By Shahidul Alam
Bangladesh will be 40 years old next year. Back in 1971, its civil war and declaration of independence gained global notice thanks to the Concert for Bangladesh, which drew over 40,000 to Madison Square Garden in New York. Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and other stars of the music world performed at the first major concert held for a social cause, concentrating attention on what was then East Pakistan, devastated first by the cyclone in Bhola and then by the atrocities committed by the Pakistani?Army.
Bangladesh continues to have an eventful history. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father, was assassinated in 1975. The?CIA?is alleged to have played a role. Ziaur (?Zia?) Rahman, the general who followed Mujib, was also assassinated, as were many others during those tumultuous?years.
Zia moved away from the socialism and secularism on which the original Bangladeshi constitution had been built, and moved closer to the?US?and the Middle East. His successor, General Ershad, strengthened the Middle East ties by declaring Bangladesh an Islamic state. Secular Bangladesh had been?buried.
Bangladeshis? love for democracy is not to be underestimated, however. Resistance grew in the streets and, with the military refusing to bail him out, Ershad eventually stepped down. For once a deposed leader went to a jail cell rather than a?grave.
Since then the democracy available has still been distinctly less than perfect. The two main parties ? the Awami League, ruled by Mujib?s daughter Sheikh Hasina, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), ruled by Zia?s widow Khaleda Zia ? have effectively taken it in turns to hold power, each sounding much more plausible in opposition than in government. Attempts to fix the elections by the most recent BNP government in 2007 infuriated the opposition, leading to violence in the?streets.
The?US?and the European Union decided a pliant government backed by the military was much easier to handle than some messy democracy, and an ex-World Bank employee was brought in to head the military-backed ?caretaker government?. This puppet government started by arbitrarily extending its prescribed 90-day tenure to two years. It then tried to break the existing parties, by jailing the top leaders and setting up its own party, but failed miserably. Eventually the two years ran out and the people were in no mood to accept another extension. Deals were hurriedly made and the unplanned exit took place without?violence.
On election day in December 2008, a young man showed off the purple stain on his thumb. He had voted and was proud of it. After two years of effective military rule, Bangladeshis had voted in huge numbers. The landslide victory for the Awami League hadn?t been predicted. Occasional turnouts of over 100 per cent were somewhat embarrassing, but by and large it was a fair election. The overwhelming majority was something the new government, which had promised change, could use finally to set things?right.
But soon it was business as usual. Feuds over the spoils led to intra-party fights. Accusations of sexual abuse by the student wing of the Awami League led to fingerwagging at her own party by Sheikh Hasina, but people were not convinced. The government seemed more interested in territorial disputes rather than the serious rise in prices, the frequent power cuts and the infrastructure?failure.
The problems do not get any smaller. Bangladesh is one of the countries likely to be worst affected by global warming. Financial mismanagement in the?US?is beginning to affect Bangladeshi migrant workers, the biggest revenue earners in the country. For the 135 million Bangladeshis who live on less than two dollars a day, the promised change is long?overdue.
Bangladesh Fact File
Leader Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed.
Economy: GNI per capita $520 (Pakistan $980, UK $45,390). Two-thirds of Bangladeshis are farmers, but more than three-quarters of Bangladesh?s export earnings derive from the garment industry, which employs over 3 million people (mainly women). Remittances from workers in other countries are also vital to the economy.
Monetary unit: Taka
Main exports Garments, seafood, jute and jute goods, leather.
People 160 million. Annual population growth rate 1.6%. People per square kilometre 1,111 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 43 per 1,000 live births (Pakistan 72, UK 5). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 51 (UK 1 in 8,200).
Environment Given the consumption habits of the average Bangladeshi and the fact that virtually everything is recycled, the country has always had a low carbon footprint. However, the complete environmental disregard of industrialists has led to very high levels of pollution. Arsenic in groundwater, originally brought about by UN-sponsored tubewells, threatens to kill millions.
Culture Bangla culture has a rich history stretching back over many centuries ? the earliest Bangla literary text dates from the eighth century. This heritage is shared with the Indian state of West Bengal. The Chittagong Hill Tracts are home to distinct ethnic groups collectively known as Jumma.
Religion Muslim 83%, Hindu 16%, tiny Buddhist and Christian minorities.
Language Bangla 98%.
Sources UNICEF, UNDP, Guia del Mundo, CIA.
Bangladesh ratings in detail (Previously reviewed 2000)
Income distribution: The gap between rich and poor has increased. The garment industry brought in $12.3 billion in 2009, but the minimum wage for garment workers ($25 a month) is among the lowest in the world.
Life expectancy: 66 years (Pakistan 67, UK 79). Improving, but families can be destroyed by a major illness due to the high costs of medical care.
Literacy: 54%. Primary education has improved, especially for girls ? there are now more girls than boys in school ? but poverty forces many to drop out of the education system.
Position of women: The role of women in urban civil society is impressive. The garment industry, while exploitative, has given rural women options. Women inherit half what men do by Islamic law, but in practice women inherit even less than that.
Freedom: Despite government repression, private media, especially television, have played a major role in highlighting irregularities. The government media are used entirely for propaganda.
Sexual minorities: Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by 10 years? imprisonment or more. It is therefore difficult to be publicly gay, but ambiguous sexuality is accepted and hijras (men adopting female gender identity) often perform in religious ceremonies. Gay groups exist, but use other criteria for their association.
NI Assessment (Politics)
The Prix Pictet, the world?s leading prize in photography and sustainability.?will judged by an internationally recognised panel of experts led by?Professor Sir David King, Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford. Other members of the judging panel include?Shahidul Alam, Photographer, Curator and Founder of the Drik Agency in Bangladesh;?Peter Aspden, Arts Writer for the Financial Times;?Michael Fried, Art Historian and Critic;?Loa Haagen Pictet, Pictet & Cie’s art consultant;?Nadav Kander, Winner of the second Prix Pictet;?Christine Loh, CEO of Civic Exchange, Hong Kong; and?Fumio Nanjo, Director of the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.
