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As Drik As Possible

The dot matrix Olivetti printer was noisy. The XT computer came without a hard drive: two floppy disks uploaded the operating system. When the electricity went (as it often did), we had to reload it. Our bathroom doubled as our darkroom. A clunky metal cabinet housed our prints, slides, negatives and files. Anisur Rahman and Abu Naser Siddique were our printers; I was photographer, manager, copy editor and part-time janitor. Cheryle Yin-Lo, an Australian who had read about us in a magazine, joined as our librarian. We offered and she happily accepted a local salary. My partner Rahnuma Ahmed often got roped in when we were short-staffed, which was often.

Climate Migrants: “Our people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” Alanis Obomsawin Photo Abir Abdullah from his series on Climate Change.

That was 25 years ago. Little experience and zero cash rarely got in the way: we started publishing from day one. Postcards, bookmarks (often using offcuts from the press) and even a company calendar were produced by friendly printers who printed on credit. Residents of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, used to seeing flowers, pretty women, mosques and waterfalls, suddenly woke up to social messages in black and white on their wall calendars. It worked, and we were able to sell them door-to-door and pay back the printers until there was a flood and half our stock got inundated.

In God we trust
In God we trust: Photographers from the majority world have refused to become circumscribed by western stereotypes and have tried to provide a more nuanced, complex and holistic understanding of our cultures. Munem Wasif’s observations on Islam is informed by his own growing up in a Muslim family that seamlessly embraced many rites, characteristic of other religions. Part of Wasif’s series “In God We Trust”. Wasif studied at Pathshala, and worked at DrikNews. He is currently with the agency VU.

Tired of being pitied for our poverty, and do-gooder attempts to ‘save’ us, we had decided to become our own storytellers. And did we have stories to tell! Our agency Drik, grew, and we picked up many loyal friends and several powerful enemies along the way. Knowing we had to compete with better-resourced entities in the West, we set up the nation’s first email network using Fidonet. Banglarights, our human rights portal, annoyed the government; our telephone lines were switched off for 30 months.

My Garden in the Wilds
My Garden in the Wilds: In a world obsessed with acquisition, emulating a consumer culture has become the criterion for development, Drik has looked for other sources of inspiration. The new Ecuadorian Constitution enshrines rights for Nature, rather than treating nature as property under the law. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega

Mainstream galleries turned down exhibitions which were shamelessly political and often critical of the establishment, so we built our own. The government sent riot police to close down our shows on several occasions. Being stabbed in the street, arrested, and generally persecuted became some of the more troubling after-effects of our activism, but a nationwide campaign to reopen our gallery, and a court ruling in our favour, convinced us that the person on the street was on our side. That was all the ammunition we needed.

Ballakot Rubble 8246
Ballakot Rubble: The 2005 Kashmir earthquake was centered in the Pakistan administered Kashmir near the city of Muzaffarabad, also affecting the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. It occurred at 08:52:37 Pakistan Standard Time (03:52:37 GMT) on 8 October 2005. Ballakot was a tourist spot. My driver Amjad said “It was once a city. Now it is a graveyard.” Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Along the way, we had set up a photo school, Pathshala, now recognized as being among the finest in the world. We also set up a photo festival, Chobi Mela. Again, a highlight of the Asian cultural calendar. Geed up by what we’d achieved in Bangladesh, we set our sights on challenging the global world order. Majority World was born, a platform for local photographers from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East with their own stories to tell.

Rescue Operation
Rescue Operation: Breaking news has been the domain of big budget wire agencies. DrikNews challenges this monopoly by providing news, as it happens through an online delivery system to mainstream media nationally and internationally. However, it doesn’t restrict itself to ‘big’ news stories defined by mainstream political interest, but also provides, through its country-wide network of rural correspondents, stories of rural Bangladesh. Photographer: Debashis Chandra

Activism didn’t pay the bills though and competing in the market place, often with professionals we ourselves had trained, required us to remain cutting edge. Clients cared less for ‘good intentions’ than they did for good delivery and value for money. It was comforting therefore when a prestigious international client, mentioned in the ‘special instruction’ section that she wanted the work to be ‘As Drik as possible.’

Call me Heena
Call me Heena: “I feel like a mermaid. My body tells me that I am a man but my soul tells me that I am a woman. I am like a flower, a flower that is made of paper. I shall always be loved from a distance, never to be touched and without a smell to fall in love with.” Heena (52). Photo: Shahria Sharmeen

As the organisation grew, we needed better management, stricter controls, increased efficiency and lower costs. This led to a culture shift which didn’t come easily to a group that had grown up like a family and had gotten used to working in a particular way. Our new CEO reminded us, that producing the perfect product was gratifying, but getting it to market on time and within budget, was just as important.

Meeting man's greed
Meeting man’s greed: Photographer Vicky Roy explores the uncomfortable relationship that nature shares with man-made structures that have emerged in pristine Himalayan towns suffering from unorganised urbanisation. This massive drive is robbing these Himalayan terrains of their individuality and homogenising the landscape, leaving behind incomplete houses, worn out machinery and land slide ravaged mountains. Near Suraj Tal Lake, Manali, Himachal Pardesh, India.

Drik today is a role model for the majority world, but a world that is changing. Twenty-five years ago, it made sense to start from the ground up. Today we tap into fine professionals we ourselves have groomed, and take them to the international arena. Long-term strategy, succession plans and a more global vision are the concerns of the day. It’s a lean, agile and creative organisation run by a younger team, ready for tomorrow. Drik’s ultimate strength however, has been the people who have rallied around us. This includes the people who work here, but goes way beyond it.

Rejoicing at Ershad's fall
Rejoicing at Ershad’s fall: The night of December 4, 1990, when the dictator agrees to step down. Jubilant people take to the streets. Dhaka, Bangladesh. 1990. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Those we have loved and lostPeople, all across the globe, across all conventional barriers, who have believed in us, and stood by us, in the many difficult moments we’ve shared, through many dark nights and days. We owe our very survival to them. Some we have lost forever. Others have stayed away from the limelight, happy to bask in our success from afar. While they have never wanted or expected anything in return, we shall remain indebted to them. This publication is a tribute to them all.

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All credits and supplementary text available in Flickr page

Published inArtsBangladeshCrossfirecultureDrik and its initiativesHuman rightsIslamKalpana ChakmaLawMilitaryPathshalaPhotographyPhotojournalismRABReligionShahidul AlamSouth AsiaSportsTechnologyWater


  1. Hello author, wondrous photos in ordinal made me reading the writing with a gaping; the photo standard might have been as drik as possible but the writing was as close as surrealistic; I admire these works and a salute to your success.

  2. […] story of Drik, told in Alam’s blog post As Drik as Possible, is an introduction to the 2016 Drik Calendar, and tells a little of the storyand there is a little […]

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