World Press Photo Opens in Dhaka

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

Unwritten Histories

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Books in library shelves hold images that have shaped history. Familiar names, recognisable images and anecdotal tales, remind us of the greats in photography. Students study the trends set by cult figures and established masters. Experts at Sotheby’s tell you whose work to invest in. Limited edition prints in gallery walls, sport price tags commensurate with branding. The market decides. The signature says it all. The occasional controversy over the veracity of some historic image may cause a minor blip, but the myths live on, embalmed by scholars and other experts, who teach us what to value. A discovery causes a stir, and accolades follow for the discoverer and the discovered. They reaffirm the inclusiveness of it all.
Lost amongst the library shelves are some names that have taken a different route. They have worked within their own communities, far from the gallery walls. Some indeed have become household names despite this distance. Others have moved to the geographical epicentres of the industry. Each one however, has left an indelible stamp on the community that nurtured them. They have given hope, inspired and become role models for many communities that do not exist in those library tomes, except as a passing canvas of some recognised genius.
Turning their lens around at their own societies and their own craft, they have asked questions of themselves. Probing, searching, challenging, they have unsettled their own universe, asking hard and demanding answers. While discovery for some have come despite their peripheral role, others remain unknown, except in the communities they have chosen to immerse themselves in. This calendar celebrates the vision, the tenacity and the enormous skills of these individuals, rare in any society, who have chosen to make a difference. It pays homage to their unwritten history.
————————————————————————

Chien-Chi Chang
In 1999 Taiwanese Magnum photographer Chien-Chi Chang won the Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography, the Visa d’Or in magazine photography in Perpignan, was named the Missouri/NPPA Magazine Photographer of the Year and was awarded the first prize in the category “Daily Life Story” from World Press Photo.
Diego Goldberg
Working internationally since 1971, Diego Goldberg was President Mitterand’s personal photographer. As the director of photography of Clarin newspaper in Argentina, he won the Gold Medal at the Society of Publications Design Annual Awards. He was one of the masters at the World Press Photo “Masterclass” in 1996.
Graciela Iturbide
Graciela Iturbide studied under Manuel Alvarez Bravo and later worked with him. She was part of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte, Conaculta, Fonca. Widely published and exhibited, her work is collected by major museums in Latin America, North America and Europe.
Kishor Parekh
As chief photographer with the Hindustan Times from 1961 to 1967, Kishor Parekh introduced the concept of picture-stories in India. Often at odds with his editors and the celebrities he photographed, he fought for space, both on the turf and on the printed page. His coverage of liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 is considered one of the finest documentations of the war.
Luc?a Chiriboga
Chiriboga is a sociologist, a photographer and a researcher on the history of photography. She is the director of the “Visual Center Workshop for Photographic and Communications Research” in Queto city, a private foundation dedicated to the research, cataloguing and analysis of early Ecuadorian photography.
Pablo Ortiz Monasterio
One of the greatest street photographers of Mexico, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio has also worked as editor of the magazine Luna Cornea, and was one of the founders of the Centra de la Imagen in Mexico City. He has also worked as an independent curator. An ability to combine humour and irony while dealing with stark subjects characterises his work.
Pedro Meyer
A pioneer of digital photography, Pedro Meyer is editor of the most visited photography website in the world – www.zonezero.com. He created the Latin American Colloquiums of Photography and founded the Mexican Council of Photography. Using Macromedia Director 1.0 he created the first CD-ROM containing photographs and sound in 1991.
Peter Magubane
Torture, a total of 586 days in solitary confinement and being shot 14 times below the waist with buckshot, failed to stop Peter Magubane from “demonstrating with my camera”. Africa’s best known photographer has documented the most significant moments of his country’s struggle against apartheid.
Raghu Rai
Raghu Rai was awarded the ‘Padmashree’ in 1971, one of India’s highest civilian awards. As the photo editor of India Today he was instrumental in changing the way photography was used in Indian newspapers. He has been associated with Magnum Photos since 1977. His books include Indira Gandhi, Taj Mahal, Calcutta, Mother Teresa and My Land and its People.
Reza Deghati
Jailed for over three years by the Shah’s regime for “showing the poverty and injustice in Tehran”, Reza Deghati is considered one of the best photojournalists in the world. Reza is the founder of the NGO AINA which works for the development of independent media and cultural expression in Afghanistan.
Shahidul Alam
Photographer, writer, teacher and activist Shahidul Alam set up Drik Picture Library, Pathshala ? The South Asian Institute of Photography and Chobi Mela the festival of photography in Asia. An information technology pioneer in Bangladesh, Alam is currently involved in setting up a regional centre for investigative journalism.
Tara Sosrowardoyo
Famous for his work as an album-cover art director and photographer Tara Sosrowardoyo was also a stills photographer for feature films. His diverse work in advertising, editorial, journalism, fashion and portraiture has been used in Time, Newsweek and Vogue. He has several books and audio visual programmes on Indonesia.