Launched in 2008 by the Geneva-based private bank Pictet & Cie, the Prix Pictet has rapidly established itself as the world?s leading prize in photography and sustainability.?The prize currently plays to a global audience of over 400 million.
As Kofi Annan, the Prix Pictet?s Honorary President, wrote in his recent forward to?Earth ? the book of the second Prix Pictet, ?together, these photographs by the artists shortlisted for the Prix Pictet highlight the beauty of the earth we share. But they also expose the damage, deliberately or carelessly, we are inflicting on our own environment. So these images are a celebration and a reminder of the urgent need to change our ways.?
A photograph?s story is not only the one told in the image. Who took a picture, and why, also matters. Now who takes pictures of the developing world, and why?
?The vast majority of the published images that we see of the developing world are taken by predominantly white, predominantly male photographers from the ?north? or the ?west? (whichever language you use) and we think a) that this is unfair and b) that it leads to a distorted view lacking balance. The distorted view is intrinsically dangerous as it perpetuates stereotypes,? said Dr Colin Hastings, responsible for strategy and financing at?Majority World, in an interview with?igenius.
How about giving Majority World photographers a chance to represent the world they live in themselves?
Majority World, a global initiative set up to provide a platform for indigenous photographers from the Majority World to gain fair access to global image markets, is in its third year. Their?online library contains loads of photographs, both individual and featured, ranging from Adolphus Opara?s?Slum Aspirations to Aaron Sosa?s?Daily Havana to Saikat Ranjan Bhadra?s?Grey Reality. The idea is to shift the current practice of the global North photographing the global South and allowing the South to do it itself.
Photographers in the developing countries face numerous challenges. At first it was said that they don?t exist, then that they ?don?t have the eye?. But apart from these prejudices, there are serious problems photographers have to deal with: lack of access to the internet, costly cameras, scanners, and computers, lack of awareness of Northern markets, no money to travel and build up a portfolio, poor business and marketing skills and, probably worst of all, untrusting potential clients, who are nervous to assign an unknown photographer in a distant land.
Let?s come back to those white males who dominate the global photography market with their orthodox reflections of the Majority World. And aid. ?Development isn?t simply about money. What about developing mutual respect; enabling equitable partnerships; providing enabling environments for intellectual exchange? What about creating awareness of the underlying causes of poverty? These are all integral parts of the development process. When all things are added up, cheap images providing clich?d messages do more harm than good. They do not address the crucial issue: poverty is almost always a product of exploitation, at local, regional and international levels. If poverty is simply addressed in terms of what people lack in monetary terms, then the more important issues of exploitation are sidelined,? wrote Shahidul Alam, an international photojournalist and Chairman of?Majority World in?The New Internationalist in 2007.
Back then, the situation started to change, if only very slowly. In that same article, Mr Alam agreed that due to the media?s deteriorating financial situation, some adjustments had taken place: with media?s budgets squeezed, it?s getting harder to fly Western photographers to make some shots in a far away land.
This is where local photographers come in handy, but the fact is yet to be recognized by news outlets. And it ain?t so sunny out there, either. ?Certain rules still apply of course, such as the vast differentials in pay between local and Western photographers,? wrote Mr Alam.
I asked Dr Colin Hastings who works tirelessly to promote Majority World photography, how to encourage global media organizations to use images made by local photographers. He said we need to make a distinction between purchasing images pre-taken and uploaded into an existing photo library (known as ?stock photography?) and ?assignments?, where a photographer is commissioned to take specified types of image for a particular purpose.
?As for stock images, all we ask is that Majority World photographers have equal opportunities to get their images into photo libraries and showcased across the world and available for sale. At present they are marginalized and face many disadvantages. It is providing an equal playing field that is at the heart of what Majority World is about, enabling them to have the resources that Western photographers just take for granted.
?When it comes to assignments, Western media, editors and photographers tend to go out with a predetermined agenda often to find images to confirm their existing preconceptions and stereotypes often based on information that is way out of date. This is an issue of editorial bias, i.e. do you really want to find out the truth (whatever that is).
?Well, you are more likely to find out from someone who is of the culture, speaks the language, understand the nuances and the history, than from someone who jets in for a few days, is essentially a voyeur from the outside of the culture, and may be viewed with a mixture of incredulity and suspicion by those being photographed… To say nothing of the ethical issues about whether anyone ?should? be or has the right to take photos in any situation.
?It is right to acknowledge that it is not a simple matter to employ and brief an unknown photographer at a distance, especially where there are language and other cultural barriers to communication. But that can also be too easily used as an excuse. There are suitable and reliable photographers out there who do fine work. Part of our role is to take the risk out of this process by finding the most suitable photographer and acting as a communications facilitator.
?We have to help the client to change their behavior and ways of doing things and also help the photographer to understand and to respond to the clients? needs.? It?s complex!?
Three years ago, Dr Hastings expressed his wish for every postcard sold in a tourist destination in the global South to be taken by a local photographer. ?My vision is to see a whole range of beautiful high quality photographic products – cards, calendars, diaries or digital products images – taken entirely by Majority World photographers,? he said.
We?re not there yet, but hopefully on the way.
Photos: fish by?Partha Sarathi Sahana, water by?prakhar
Lucia Chiriboga portrays the deep spirituality in Ecuadorian life. Long before Photoshop became commonplace, Lucia began creating complex images by subtle multiple exposures, as a way of weaving multilayered stories of her ancestors. ? Lucia Chiriboga/Drik/Majority World
It was a grand opening. The ?Who?s Who? of development in Britain was there, championing the noble cause ? the Millennium Development Goals, making poverty history.
The Bob Geldof circus could perhaps be pardoned. Geldof is neither a development worker nor someone particularly knowledgeable about the subject. But for the organizers of the ?bash? at the OXO Tower on London?s South Bank to produce such a culturally insensitive event was revealing.
