Mexico Revisited

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It was in the early 90?s that Pedro had written. I had only heard of this famous Mexican photographer, a pioneer of digital photography and author of the first photo essay on CD ROM, ?I Photograph to Remember?. It was a gentle, intimate and deeply perceptive essay on the last days of his parents who were dying of cancer. I remember the image of his father looking as if he could fly. He was bringing out his new CD, ?Truths and Fiction? and wanted me to write an introductory text, something about my responses to the new digital technology. We didn?t have email then, and faxes were expensive, but we continued a dialogue that went far beyond his CD, or his subsequent books.

We met several years later when Ma, Rahnuma and I had gone to Arle, in the South of France. I had a small exhibition in the festival there. Rahnuma was doing her PhD in Brighton and Ma and I were going to join her there. We would go on to France, and Italy and then go overland through the Alps to Holland. It was before Schengen, so we needed visas for each country that we needed to cross. Armed with invitation letters from friends in each country, Ma and I did the embassy rounds. Friends at the embassies helped, and we even got recommendation letters for Rahnuma which she could use in London for her visas. Undaunted by the sign inside the Belgian Embassy in Dhaka, that said ?We do not issue tourist visas?, and other equally friendly mementos in the remaining ones, we gathered all the visas, joined up with Rahnuma in London and headed off to Paris. The organisers were paying for my trip, but Andre Raynouard at the Alliance, had kindly arranged for trips to France for photographers Shehzad and Mahmud as well and we all met up in Paris. Trips to Editing, the agency that represented us in France at that time, and visits to Magnum were warm ups to Arles. We took the train to Marseille where Gilles and Isabelle picked us up. Driving through the sunflower fields that Van Gogh and Gaughin must have painted, I remember wondering if the mottled bark of the trees in Arles had inspired their rugged brush strokes.

Pedro had a massive exhibition at Arles, and I remember marvelling at the digitally produced images printed on canvas, hanging in gilded frames, all along the walls of what appeared to be a medieval church. Pedro was showing the new CD on a Mac to his enraptured audience. I too had a go playing with this new toy. Thinking I was Hispanic, Pedro came up to me and asked if I would like to see the Spanish version. In an air of nonchalance I shrugged, but suggested I might be interested in the Bangla version. Pedro smiled and told me of this very good Bangladeshi friend that he had, called Shahidul Alam, who he would introduce me to! The bear hug that I got when I revealed my identity nearly did me in.

The rest of the trip went well too, but the highlights were, being in Milano at the house of Gabriela Calvenzi, the picture editor of MODA, when Italy beat Bulgaria in the semis of the world cup and that breathtaking train ride through the Alps. We visited Nipa and Alam in Basle, and they drove us through the sunflower fields and gentle waterfalls in Switzerland. Ma was disappointed that they did not check our German visas on the train. We had gone to so much trouble to get those visas! Walking through Amsterdam?s red light district with Ma was another interesting experience, but what I remember more of that city was the meal we had. I had been in the jury of World Press (WPP) the two previous years, and had many friends there. Marloes Krijnen, the managing director of WPP took us all to dinner at a fancy Argentinean restaurant. Ma ordered a very exotic sounding dish, which we were a bit jealous of, until the waiter turned up with a baked potato with a blob of butter on top!

The US trip to visit Rahnuma?s brother Khadem, was relatively uneventful, except for the immigration officer?s zeal in checking us out, as he always did with ?certain types of passports?. This resulted in us missing our flight, and I was in full ?journo mode?. Out came my notebook, my digital recorder, I took copious notes, interviewed people, quizzed him on what he meant by ?certain types of passport?. The guy was rattled enough to upgrade us to business class for appeasement. He tried to mumble something about our garb being inappropriate, but my cold stare put a stop to that.

