Thailand coup d'?tat

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?There?s been a coup d’?tat,? said Cherrie breaking into our meeting at the Imperial Tara Hotel in Bangkok. Some of the participants have just returned from shopping and there were little signs of the unrest that it implied. My camera had been handed in for repairs, and my first instinct was to see who had one I could borrow. Suvendu kindly and only half reluctantly offered his. Zaheer and I decided to go out, but he returned soon afterwards, seeing the pouring rain.

 

Rainy Street
There was some housekeeping to be done. Several participants were due the next day and decisions needed to be made as to whether they should make the trip. Spending as little time as I could get away with, I clutched Suvendu?s camera and broached the rain. Some shops had closed, but there were people in the streets. The Japanese restaurant at the end of Sukhumvit Soi 26 wasn?t full, but did have customers.

 

 

Seven Eleven
Zaheer needed a SIM card, but the girl in the 7/11 simply said ?no card?. Military takeover, or political unrest didn?t seem to pervade the air.

 

 

 

Train station
The train station was closing, perhaps a bit earlier than usual as it wasn?t midnight yet, but the traffic in the streets seemed normal. People outside the 7/11 waited for the bus as they normally do.


Must try and sneak out of the meeting tomorrow to go downtown where the tanks are meant to be, but here the only sign a conspiracy theorist could use as ammunition was the Securicor car waiting outside the bank. Perhaps an ominous sign.

Shahidul Alam

Imperial Tara Hotel

Bangkok

 

Profits versus the Poor

?I have lost a son, maybe I?ll lose another, but I won?t let them setup a coalmine here.? To Tahmina Begum who had lost her son Toriqul to police bullets, her land was also her family. It could have been a ?B? rated western except that it is set in the east. People wanting to hang on to their ancestral land versus mining companies wanting huge profits. There have been only minor changes from previous scripts. When farmers wanted fertilizers and seeds, the police had opened fire killing them, when they wanted electricity to irrigate their soil, the police had opened fire killing them. Now that they want to retain their land rather than have it converted into coal mines again the police have opened fire killing them. The Shaotals, being indigenous minority groups, find themselves even more vulnerable within this persecuted community. In the shootings on the 26th September 2006, in Phulbari, Dinajpur, in northwestern Bangladesh, at least six villagers are known to have been killed, over a hundred are said to be missing.

Continue reading “Profits versus the Poor”

Sitting on a man's back

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Three bombs had gone off the day before, and they weren?t comfortable about me walking on my own in the streets of Kabul.

Streets of Kabul

The driver insisted that he gave me a lift. The suggestion that a particular hill not too far away would give me a good view of the city was a good one, and the late evening light was just leaking through the haze. He offered to stay to give me a lift back, but I wanted to be on my own, and writing down that I needed to get back to Choroi Malek Asghar, I wandered off, free at last. Coming down the hill, I wandered through the back streets as I tend to do in cities I am new to. An odd conversation in my broken Urdu helped. As always kids wanted to be photographed, and wherever I went, people offered me cups of tea, or invited me home.

Abdul Karim latched on to me. Insisting that I visit his family, he took me through the narrow winding mud path that led to the tiny doorway that was the entrance to his home. My first task was to take photographs of the family. I had none of the language skills he had, but it didn?t seem to matter. Initially surprised by this stranger the man had brought home, the family quickly turned to more important things, like being hospitable to this mehman (guest).

Marine Engineer

I gesticulated wildly enough to convince them that I needed to catch the light while it was there, and Abdul Karim became my self appointed guide. I could go and take some photographs, but was to come back and have tea. The sun had almost set by the time we were back up the hill. A lone runner ran circles around the flattened top of the hillock. Football fever had set in and the shouting of the kids chasing a ball in the dried up swimming pool in the centre, carried through the evening sky. Four young men came up and made conversation. Two of them had been to Pakistan, and we spoke in Urdu and in English. One was an out of work webmaster, and wanted my email address. They posed, I photographed, and he scribbled his email address so I could email the picture back.

Four young men

The sun had set and Abdul Karim wanted me to keep my end of the bargain. The young men also wanted me to visit their homes. Perhaps they could take me out the following day they suggested. They knew great places for photography. We exchanged mobile phone numbers. Undiplomatically, I suggested that perhaps they too could come to Abdul Karim?s and then I could go with them to their homes. One young man took me aside and explained that they couldn?t go. It would be breaking purdah. I wondered how I had become an exception to the rule.

Abdul Karim, his mother, Bibi Shirin, his wife Ayesha, and their two children Mehjebeen and Sufia lived in this one room flat. There were mattresses on the floor and one television set and one radio. There was a tiny courtyard and metal steps that went up to what looked like a loft. Abdul Karim had worked as an engineer in the marines and was now out of a job. He showed me the children?s book he used, to try and teach himself English. Even with body language and the best of intensions, our communication faltered, but there was no mistaking that I was a welcome guest, and my major challenge that evening was leaving without having dinner with the family. The path outside was by now pitch black, and Abdul Karim walked me through the maze and got me to a cab. We parted with some sadness.