Apart from parading a few young black people from Africa, who extolled the virtues of ?development?, there was little contribution from the Majority World. The key speakers, typically white Western development workers, spoke of the role that they were playing in saving the poor of the Global South. The token dark-skinned people, having played their part, were soon forgotten.
The centrepiece of this celebration was an exhibition entitled Eight Ways to Change the World. All the photographs were taken by white Western photographers. No-one questioned the implication of such an exercise. When I confronted one of the organizers he explained that the curator ? a director of a Western photographic agency ? had decided not to use Majority World photographers because they ?didn?t have the eye?. The sophisticated visual language possessed by the Western audience was presumably beyond the capacity of a photographer from the South to comprehend, let alone engage with at a creative level.
This represents a shift from the position of 20 years ago when we started asking why Majority World photographers were not being used by mainstream media and development agencies. The answer then had been: ?They don?t exist.? Today our existence is difficult to deny. The internet; the fact that several Majority World agencies operate successfully; and that photographers belonging to such agencies regularly win international awards: all these things mean we are no longer invisible.
Now it?s a different set of rules. We have to prove we have the eye. A similar statement about blacks, women, or minority groups of any sort, would raise a storm. But when such prejudice is used against a group of media professionals from the South, who happen to represent the majority of humankind, no-one appears to bat an eyelid.
I have, of course, faced this situation before. There was, for example, a fax from the National Geographic Society Television Division asking if we could help them with the production of a film that would include the Bangladeshi cyclone of 1991. They wanted specific help in locating ?US, European or UN people… who would lead us to a suitable Bangladeshi family?. The irony of making such a request to a picture agency dedicated to promoting local voices had obviously escaped them. We had gotten used to requests for iconic objects of poverty that international NGOs insisted existed in abundance and had to be photographed ? but which locals neither knew nor had heard of.
The economics of suffering
Charities and development agencies need to raise money from the Western public. The best way to pull the heart strings ? and thereby the purse strings ? is to show those doleful eyes of the disadvantaged.
Perhaps photographers from the South cannot be trusted to understand this. Perhaps they are so hardened to such images of daily suffering that they are unable to appreciate the impact these sights might have on Western audiences ? and the coffers of Western aid agencies.
But certain changes have been taking place, forcing various adjustments. Media budgets have become tighter than they were. Flying people to distant locations is expensive. Having Western photographers ?on the ground? can be dangerous in some cases ? and costly in terms of insurance premiums. Better to have locals in the firing line. So, slowly, local names have begun to creep in. Certain rules still apply of course, such as the vast differentials in pay between local and Western photographers.
Stories about Nike regularly make the headlines, but the exploitative terms on which local photographers work rarely surface. The Bangla saying ?kaker mangsho kak khai na? (a crow doesn?t eat crow?s meat) seems to apply to journalism: criticism of the media is taboo. Not only do the workers on the media sweatshops have to work for peanuts, they need to know which stories to tell. None of this journalistic independence rubbish: gimme stories that sell.
This, of course, affects Southern photographers. When they know certain stories sell, they themselves begin to supply the ?appropriate? images. A man known to carry a toy gun in the streets of Dhaka is repeatedly photographed at religious rallies, and despite common knowledge that it is a fake gun, news agencies run the picture without explaining the nature of the situation. Numerous wire photographers have been known to stage flood pictures and in one famous instance, a child was shown to be swimming to safety in what was known to be knee deep water. The photograph went on to win a major press award.
Money also affects publishers. Smaller budgets require careful shopping. The Corbis, Getty and Reuters image supermarkets are rapidly squeezing out the ?corner store? suppliers and a small Majority World picture library simply can?t compete.
But there are other factors in the equation. Development isn?t simply about money. What about developing mutual respect; enabling equitable partnerships; providing enabling environments for intellectual exchange? What about creating awareness of the underlying causes of poverty? These are all integral parts of the development process. When all things are added up, cheap images providing clich?d messages do more harm than good. They do not address the crucial issue: poverty is almost always a product of exploitation, at local, regional and international levels. If poverty is simply addressed in terms of what people lack in monetary terms, then the more important issues of exploitation are sidelined.
Materially poor nations should have a say in how they are represented. This picture, taken in the early days of the Maoist movement, by Nepalese photographer Binod Dhungel, shows members of his country?s Maoist Movement long before it was breaking news. ? Binod Dhungel/Drik/Majority World
A broader picture
However, the type of imagery required from the Majority World is broadening. This is coming less from growing political sensibility and more from global economic shifts. Negative imagery is seen as a deterrent to foreign investment in emerging markets. With transnationals interested in cheap labour, and a wider consumer base, a different profile is now required to stimulate investor confidence. So, along with the standard fare of flood and famine, there are stories of Indian and Chinese billionaires and how they have benefited from capitalism.
Furthermore the new ?inclusive? media now take on more ethnic-minority journalists. But when they come over to do their groundbreaking stories, it is the rookie on the streets of Dhaka who provides the leads, conducts the research, translates, drives, fixes, and does all that is necessary for the story to emerge. If things do go wrong ? as when Britain?s Channel 4 TV attempted an ill-fated expos? in Bangladesh in late 2002 ? the Western journalists are likely to be home for Christmas while the local fixers face torture in jail.
Lacking the advantages of our Western counterparts, image-makers in the South have had to rely on ingenuity and making-do in order to move from being fixers to being authors in their own right. We have had to be pioneers. With one filing cabinet, an XT computer without a hard drive, and a converted toilet as a darkroom, we decided we would take on the established rich-world photo agencies. On 4 September 1989 Drik Alokchitra Granthagar was set up in Dhaka.
The Sanskrit word Drik means vision, inner vision, and philosophy of vision. That vision of a more egalitarian world, where materially poor nations have a say in how they are represented, remains our driving force.
The European agencies I had encountered wanted a minimum submission of 300 transparencies and told you not to ask for money for the first three years. This constituted a massive investment for a Majority World photographer, and virtually ruled out her entry into the market. We had a very different approach. If a photographer had a single good image which we felt needed to be seen we would take her on, try and sell the picture and pay her as soon as the money came in.