We didn?t go to Mexico that trip, and my first opportunity came in 1996, when the Centro de la Imagen invited me to speak at PhotoSeptembre. As it is now, there was no Mexican embassy in Dhaka. even my foreign secretary friend had been unable to extract a visa application form from the nearest embassy in Delhi, let alone a visa itself. I tried plan B. The consul general in London had heard of me and wanted to help. We exchanged phone numbers as I went off to Fotokina in Cologne, loathe to hang around in London while the bureaucrats decided what to do with me. The consul phoned me in Cologne, asking me to take the night train, in order to arrive in time. Groggily, I made my way from Waterloo to the consul office. True to his word, the consul managed a visa in time for me to race to the airport and catch my flight to New York and on to Mexico City.

Being the only African or Asian in this huge meet with over 800 exhibitions should have been daunting, but my naivet? helped me overcome such inhibitions. I was thrilled by the work on display in this amazingly culturally rich city. Manual Alvarez Bravo turning up on the day of my talk should have been enough. Reaching across to the next table over dinner to chat to Gabriel Garcia Marquez should have left me sufficiently awed, but I was too excited to be fazed by any of this. My memories were more of the trip to Oaxaca that Patricia Mendoza, the director of Centro de la Imagen had organised for a few of us. It was a small but interesting group. Fred Baldwin and Wendy Waitriss who ran Fotofest in Houston, Alasdair Foster (this was when he ran the photo festival in Edinburgh and before he became the director of the Australian Centre of Photography), and Marcelo Brodsky, the president of Latin Stock from Sao Paolo, made up our motley team. We passionately argued, and fervently planned; charting out the routes that we felt photography should take. I remember those torrid moments, but my most distinct memory is of the midnight visit to the Aztec temples that Patricia had managed to organise. The temples were off limits after sunset, but Patricia knew everyone, and had arranged for us to go on a full moon. I remember walking along the ancient corridors of the shrine, glistening in the moonlight, the quiet and eerie stillness, the sound of the bats, the whoosh of the owl, and sparkling in the valley below the gently glowing city of Oaxaca. I have very different memories of Francesco Toledo, sitting on the red clay, chatting to other artists. This was the artist who had raised millions and donated his own work, to set up some of the finest museums and galleries to be found. I could imagine him in the dried up pond in Charukola, or in Modhu?r canteen, passionately debating the merit of some work of art. While the visions included Toledo and other students, sadly, I couldn?t see the directors or the DGs of our own institutions coming out of their dull carpeted offices with towel backed chairs and touching the earth with such sincerity.

I remembered the brightly coloured shawls, the hibiscus and tamarind drinks, the blue beans and the fried crickets. So when Pedro asked me to speak at the 10th anniversary of zonezero.com I could hardly refuse. There was still no embassy, and no guarantee that it would work again in London. The world had changed in between, and Pedro was loath to have a bearded Muslim, negotiate immigration officers in the ?land of the free?. So he arranged for a direct flight to Mexico City from Paris, and sent a very official looking letter with lots of stamps to the embassy there. I had been emailed a copy. I was going to Prague enroute, so two visas needed to be managed. Luckily Martin Hadlow of the Media Development Loan Fund in Prague who had invited me to Prague, knew the ambassador in Paris, who knew the ambassador in Bangkok, who spoke to the consul general in Kuala Lumpur. The Czech consulate gave me a multiple entry visa immediately but Mexico was not going to be so easy. I was going to buy the tickets to Prague, Amsterdam and Manchester in Paris. So I had a ticket to Mexico and no visa and a visa to the Czech Republic but no ticket. It was going to be fun.

We were all approaching Prague differently. Sameera and I travelled to London together, and I went on to Paris. Czhoton had been doing a long assignment in Denmark, so he flew directly from Copenhagen. Shabbir unfortunately had been denied a visa, for the ?Catch 22? reason that he had never been to Europe before. I was staying with Sylvie Rebbot, the picture editor of Geo. In the morning, it was Sylvie who navigated the answering machine sil vous plez?s, but ended up getting no coherent response from the embassy. So armed with a map, I walked down Strassbourg St Denis to rue de? . The embassy was closed. With my rusty French, I could work out that the 16th September was Mexico?s Independence Day. Luckily, and rather uncharacteristically, I had kept a margin and had resisted purchasing my other tickets until I had my Mexican visa.

