|Preface to Drik Calendar 2006|
It was a stinker of a letter. Written to an organisation I knew little about. I was angered that World Press Photo (WPP) had little to do with the world and was largely about European and North American photography. Though it featured work from all over the globe, the jury, the photographers who entered the contest and the winners were largely white western males. So in my letter I had suggested that they rename themselves Western Press Photography. The phone call was a surprise. We didn’t get too many overseas calls in those days. The managing director of WPP Marloes Krijnen, politely pointed out that they too had written me a letter, still on its way, which was dated prior to my letter, and hence had not been written in response to my tirade. They had just asked me to be a member of the international jury. My letter had also mentioned that I considered WPP to be a very important contest despite its shortcomings, and should the opportunity arise, I would be interested in hosting the show in Bangladesh . This led to the second part of the conversation. While the exhibition is generally booked way in advance, there had been a cancellation, and should we want it, the show could be made available in three weeks.
Having recovered from the initial excitement of being asked to be on the jury of what is considered the pinnacle of press photography, I tried to compose myself and considered the options. I needed time, and asked Marloes whether she could call back in a couple of hours. The exhibition could only be shown in its entirety, and we had faced considerable problems with our own exhibitions. The major galleries were either state-owned or belonged to foreign cultural centres not prepared to question the government, or be controversial in any way. Our work had always been critical of the government and the elite, the donor community, the patriarchal system and of the self appointed protectors of religious and family values. We didn’t know of a single gallery that would guarantee that no censorship would take place, except for our own gallery. There was just one small problem. Our gallery hadn’t yet been built. We had drawn up the architectural plans for it though, and part of the superstructure was in place, but still no gallery. I was stalling.
Rafique Azam was then not the superstar that he is now. This was his first project, and we had wanted to give these young architects a free hand to interpret our ideas. I rang him up and asked him if he could build us a gallery in seventeen days! Rafique didn’t react as badly as one might have expected. He knew I was crazy enough to have meant it and having told me how ridiculous the idea was, settled down and gave me a list of all the things he would need to make it happen. He needed to work round the clock, a fair bit of money, some of it the following morning, and full freedom. There could be no slip ups in the supply chain. It was going to be a race to the finish as it was.
Osman Chowdhury was a client, but it was as a friend that I rang him up. There was no way he could organise the sort of money we needed at such short notice from his company, but he was able to promise a sum that we could get started with. And he could provide it the next morning.
Marloes rang as she had promised, and I said we would be happy to host the exhibition, in our own gallery. There the polite conversation ended. But that was also the beginning of a wonderful relationship between our two organisations, World Press Photo and Drik. A relationship that has blossomed over the years.
It didn’t take long for the news to spread. Mr. Gajentaan, the Dutch ambassador was a friend who had a strong interest in the arts, and had arranged photo exhibitions in his home in the past. Excitedly he rang me and wanted to come straight over. WPP coming to Bangladesh was big news, and he wanted to be part of the action. He was calm enough when we told him about our plans to have it in three weeks and in our own gallery. It was when we told him he was standing inside the gallery that he flipped. There was no gallery. ?Do you realise this is the most prestigious photo exhibition in the world?? he asked. Yes, we knew. And we would have a good show. A much shaken ambassador went back to Gulshan. To be fair, he didn’t call World Press to tell them that the gallery was only being built.
There was more to the story. It was 1993 and the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party were fighting each other in the streets, locked in a bitter battle for power. This we felt, could be a chance to unite these warring factions. We knew there was no chance of getting the two leaders of the parties at the same table, but the deputy leader of the BNP was Dr. Badruddoza Chowdhury, a student of my father, and we could probably approach Abdus Samad Azad through a personal friend Kaiser Chowdhury who was then the chief whip of the Awami League. Having been so critical of World Press Photo in my letter to them a week earlier, I was now extolling its virtues to two of the most powerful politicians in the country. Kaiser and my mum did the original groundwork, and I put in a good pitch about how this would demonstrate to the nation that they were forward looking political parties, and how much media coverage the event would have. It worked, and they agreed to jointly open the show. Now I had another tool to play with. While local media didn’t really know much about World Press, the fact that these two sworn enemies were going to open a show together was big news, and we managed to get the media excited. Mahfuz Anam of The Daily Star, the biggest English daily, agreed to do a whole media campaign around the event, and the bits were beginning to fall into place. At the packed press conference on the veranda of my parents’ home (Drik rents the upper floors), we were stalling for time, to let the paint dry in the gallery upstairs!
?rp?d Gerecsey the curator (who later went on to become managing director of WPP) and Bart Nieuwenhuijs, the board member who had come to setup the show, huddled with my colleagues and spoke in agitated whispers. Who was going to bell the cat? Eventually it was Bart who came up to me. They wanted to put in nails on the freshly painted walls! We did put in those nails, and the show was a spectacular success. The two deputy leaders cut the ribbon together, and confessed that they enjoyed sharing a cup of coffee, despite their political differences. The media went gaga. WPP and Drik had together pulled it off.