It allowed the photographer to buy more rolls of film and carry on working. The photographers didn?t have printing and developing facilities so we set up a good quality darkroom and trained people to make high quality prints. They had no lights so we set up a studio.
The only gallery spaces available were owned by the State or foreign cultural missions, none of which would show controversial work. So we built our own galleries. Few would publish pictures well so we built our own pre-press unit and published postcards, bookmarks and calendars which we sold door-to-door to pay for running costs.
Photography was largely male-dominated, so we organized workshops for women photographers. There were no working-class people in the media, so we started training poor children in photography. We couldn?t afford faxes or international phone calls, so we set up Bangladesh?s first email service and lobbied for the introduction of fully fledged internet. Professor Yunus, the Nobel Prize winner, was our first user. We set up electronic bulletin boards on issues important to us, such as child rights and environmental issues.
We started putting together a database of photographers in the South, and wrote off to as many organizations as we could, offering our services. No-one replied. Undeterred, we put together a portfolio of black-and-white prints, largely by Bangladeshi photographers.
On a rare visit to Europe, I visited the office of the New Internationalist in Oxford. Dexter Tiranti greeted me warmly. He had received our letter, but hadn?t given it too much importance. An agency in Bangladesh seemed too far distant for the NI to work with on a regular basis. Having seen the portfolio, however, Dexter sat me down at his desk and started ringing picture users across Europe. I remember feeling envious of this ability simply to pick up a phone and call someone in another country, but was grateful for the contacts. Dexter asked us to submit pictures for the NI Almanac. The next year we got a letter from him that stated: ?The photographs are beautiful and the reason we are using only six is because we can?t really have too many from one country.? Others Dexter had phoned that day, and many others we have contacted since, have responded similarly, and so picture sales slowly grew ? but it was no easy ride.
Drik?s email network was put to use when writer and feminist Taslima Nasrin, pictured here in hiding, was being persecuted. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Knife wounds and death threats
Our problems weren?t simply ones of surviving on slender means and competing against agencies based in London, Paris and New York. Our activism created problems on our home soil too. We had, by then, set up our own website and had helped to establish the first webzine and internet portal in the country. Our email network had been put to use when Taslima Nasrin was being persecuted. The website became the seat of resistance when pro-government thugs committed rape in a university campus. So the site, and later the agency, came under attack.
The day after our human rights portal www.banglarights.net was launched, all the telephone lines of the agency were disconnected. It took us twoand- a-half years to get the lines back, but that never stopped our internet service and we stayed connected. Later, Drik became the seat of resistance when the Government used the military to round up opposition activists. I was attacked on the street, during curfew and in a street protected by the military. I received eight knife wounds.
So we learnt to walk a fine line.
It wasn?t just the Government that found us unpalatable. The US embassy felt it couldn?t work with us because we opposed President Clinton?s visit to Bangladesh.
Letter by John Kinkannon (director of USIA in Bangladesh) to Mayeen Ahmed, coordinator of Chobi Mela (2000).
The British Council demanded we take down a show that talked about colonialism, and threatened that future projects might be jeopardized when we openly opposed the invasion of Iraq. Death threats, some real, some less serious and a whole range of sabotage attempts have been part of the path we?ve travelled.
Current strategies are more subtle. We know we will never be given work by certain agencies and that visas for some of us will be more difficult to get, but it is certainly not all negative. The main strength of Drik has been its friends and their support. None of what we have achieved would have been possible without the contribution of a large number of people, ranging from ordinary Bangladeshis who have rallied when it mattered, to influential people thousands of miles away who have provided moral and material support. Combining our compulsion to be socially effective with the requirement to be financially independent has remained our biggest challenge. It is a difficult balancing act.
A great high
Taking a principled position has other drawbacks. People work long hours for salaries below the industry norm. There are few perks. But working at Drik is a special experience; a great high. Not everyone can survive on these highs, of course, and job satisfaction doesn?t help pay the bills, so we need to be competitive and ensure a level of quality so that we can hold our own despite the political pressures.
Eighteen years down the road, we now have a workforce of around 60. Graduates from our school of photography, Pathshala, hold senior positions in major publications. The working-class children we?ve trained have gone on to win Emmys and other awards, and I believe Majority World photographers feel they have a platform.
The big agencies like Reuters and Getty can provide images at a cost and a speed impossible for independent practitioners to match, a very real consideration for picture editors under time pressure and working to tight budgets. The fact that Corbis (owned by Microsoft) is buying up picture archives like the Bettman is important for their preservation, but the images that now exist 200 feet below the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania are no longer accessible to the students, scholars and researchers. An important part of our visual history is now in the control of one person ? Bill Gates.
Golam Kasem (nicknamed Daddy) was Drik?s oldest photographer when he died at the age of 103. His original glass plates date back to 1918. This 1927 image is one of many where Daddy records everyday life in rich detail. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World
Father Paul Casperg, who has been working for many years with the tea plantation workers in Kandy, has an interesting story to tell. Nearly 30 years ago, in his Masters thesis at the London School of Economics, Father Casperg was able to show that an increase of two pence (four US cents) in the price of a cup of tea being sold on the British railways would, providing it went to the Kandy tea plantation workers, result in more income than the total foreign aid received by the Sri Lankan Government.
Father Casperg rightly concluded that it was fair trade that Sri Lanka needed, not more aid.
That is what fair trade imagery organizations like majorityworld.com and kijijiVision (see Action) are trying to do. By invoking ethical standards in the trading of images, these organizations address not only the distorted and disrespectful depiction of people of the Global South, but also the economic divide.
Organizations that call for Majority World governments to be more transparent and accountable need to reflect upon their own ethical standards when it comes to depicting and dealing with the South. Practices such as not allowing photographers to retain copyright or film are justified by the ?convenience? of distributing images. Such ?convenience clauses? are rarely applied to Western photographers, who know the law and can exercise their rights.