Dominique from Contact Press recommended their travel agent who was very helpful, but struggled with my itinerary. A Paris Prague single came to over $ 1,200! A return would work out cheaper, but I needed to include a Saturday night. That meant missing out on my show in Groningen, as I wouldn?t have time to go on to Manchester and then to Oldham and back to Paris in time to catch my flight to Mexico City on Tuesday morning.

Eventually we managed a Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Amsterdam Paris ticket that was reasonable, and good old Easyjet from the nearby cybercafe, provided a Paris Liverpool Paris flight, at a quite good price. All I now needed was that Mexican visa. The visa officer I met on the 17th was very pleasant. Pedro had provided an imposing looking document, with several stamps. The sort bureaucrats love. Gauging that they would issue the visa, I hesitantly asked how long it might take. ?48 hours? was the short reply. I was in trouble. All my budget price tickets were non refundable and non endorse-able. Besides, I?d already killed two of the four days I was meant to have for this meeting in Prague. Luckily, I had my itinerary with me. The sight of eleven flights, two train journeys and four car journeys, across ten cities in three continents over fifteen days, should have been enough to convince her that I was totally mad, and shouldn?t be allowed in any country, but it worked, and she agreed to let me have the visa in an hour (my flight to Amsterdam was in the afternoon). There was the minor matter of the fee. 134 Euros to be paid in cash. I gulped. In these days of electronic money, one rarely carried cash around. No problem. I had my travellers cheques. I would be back in a jiffy with the money. Could I have my passport please. ?Sorry, we need the passport to process the visa.? Logical enough, but I was stuck again. I combed all the banks in the neighbourhood, but they wouldn?t give me an advance on my credit card. Eventually a bureau de change with a trusting officer, decided he would take the risk, and cashed my travellers cheques without a passport. Back to the embassy, collect visa, rush to Sylvies?, train to Garu du Nord (Charles de Gaulle, doesn?t have a left luggage), pick up luggage, and finally with visas, tickets and passport, I dashed to the airport. Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Amsterdam, Groningen, Amsterdam, Liverpool, Manchester, Oldham, Manchester, Liverpool, Paris and then on to Mexico City. In between Martin had taken us on a lovely night walk across old Prague. Drew, arranged the Liverpool, Manchester Oldham circuit, and Lotte and Anonna, joined me in Groningen, where Maria and Ype gave me a grand tour of the Norderlicht (the Northern Lights) Festival. Opening up galleries in the middle of the night, Bresson, George Rodgers, Capa, all in one go! And of course there were my two shows, in the synagogue in Groningen and the one in Gallery Oldham that I had gone to see.

Mexico was all that it had promised to be. Great speakers, old friends, wonderful presentations. Our own session was unusual. There were only two speakers as opposed to the customary four. Brian Storm, Bill Gate?s right hand man at Corbis, versus this bearded Muslim from a small agency in Bangladesh! Techno power versus spunk! It was the classic duel and the gallery loved it. I don?t think Gates will be making a takeover bid for Drik just yet. It was again at Pedro?s on the eve of the talk. Trish was leaving for New York the next day, for the judging of the Eugene Smith Awards, and this was a quick dinner she?d arranged. Mark (senior curator of Victoria and Albert Museum in London) and I were the only guests. Pedro took us for a walk along Coyocan. We went down the streets where Frieda Kahlo and Trotsky used to live. Visited Cortes? palace where Pedro and Trisha were married, and soaked in the energy of Pedro?s bustling para.

There were of course the more traditional touristy visits. I?ll remember Maximilian?s palace for its ornate loo, and the boat ride along the ?Floating Gardens of Xochimilco? and the Aztec dance amidst the pyramids. It took a while to get used to the fact that we had a film crew following us for most of the trip. The producer, Michel, had been a war photographer for many years, but was now known for his sensational environmental films. We talked of the possibility of him coming to Pathshala to teach. The highlights for me were the visit to Fototeca in Pachuca where we saw the original glass plate of Zapata?s official portrait. The joy of holding history in my hands, was only to be topped by the visit to the incredible ?Museum of Anthropology? in Mexico City. I had been told about this famous museum before, but hadn?t quite made it during my last visit. This time round I was determined to make it. North Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans and one lone Bangladeshi made a curious mix.

