“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