Back at the Aina office where I was staying, the guard with the Kalashnikov welcomed me with a smile. I could see why my colleague Nazrul hadn?t left the compound for the last two months.

Aina guard

Day before yesterday we drove up to Salang, past the bombed out ruins of what had been thriving villages, past the tank carcasses, past vast stretches of barren land, interspersed with lush foliage by the river beds. A young man took great pleasure in racing his steed against our minivan. Two boys flagged me down, insisting that their friendship be recorded in my camera.

Two boys

Back in Kabul, I did walk out on my own, without an escort, and went to the market place. The men in the bakery insisted that I try their freshly baked bread and I briefly sat with new found friends and watched Hindi films in the restaurants.

Bread maker

I spoke to Arif who ran a small studio, and came across the out of work labourers in the market square looking for work. A child and an old man reached into the gutter to pick up a polythene bag they could sell. It was in a worker?s face that I realized why people who are capable of so much hospitality, and are so willing to give, have become objects of terror to the foreigners who live here.

Labourer looking for work

They want the very things that the west has officially championed. Jobs, security, a home for their families and for their land to be free of occupation.

Organisers at the Sarina Hotel claimed it was the first fashion show in 20 years in Afghanistan. There were few tell tale signs of the riots that had taken place here a few days ago. But the white landrovers outside, four sets of security barriers, and the armed US soldiers on guard, marked the distance between central Kabul and the rest of the country.

Fashion BurkhaUS security guards

I remember Tolstoys words ?I sit on a man’s back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.? They seem to have learned little in 120 years.

Choroi Malek Asghar
Kabul
9th July 2006

Demagogues at Airports

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He looked worried as most passengers would do, waiting for luggage that should have arrived. It had been a while since EK005 from Dubai had landed at Heathrow terminal 3. Belt 2 was almost empty. They announced that one lot of bags was yet to arrive. There was hope yet.

Nawaz Sharif at Heathrow

Now that we were the only two passengers left, we made eye contact. With a faint nod he registered my recognition, as celebrities often do. He asked me in Urdu, where I was from. Dhaka, I muttered, and we shook hands. He found no need to introduce himself as Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister of Pakistan. I resisted the temptation to ask him about his property in London, or the proposed tryst with Benazir.

This had occurred before, once at terminal 4 when General Ershad, the former president of Bangladesh had arrived. No fanfare, no waiting crowds, people walking by. I wondered how it felt. They both had absolute power when they ruled, and had used it with abandon. I remembered our resistance in the streets, the police brutality, the teargas. Noor Hossain and Milon’s death. Despite all the rhetoric about their closeness to the people, fending for themselves at the airport terminal was probably as near as they ever got to seeing what it was like on the other side.

7th June 2006

Biarritz

Where Sandals Still Fear to Tread

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Dear Mr. Kees,

Thank you for taking the time and the trouble to respond to my mail. Mine was a principled stand, and frankly not one I had expected the ambassador to respond to directly. I was pleasantly surprised that you did. In a similar case in 2002 (I have enclosed my description), where the dress code had not been specified, my national dress which I always wear, was not found respectable enough for an ambassador’s residence.
In that case the deputy ambassador had written to say that an exception could have been made in my case. I do not want to be an exception. If my national dress is not acceptable in a formal event in my own nation as a general rule, then I do not want to be part of it.
You correctly describe a ‘lounge suit’ as being internationally recognized as a ‘dark suit and a tie’. Indeed that is how I too interpreted it, and that was the reason for my objection. I find many Bangladeshi men proudly adhering to the same dress code you describe. Unsuitable though it might be for a Bangladeshi climate, I have no objections to the dress itself. It is the brown saheb’s aspirations for whiteness (luckily Europe is no longer exclusively white) that I find somewhat pathetic.
It is not for me to be judgmental about their aspirations. But I am free to make my own choices of attire. I am proud to be a Bangladeshi and proud to wear its national dress. This is what I wore when I met Queen Beatrix in Amsterdam, and what I wore when I met your current prime minister and the two previous ones. It is also what I wore when I sat next to the princess at dinner. I suspect I would have been warmer in a suit and a tie in each of those occasions, but my choice of attire was a conscious one.
I find it disconcerting that the same dress code is unacceptable in my own country barring ambassadorial pardon. However, I thank you again for inviting me, and though I regretfully decline, I would welcome the opportunity to invite you and Mrs. Vonhoff to ours. You would be free to wear a lounge suit should you want to.
Warmest regards to you both,
Shahidul Alam
My experience at French Ambassador’s residence