What a museum it was! Having visited some of the most famed museums around the world, I felt I had seen it all, but this one simply took one?s breath away. Apart from the sheer exquisite nature of the exhibits, I was enchanted by the love and the care that must have gone into setting up the display. Each piece of stone, was carefully positioned, thoughtfully lit, and displayed as a prized possession, which of course they were. The tombs descended down an intricate stairway, with sections cut out, so we could visualise our descent into the burial grounds. Lights carefully placed at floor level, lit up small artefacts, that characterised the personalities of dead. Tools for the rights of passage, a child?s toy, a garment to take one across the border of the living and the dead. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the distant vision, each had a role to play in this wondrous display.

I had finally managed to free myself from my endearing film crew, on the morning of departure. I was not going to miss the Koudelka show. Hanging around the Palais Bella Artes, waiting for the doors to open, I made rapid notes of what was left on my ?to do? list. Gift for people back home! I was in trouble. But Koudelka was having none of this. This was an exhibition that could not be rushed. The sheer versatility of the man was amazing in itself. And then to see, in his latest reincarnation, images with such mastery of tones, such splendid play of forms, such freshness of vision, was simply mind blowing. Shopping time had to go. I needed excuses. Still reeling from this visual feast, I dashed to the alleyways at the back of the Sheraton. There were no ponchos for Topu, but a few revolutionary T shirts, and the odd Mexican trinket would have to do.

I stopped in Paris long enough to drop in at Reza?s and pick up the CD for the new Drik calendar. Sylvie had arranged an assignment for me with Geo, and having taken over the Contact Press Office, I asked the writer to visit me there. Michel Szulc Krysnovsky had just returned from his assignment in Dhaka where Pathshala student Sunny, had worked as his fixer. He brought his portfolio over, and we talked of exhibition possibilities. Robert gave a copy of his new book on the Cultural Revolution for Rahnuma and me, duly stamped with his new Chinese signature. A few hours sleep at Sylvie?s and it was time for the airport again. I would have three whole days in Dhaka before heading off to Taipei. Bliss.

The First Element

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Poem on Waterwall at exhibition “The First Element” at the National Art Gallery Malaysia.

Water
Fluid, flowing, feeling, water
Life, death, birth, union, water
Meandering, shaping, eroding, changing, water
Cosmos, clouds of gas, the ice age, frozen seas, water
Drips
Waving, trickling, surging, swaying, water
Giving, creating, forming, bleeding, water
Emotions, passion, unbridled, desire, water
Decanting, oozing, seeping, leaking, leeching, water
Drops
Wanting, longing, aching, waiting, water
Spraying, spurting, frothing, spewing, water
Coalescing, merging, blending, easing, water
Searching, probing, seeking, beseeching, water
Damp
Dank, fog, mist, wistful water
Soaked in tears
Bathed in rain
Drenched in joy
Cleansed in pain
Immersed in womb
The first element
Water

Shahidul Alam

Mon Nov 10, 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

Doing What I Do

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Why do I do what I do? I know how I started, partly by accident, when I got stranded with a camera I had bought for a friend, but that in itself cannot explain the joy, the passion, the? amazing high that I get when I see something magical in my frame. So I?m a photojournalist. Like so many others who started off in this noble profession, I too believed I was going to change the world through my images. It took a while for reality to settle in. A while to know, that taking good pictures wasn?t enough. There were gatekeepers who decided which pictures would get used, and how they might be used, and the gatekeepers generally didn?t share my ideology or passion.

It was children who shaped my visual world. Initially, as a photographer in London, I would go round asking adults with children, if I could take portraits of their kids. Some would agree, and I would go over to their homes, put down my synthetic sheepskin rug, get the kids to smile at my camera and take happy pictures. If things went well, they would buy some pictures, and we would all be happy. Not the ultimate in photography, but it paid the bills, and helped me save some money that I thought would allow me to start afresh back home.