Well, the Drik 2004 Calendar is now available. Feast yourself on this
list of photographers:
Chien-Chi Chang, Diego Goldberg, Graciela Iturbide, Kishor Parekh, Lucia
Chiriboga, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Pedro Meyer, Peter Magubane, Raghu
Rai, Reza Deghati, Shahidul Alam, Tara Sosrowardoyo.
Special thanks to Claudia Pretelin, Maria Mann, Neo Ntsome, Robin
Comely, Stefana Fraboulet and Swapan Parekh for their help.
Best wishes for the Gregorian New Year.
Shahidul

Victory's Aftertaste

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

Shahidul Alam

Sat Dec 20, 2003

Brahmaputra Diary

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Multimedia version with video and photographs

A gentle trickle
A surging river
A gentle plain
A delta
Four long years
Three thousand kilometres
Cormorants, sea gulls
Sparrows at dusk
A flurry of wings
Moody clouds
La brume matinale
Boats bathed in twilight red
Wild blossoms
In narrow paths
A banyan tree
Tall strong shady
A forlorn reed
In amber garb
Bamboo groves
Reaching for the sky
Arching along the water
Coconut palms
Betwixt the land and the sea
A river rests, a delta speaks
Older than the mountains, it is a river that forces its way across the towering Himalayas. The Tibetans know it as the Yarlung Tsang Po (the purifier). In India it is known as the Brahmaputra. In Bangladesh it is also known as the Jamuna, the Padma and finally the Meghna before it opens into the sea. No one is known to have traversed the entire run of the river. We take you on this journey, across the millenium, across three nations, through Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. From the icy trickle in the glaciers. Along Pei in China, where the river narrows into a rapid-filled gorge reaching phenomenal depths and amazing cascades. Through the crystal clear waters in Arunachal Pradesh. Across the We take you sailing along the Brahmaputra.
The Brahmaputra Diary. An exhibition based on my journey along this majestic Asian river opens at the Sutra Gallery in Kuala Lumpur tonight (Sunday the 7th September) at 8:00 pm.
Shahidul Alam
Sun Sep 7, 2003
Multimedia version with video in Zonezero.com

From Seventh Fleet to Seventh Cavalry

Mowli. Until recently, she didn't know her original name was Mukti. Too dangerous a name to use in 1971. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

25th March 1971. My eldest niece had just been born the day before. It was a premature birth. Amma had found a Mariam flower and the flower had bloomed, heralding the birth. She had stayed behind at the clinic. We had felt something was afoot, and Babu Bhai and I went out to try and get mother and child back from Dr. Firoza Begum’s clinic in Dhanmondi. Our home might not have been safer, but at least we’d be together. Friends were building roadblocks in the streets by then, and let us through reluctantly, warning us that we had little time.
We went along the narrow road by Ramna Police station to Wireless Mor, it being too dangerous to go along the main road. I climbed over the barbed wires on the boundary walls to get to my sister’s flat, but my brother in law felt it was too dangerous to go out, so I turned back. By then the tanks were on the streets.
I had fallen asleep, but woke up to the sound of gunfire. The wide red arcs of tracer bullets had lit up the sky. The only tall building nearby was the Hotel Intercontinental, where the meetings between Mujib and Bhutto had taken place, and where the foreign journalists were staying. The slum next to the Sakura Hotel and the nearby\ newspaper office were ablaze. We could hear the screams. Those who were able to escape the fire, ran into the machine gun fire waiting outside.
Abba (my father), Babu Bhai and I watched in silence. We had argued with Abba about Pakistan, but he had been victimised as a Muslim in pre-partition India, and would not support what he saw as the break up of the nation. That night he finally broke our silence by saying, “now there is no going back.”
We heard the gunshots all night, and there was a curfew the following day. Eventually when there was a small break in the curfew the day after, Abba went to get supplies, and Babu Bhai and I got my sister and her daughter to Nasheman, in Eskaton where we lived. We called her Mukti, meaning `freedom’. But relatives warned us that it was too dangerous to use that name, even if it was a nick name to be used only amongst ourselves. So Mukti became Mowli, and even after independence, the name stuck.
Twenty five years later in 1996, I tried to put together a collection of images of ’71 for our 1996 calendar. I am reminded of the introduction:
Drik calendar 1996, commemorating 25th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh

[Twenty five year ago, even longer perhaps, just a camera in hand, they had gone out to bring back a fragment of living history. Today, those photographs join them in protest. Peering through the crisp pages of the newly printed history books, they remind us, “No, that wasn’t the way it was. I know. I bear witness.”
The black and white 120 negatives, carefully wrapped in flimsy polythene, stashed away in a damp gamcha, have almost faded. The emulsion eaten away by fungus, scratched a hundred times in their tortuous journey, yellowed with age, bear little resemblance to the shiny negatives in the modern archives of big name agencies. They too are war weary, bloodied in battle.
So many have sweet talked these negatives away. The government, the intellectuals, the publishers, so many. Some never came back. No one offered a sheet of black and white paper in return. Few gave credits. The ones who risked their lives to preserve the memories of our language movement, have never been remembered in the awards given on the 21st February, language day.
25 years ago, they fought for freedom. They didn’t all carry guns, some made bread, some gave shelter, some took photographs. This is just to remind us, that this Bangladesh belongs to them all.]
Drik Calendar 1996
Today, embedded photojournalists with digital cameras, give us images of yet another aggression. This time, from the other side of the gun. The 50 clause contract that gives them access to imperial military units, like the unwritten rules that allow them access to presidential pools, ensure that `free’ media remains loyal to the warmongers. Will we ever get to see the images taken by the Iraqi photographers? Will their negatives die the same death? Will those images, like the bombed ruins of a magnificent city, be the only tattered remains of an aggression that the world allowed to happen? In ’71, the Seventh Fleet was stationed in the Bay of Bengal. The Mukti’s were not deterred by this show of power. They won us our independence. Today, after 43 more US military interventions across the globe, it is the Seventh Cavalry that bombs Iraq. And our own government, forgetting the lessons of history, forgetting that they tried to kill our unborn nation, turns against the will of its people. Our own police turn against us in our anti war rallies, to protect the biggest aggressor in history. These negatives may not survive, but the collective memory of the people of the world will, and our children will confront us in years to come.
Shahidul Alam
Dhaka
26th March 2003
* A flower from Arab deserts, used during labour to predict the time of childbirth.
** A working man’s cloth of coarse cotton, used as padding when carrying weight, to carry food, and to wipe away sweat.

The Silences We Maintain

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.

A boy holds his dead father's trousers as he squats beside the spot where his father is to be buried, surrounded by soldiers and villagers digging graves for victims of an earthquake. The earthquake, measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck on June 23. Dozens of villages were destroyed and hundreds of people killed across the province. 23rd June 2002. Qazvin. Iran. Photo Eric Grigorian/Polaris Images
A boy holds his dead father’s trousers as he squats beside the spot where his father is to be buried, surrounded by soldiers and villagers digging graves for victims of an earthquake. The earthquake, measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, struck on June 23. Dozens of villages were destroyed and hundreds of people killed across the province. 23rd June 2002. Qazvin. Iran. Photo Eric Grigorian/Polaris Images

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.
Shahidul Alam
21st February. Oldham.
Chairman of the Jury 2003

A Different World

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??Tsvanirayi Mukhwazi

I took the picture at one of the refugee camps in Tanzania set up by the government. I was trying to show the plight of the children who were lost and never reunited with their families. It was a hot and sunny day and I was a bit tired, having visited several camps in that area. 8 year old Kindaya Chikelema from Burundi stood in front of a notice board. More than 4000 children were lost while fleeing the war in Brurundi and Rwanda. Kindaya was one of the lucky children to be found by his parents after they saw his picture on the notice board at one of the camps.
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

