Flying Decadence

If ever I’d wanted to savour the decadence of flying in a private jet, this was it. The F28 seats 78, less one for the flight engineer. I had the choice seat, 1F, right hand window seat, perfect for viewing the Everest. As it turned out, it didn’t matter too much. There were only four other passengers, and we could have taken any seat we chose, left, right, window, and aisle. Had it been a long flight, I would have sprawled across three seats and snored away.Service was excellent. Captain Enam was a photographer and we had fun talking pictures. Never before have I known each passenger in my flight. No queues on arrival, baggage on the belt, even before we’d arrived. Wonderful. Except of course for Biman or the environment. A conservative estimate of a flight to Kathmandu costs Taka 2 lakh. That’s Taka 40,000 per passenger on flight 703. The enormous environmental damage for ferrying five people to a neighbouring country was staggering.
Biman interior
The F28 we were flying was old, water dripped onto the seats, the shuddering panels had withstood daily wear and tear for some 35 years. Still, Bangladesh had paid some nine crore (ninety million) taka for this craft.
I could hear the mumbling in the ground. Cautious comments about how top management never consulted the rest of the staff, how decisions were made on political rather than technical or economic grounds. Rama, a Nepali passenger whose father worked in Cosmic Air commented on how they had expected the flight to be packed because the afternoon flight of Cosmic Air had been cancelled. She was surprised that despite such numbers there were two flights to Kathmandu on the day.
The comments then veered to Biman as a whole. “Amra Borishale batash ani nei” (We only transport air to Barisal and back, there are no passengers), said a Biman official. “Chowdhury shahab er bari Borishale, oi flight ki ar thaman jaibo (Mr Chowdhury the minister- is from Barisal, fat chance you have of stopping those flights).
I enjoyed my flight. I bet the two cockroaches who kept me company did too.

Rusted and broken hinge of landing gear of Biman aircraft. This aircraft had taken off from Kathmandu airport, but soon returned to land because of 'technical problems' which were never revealed to the passengers. May 21 2009. Kathmandu Nepal ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Where Elbows Do The Talking

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It was a mixed week. Sandwiched in between the hartals and the ekushey
barefoot walks and the launch disaster, were news items that led to very
different emotions at Drik. Shoeb Faruquee, the photographer from Chittagong, won the 2nd prize in the Contemporary Issues, Singles,
category of the world’s premier photojournalism contest World Press
Photo. The photograph of the mental patient locked by the legs as in a
medieval stock, is a haunting image that is sure to shake the viewer.
However, the stark black and white image tells a story that is far from
black and white. In a nation with limited resources, medical care for
all is far from reality. Expensive western treatment is beyond the reach
of most, and has often been shown to be flawed. Alternative forms of
treatment is the choice of many. The fact that the boy photographed was
said to have been healed, further complicates the reading of this image.
Shoeb is one of many majority world photographers who have attempted to
understand the complexities of their cultures, which rarely offer
simplistic readings.
It was later in the week, that Azizur Rahim Peu, told me that the
affable contributor to Drik, Mufty Munir, had died after a short illness
at the Holy Family Hospital. I would contact Mufty when I was in
trouble, needing to send pictures to Time, Newsweek or some other
publication. We would work into the night at the AFP bureau, utilising
the time difference, to ensure the pictures made it to the picture desk
in the morning. Occasionally, while hanging out at the Press Club
waiting for breaking news, we would dash off together. Mufty
uncomfortably perched on the back of my bicycle and me puffing away
trying to get to the scene in time.
Wire photography is about speed, and their photographers are known for
being pushy, but this shy, quiet, self effacing photographer made his
way to the top through the quality of his images. We had to push him to
have his first show in 1995, which our photography coordinator Gilles
Saussier and I curated. The show at the Alliance was a huge success, but
Mufty was not impressed by the excitement the show had created. He
simply wanted to get on with his work.
He did have problems with authority, or rather, authority had problems
with him. Despite his shyness, he was a straight talking photographer,
who didn’t hesitate to protest when things weren’t right. Not being the
subservient minion the gatekeepers of our media are accustomed to, he
often got into trouble. But the clarity of his protests played an
important role in establishing photographers’ rights. In the abrasive
world of press photography, where elbows do much of the talking, this
gentle talented practitioner will be dearly missed.
Unknown to the rest of us, the brother of Rob, the gardener at Drik,
died in the launch that sank in the storm at the weekend.