Light, flexible, potent
We are resisting, though. The new portal, majorityworld.com, supported strongly by its lobbying partner kijijiVision.org, has built on the extended groundwork done by Drik. DrikNews.com, though still very young, threatens to give the wire agencies a run for their money, and photographers in the South are pooling their resources, including developing close partnerships with like-minded Western organizations.
Recently, I was sitting with a small group of photographers, painters and filmmakers in a corner of the top-floor gallery of the Voluntary Artists Society of Thimpu (capital of Bhutan). At the end of the showing of a film on Chobi Mela IV ? the festival of photography in Asia ? projected on a bedsheet pinned on the gallery wall, the conversation veered to pooling resources in neighbouring countries. Sharing computers, scanners, and contacts, we talked of bus routes to neighbouring countries, and finding public spaces for showing work. What we needed was an online solution that would serve all Majority World photographers.
Having purchased expensive software produced in the West for selling pictures online, we were further bled by consultancy fees we had to pay every time we needed to adapt it to our situation. So, eventually, we developed our own software. It is an inexpensive but highly efficient search engine that local newspaper archives can use. Developed using largely open-source modules, it is constantly updated based on feedback from users from all over the globe and it has worked well on low bandwidth.
Groups in Bhutan, Peru, Tanzania and Vietnam recognize that the wire services and the big agencies have a different agenda. If it?s a guerrilla war against the corporations that has to be fought, then we need different tools. Light, flexible, inexpensive and potent ones.
A revolution is taking place. As new names creep into the byline, unfamiliar faces step up to the award podium and fresh imagery ? vibrant, questioning and revealing ? makes it into mainstream media, a whole new world is opening up. A Majority World.
Originally published in the New Internationalist Magazine in August 2007
In the 1990s independent picture libraries and agencies disappeared at an alarming rate as they were absorbed or driven out of business by larger ones. Dominating the field was Corbis, created by Microsoft Corp founder Bill Gates. Corbis now has 24 offices in 16 countries, represents some 29,000 photographers and controls around 100 million images. Last year it acquired the Australian Picture Library, entered a partnership with IndiaPicture.com and opened a new office in Beijing. Its 2006 revenue was more than $251 million.
Other big players have included Getty Images, founded in 1995, which now has 20 offices worldwide and controls over one million images. Jupiterimages, a division of the Connecticut-based Jupitermedia Corporation, manages over seven million images online, while Reuters has an archive of over two million images.
In recent years the microstock photography industry, led by iStockPhoto and later ShutterStock, Dreamstime, Fotolia, and BigStockPhoto has emerged as a rapidly growing market. Using the internet as their sole distribution method, and recruiting mainly amateur and hobbyist photographers from around the globe, these companies are able to offer stock libraries of pictures at very low prices. Corporate giants Corbis, Getty and Jupiterimages have now muscled their way into this market too, adding to their everexpanding fortfolio of the world?s imagery.
Different Islamic organizations stage a procession outside the National Mosque protesting against equal inheritance rights of women. Dhaka, Bangladesh. March 14 2008. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
?NO, I don?t care about the women?s development policy. I mean, I don?t think it should be looked at in isolation,? said Shameem Akhtar, feminist writer, filmmaker, a friend of many years.
She continued, ?There are other questions that need to be raised simultaneously, the caretaker government?s patronisation of Jamaat, of religious forces that are inimical to women, its stand on the issue of 1971 war criminals. I want to know where it stands, not just throwaway statements made by this or that adviser. The policy is part of larger issues, whether the government wants to encourage social forces that enable women. Whether it really wants to build a democratic state and society, and this, of course, is linked to the issue of militarisation. Whether the military and its intelligence agencies will be made accountable to civilian authority. We need to learn from history. If the government suddenly approves the policy, the one announced on March 8, am I expected to dance in delight? Of course not, I won?t. I want to know what the government has up its sleeve.?
Shameem and I were talking about the incidents of March and April this year. The chief adviser had announced the National Women Development Policy 2008 on the eve of International Women?s Day. A section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties protested. Equal rights for women in terms of earned property violates Shariah law on inheritance. A woman should get only half of what her brother gets. Weekly demonstrations were held after Jumma prayers at Baitul Mukarram. Street marches, and calls of tougher action programmes followed; skirmishes with police turned the area in front of the national mosque into a ?battlefield?. Rallies were held in Chittagong. The protests of Hathajari madrassah students turned violent.
The government formed a 20-member committee on March 27, consisting of Islamic scholars. Its task was to ?identify inconsistencies in the policy as per Islamic rules and [to] suggest steps?. The review committee handed in their deliberations on April 17. They recommended that six sections of the policy be deleted, including the one that suggested the implementation of CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. A further fifteen should be amended. Any decision regarding women?s rights, said the committee, should be taken ?in the light of the Qur?an and Sunnah?.
AF Hassan Ariff, law, justice and parliamentary affairs adviser, hoped that the recommendations would remove the ?language or interpretation gap? created around the women development policy.
Colonial history and the imperial present
I had been under the illusion that Muslim laws were applicable to Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, since the beginning of Muslim rule. On reading Talal Asad?s thesis ? changes in the Muslim family structure caused by British rule ? I realised that things were not so simple. I remember ruefully thinking how little I know. Before British rule, wrote Asad, most Muslims and non-Muslims led largely similar lives. Muslim law was applied only in the urban centres, not in rural communities. This was not due to a lack of knowledge, but because social organisation, the nature of property rights and forms of livelihood, was the same for Hindus and Muslims. Being a Muslim meant following Muslim rites of marriage and burial, maybe having a Muslim name. Nothing more. State intervention in village life was largely centred around the assessment and collection of land revenue, or military recruitment.