Since then, the two organisations have continued to work together at many levels. An impromptu seminar for press photographers followed. We arranged for the show to go to Kathmandu and Kolkata. Rabeya Sarkar Rima of the Out of Focus group became the first Asian child jury member. I remember telling Marc Proust when he came to curate yet another WPP exhibition in our gallery, that Nurul Islam, the young man who sold us flowers in Monipuri Para, had also been a former child jury member. We had the WPP retrospective exhibition at the National Museum at the first Chobi Mela, the festival of photography that we launched.
We collaborated on many other things. We started nominating young Asian photographers for the Masterclass, and one year, two photographers from Pathshala, our school of photography, GMB Akash from Bangladesh and Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi from Zimbabwe were amongst the twelve talented photographers in this international pool. Pathshala itself relied heavily on WPP for its existence. With no state or other external funding, it was always going to be difficult to setup and maintain a school of photography in our region. We utilised the first WPP seminar programme to launch the school, and the tutors and the workshops that WPP provided became important anchors for what has now become a degree programme. WPP even provided a grant which was a big help in those early days. Since then we have collaborated on training Asian and African photographers in regional programmes organised in Jakarta and Kenya , and been involved in longer term educational projects in Sri Lanka and Tanzania . I myself worked in the jury another three times, once as chair, and I have spoken at several WPP events.
Interestingly, it was the very issues I had raised in that original letter which the two organisations have worked together to try and solve, and both WPP and Drik are very different organisations today.
It is to celebrate that friendship, on the 50th Anniversary of World Press Photo, that we put together this calendar. The images are by the majority world participants of WPP seminars and their tutors, some of the finest photographers around. It is a protest against the continued use of exclusively white western male photographers to document the majority world that developmental agencies and western media have made their standard practice. It is a direct answer to the superior race argument that they continue to use to justify their actions and to dismiss our work when they say ?they don’t have the eye?.
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.
5th December 2004
Who am I? Where do I belong? Who determines my future? Society has no answer to these restless questions. Our sense of identity, kinship and community, are at worst shattered by the experience of migration and at best are thrown into uncertainty.
The universal declaration of human rights talks of a world “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. The reality, particularly for the economic migrant, is very different.
Physical, emotional, social and intellectual exclusion reinforce a migrant’s sense of displacement and alienation. The powerful may glide over such barriers, touching down for business, for pleasure or even out of guilt. For those without power, parting is painful, and each barrier crossed, like the ferry ghats of the big rivers, broadens the distance they must travel to return.
Expectations, dreams, duties and needs circumscribe the life of an economic migrant. The single hope, to change one’s destiny, is what ties all migrants together, whether they be the Bangladeshis who work in the forests of Malaysia, the bonded labourers in the sugarcane plantations in India, the construction workers in the Middle East or the hopeful thousands bound for the promised lands of Europe and North America. They see migration not merely as a means to economic freedom, but also as a passport for social mobility. The wealthy can purchase the future they desire. But a migrant who chooses to rewrite an inherited destiny swims against the current and faces the wrath of the gatekeepers who shape that destiny.
Fri Jul 18, 2003
11th September 2002. I was at Heathrow Airport, flying home to Dhaka. Friends had warned me against flying that day, but I wasn’t too bothered and looked forward to the empty seats I could stretch out on. In place of the flight notices, the loudspeakers made an unusual announcement. It was a call for a minute’s silence for the people who died at the World Trade Centre and year ago. A minute’s silence, and then it was business as usual.
The piece that follows was written in February 2003, in the week following the judging of World Press. Before the invasion of Iraq, before the advent of embedded journalism. Later at the award ceremony at the Oude Kurk, I was impressed by Wolffensperger’s speech (Chairman of the Board, World Press Photo), made in the presence of the Dutch Prime Minister, where he clearly stated his position regarding the attack on journalists and the media coverage during the invasion. I was left wondering however, why we as a community have never called for that minute’s silence, for those killed in Afghanistan or in Iraq, or the industry’s silence on the killing of its workers. We are responsible for the words that we speak, and the images we produce. Who will take the responsibility for the silences we maintain?
Much is made of the figures, but this is not a numbers game. While the sheer volume of photographs is daunting, it is still in the end a qualitative choice. How does one weigh one photograph against another? What makes one compelling image more special than another? What criteria do juries use to determine which one is best?
The parameters for the World Press Photo of the year are known; a photograph showing outstanding visual qualities and representing a news situation of global importance. News photographs are often taken on the run, in situations of extreme stress, often in situations of danger. Only outstanding photographers are able to create powerful, moving, beautifully constructed images even under such conditions. But their qualities need to combine with outstanding news-value to create the most talked about press image of the year.
2002 was a year of waiting. Waiting for UN resolutions to be applied equally to all. Waiting for aggressors to be punished. Waiting for a war that the world abhorred but seemed unable to stop. Missing were the moments that news networks paid millions to cover. Disasters in western countries lacked significant death tolls. Nothing significant had happened in the countries that mattered.
That is not to say that nothing had happened, or that the world was at peace. In a world where all lives are not equal, some lives are easily forgotten. Their daily plight does not count. Their struggles are insignificant. No war machines come to their rescue. Unless material interests intervene.
But riots, earthquakes and indiscriminate bombings have taken place, and occupation continues. And there have been photographers who have been there. At a time when defence pools, restricted access, and editorial policy define the perimeters of journalism, some photographers have gone against the grain and covered stories which should have been news but weren’t, about people who should have mattered but didn’t.