Colliding with the State

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Lisa Botos from the Time Magazine office in Hong Kong, had done most of the hard work. Permissions had been obtained and the protocol arrangements had been made. The shoot was on. Having gone through the security hoop at the prime minister?s secretariat, I had settled in at the waiting room along with my colleagues photographer Aminuzzaman from Drik and writer Alex Perry and William Green from Time. That was when the trouble started. Officials rushed to usher me out of my seat. I was wondering what other security alert I had triggered off. My faux pas was somewhat more embarrassing. I had been sitting on the prime minister?s chair.
I had only been allocated a few minutes for the cover shoot, which went well despite one of my lamps blowing on me, but luckily the prime minister had agreed to our suggestion that we follow her on her trip to Pabna. I scurried to change gear for the outdoor shoot. Emptying memory cards, handing over existing images to to take to the library, a quick visit to the loo, were all things that needed to get done, except that I was told ?hurry, she is on her way to the helicopter.? Dumping equipment into my camera bag, handing over my laptop to, I stuck my digital wallet into the pile and made a dash for it. The loo would have to wait. That was when a strong arm jutted out in the corridor. The security guard had prevented me from running into the prime minister! Alex calmly asked me if I had run into other heads of state before. ?Only once? I had said, as I had nearly bumped into Mahathir while running up the stairs at the Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lumpur. But that was a long time ago.
It was a long and eventful day and one I must write about, but for the moment you?ll need to settle for the cover image of the current Time Magazine (10th April 2006 issue) and Alex?s writeup.

The Poverty Line

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sleeping during revolution
Revolution ? Pablo Bartholomew
The Poverty Line
Tarapodo Rai

I was poor. Very poor.
There was no food to quell my hunger
No clothes to hide the shame of my naked body
No roof above my head.
You were so kind.
You came and you said
‘No. Poverty is a debasing word. It dehumanizes man.
You are needy.’
My days were spent in dire need.
My needy days, day after day, were never-ending.
As I grew weaker
Again you came.
This time you said.
‘Look, I’ve thought it over,
“Needy” is not a good word either.
You are destitute.’
My days and my nights, like a deep longing sigh,
Bore my destitution.
Cowering in the burning heat,
Shivering in the cold winter nights,
Drenched in the never-ending rains.
I went from being destitute to greater destitution.
But you were tireless.
Again you came.
This time you said
‘There is no meaning to this destitution.
Why should you be destitute?
You have always been denied.
You are deprived, the ever deprived.’
There was no end to my deprivation.
In hunger and in want, year after year,
Sleeping in the open streets under the relentless sky
My body a mere skeleton
Was barely alive.
But you didn’t forget me.
This time you came with raised fist
In your booming voice, you called out to me.
Rise, rise the exploited masses.
No longer did I have the strength to rise.
In hunger and in want, my body had wasted.
My ribs heaved with every breath.
Your vigour and your passion
Were too much for me to match.
Since then many more days have gone.
You are now more wise, more astute.
This time you brought a blackboard.
Chalk in hand, you drew this glistening bright long line.
This time you had really taken great pain.
Wiping the sweat from your brow, you beckoned me.
‘Look. See this line.
Below, far below this line, is where you belong.’
Wonderful!
Profusely, Gratefully, Indebtedly, I thank you.
For my poverty, I thank you.
For my need, I thank you.
For my destitution, I thank you.
For my deprivation, I thank you.
For my exploitedness, I thank you.
And most of all, for that sparkling line.
For that glittering gift.
O great benefactor!
I thank you.
Translated from Bangla by Shahidul Alam.

Where Elbows Do The Talking

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

I Will Not

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Today on Earth Day we are celebrating by making promises

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

I will not stop polluting

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

It is the grown-ups who are dropping bombs

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

They should solve problems and stop fighting and stop wars

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

I will not listen to the grown-ups!

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

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

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

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

What should we teach & why do we teach it?

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

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

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

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

Shahidul Alam

5th December 2004

The Price for "Progress"

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http://www.newint.org/issue372/exposure.htm

shinzo-hanabusa.jpg
Shinzo Hanabusa is yet another artist to be featured in the upcoming festival of photography, Chobi Mela III. Hanabusa’s work on Japanese farmers provides a fascinating insight into the cost of ‘progress’, in a nation like Japan.
The Second World War had adversely affected farming in Japan. I began producing a documentary on farming in 1962. The farmers were not getting a fair price for their milk. Then Japan started importing powder milk and things got really bad. In 1966 I heard rumours that the farmers in Akita were setting up a resistance movement. Following newspaper leads I went over to the locality. I was very upset, when I saw them throw the milk from the bridge as a sign of protest, at the fact that they had been reduced to this. But a big publication, Ewanami Shoten, printed the photograph and it helped turn things around a bit, so I felt good afterwards. I have since become known as ‘The Milk Photographer’. I hope the publication of this photograph in Southern Exposure helps farmers around the world get a fair price for their produce.
Shinzo Hanabusa, Japan