Later, I came across Michael Anderson, and later still, Lata Mani?s writings. Reading Anderson made things clearer. One of the major problems of colonial control was to obtain simple, reliable and reasonably accurate understanding of native social life. The colonisers were perplexed at the multiplicity of local customs and practices, at the many forms of legal authority that existed. They found a solution in law, and legal texts. Anglo-Mohammedan jurisprudence was born in the first century of colonial rule. This meant legal assumptions, law officers, translations, textbooks, codifications, and new legal technologies. It also meant mistakes. The most celebrated one was the treatment of classical Islamic texts as binding legal codes. In other words, the Qur?an was mistakenly assumed to be a code of law. The colonisers thought that the social lives of Muslims followed what was written in the Qur?an. This was in contrast to the pre-British period, where legal texts were never directly applied. Instead, a qazi, someone who had proper authority, was morally sound and knowledgeable of local arrangements, would translate legal precepts into practice. Anderson assures us that colonial judicial administration gradually became more sophisticated, but still, a basic prejudice, he insists, remained. Texts were considered more important than interpretive practices.
Lata Mani?s conclusions are similar. Colonial discourse, she says, gave greater importance to brahmanic scriptures (Srutis, Smritis or Dharmashastras), not to custom or usage. It made a sharp distinction between the ?Hindu? and the ?Islamic?, which were considered mutually exclusive and autonomous heritages. The creation of essentially Hindu, and essentially Muslim, religious identities was accompanied by justifications: colonial interventions are civilising, they rescue native women from barbaric traditions.
These myths are kept alive.
In late 2001, Laura Bush denounced the ?severe repression? of the women of Afghanistan. Life under the Taliban, said the first First Lady to deliver an entire presidential radio address, was ?hard and repressive?. Small displays of joy ? children flying kites, mothers laughing aloud ? were outlawed. Her speech, writes Laura Flanders, helped to put a feminist glow on some of the most brutal bombing of the 2001 campaign.
One million signature campaign in Iran
On June 12, 2005, women organised a sit-in in front of the University of Tehran, five days before the first round of the presidential elections, later won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two thousand Iranian women took part in the sit-in, which was unauthorised. The declaration that was prepared in advance was signed by ninety women?s groups. It was the largest independent women?s coalition since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Mahsa Shekarloo, one of the organisers, says the coalition includes both the secular, and the pious. It includes religious women who distance themselves from the term feminist, ?Islamic feminists? who argue that women?s rights can be provided from within the framework of Muslim law, ?Muslim feminists? who come from religious backgrounds but do not use Islamic law as their point of reference, and feminists who would rather not see the republic in Iran be an ?Islamic? one.
The women had gathered to protest the constitution?s denial of women?s rights. They sang protest songs, and repeatedly chanted, “Equal rights is our minimum demand.”
More than two years later, on August 27, 2006, the Iranian women?s movement launched a two-year face-to-face campaign for the collection of one million signatures in support of a petition. It is addressed to the Iranian parliament and asks for the revision and reform of laws that discriminate against women, including equal inheritance rights. At present, if a husband dies without other heirs, the state takes half the couple?s estate. But if the wife dies, husbands are entitled to the entire estate. If the couple has children, the wife receives one eighth of the husband?s estate, whereas a widowed husband with children takes one quarter. Other legal reforms that women are petitioning for includes equal rights for women in marriage, equal rights to divorce for women, end to polygamy and temporary marriage, and the right for women to pass on nationality to their children.
A number of campaigners have been threatened, summoned to court, charged with security crimes, and sentenced to prison. Nahid Jafari received 6 months, and 10 lashes suspended sentence. Zeinab Payghambarzadeh, arrested in March 2007 along with 32 other women?s rights activists who had peacefully gathered outside the Revolutionary Courts, received a suspended sentence of two years. Like many others, Payghambarzadeh was charged with and tried on security charges. These included: propaganda against the state, gathering and colluding with the intent to disrupt national security.
As I searched the internet for more information on the campaign, I came across this comment left by a blogger, probably after Hilary Clinton?s recent threat to ?obliterate Iran?:
?Iranian women?s rights activists are not a threat to Iranian national security. On the other hand, many American women?s rights activists are. Among them, Ms Hillary Clinton who… refuses to negotiate with Iran without preconditions. Ms Hillary Clinton and all the ?women?s rights activists? who support her are a threat to Iranian national security… actually, they are a general threat to people all over the Middle East.?
To return to struggles at home, like Shameem, I too think that the National Women? Development Policy cannot be looked at in isolation.
Like her, I too, am not sure what the military-backed caretaker government has up its sleeve.
And, like my struggling sisters in Iran, I too think that equal rights is our minimum demand.
First published in New Age April 28 2008
It was 1988. The flood waters had reached Dhaka, and I needed a boat to get to the head office of the Grameen (Rural) Bank. A soft spoken unassuming gentleman, casually clad, sat at a plain wooden table. There was no air?-conditioning and the fresh breeze flowed freely through the open windows. My posh camera seemed quite out of place here.
Dr. Muhammed Yunus shook my hands warmly and words flowed easily from the man who had created one of the most remarkable organisations in banking history.
The Grameen Bank gave money only to the poor. Loans to the landless were interest free. None of the debtors had collateral. 75% of the bankwas owned by the landless who could purchase shares of Take 100 (about two pounds; each in 1988. Only one share was allowed per person). The bank boasted 346 branches and 3,000,000 members, 64% of whom were women. Incredibly, about 98% of the loans were returned! It was rapidly expanding and by the following year, Yunus hoped to have 500 branches.
An economics graduate from Vanderbilt University, Yunus had been teaching at Tennessee State University when war broke out in Bangladesh in 1971. He got actively involved in the liberation movement and returned to the newly created nation in 1972 and took up teaching at Chittagong University.
The famine in ’74 touched him deeply. The sight of the dying in the streets made him question the validity of the economic theoories that he espoused. During this soul searching he mixed intimately with the villagers and learnt of their habits, their values and their problems. One of them was a woman who made Moras (bamboo stools). She was skilled and conscientious and worked long hours. He was appalled when he discovered that she earned only eight annas (about one pence) for her daily labour! Angered and dismayed, he sought out the reasons for this shamefully unfair setup.