Clinging to the trousers of his dead father, a young boy cries for a loss that is as universal as it is personal. The image talks of humankind’s eternal struggle against nature, and a community’s ability to stand by the afflicted. Yet, amidst all these people, the young man is alone in his misery. The death he mourns might not matter to a world that doesn’t care, but to him, the world might well have stopped. And one photograph preserved that moment, a silent witness of an emptiness that speaks to us all. One photographer takes on the challenge of questioning our definitions of news.
As for the judging itself, it was a complex, passionate, fervent affair. Time and time again, we were humbled by someone’s insight into a moment, that had completely passed us by. Again and again, our zone of comfort was invaded. We were shaken into responding to an argument that questioned the values that we had always considered unshakeable. Our tools of measurement were cast aside. We stood naked, our prejudices exposed.
The photographers too stretched us. Images that explored the gaps in our visual spaces, played with our sense of balance. War was presented through lingering traces. Political systems presented through emptiness and solid structures. Consumerism and decadence exposed through garish images, unashamedly rejecting the classical norms of image construction. Tender moments rendered without sentimentality. And of course those stark images, where the photojournalist, at the right place at the right time, but hopefully for not too long, returned with the horrors of what man does to man.
When the credibility of our media, shrouded in propaganda, struggles for survival, a few brave women and men continue to report the news that is no longer newsworthy. This contest salutes their courage.
21st February. Oldham.
Chairman of the Jury 2003
When US Senator Tom Harkin proposed a boycott of the products of child labour,
Western campaigners applauded. But there were unforeseen consequences
for the children of Bangladesh, as Shahidul Alam reports.
No. No photographs. Saleha is scared. Many a time she has hidden under tables, been locked up in the toilet, or been sent to the roof in the scorching sun for two or three hours. It happens whenever foreign buyers enter the factory. She knows she is under-age, and doesn?t want photographers messing things up ? she needs the job. The whole industry has suddenly become sensitive. Owners want their factories open. The workers want their jobs. The special schools for former child labourers want aid money. No photographs.
Neither Saleha nor any of the other child workers I have interviewed have ever heard of Senator Tom Harkin. All they know is that pressure from the US, which buys most of Bangladesh?s garments, has resulted in thousands of them losing their jobs at a stroke.
According to a press release by the garment employers in October 1994: ?50,000 children lost their jobs because of the Harkin Bill.? A UNICEF worker confirms ?the jobs went overnight?.
The controversial bill, the ?Child Labor Deterrence Act?, had first been introduced in 1992. A senior International Labour Organization (ILO) official has no doubt that the original bill was put forward ?primarily to protect US trade interests? ? Tom Harkin is sponsored by a key US trade union, and cheap imports from the Third World were seen as undercutting American workers? jobs. ?When we all objected to this aspect of the Bill,? says the ILO official, ?which included a lot of resistance in the US, the Bill was amended, the trading aspect was toned down, and it was given a humanitarian look.? It was when it was reintroduced after these amendments in 1993 that the Bill had its devastating impact in Bangladesh.
The child workers themselves find it particularly hard to interpret the US approach as one of ?humanitarian concern?. When asked why the buyers have been exerting such pressure against child labour, Moyna, a ten-year-old orphan who has just lost her job, comments: ?They loathe us, don?t they? We are poor and not well educated, so they simply despise us. That is why they shut the factories down.? Moyna?s job had supported her and her grandmother but now they must both depend on relatives.
Other children have had no alternative but to seek new kinds of work. When UNICEF and the ILO made a series of follow-up visits they found that the children displaced from the garment factories were working at stone-crushing and street hustling ? more hazardous and exploitative activities than their factory jobs.
?It is easier for the boys to get jobs again,? Moyna complains, pointing to ex-garment boys who have jobs in welding and bicycle factories. Girls usually stay at home, doing household work and looking after smaller children; many end up getting married simply to ease money problems.
In the wake of the mass expulsion of child garment workers it was plain that something had gone very wrong. UNICEF and the ILO tried to pick up the pieces. After two years of hard talking with the garment employers they came up with a Memorandum of Understanding. This guaranteed that no more children under 14 would be hired, that existing child workers would be received into special schools set up by local voluntary organizations and would receive a monthly stipend to compensate them for the loss of their wages.
Some garment owners feel that, instead of doing a deal, they should have called the US bluff and continued employing young children. ?We export 150 million shirts a year to the US,? says one. ?The K-mart $12 shirt would have cost $24. Bill Clinton would have lost his job.?
As of now 10,547 of the estimated 50,000 children have been registered, and of these 8,067 have enlisted in school. Most weren?t registered initially, as few garment owners admitted having children working in their factories. Many lost their jobs before the registration process began. Unregistered children, regardless of their age or their schooling, are not admitted into the scheme.
Saleha is tall for her age. Though in her factory there are quite a few under-age children, in most factories children that look small are no longer taken. This is what Moyna and Ekram and the other children repeatedly say: ?We didn?t make the size.? In a country where births are not registered there is no way of accurately determining a person?s age. Children with good growth keep their jobs. Children who look smaller, perhaps because they are malnourished, do not.