Chobi Mela III in 2nd Week

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I Will Not

Today on Earth Day we are celebrating by making promises
But I will not
I will not stop throwing paper on the ground.
I will not stop using plastic bags
I will not go to clean the beaches
I will not stop polluting
I will not do all these things because I am not polluting the world
It is the grown-ups who are dropping bombs
It is the grown-ups who have to stop
One bomb destroys more than all the paper & plastic that I can throw in
all my life
It is the grown-ups who should get together and talk to each other
They should solve problems and stop fighting and stop wars
They are making acid rain and a hole in the ozone layer
I will not listen to the grown-ups!
[Student of class five of Karachi High School on Earth Day 1991].
Other forms of resistance can be seen in the second week of Chobi Mela III, the biannual festival of photography in Asia. While the evening presentations (http://www.chobimela.org/schedule.htm), the workshops by Chris Yap, Barbara Stauss, Pedro Meyer, Rupert Grey, Dick Doughty, Morten Krokvold and Liz Wells, as well as some of the exhibitions are already over, Peter Fryer’s workshop is still ongoing, and Raghu Rai’s workshop is yet to start. Numerous exhibitions are also ongoing, including the open air shows at the Abahani Park, and the hugely popular mobile exhibitions traveling all over Dhaka.
Besides the Chobi mela website www.chobimela.org <http://www.chobimela.org/> where daily updates are available, those of you who couldn’t make it to Dhaka should look up Tay Kay Chin’s visual diary at www.eastpix.com <http://www.eastpix.com/> . As for the all night river cruise, sorry there are no substitutes.
Thanks to all the volunteers, the teams at Sketch, Ikon, Pathshala and Drik, the Prince Claus Fund, the partners, associate partners and the organizations who provided institutional support. Chobi Mela III could never have been realized without your active support.
Special thanks to Chris Yap for making the wonderful prints, Peter Bakker of TNT for getting Morten Krogvold’s exhibition over, Dr. Hashemi for providing the Entifadha posters, and NTV, Channel I and The New Nation for providing excellent media coverage. Thanks also to Rob White and his team at LCC for their brave try at video conferencing and Yutaka Ohira for his excellent work behind the scenes.

I Will Not

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Today on Earth Day we are celebrating by making promises

But I will not
I will not stop throwing paper on the ground.
I will not stop using plastic bags
I will not go to clean the beaches

I will not stop polluting

I will not do all these things because I am not polluting the world

It is the grown-ups who are dropping bombs

It is the grown-ups who have to stop
One bomb destroys more than all the paper & plastic that I can throw in all my life
It is the grown-ups who should get together and talk to each other

They should solve problems and stop fighting and stop wars

They are making acid rain and a hole in the ozone layer

I will not listen to the grown-ups!

[Student of class five of Karachi High School on Earth Day 1991].

It was in the wee hours of the morning. Propped up in our beanbags Nuzhat and I chatted while Zaheer and Ragni clicked away on their keyboards. I was in Karachi doing a story on Abdul Sattar Edhi, the philanthropist I admired greatly. Nuzhat and I had a lot of catching up to do, and our stories wandered in unplanned directions. We talked of when she and Nafisa Hoodbhoy had started the Peace Committee in Karachi and as she remembered this story her bright eyes welled up. Nuzhat was not the sort of person one could imagine being angry. But as she recalled the words of this little boy, she shook with emotion.

It was a week after they had heard the news of the US dropping a bomb every two minutes on Iraq. They had talked in school of how the world was being destroyed, of how the minds of people were being moulded, of how Pakistanis were looked upon at airports, but how the work of Edhi went unreported. She recalled how at the end of her talk, the chief guest, a woman known for her good work, went up to the boy and quietly told him off. How the prizes went to the other kids who had made presentations that no one could remember.

What can we say to the blind & deaf?
What does education & learning mean?

What should we teach & why do we teach it?

These were questions Nuzhat asked that night. Questions we continue to ask.

As we put together the work for this festival, I have marvelled at the range of statements the artists have made to address ?resistance?. At their modes of expression. At their defiance. To resist, to challenge, to question, to go against the grain, to deliberately choose the untrodden path is a conscious decision. It is a risky route fraught with danger, but a route we must follow, if change is to come.