In Bangladesh, the children had been swapped for a new range of subjects. Ice cream and plastic toys, the odd glamour shot, some celebrity. Ceramics and fancy machines. I photographed the lot. It was as an activist, in our attempt to remove an autocratic leader, that my camera finally knew what it wanted. With the adrenaline flowing as we marched through the teargas, my camera learned to love the smell of the streets. We braved the curfew, to photograph the courage of a people and the tyranny of a tyrant. I never got a picture published in those days, as a democracy movement in the majority world, was simply not news. A flood or a cyclone was much more interesting. But when we eventually forced the dictator to step down, I photographed the rejoicing, and later at our long awaited election, I photographed a woman casting a vote. When we put up the images for an impromptu exhibition, over 400,000 people came to our three day show.

But international media wasn?t interested, and it wasn?t till the cyclone in 1991, that they started asking for images again. The same western photographers came over at the first smell of disaster, and went back with the same helpless images, reducing a proud people to icons of poverty. Even locally, the images we produced and the words we wrote, seemed to have little effect. This powerful tool that I thought I?d picked up, suddenly felt blunt in the face of corruption and indifference.

That was when, while talking to a group of working class children I was training, I was shaken. Sitting on the school verandah, 10 year old Molli, looked at the photograph of the bodies of children being dragged. ?O that was the fire in number 10? she said.

?How do you know??

?Everyone knows.?

?What happened??

?Nothing ever happens.?

Then she waits a bit, and says, ?If I had a camera, I?d take his picture and put that guy in jail.?

It was the conviction of that 10 year old girl, that fired me up again. I remembered a moment six years ago, during a flood, where children who had taken shelter in a warehouse, insisted that I take a picture of them. As they stood by the large open window, all proud and standing at attention, I noticed that the boy in the centre was blind. He stood with his chest out, pushing back the other kids. Staring straight out at the camera he couldn?t see for the photograph he would never know. I began to realise how much more important the photograph was than simply my weapon for change. It represented hope and belief and could give a sense of dignity to many.

My photography slowly changed, as did the world around me. I began to see things that had never existed before. People mattered in a way that they hadn?t mattered before. The man in our neighbourhood, who collected the garbage late at night, pushing his cart in the rain, gathering each scrap of paper that he could sell to keep his family alive, took on a stature of enormous proportions. I wanted my camera to do what Molli and that blind boy had willed it to do. I wanted my camera to befriend the man with the cart. I felt ashamed, I had never stopped to ask his name.

It was at about that time that I met Abdul Malik, on an Aeroflot plane bound for Tripoly. He dreamt of somehow changing his destiny, and I dreamt of somehow documenting his dream. I have never met Abdul Malek since, and I don?t know if came back home and bought the piece of land he hoped to buy, and whether he was able to arrange a marriage for his sister, but I have seen that dream in many eyes. When the very things that the wealthy aspire to, becomes part of a migrant?s dream, the dream becomes illegal. I want my images to challenge that illegality, and all the illegalities that are sprouting around us. The illegality of a right to a homeland, the illegality of protest against oppression. The illegality of wanting a better life. I want to photograph Molli?s dream and that of the blind boy and the man with the cart.