The reliance on size rather than age means that many children are still at work in the factories ? and many have no inclination to take up a place in one of the special schools. Take Sabeena. Her factory is colourful with tinsel when I visit and many of the girls have glitter on their faces. It is the Bangla New Year and Eid all in one and they are celebrating. Sabeena proudly shows me the machine she works on. She is almost 14 and, like Saleha, big for her age. She has been working at a garment factory ever since she finished Grade Five, about 18 months ago. Until then, schooling was free. There was no way her parents could pay for her to go to school and, with her father being poorly, Sabeena needed to work to keep the family going.
Taking home 2,200 taka ($52) a month (with overtime) Sabeena, at 13, is now the main breadwinner in the family. She is lucky to have work, though she would rather study. She laughs when I talk of her going to school. She has mouths to feed, and to give up her job for a 300-taka-per-month stipend for going to school simply wouldn?t make sense. Besides, the special schools only teach up to Grade Five. The better students, who have studied that far, find they have neither jobs nor seats in the school. So Sabeena?s studies begin at around eleven at night, with a paid private tutor, usually by candlelight. At seven in the morning she has to leave for work. Seven days a week.
Money is a key concern even for those children who have been received into the special schools. At the school run by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) in Mirpur, the children gather round a worker doing the rounds. ?When do we get paid, sir?? they keep asking.
Despite the promises, not a single child that I have interviewed has received the full pay they are owed. In some cases field workers, eager to improve their admission rates, have promised considerably more than the stipulated 300 taka ($7) per month. In others, unfounded rumours have created expectations that the schools cannot meet.
Shahjahan (pictured on the facing page) was one of the lucky ones admitted to a BRAC school. The 300 taka per month is a small sum for him too, but he works in a tailoring shop from nine till eleven in the morning, and again from two-thirty in the afternoon till ten at night. He doesn?t complain. Though the scheme does not encourage it, he feels he is getting the best of both worlds: free schooling, including a stipend, as well as paid work and a potential career.
A strange question
Did they like working in garment factories? The children find this a strange question. They earned money because of it, and it gave them a certain status that non-working children did not have. They put up with the long hours. The exceptions remind me that it is children we are talking about. ?I cried when they forced me to do overtime on Thursday nights,? says Moyna. ?That was when they showed Alif Laila (Arabian Nights) on TV.?
Child workers are popular with factory owners. ?Ten- to twelve-year-olds are the best,? says Farooq, the manager of Sabeena?s factory. ?They are easier to control, not interested in men, or movies, and obedient.? He forgets to mention that they are not unionized and that they agree to work for 500 taka ($12) per month when the minimum legal wage for a helper is 930 taka.
Owners see Tom Harkin as a well-meaning soul with little clue about the realities of garment workers? lives. ?As a student, I too hailed the Bill,? says Sohel, the production manager at Captex Garments. ?I was happy that someone was fighting for children?s rights. But now that I work in a factory and have to turn away these children who need jobs, I see things differently. Sometimes I take risks and, if a child is really in a bad way, I let them work, but it is dangerous.?
The notion that a garment employer might be helping children by allowing them to work may seem very strange to people in the West. But in a country where the majority of people live in villages where children work in the home and the fields as part of growing up, there are no romantic notions of childhood as an age of innocence. Though children are cared for, childhood is seen as a period for learning employable skills. Children have always helped out with family duties. When this evolves into a paid job in the city neither children nor their families see it as anything unusual. In poor families it is simply understood that everyone has to work.
The money that children earn is generally handed over to parents, who run the household as best as they can. Most parents want their children to go to school. But they also feel that schooling is a luxury they cannot afford. The garment industry has increased the income of working-class families in recent years and this has also led to a change in attitudes. Many middle-class homes now complain that it is difficult to get domestic ?help? as working-class women and children choose to work in garment factories rather than as servants. This choice ? made on the grounds not just of better economics, but of greater self-respect ? is one many children have lost because of the Harkin Bill.
The US is wielding power without responsibility. A nation with a history of genocide and slavery, and a reputation for being a bully in international politics, suddenly proclaims itself a champion of people?s rights, but refuses to make concessions over the rates it will pay. The dollar price-tags on the garments produced in some factories suggest a vast profit being made at the US end. The buyers claim that what they pay for the garments is determined by ?market forces?. The garment owners make the same claim with regard to the conditions of employment for their workers. Both are simply justifying their own version of exploitation ? and to address child labour without addressing exploitation is to treat the symptom, not the disease.
The garment-industry experience has led to an active debate amongst development workers and child-rights activists. ?What we have done here in Bangladesh is described as fantastic,? says a senior ILO worker. ?I wonder how fantastic it really is. How much difference will these two or three years in school make to these children? In three years, the helper could have been an operator, with better pay and more savings. Even if the manufacturers keep their word and give them back their jobs at the end of their schooling, the Memorandum children will hardly be better off, while their peers will have gotten on with their careers. We have spent millions of dollars on 8,000 children. The money itself could have transformed their lives. This is an experiment by the donors, and the Bangladeshi children have to pay.?
The children?s names have been changed to protect them.
Letter from Bangladesh
Shahidul Alam travels with the poor who chase a dream to distant lands.