The festival itself continues to buck the trend. Open air marquees without gates or walls bring rarely seen work to a wider public. Billboards on cycle rickshaws take exhibitions to city spaces that have never known gallery walls. Combining innovative low cost solutions with state of the art technology, video conferences link the virtual with the real, while canvas prints on giant scaffolding scorn the air conditioned confines of exclusive openings. Hand tinted prints rub shoulders with pica droplets on digital media. Fine art, conceptual work, installations, traditional photojournalism, coexist in a strange mix, oblivious to attempts to categorise and label. The future, the present and the past huddle, sometimes uncomfortably, to produce a kaleidoscope of images and woven messages, that question, reflect and celebrate aspects of our existence.

When globalisation has become a euphemism for westernisation, it is this dissolution of borders, this resistance to consumerism, this dream of a world where the might of a few, can be effectively challenged, this belief that tanks and stealth aircraft, and media spin will not subdue an indomitable spirit, that characterises this festival. It is this attempt to subvert, through blogs and handbills and word of mouth, the propaganda machineries that dominate the airwaves, that the artists have taken as their inspiration. The festival is a call to resist, and a declaration of the resistance to come.

Shahidul Alam

5th December 2004

Identity Card

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The mail today brought a copy of ?Amader Kotha?. A publication by the American Center in Dhaka. The lead article in this unsolicited newsletter by Abu Naser was entitled ?An International Election in November: A chance for Bangladesh to learn about democracy?. As I landed at Zia International Airport yesterday, my colleague Tanvir, told me of the gunning down of the opposition MP the day before. At night I stopped the rickshaw to photograph the burning cars in the streets. The violence, the protests, the despair, is all too familiar. We saw it during military rule and during all the subsequent regimes. Abu Naser rightly, points to failures in the democratic process in Bangladesh. But to learn about the democratic process from the US! Perhaps it had to do with Rumsfeld?s claim that their failed cover up of military atrocities was evidence of a healthy democracy. Their previous ?exemplary? election is perhaps better left unmentioned.

I remember the surprise in the media in the UK, aghast at what was being reported from Iraq. It is hardly as if this had not been known before, by anyone who might have cared to listen. I am less surprised, when the confirmed atrocities by US soldiers, is suddenly seen as something done by them out there. No talk of coalition forces this time. No talk of united responsibilities, or united blame. I am not surprised when the assassinations in Palestine resulted in merely the predictable ?condemnation? by the UN and western nations. ?Tut tut, you mustn?t do that you know!?

I see the fire raging around me and throughout the globe and remember Mahmoud Darwish?s anger.

Shahidul Alam

Dhaka. May 10th 2004

Identity Card

Write down!

I am an Arab

And my identity card number is fifty thousand

I have eight children

And the ninth will come after a summer

Will you be angry?

Write down!

I am an Arab

Employed with fellow workers at a quarry

I have eight children

I get them bread

Garments and books

from the rocks..

I do not supplicate charity at your doors

Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber

So will you be angry?

Write down!

I am an Arab

I have a name without a title

Patient in a country

Where people are enraged

My roots

Were entrenched before the birth of time

And before the opening of the eras

Before the pines, and the olive trees

And before the grass grew

My father.. descends from the family of the plow

Not from a privileged class

And my grandfather..was a farmer

Neither well-bred, nor well-born!

Teaches me the pride of the sun

Before teaching me how to read

And my house is like a watchman’s hut

Made of branches and cane

Are you satisfied with my status?

I have a name without a title!

Write down!

I am an Arab

You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors

And the land which I cultivated

Along with my children

And you left nothing for us

Except for these rocks..

So will the State take them

As it has been said?!

Therefore!

Write down on the top of the first page:

I do not hate poeple

Nor do I encroach

But if I become hungry

The usurper’s flesh will be my food

Beware..

Beware..

Of my hunger

And my anger!

Mahmoud Darwish ? 1964

An extract from the text of the Berlin Festival Appeal:

“Mahmoud Darwish was one of the best-loved Arab poets of modern times and counts among the most eminent poets in the history of world literature. Thousands flocked to hear his readings, and his volumes of poetry have been published in the hundreds and thousands. Numerous pieces have been translated into more than 30 different languages. His poems have been transformed into folksongs and many of his verses have taken on the character of proverbs.

Darwish‘s poetry draws inspiration from the tradition of ancient Arab poetry and Modernist influences and borrows from the style and language of both the Qur’an and the Bible. Few other poets have displayed such dedication to articulating a vision of a meaningful, real and fair peace between Arabs and Israelis, which furthers a dialogue between two voices and two different outlooks on life, while ensuring that one does not impose its view upon the other.


In the tradition of ancient Arab poetry, the poet assumes the role of spokesperson for his people. And despite Darwish‘s move away from this role since the 1990s, many readers still viewed him as Palestine’s literary ambassador to the last.