A Different World

The many letters mailed all over the world had produced few results and it was ‘door to door’ time. I had placed the loose collection of prints on Dexter Tiranti’s table at the New Internationalist Magazine in Oxford. I remember Dexter’s letter the following year, regretting that he could only use six images from our agency, as the selection already had too much from Bangladesh. That started a long relationship between our organizations and led to my involvement in Southern Exposure, a platform, like Drik, for promoting photographers from the majority world. The Net has helped, but most of our contacts have come from information gleaned on motorbike rides down the back streets of Hanoi, or a meeting in a paddy field outside Beijing, or a visit to a museum in Tehran or similar opportunities for meeting photographers, whom I would not have come across in the mainstream directories. I remember excitedly going through boxes of prints that only fellow photographers or close friends had seen. Of newly found friends telling me of people I must meet. Friends from the Drikpartnership, students, colleagues at other agencies and at World Press Photo. Friends, who like us, have believed in the plurality of image sources and have been active in trying to bring about a change.
The images too have been different. These are not the ‘developmental images’ extolling the virtue of the latest World Bank fix, or the ‘news’ images that choose not to see beyond editorial briefs. The abandon of the flutist in Bangladesh or a ‘sweet fifteen’ dance in Peru, or the careless joy of the children on the branch of a tree in South Africa represent a personal involvement of the photographer, and a relationship with the photographed, often missing in the ‘big stories’ that the major agencies send their photographers to ‘capture’. Little of what you will see here is newsworthy to mainstream media. No hype reaffirms the success of a particular development plan. It is revealing that these majority world photographers have an insight and a sensibility that is strikingly different from that of their big name visitors. It is telling that an altogether different story emerges when a different pair of eyes is behind the lens. In their own back yard, they see a different world.
..
Shahidul Alam
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Ground Zero

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It was as a student of photography that I poured through the
mysterious images of Joel Meyerowitz. Haunting images of the twilight
zone. Nature’s colours blending into the neon constructions of
mankind. A changing moment in everyday life. This time Meyerowitz has
chosen a different transition point. A moment that has clearly
changed the contemporary world. An event that has taken on an iconic
status.

The stoic strength of `The Welder Wounded By Exploding Bullets’, and
the nuances of light and form in `The Blue Hour’ and `The North Wall’
are reminiscent of the vintage Meyerowitz. A few of the other
exhibits in “Images of Ground Zero” are also signature images of this
master craftsman, but by and large, the photographs are
unexceptional. The packaging is impressive however. Smartly hung on
large frosted panels, the exhibition is destined for over thirty
venues in locations around the globe. About a third of these venues
have a largely Muslim audience and the show is clearly designed with
a purpose. As a photographer from the majority world I question the
simplistic message this exhibition carries. I see an icon that has
many meanings. The exhibition does remind me that everything is NOT
okay in this world of ours, but I look beyond the rubble of ground
zero.
I hear the word democracy, over and over again, and wonder why the G8
countries, which represent only 13% of the world’s population, decide
for me how my life should be lived. I do not question the process
through which their leaders came to power, but I know that I never
chose them as my representatives. Yet they rule our lives.
I worry knowing that the 5 permanent members of the Security Council,
who happen to be the world’s largest producers of arms, are entrusted
with keeping peace in the world. I worry knowing that they have
quelled the peace-initiatives that have given us most hope, while
innocents have continued to die. I want my voice to be heard, but
know that a single veto by nations I have never chosen to be led by
can overturn the hopes of the majority of the globe.
I dream of an epitaph that we can all take strength from. That
perhaps from the rubble of ground zero, will rise a Banyan tree, that
will give shade to us all. I remember the words of an American whom
Meyerowitz’s own nation seems to have forgotten: “Every gun that is
made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the
final sense, is a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those
who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending
money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of
its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of
life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war,
it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”? Former U.S. President,
Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a speech on April 16, 1953.
Only when we build a world that truly respects different
civilisations, cultures, races and religions, can we honour the dead
in ground zero and those who continue to die. For when all things ARE
considered, the price is NEVER worth it.
Shahidul Alam. 7th April 2002. London.

A State of Danger

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The material that follows has been provided by the?New Internationalist



A STATE OF DANGER

This is?Shahidul Alam’s inside story, in words and pictures, of the intense struggle against repression which has been raging in Bangladesh, unnoticed by the Western media. Resistance work there is dangerous – photographers and journalists are regularly attacked and arrested.



In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia’s victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.

But the optimism is short-lived. Demonstrators take to the streets when the Government allies with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islam, whose leaders aided the Pakistani Army’s genocide of Bangladeshis in 1971. Under the watchful eye of authority, children of that war’s martyrs demand the trial of the war criminals.

Women feel they have most to lose if the Islamic fundamentalists gain ground. On International Women’s Day in 1994 Shamima Nazneed enacts a play by Tagore (Stri’r Potro, ‘The Wife’s Letter’) which shows the oppressive influence of the family.

The Government becomes increasingly repressive and starts to rig by-elections, leading all opposition parties to resign from Parliament. A general election is called and there is a brutal clampdown on dissent. This student is arrested on 31 January 1996 in a police swoop on a mainly Hindu hall of Dhaka University – he screams out to friends from the prison van.

Resistance hits the streets.