They all have numbers. Jeans tucked into their high-ankled sneakers. They strut through the airport lounge, moving en masse. We work our way up the corridors leading to the airplane, but many stop just before boarding. The cocky gait has gone. The sad faces look out longingly at the small figures silhouetted on the rooftops. They wave and they wave and they wave. The stewardess has seen it all before and rounds them up, herding them into the aircraft. One by one they disengage themselves, probably realizing for the first time just what they are leaving behind.
Inside the aircraft it is different. They look around at the metallic finish of the interior, try on the headphones and drink lemonade. They have seats together and whisper to each other about each new thing they see. Abdul Malek, sitting opposite me, is in his early twenties. He is from a small village not far from Goalondo. This is his second attempt. He was conned the first time round. This time his family has sold their remaining land as well as the small shop that they part-own. This time, he says, he is going to make it.
As in the case of the others, his had been no ordinary farewell. They had all come from the village to see him off. Last night, as they slept outside the exclusive passenger lounge, they had prayed together. Abdul Malek has few illusions. He realizes that on $110 a month, for 18 months, there is no way he can save enough to replace the money that his family has invested.
But he sees it differently. No-one from his village has ever been abroad. His sisters would get married. His mother would have her roof repaired, and he would be able to find work for others from the village. This trip is not for him alone. His whole family, even his whole village, are going to change their destiny.
That single hope, to change one’s destiny, is what ties all migrants together ? whether they be the Bangladeshis who work in the forests of Malaysia, those like Abdul Malek, who work as unskilled labour in the Middle East, or those that go to the promised lands of the US. Not all of them are poor. Many are skilled and well educated. Still, the possibility of changing one’s destiny is the single driving force that pushes people into precarious journeys all across the globe. They see it not merely as a means for economic freedom, but also as a means for social mobility.
In the 25 years since independence the middle class in Bangladesh has prospered, and many of its members have climbed the social ladder. But except for a very few rags-to-riches stories, the poor have been well and truly entrenched in poverty. They see little hope of ever being able to claw their way out of it, except perhaps through the promise of distant lands.
So it is that hundreds of workers mill around the Kuwait Embassy in Gulshan, the posh part of Dhaka where the wealthy Bangladeshis and the foreigners live. Kuwait has begun recruiting again after the hiatus caused by the Gulf War, and for the many Bangladeshis who left during the War, and those who have been waiting in the wings, the arduous struggle is beginning. False passports, employment agents, attempts to bribe immigration officials, the long uncertain wait.
Some wait outside the office of ‘Prince Musa’ in Banani. He is king of the agents. His secretary shows me the giant portraits taken with ‘coloured gels’, in an early Hollywood style. She carefully searches for the admiration in my eyes she has known to expect in others. She brings out the press cuttings: the glowing tributes paid by Forbes, the US magazine for and about the wealthy, the stories of his associations with the jet set. She talks of the culture of the man, his sense of style, his private jet, his place in the world of fashion.
Apart from the sensational eight-million-dollar donation to the British Labour Party in 1994 ? which Labour denies, but which the ‘Prince’ insists was accepted ? there are other stories. Some of these I can verify, like the rosewater used for his bath, and the diamond pendants on his shoes (reportedly worth three million dollars). Others, like his friendship with the Sultan of Brunei, the Saudi Royals and leading Western politicians, are attested to by photographs in family albums.
He was once a young man from a small town in Faridpur, not too distant from Abdul Malek’s home or economic position, who made good. Whether the wealth of the ‘Prince’ derives mainly from commissions paid by thousands of Maleks all over Bangladesh or whether, as many assume, it is from lucrative arms deals, the incongruity of it all remains: the fabulously wealthy are earning from the poorest of the poor.
Whereas the ‘Prince’ has emigrated to the city and saves most of his money abroad, Malek and his friends save every penny and send it to the local bank in their village. Malek is different from the many Bengalis who emigrated to the West after World War Two, when immigration was easier and naturalization laws allowed people to settle. Malek, like his friends, has no illusions about ‘settling’ overseas. He knows only too well his status amongst those who know him only as cheap labour. Bangladesh is clearly, irrevocably, his home. He merely wants a better life for himself than the Bangladeshi princes have reserved for him.
An old friend of the NI, Shahidul Alam is guiding light of Drik, a remarkable photographic agency in Dhaka.
|Feminist writer Taslima
Nasreen in hiding after receiving
a death threat from Islamic fundamentalists
|Third World activists
are using global
connections to pressure
and even save lives.
has little doubt
about the subversive
potential of the Internet
in his country.
Come out, we won’t shoot. The sound of a police megaphone jolted us to attention. After they left our little flat in Dhaka I went up to the roof to try and find the person they thought we were hiding. I found no-one, but the raid made us realize that the nine-year-old dictatorship of General Ershad was feeling the pressure.
Running Drik, a photo library set up to promote a more positive view of developing countries, we were already in the business of disseminating information. Up to this point we had managed quietly to distribute our photographs abroad through helpful friends. Now the need was more urgent: we had to prevent further bloodshed. We couldn’t phone or fax since none of us had an overseas line. Two days later in December 1990, when General Ershad did finally step down, we began collecting the money for the line.