Mahmoud Darwish was born in 1941 in the village of Al-Birweh near Acre. In 1948, he fled to Lebanon and returned after the foundation of the state of Israel. He worked as an editor for various political and cultural journals in Haifa. After being imprisoned on numerous occasions, he left Israel in 1970 and went into exile. He has lived in Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Paris and, most recently, in Amman and Ramallah. In 1987, he was elected to the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and helped draft the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988. He left the organization in 1993 in protest against the signing of the Oslo Accords. He received numerous awards, including the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom in 2001 and the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize in 2003.

Darwish died on 9 August 2008 following heart surgery. He was buried in the West Bank city of Ramallah and granted a state funeral.”


Gallerie Publishers
208 Om Chambers
Kemps Corner
Mumbai 400036
India
————————————————————————————

Mahmoud Darwish 1942 – 2008

The Prince Claus Fund honours the memory of Mahmoud Darwish, the quintessential poet of Palestine, a man of exemplary courage, warmth and insight. In 2004 the Fund was honoured to name Mahmoud Darwish the Principal Prince Claus Laureate for his unique literary achievements and in recognition of his role as a beacon of the human spirit in the struggle for justice and peace. Mahmoud Darwish transformed his personal experience of the harsh realities of the Palestinian situation into universal expressions of exile, displacement and struggle. He was an outstanding artist. His work transcends time and place, and draws on collective memories of loss, love and longing.
The Board, Director, advisors and staff of the Prince Claus Fund mourn the loss of Mahmoud Darwish. To his family, friends and fellow poets, please accept our deepest condolences.
13th August 2008

Debunking the Expert Myth

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Experts determine our lives. They decide what we should wear, who we should have as partners, how many children we should have, who we should take loans from. They determine the very characteristics of a ‘civilised society’.

Seven years after I wrote the original piece, this video further cracks the expert myth. A three part series.
—————————————————-

Journalists too fall into the category of ‘experts’, and have considerable clout. While ‘expertism’, which works to preserve the power structures within society, is a trap a concerned journalist will be wary of. There are those within the media, who use the extra clout of a press pass to obtain favours, and use their expert status to sell ideas to a misinformed public.

A journalist’s job is to explain, in simple terms, complex issues in a manner, which is compelling, engaging and meaningful to people, to debunk expertism. In order to do so she needs to gather a fair amount of knowledge on the area of expertise that she reports on. She needs to wade through the jargon, to get to the essential facts. She needs to make sense of numerical data, and have enough rigour in her analysis so it can stand up to intense scrutiny. She needs to interpret things in language that is commonly understood, and to be aware of the cultural contexts that may give altered meanings. Here lies a trap, for in this process of simplification, she may choose metaphors, which may not be wholly accurate; she may leave out data, which may be pertinent; and she may shift emphasis, to make a point. Her position wields immense power. As a knowledge broker she can influence people’s opinion. Her politics may determine the course of social action.

Continue reading “Debunking the Expert Myth”

Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit

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Over the years, February has become our month of resistance. This is the window that successive repressive governments have allowed us, to vent our steam. The open air plays in Shahid Minar, the book fare in Bangla Academy and of course the midnight walk and the songs of freedom on the night of Ekushey, the 21st February, are all tolerated, for one month.
Yuppie Bangladeshis put on their silk punjabis and saffron sarees, and become the torch bearers of our heritage, for one month. Come March, it will be business as usual. It has been difficult convincing development experts of the value of culture in our society. With ‘poverty alleviation’ being the current? buzzwords, one forgets, that it was the love for our language that shaped our resistance in ’71 or that ‘Bangla Nationalism’ has been used to justify repression in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. On the 1st February, perhaps we could look back at a collaboration between Drik in Bangladesh, and Zeezeilen in the Netherlands:
Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit
Culture glides through peoples’ consciousness, breaking along its banks, accumulating and depositing silt, meandering through paths of least resistance, changing route, drying up, spilling its banks, forever flowing like a great river. Islands form and are washed away. Isolated pockets get left behind. It nurtures, nourishes and destroys. Ideas move with the wind and the currents and the countercurrents. Trends change, flowing in the slipstreams of dominant culture. A few swim against this current, while others get trapped in ox-bow lakes, isolated from the mainstream.
Photography, more than any other media or art form has influenced culture. Photographs in particular take on the dual responsibility of being bearers of evidence and conveyers of passion. The irrelevant discussion of whether photography is art has sidelined the debate from the more crucial one of its power to validate history and to create a powerful emotional response, thereby influencing public opinion. The more recent discussions, and fears, have centred on the computer’s ability to manipulate images, subsuming the more important realisation that photographs largely are manufactured by the image industry, one that is increasingly owned by a corporate world. The implied veracity of the still image and its perceived ability to represent the truth hides the ubiquitous and less perceptible manipulation enabled by photographic and editorial viewpoint. Not only can we no longer believe that the photograph cannot lie, we now need to contend with the situation that liars may own television channels and newspapers and be the leaders of nations. Given the enormous visual reach that the new technology provides, the ability to lie, is far greater than has ever been before.
Photography has become the most powerful tool in the manufacturing of consent, and it remains to be seen whether photographers can rise above the role of being cogs in this propaganda machine and become the voice for the voiceless.