Shahidul Alam

17th August 2003

When a Pineapple Rolls

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Getting hold of a copy of the banned magazine was difficult, but most of the people who were subscribers seemed to have read the article. As often before, censorship had given the Time Magazine piece a notoriety, and readership appeal, it might not otherwise have had. The ban was short lived, and soon the article had been forgotten.
The Bangladesh government’s treatment of its journalists however had not been so short lived. The Channel 4 journalists were predictably, released well before Christmas. For Saleem Samad, and Priscilla Raj, the situation was considerably different. Tortured and terrorised, they fell victim to a government in permanent fear of being labelled `fundamentalist’. When a pineapple rolls it is the grass that suffers, and post 9/11, it is the small states that have felt the pangs of `terrrorism control’.
The ban of the 28th July 2003 Newsweek issue was based on fears at home. “Repeated bans on international magazines on account of articles on Islam constitute a flagrant violation of the free flow of information,” Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to Bangladeshi information minister Tariqul Islam.
The RSF statement fails to address the wider issue of control on the media. Arranging photo ops, planting questions at press conferences, removing access to the `pool’ for dissenters, spin, corporate control of the media and the newly found ally of embedded journalists are beyond the reach of a government with limited media management skills. Fisk, Chomsky, Pilger, Monbiot et.al. have made valiant attempts to overcome media control in the west. But neither their work, nor the excellent independent analyses that have circulated on the Net, have managed to create a significant challenge to a well-entrenched propaganda machinery. They have largely preached to the converted.
The handling of the Channel 4 incident and the ban on Newsweek by the Bangladesh government were at best clumsy. Buying out the limited copies that are imported for Dhaka’s elite, could have far better stymied the tiny readership to Time and Newsweek in Bangladesh. An “Out of Stock” label has far less glamour than a “Censored” sticker. The harassment of Samad and Raj, was unnecessary. These were ill paid professionals trying to make a living helping foreign journalists.
A flimsy majority that depends upon a small but significant Islamic party, makes things further complicated for the government of Bangladesh. Dissent within has to be managed along with keeping in the good books of powerful states. The earlier Time Magazine article on Al Qaeda links, was tenuous at best, and the Far Eastern Economic Review article on the rise of fundamentalism was shoddy journalism. But when it is so important to say one has been a good boy, any slander, no matter how unbelievable, has to be vehemently denied. Banning the award winning film Matir Moina, (now showing in cinema halls, with only minor amendments) was a knee jerk reaction, symptomatic of a nervous government trying to juggle with appeasement outside and appeasement within.
This is not the first time the Islamic parties (Islami Oikya Jote, IOJ) have played a key role in parliamentary dynamics. Popularity for major parties far exceeds the following of OIJ, a small and disciplined party. Despite their low votes however, they have had a key presence in all governments since the elections in 1991. “We could withdraw from the alliance if the demands are not met,” Mufti Fazlul Huq Amini has threatened at strategic moments, and the government does not want to rock its own boat.
While we may be thankful that the Bangladesh government is not media savvy, the more crude attempts to suppress free journalism doesn’t bode well for media professionals. We have now had three largely free and fair elections, but the elected representatives of the people have hardly behaved in a democratic manner. Each of the three governments have resorted to violent means to ensure loyalty. More recently, warrants of arrests, issued against five editors and one executive editor on defamation charges, within a period of three weeks, represents a shift in strategy. The minister’s statement “Wherever you will find journalists, break their bones,” was really intended for rookies on the streets, and rural journalists. Going for the big boys is a more recent affair.
So how does a nation, scared of big brother, and managing a rickety coalition handle the media? Letting the journalists speak appears to be the most sensible route out. Surely, not all western journalists will be as incompetent as their Times and FEER counterparts. Maybe they themselves, given a more free hand from corporate control, would exercise the journalistic rigour required of them. Strengthening local media would go a long way in providing alternative analysis to western viewpoints. Murdered journalists don’t write too well.
“Not a hair will be touched” the minister had said in 1994, when feminist writer Taslima Nasreen was facing persecution. Not a hair was touched, and Nasreen, still under threat, was provided safe exit to a land of her choosing. In the same July 1994 issue where the NYT covered this story, there was another news, of a US doctor going to work in a bullet-proof vest and being shot in the head. While one tripped over the word fundamentalism in the Nasreen article, religion or fanaticism was never mentioned in the story of the doctor’s death. When journalists regurgitate a state’s values, control is complete. Thankfully, Bangladesh has not reached such levels of state control, and our journalists have not reached such levels of acquiescence.
A responsible media which operates freely, could do wonders for Bangladesh, for its image and its people. But there is a downside to this. A more informed public would be less easily manipulated, corruption would be more difficult, absolute power would be more readily questioned. Government acquiescence in the face of western interests flies against the rhetoric of demands for free press by western states. Secret deals are more easily made in the absence of meddling journalists.
As for terrorism, we would love to see it end. If only the US would stop manufacturing it.
Shahidul Alam
Fri Aug 15, 2003