The need came quickly. The new government elected a few months later turned out to be less than democratic after all. So in 1994 we decided finally to take the leap into high-tech communications. We linked up with TOOL, an overseas NGO, and set up our own electronic mail network, called DrikTAP. There was no way we could afford faxes, let alone telephone calls and mail was much too slow. Now with an ordinary telephone line we could send messages overseas cheaply.
We soon discovered that others were keen to jump into e-mail too, so we began to offer it as a service to local NGOs and activists. UNICEF and the Grameen Bank were amongst the first to join. Grameen was in the business of giving loans to the poor and had a wide rural base. UNICEF had field offices all over the country. They used our network to link up all their offices country-wide. Then Drik began to send photographs via e-mail. Something that could only be done earlier by big Western agencies like AP, AFP and Reuters.
Now our little network was beginning to connect to other like-minded groups and Drik was becoming known as an organization out to change the way the poorer countries were perceived. Our ‘bulletin boards’ were useful for everyday things like renting a flat or locating an expert but crucial when we needed to stay in touch in times of danger.
Two months later the Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen received a death threat from Islamic fundamentalists and was charged with blasphemy by the Government. We needed to move quickly – to create national and international pressure so Taslima could come out of hiding and defend herself in court. We managed to alert PEN (the international writers support group) and Amnesty International and the campaign took off. Our fragile network was working. Later one of our members showed us how to use traditional ‘search engines’ to locate human-rights groups and Bangladeshi ‘newsgroups’ overseas (Bangladesh.Soc.Culture is a good one). We knew things were going to get rougher politically and we needed a way of getting information out fast and cheap. If some of us got arrested, others could mobilize enough pressure to stop us simply ‘disappearing’.
Our network became more popular by the month. Major NGOs, universities, research groups, UN agencies, even government organizations and embassies all joined. Conferences on a wide range of subjects sprang up: music, child rights, job applications, even buy-and-sell. We had begun talking to each other and to learn to be comfortable with the medium. We started to use Bangla (albeit in roman script) so we could at least speak our own language. Overseas friends were posting our human-rights messages in the popular Bangladesh newsgroups. When police raided the university to arrest student leaders the news was round the world in hours. Letters to the Prime Minister poured in from all over giving us some breathing space and sparing some lives.
Realizing how fragile our link was (a single telephone line connected up all our users, local and overseas) we campaigned for treating e-mail providers as special clients requiring quality lines. Though we were the leading e-mail provider in Bangladesh, DrikTAP was not fully legal – we had no ‘official’ government permission. On the other hand we were surprised that despite the amount of critical information we were pumping out over the network we had not faced any direct censorship. There had been doubts when one Drik worker was attacked and wounded and again when our server telephone line had been cut for a week. But on the whole we were getting away with it. I suppose shutting down the largest and most popular e-mail network in the country was something even the Government was reluctant to do, particularly with an election looming.
Gradually we began to find other uses for the technology. We set up training programs and eventually an e-mail club where we would meet and discuss problems. We would share the responsibilities of the network and decide collectively on future plans. It was a strange mix. The computer whiz kids and the computer illiterate, both came. Those comfortable with the technology took turns training newcomers. Political activists took on the role of lobbying for extra telephone lines and Internet access.
When Drik could no longer cope with the demand for technical support many of our more experienced members volunteered to help out answering queries. Some set up a system so users outside the capital could access the network using local calls. We began to work more as a family and the network took on a more human shape. We put up a notice for help from a local school that was struggling and a doctor offered his services. Others provided teaching aids, some gave money.
However, e-mail is still very expensive for most Bangladeshis – even local ?lites. A computer costs as much as half a year’s average salary and a modem costs more than a cow, never mind the price of a telephone line. So we began performing like an electronic post office. People come in with a floppy disk; we send their e-mail and they come back later to collect their reply. And not everyone who uses the service is an activist. Our oldest user, Golam Kasem, had just turned 103 and had never seen a computer before. I would cycle over to his house in Indira Road with a printout of a message from his grandson in Canada and next day pedal up to collect his reply. I remember the frail old man, straightening up the computer printout and adjusting his thick glasses as he held the paper by his tungsten lamp.
There are some areas though where we totally failed. Our ‘bulletin boards’ were entirely dominated by men and many of the jokes were sexist. Some even racist. When a woman user objected to a sexist statement the men retaliated viciously. A few loud voices dominated the bulletin boards. The technology was new to many people. Often private mail would get posted accidentally on a bulletin board, sometimes with embarrassing consequences – making the system scary for novices.
On the whole however, DrikTAP has become a powerful way of talking to the outside world. And, more importantly, to each other. When our ‘node’ in Bangladesh grew bigger than the one in the head office of our Northern partner in Amsterdam we argued, for political reasons, that the head office should be in the developing world. Last July we proposed re-locating the head office of our global network in Bangladesh. In a small way we are witnessing a shift in the balance of power.
The Visual Representation of Developing Countries
by Developmental Agencies and the Western Media
by Shahidul Alam
|Perceptions of the developing world
I was staying with friends in Newry in Northern Ireland. Paddy and Deborah had kindly made their five year old daughter1s room available for me. Corrina was friendly and curious and would spend a lot of time in the room. One day as I was clearing my pockets of change I had accumulated, she suddenly remarked, “but you’ve got money, but, but you’re from Bangladesh.” The family had just returned from a trip to Bangladesh. Paddy was a development worker and they had visited many of the projects. At the tender age of five, Corrina knew that Bangladeshis did not have money.
