital era, not a week passes without something new happening. It is important to adapt to these new things, to changing surroundings in order to keep up.”
As we continued exchanging perspectives, Meyer enthusiastically took out his camera and began explaining how fast technology was progressing. The possibilities were exciting! Meyer’s magnanimous persona comes from his curiosity towards everything – events, people, techonlogy – around him. He believes in learning something new each day and the world has much to learn from his accumulated store of wisdom. Meyer lives for the moment, enjoys it and grows with it. It was both a pleasure and a learning experience for me to meet this extraordinary visionary.