It had long been claimed that laziness, lack. of skill, and extreme conservativeness was the root cause of poverty in Bangladesh. Here was a woman who was skilled, worked extremely hard and had taken the initiative of setting up a business for herself and was still being cruelly exploited.
She did not have the money to buy the bamboo, so she had to borrow from the trader. He paid a price for the finished stool which was barely the price of the raw materials. She ended up with a penny a day!
With the help of a student Emnath, Yunus made up a list of 42 people who worked under similar conditions. He paid out their total capital requirement of Taka 826 (less than a pound per head) from his own pocket. It was a loan, but it was interest free.
Aware that this was not the real solution to the problem, Yunus approached his local bank manager. The man laughed. The idea of giving money to the poor, and that too without collateral, was to him hilarious. Undeterred, Yunus approached the assistant general manager of Janata Bank:, Chittagong. The manager was encouraging,, but felt that in the absence of collateral, a guarantee by influential people in the village would be necessary. Yunus realised that this would eventually lead to some sort of a slave trade. The bank was adamant, and eventually he talked them into accepting him as the guarantor. The manager was reluctant in the beginning, but felt he could take the risk, the sum being so small.
The system worked, all the loans were repaid and more people were offered loans. Yunus suggested that it was time the bank took over the responsibility themselves and lent out money directly to the villagers.?So I tried to establish that this could be done as a business proposition. I became vocal against the banking institutions, arguing that they were making the rich people richer and keeping the poor people poor through something called collateral. Only a few people could have access to funds. The bankers were not convinced.
Finally they challenged me to do it over a whole district, not just a few villages. They said if I could do it over a whole district, and still come back with a good recovery, then they would reconsider. I accepted their challenge. They asked me to go far away, to where people would not recognise me as a teacher but would instead think I was a banker. So I went to a far flung district in 1978, and started working there.”
It worked beautifully. They had almost a 100% recovery. The small loans made a big difference to the people, but the banks still dragged their feet. Yunus realised that if he went back to the University, the project would die. He suggested the formation of a new bank. One owned by the people themselves. The banks were skeptical, but he got a lot of public support, and eventuual1y in October ’83, an independent bank called the Grameen Bank was formed.
Dr. Yunus is modest about his own contribution. Asked if the bank would survive without him, he smiled “Look at what we have achieved, could it ever have been possible without dedication at all levels ??
There is a more important reason for the bank’s survival. Contrary to most other viable commercial banks, this one is truly designed to serve the people.
Always quick to accept innovations, Professor Yunus was the first person to order an email account when we set up Bangladesh’s first email service in the early nineties. He was user number six, the first five accounts being Drik’s internal numbers. Later he ordered the entire Grameen office to be networked and had generic email addresses issued to key personnel.
The bank now has nearly six and a half million members, 96% of whom are women. The $ 5.3 billion given out as loans and the $ 4.7 billion recovered are figures any commercial banker would be proud of. Since then other Grameen entities under the more recently formed Grameen Foundation have been born. Grameen Phone, a highly successful telecommunications company has provided phones to rural women, many of whom have become successful entrepreneurs. However both the Grameen Bank and micro-credit have had critics. The high rate of interest is seen to be exploitative by many. There have been accusations that the methods of recovery, often by overzealous bank officials, have led to extreme hardship.
The skyscraper that now houses the bank, many feel, distance it from the poor it represents. The close links with Clinton and Turner, and the uncritical position taken by Yunus in his public interactions with them, has also been viewed with suspicion. Yunus makes light of these observations. Regarding the criticism of his model, he has a simple answer. ?I make no claims to having a perfect system. The problem has to be solved. Should someone come up with a better solution, I would happily adopt it.?
Bangladesh has largely been known for floods famine and other disasters. Yunus has provided Bangladesh with a pride it badly needs. Many had hoped that he would enter politics, providing an alternative to power hungry politicians that people have lost trust in. While he has steered away from mainstream politics, Yunus was an adviser to the caretaker government. That this popular teacher turned banker should be the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2006 is a source of great joy to Bangladeshis, but an honour they feel was long overdue.
(Photo by Munem Wasif / DrikNEWS)
Drik Picture Library Ltd.
Dhaka 1988 and 2006
High resolution photographs available from Drik Picture Library: firstname.lastname@example.org
and DrikNews: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Khala (auntie) was happy to see me. It was on impulse that I had gone to see her that day. I hadn’t seen her for a while and simply wanted to know how she was. She greeted me with her usual impish smile, but the smile had more to do with the fact that she had found a photographer in the house. Quickly she bundled me to the next room where a woman was holding a new born baby. Jamila had just been born, and Khala had found a photographer who could record this important moment.
The mother was quiet, and after a few photographs, I left mother and daughter in peace. This was a child the mother knew she couldn’t afford to keep. It was back in the drawing room of that old Dhanmondi house that I saw Nasreen. She had come in through the garden, one of the few in Dhanmondi that the developers had not yet buried in concrete. We’d known each other for a long time, and along with her sister Shireen, had attended many rallies organised by Nari Pokkho, the womens group that they belonged to. On many a protest, I had become an honorary woman and a proud member of the group.
Her wild curly hair bouncing as she spoke, we talked of the work we were doing together on HIV/AIDS. Positive Lives, an exhibition I had worked on as a curator and a photographer, was a show Action Aid had been touring country wide. They had organised educational programmes and gotten local celebrities to draw the crowds in. It had been a hugely successful tour. We talked of the work they were doing with the acid survivors. Rattling off ideas at great speed, for me to pursue, she dashed back to the office. Breezing out as she had breezed in. It was later that I learned that Nasreen and her husband Choton, had adopted Jamila. From then on, it was Jamila who took centre stage in Nasreen’s life. But that was the last I saw Nasreen alive.
Choton and I were fellow journalists, and whenever an important statement needed to go to press, it was Choton I would turn to. From Press Club to Motijheel to Topkhana, we would do the night time beat. He knew every editor in town and which desk to leave the press release on. Sometimes it was in search of Choton, that I would call up Nasreen. We would talk of work, but invariably the conversation veered to Jamila, never accidentally.