World Press Photo In Dhaka: Behind The Scenes

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With hundreds of people seeing the show every day, and excellent media
coverage, it might appear as if the staging of WPP photo in Bangladesh was a
smooth well organised affair. As Marc will testify, the reality was very
different. For those of you who have seen the show at the gallery or online,
this behind the scenes look will provide an amusing take on a potential
disaster.
The crates had arrived at Zia International Airport on the 24th of December
2003, but the journey from Zia to Dhanmondi took considerably longer. The
opening was at 4:00 pm on the 7th January 2004. By 3:30 pm, the crates
hadn’t arrived! We did know they had left the airport, and was able to tell
the Dutch Ambassador that it was safe for him to come over. The head of the
caretaker government, our chief guest, Justice Habibur Rahman was already on
his way. The adrenaline was flowing!

World Press Photo Opens in Dhaka

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Well, the show is still stuck at the airport, and Marc has been
loitering around the streets of Dhaka, but we are still hopeful that the
biggest show of the year will open tomorrow (7th January) at 4:00 pm at
the Drik Gallery. The exhibition will be opened by former Chief Justice
and Chief Adviser to the caretaker government Justice Muhammad Habibur
Rahman.
——
We live in difficult times. Not only do we need to combat the
suppression of press freedom locally, but we also need to fight the
unrestrained propaganda that camouflages as news in mainstream western
media. The use of the media for propaganda is not new. While embedded
journalism has only recently been institutionalised, the mechanism has
been in place ever since the US failed ‘to manage’ the media during the
invasion of Grenada. However, the global reach of some western media
organisations give them a reach that is unprecedented. The new forms of
imperialism are also supported by tacit support from local
representatives of western governments, as well as the developmental and
cultural organisations they support. Ironically, these are the very
organisations that promote ‘free press and democracy’ in our countries
while local media organisations operate under the silent pressures of
tied aid and thinly veiled threats of ‘withdrawal of support’.
It is ten years since we first brought World Press Photo (WPP) to the
region. Now WPP is not only a regular feature in our calendar, but the
show has also travelled to India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The WPP workshops
have also been held in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Showing the
finest photojournalism exhibition in the world has had a visible impact
in our development of press photography. Bangladeshis have won awards,
been accepted for Masterclass, and been represented in both the adult
and child juries of WPP.
Despite these successes, it is our ability to withstand these local and
international pressures, which will determine whether we can ever become
a media of the people. Political and financial independence doesn’t come
easy. However, it is not the west or our politicians, or our sponsors
who hold the key. The compromises we make along the way, the favours we
accept, and our selective blind-spots will eventually circumscribe our
freedoms. Through this exhibition we celebrate the professionalism, the
dedication, the compassion and the love for this freedom that many
photojournalists demonstrate.
Shahidul Alam
Chairman of the Jury 2003

Victory's Aftertaste

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Rashid Talukder’s photo of the dismembered head in Rayerbazar
(http://www.drik.net/calendar96/), or the Pullitzer winning image by Michel Laurent and Horst Faas, of the bayoneting of Razakars have been used to represent Bangladesh’s war of liberation. Kishor Parekh photographed a different war. An old man held up a tiny flag of the new Bangladesh. A child cast a furtive glance at a corpse in the street. Jubilant children laughed as they ran across mustard fields in bloom. Women shed silent tears. “Shoot me right now, or take me”, he had said to the major who refused to take this unaccredited photographer. But Parekh did board the helicopter, but then went his own way. On his own, with limited film, Parekh photographed the war that ordinary women, men and children had fought.

Shahidul Alam

Sat Dec 20, 2003