Who portrays whom
A recent fax from the National Geographic Society Television Division, to our picture library – dedicated to promoting the work of indigenous photographers and writers – asked if we could help them with the production of a film that would include the Bangladeshi cyclone of ’91. They wanted specific help in locating “US, European or UN people ….. who would lead us to a suitable Bangladeshi family.”
The situation is not unusual. Invariably films about the plight of people in developing countries show how desperate and helpless the people are, the people who realize their plight and come forward to their support are usually white foreigners. In some cases even local people are seen to be helping, but invariably it is a foreigner who has enlightened them about the way out, and it is always a foreign presenter who speaks out for them. The foreigner is so strong and forthright and so caring. She could almost hand over the microphone to them, if only they could speak for themselves, if only they understood.
The construction of a stereotype
Wide angle b/w shots, grainy, high contrast images characterize the typical third world helpless victim. Huge billboards with a dying malnourished child in a corner with outstretched arms. A clear message in polished bold font in the top left corner cleverly left blank. The message reads “We shall always be there.” A reality constructed for and by those who want us to forget the implications. That “you (the developing world) shall always be there.” In that role (a passive existence necessary to be maintained) those who receive aid, the “client group,” remain.
The assumptions and how they are validated
The end product in all these cases is the same. The Western public gets to see a distorted view of the developing world. A situation for which the public in question can hardly be totally free of blame. School children in the UK think 50-75% of the worlds children are visibly malnourished (the real figure is less than 2%), and that only 10-20% of the world’s six to twelve year olds start school (the real figure is almost 90%), and that the rate of population growth in the developing world is increasing (it is decreasing in every part of the developing world including Africa). The fact that a high proportion of the information about the developing world for the average western reader comes from fund raising campaigns is another cause of this gross distortion.
There is of course the other tack where “Third World Participation” is created in the form of guided tours to paid Third World journalists who are given what amounts to a censored view of well to do countries. In a recent tour of the United States organized by the United States Information Agency, I was accompanied throughout by a person from the State Department, and my request to visit Harlem was turned down due to “security reasons.” My report on the trip was never made public. That people from the developing world do go on these trips and cater to these forms of tokenism is of course a slur on their own professionalism. Organizations like the World Bank do sponsor studies by people known to be mildly critical, with the proviso, that the World Bank would decide if the work would be published. Thereby retaining ultimate control.
The business of development
Every organization has a goal, a means and a method. The apparent goal of donor organizations is to make the recipients self sufficient. For this it uses tax payer’s money, usually a fraction of a percent of its GNP. Genuine aid also constitutes a tiny fraction of the recipient’s income. The method varies, but invariably involves an input of a lot of personnel, and materials from the donor country which is paid for by the same money that was given out as aid. An organization’s growth depends on its ability to generate more work. There are a limited number of recipient countries, a restricted market. All donor agencies compete for this small market. A recipient country that truly becomes self sufficient (unheard of in the history of development), no longer needs a donor. The donor agency, by fulfilling its manifesto would make itself redundant. The same applies for a development worker. The myth of humanitarian aid, however, has long been discarded, and the donors are now openly more concerned about governance, (how we spend their money) and there has been a visible shift towards administering the flow of funds rather than the humanitarian utilization of funds. Donor agencies invariably declare themselves to be non-political. The very act of giving money, or its equivalent, to people who are badly deprived is strongly political. The development worker is in a very powerful position. They are people who have to be pleased if one wants a loan, or access to education, or food.
The truth is, that despite all their claims about delegation, very little decision making involves local people. And very little decision making by the foreign experts involves in-depth local knowledge. It would be hazardous for these foreign experts to permit the infiltration of people who could penetrate their information chain, something that photographs are particularly good at doing. Culture, once considered a hindrance to development has now, become fashionable to promote. But it has to be a particular type of culture packaged in a particular type of way.
The “image business” is inextricably linked with the “development business.” From slide shows in remote villages to slick exhibitions in posh hotels, from A5 flyers to coffee table books, from fund raising campaigns to annual reports, image hungry developmental agencies depend heavily on image makers. One feeds off the other. It is hardly surprising therefore that the image producers (read mostly white men photographers) produce images that are good for business for both industries. Development or fair representation doesn’t enter the equation.
The Marketing Strategy
There is of course the need (amongst industrialized nations) to show the results of donor aid. The recent major feature in the Observer newspaper in the UK on OXFAM, was called the Poverty Supplement, and in Observer’s own words “The main aim of the Poverty Supplement was to persuade our readers to support OXFAM’s work financially. This was obviously successful.” The supplement was in fact an advertisement in the Observer to the tune of about #25,000. Pledges from the Observer readers amounted to a third of the annual budget for OXFAM’s development partnerships in Zambia. When a similar proposal was made for CONCERN’s projects in Bangladesh, though CONCERN had proposed a local photographer of international standing who had been working on the projects for over six years, and the Observer had initially agreed, they backed out in the last minute, and used a British photographer. They did however use stock photographs from the Bangladeshi photographer, but were only interested in the slum and poverty pictures which were a small part of the total work.