When I heard of the accident, I hadn’t been too concerned. A leg injury inside the parking space didn’t sound too critical. But soon I sensed something was seriously wrong. All day long people gathered at the hospital. Ministers, celebrities, acid victims, friends, ordinary people. It was through their faces that I learnt how Nasreen had touched people’s lives. It was in their tears that I found how much love she had given. Some whispered in disbelief, some wailed out loud. Choton, Shireen and Zafrulla were distraught. Khala had not yet been told. Naila was like a rock. It was she who had to break the news. She knew Nasreen the fighter, was not going to win this one. Torn up inside, Naila kept calm. As I watched inside ICU 1, I could see our fighter losing the one fight she had never prepared herself for.
Reading her obituary in the Guardian today, I remembered that it was in the same ICU where we had kept vigil when Rashed Khan Menon had been shot. I had photographed another fighter Jahanara Imam, who had been waiting outside with us. Years later, Rashed Bhai had recovered, but I had written Jahanara Khala?s obituary in the Guardian. Police brutality and cancer had taken their toll. That day I had sat with Rahnuma next to where Khala had waited and quietly held hands. It rained, as it had done when my father died and for all the deaths I could remember.
Back in Dhanmondi, Friends had arrived from far away lands. People had come from the villages. We all stood in disbelief. As I walked out of that room heavy with sadness, I heard peels of laughter from the garden. Jamila, not sure of why her mother was not there, or why there were so many people, was playing with her friends.
Her mother was called ‘Happy’ by her friends. At her funeral in Ghazipur, Happy’s friends sang songs of remembrance. They spoke of her courage and her ability to love. They spoke of her tenacity. I thought of Jamila and remembered how Happy had changed the lives of so many others, and felt it was through Jamila’s laughter that Happy should be remembered.
1st May 2006. Dhaka
Revolution ? Pablo Bartholomew
The Poverty Line
I was poor. Very poor.
There was no food to quell my hunger
No clothes to hide the shame of my naked body
No roof above my head.
You were so kind.
You came and you said
‘No. Poverty is a debasing word. It dehumanizes man.
You are needy.’
My days were spent in dire need.
My needy days, day after day, were never-ending.
As I grew weaker
Again you came.
This time you said.
‘Look, I’ve thought it over,
“Needy” is not a good word either.
You are destitute.’
My days and my nights, like a deep longing sigh,
Bore my destitution.
Cowering in the burning heat,
Shivering in the cold winter nights,
Drenched in the never-ending rains.
I went from being destitute to greater destitution.
But you were tireless.
Again you came.
This time you said
‘There is no meaning to this destitution.
Why should you be destitute?
You have always been denied.
You are deprived, the ever deprived.’
There was no end to my deprivation.
In hunger and in want, year after year,
Sleeping in the open streets under the relentless sky
My body a mere skeleton
Was barely alive.
But you didn’t forget me.
This time you came with raised fist
In your booming voice, you called out to me.
Rise, rise the exploited masses.
No longer did I have the strength to rise.
In hunger and in want, my body had wasted.
My ribs heaved with every breath.
Your vigour and your passion
Were too much for me to match.
Since then many more days have gone.
You are now more wise, more astute.
This time you brought a blackboard.
Chalk in hand, you drew this glistening bright long line.
This time you had really taken great pain.
Wiping the sweat from your brow, you beckoned me.
‘Look. See this line.
Below, far below this line, is where you belong.’
Profusely, Gratefully, Indebtedly, I thank you.
For my poverty, I thank you.
For my need, I thank you.
For my destitution, I thank you.
For my deprivation, I thank you.
For my exploitedness, I thank you.
And most of all, for that sparkling line.
For that glittering gift.
O great benefactor!
I thank you.
Translated from Bangla by Shahidul Alam.
Born Aid 20. The Commission on Africa. Live 8. Make Poverty History. The G8
Summit in Gleneagles. We are witnessing renewed debate about global poverty,
disasters and development, especially in Africa. Coming two decades after
the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980’s the time is ripe for a
reconsideration of the power and purpose of disaster pictures given the way
the images of the Ethiopian famine spawned the original Band Aid/Live Aid
Imaging Famine is one of several intriguing events I’ll be involved with in
September 2005. The event in New York is not public, so I’ve left out the
details, but I will be there in case anyone wants to meet up.
5th and 6th September: Imaging Famine Conference
The Newsroom. Guardian. London. UK
contact: Dave Clark, Bolton University: dj at djclark.com
*8th September: Panel Discussion: Imaging Development*
*Open University Campus, **Milton Keynes**. **UK***
*contact: Helen Yanacopulos, Open University: H.Yanacopulos at open.ac.uk *
10th September: Symposium, A Critical Evaluation of Photographic
Sunderland University. Sunderland. UK
contact: Bas Vroege, Paradox: Ebv at paradox.nl
12th ? 14th September: New York
17th and 19th September: 15th Videobrasil International
Electronic Art Festival
Sesc Pomp?ia, S?o Paulo. Brazil
contact: Luciana Gomide, Video Brasil: *fcfcom at uol.com.br*
22nd September: Launch of Internatioanal Touring Exhibition: Tales From a
Drik Gallery, Dhaka, Bangladesh
contact: Rezaur Rahman, Drik: reza at drik.net
24th September: National Geographic’s All Roads Film Festival
Egyptian Theatre: Los Angeles. USA
contact: Alexandra Nicholson, National Geographic: anichols at ngs.org
26th September: Presentation: “In Search of the Shade of the Banyan Tree”
UCLA. Los Angeles. USA
contact: Angilee Shah: angshah.asiamedia at gmail.com
29th September: Conference: Free Media
The Norwegian Institute of Journalism
contact: Solberg Oona, MFA: oona.solberg at mfa.no
It was Drik’s birthday yesterday! Sweet Sixteen!
ps: we’ve started a data entry unit and are looking for work. So if you have
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.