The opposition boycott of the election is complete: polling stations stand idle. Yet the Government reports a huge turnout of voters and a landslide victory. The contrast with the last election is painful as heavy security cordons guard Khaleda Zia while she addresses her followers. She is just visible over their shoulders in the centre, aloof and distant heir to an autocratic tradition.

Everything Smelled of Money

Aid – Bangladesh / WORLD OF MONEY

Everything smelled of money
In 1994 Shahidul Alam and Drik Picture Library launched a unique initiative which involved training children from poor, working-class families in Dhaka as photojournalists. Their progress since has been remarkable – now 16 years old, the ‘Out of Focus’ children are still learning but have had exhibitions, produced a photographic calendar and are now collaborating on a TV magazine programme for young people. Along the way, however, they have been thrown up against a world of money and opportunity, aid agencies and big business, to which people from their background never normally have access. The NI recorded a conversation about their impressions of this brave new world.

Photo: Abir Abdullah / Drik We remember the time we had to go to some UNICEF meeting or other with Bhai’ya (Shahidul Alam). It was in the Sonargaon Hotel. A huge, fancy affair, where we had trouble walking, where our feet kept slipping on the shiny lobby floor. A different world, the world of the rich. As if that wasn’t enough, Pintu had lost one of his sandals on the way there. We knew we wouldn’t be allowed inside in bare feet, but Bhai’ya told us that there was no need to worry, that everything would be fine. So we walked on that slippery floor and looked everywhere. Everything seemed so grand, everything smelled of money. People throw away so much money! In the middle of the hotel was a swimming pool with almost-naked foreigners in it. We felt too ashamed to look at them.

When you have too much money what else can you do except go to a swimming pool to show off, to say ‘Look at the money I have – I go swimming in a big hotel’s pool.’ The rich and their airs! Coming out with their cars just to show off to us, to the poor, to those of us who don’t have cars. The way they look at us! And their talk: which is better, a white car or a black car? It’s unbelievable, the arrogance!

Photo: Abir Abdullah / Drik When we go somewhere people usually comment ‘Oh you poor deprived children’. Nonsense! If they grab all the opportunities of course we’ll be deprived. First they take everything for themselves, then they coo ‘Oh, you poor deprived child’. If we are not given a chance, how can we make it? Our speech, the way we talk is offensive to the bhadrolok, the upper class. ‘Oooh, your pronunciation,’ they sniff at us, ‘the way your language wanders all over the place.’

We are poor. But the fact that we have cameras and know how to take photos makes people uncomfortable. And so something simple becomes complicated. People who see us keep asking us ‘Accha, are these the cameras you use?’ But, you see, the camera’s not the point. The point is to take photographs. It doesn’t sit well with a lot of folks that the children of the poor should have cameras. Makes you laugh. Once Bhai’ya took some of our shots to the Lab for printing. The people at the Lab thought that one of the photos was his. ‘Take a look at Shahidul Alam’s work,’ they said. Well, it was actually taken by Iqbal, and when Bhai’ya told them so, they just shut up and wouldn’t say anything more.

Passion for pictures. Rabeya studies negatives while Moli, Iqbal and Shefali look on. Inset are photos of Shahidul Alam with a new group of children from a village in Brahmanbaria – the ‘Out of Focus’ children are helping to teach them photography.
Photo: Shahidul Alam / Drik

Hamida and Rabeya have been abroad. The word has spread. That’s how they are introduced, as having gone abroad. We take photos. That is not our identity however. The point is who has gone abroad.

Yet another way to show off is English. You aren’t anybody if you don’t know English. As if the real thing, the only thing, is not the work itself, but whether you know English. It’s such a fashion to speak it. They say you have to know it, but what do the foreigners know? Shouldn’t all those photographers and all the other visitors who come here know Bangla? Nobody tells them ‘You should know Bangla’.

Through our photographs we want to change things. But lately the going has been tough. With the children of the wealthy it is enough that they take photos, but with us it seems that we have to prove ourselves by learning English too. What will happen to those English-speaking friends who also carry on the struggle? Will they learn our language and join us? Oh come on! Will they not join ranks with us? What then is our language of photography to be?

These comments were made during an informal discussion involving
Faysal Ahmed Dadon, Hamida Akhtar Bristi, Abul Kashem, Refanur Akhtar Moli,
Rabeya Sarker Rima, Sopna Akhtar, Shefali Akhtar Setu and Md Zakir Hossain.
It was recorded/compiled by Manosh Chowdhury and translated by Khademul Islam.

First Published in the New Internationalist Magazine