The power of images
A camera can be a tool of extreme sensitivity or no sensitivity at all. A photograph can:
1) Be an eye check on memory
2) Give detailed information
3) Show what we cannot see
4) Store away complex data for future analysis
More importantly it can influence people and create powerful emotional responses. We are aware of the meaning of words, but forget that images may have different meanings to different people, and that the meaning of a photograph can depend to a large extent on the context in which it is used. “The Camera never lies” is the biggest lie of all.
The need for a different type of education
If we are to genuinely work for social change, what direction should developmental education go in? Teach local people about the fruits of good nutrition, family planning, education of their daughters. That is extremely important and is largely being attempted. What about teaching people (particularly development workers) to look for other options besides aid? What of creating role models of Bangladeshis running international developmental organizations, and giving these Bangladeshis the support and the clout necessary for them to succeed? What about foreigners trying to learn Bangla, and veering away from the policy that success in the development ladder correlates directly with a person’s competence at English? What about use of images that show a positive aspect of the country rather than the fund collecting images of helpless destitutes? What about not distorting captions by substituting them with dramatized, orientalist plethora? What about desisting from patronizing the government and genuinely working with them rather than creating what is in effect a parallel government? What about teaching those working in development what the word really means?
The credit lines in articles dealing with poorer countries have no indigenous names. When questioned why this was so, picture editors and development workers claimed that there simply weren’t people in these countries qualified to do the job. Their reliability, their professionalism, their ability to understand the brief was all suspect. In response we began to make a survey of indigenous photographers working in their own countries. The response, both in terms of numbers and the quality of the work was overwhelming. If a small organization based in Bangladesh armed with no more than lists obtained from interested friends can pool together an impressive list of talented indigenous photographers doing good work in their own countries why has it been so difficult for the development agencies to ‘discover’ them. Discovery is of course a key word when photographing the natives. The photographer steps down from the plane, ‘discovers’ the native and goes back with the scoop. That discovery implies past ignorance, seems to never get noticed. Yet there are people who did know the local people, understood their language, were respectful of their culture and understood the underlying causes of things. These are the people, skilled, available and able, who do not exist. They have not been discovered.
The history of photography fails to mention the work done by photographers in poorer countries. While the heroic feats of Hill and Adamson are extolled, the photographers who had to import all their equipment and materials from the wealthier countries and documented their cultures for little financial gain have never been registered in the archives. The few exceptions like Indian photographer Din Dayal, given the title Raja by the British who had been legitimized for having served the crown. Other much more important names in the field from the same period, like Ali Ahmed Khan, never get mentioned, puzzling until one remembers that Khan had led a rebel attack on British troops.
In five years of operation as a picture library based in the developing world, we have had many requests for images of Bangladesh by publishers, NGOs, donor agencies. The most frequently requested picture so far have been of the floods, cyclones, and slums. There was even a request for flood inundation of Dhaka in the floods in ’93, which the client insisted had taken place. We have not for instance yet been asked for a picture of a person at a computer terminal, a very commonly stocked photograph in western libraries, and one which we too have several of. In one instance the client, an educational publisher in the UK insisted that our photograph of a tila (little stupa in the middle of a pond, used as cyclone shelters) was much too small and that they knew of huge giant stupas, which local photographers and community workers who had extensively combed the cyclone affected areas had never seen nor heard of.
The danger of being left out is not as great as the danger of being nullified. Books that teach you how to be a successful photographer, The ones that teach you the secrets of the trade, teach essentially how to become occidental. Since the person making the most important decisions regarding the usage of a photograph is invariably the person most distant from the event itself, the photographer’s ‘formula’ for producing acceptable pictures is to regurgitate editorial policy regardless of what is observed. That is what the indigenous photographer must produce if he/she is to get ahead. That is what makes them begin to ‘exist.’ The danger therefore, is of becoming a sheep in wolf’s clothing, and eventually of becoming a wolf.
Pretty much all NGOs seem to have the usual ‘income generating activities,’ the savings groups where the villagers gather round in a circle and sign the passbook, the functional education classes where village folk are taught urban middle-class expressions that even in cities only get used in formal situations. Where they are taught “the policeman is your friend…” and they know otherwise. Photographs of the activities of a hundred different NGOs would be largely identical. Where is the training to network that the donor circuit itself thrives on? Where is the emphasis on information technology that allows the richer countries to retain their stranglehold? The poor in these countries have been observed, analyzed and understood, but why have they been built a cell with no exit? Why are entire nations guinea pigs for foreign anthropologists, sociologists, economists and photographers?
In a recent effort by an independent agency to install E-Mail in Bangladesh for setting up an inter-nation and a South-South dialogue, it was discovered that many NGOs already had their own dedicated E-Mail line, but had not offered the service to others, even to other NGOs. Information appears to be a resource that people are very secretive about, access to information something developing countries are selectively denied. The nature of the images representing developing countries is an index of the media control that will prevent developing countries from developing.
A Halloween song sums up some of the attitudes portrayed:
(Sung to the tune of WE THREE KINGS)
We Trick or Treaters in bright costumes are
Asking your help for children afar.
We want no candy But cash is dandy,
Here is our UNICEF jar.
Help the children, in foreign lands,
Shahidul Alam, Dhaka 30th May 1994