The VIP from Bangladesh

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Comitted to PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO KNOW Vol. 4 Num 53 Sat. July 19, 2003 Literature Travel Writing
Bluffing, bluffing, bluffing….
Shahidul Alam
In this tale of banging around Beijing on a working tour, our ever intrepid photographer/gearhead shows us how fast thinking and native gall can even carry one past the watchful eyes of the Chinese Red Army.
“Kemon achen?” Mr. Li from the Chinese embassy greeted me in near perfect Bangla. I had an invitation to the Middle Kingdom, in Chinese, with a gold stamp and an embossed watermark. I felt important as he ushered me in to the spacious embassy building in Gulshan and offered me tea. Normally, I am not a tea drinker, but this elaborate concoction of herbs and berries steeped in water could hardly be refused. It didn’t look anything like tea anyway, and I didn’t want to appear rude. He brought pictures of China, gave me a video and showed me their photographic collection. However, despite all the fanfare, what he steadfastly refused to do was to issue me a multiple entry visa. I had half hoped this official invitation by the Mayor of Beijing, would make my subsequent trip to Tibet easier. Oh well!My first trip to China had been in 1986. The Indian photographer Raghu Rai and I had been asked to judge the Standard Chartered Photography Contest in Hong Kong. The photographs weren’t that great and we’d gone through them quickly. The organisers were embarrassed. Having gotten us, the judges, over for a week, they now needed to entertain us, and arranged for us to see a dolphin show. Raghu and I both felt a side trip to China would be far more interesting. We had taken the train to Guangzhou, and found to our amazement Hindi music wafting down the aisles. Staid-looking Chinese passengers were glued to the train video, listening to “Ichik dana bichik dana, dana’r upar danaaa”. I did have a three-month solo show at the Nikon Gallery in Richmond with that work, but that had been a long time ago, and I was looking forward to Beijing.
The last time I was in Beijing, a brief fly-in, fly-out, was on my way to Mongolia. My mother had wanted to go to China’s capital city, and with the then Foreign Secretary Farooq Sobhan’s help (he was an ex- bridge partner), amma had been given the red-carpet treatment by our High Commission. So that trip had been more for her than for me, and every time I’d rung up from Ulan Bator to talk to her all I would get was the dial tone: she was away, to the Great Wall, to the Forbidden City, or on some other adventure. So this time around (August of 1999) I was determined to see some of the city for myself.
My old friend, Vincent Menzel, the picture editor of ‘M’ Magazine in the Netherlands, was there, as were Nicole Aeby of Lookat Pictures in Switzerland. Nicole was exactly as I’d imagined Heidi (as in the prototypical Heidi) to be, and I’ve never called her by any other name since. It was wonderful to find Bryn Campbell there. The first book on photography I had ever bought back in London in 1980 had been “World Photography” by Bryn. I had never before met the author of one of my favourite books. He too got a new name on that trip. Our charming hostess Jin Yan, called him “Mr. Campabell,” and the name stuck.
Chinese hospitality made fitting in the judging difficult. We did go to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and the usual tourist spots. I needed to get my shopping in. Luckily Pathshala (Drik’s photography school in Dhaka) hadn’t been set up then, but still, with all my Drik colleagues to think of, the children of “Out of Focus” program, and the neighbourhood children, I needed to shop smart. Cheap, light, not too fragile, interesting things in batches of fifty was what I was looking for. Fortunately there were plenty to choose from in China. Eventually I opted for the solar-powered singing birds in small ornate cases. They were a great hit, but sadly, my own birds lie broken, one too many visiting child having treated them with too much affection. And then there were the extensive meal breaks. The Chinese meals I had been taught to expect, had a fixed sequence. You started with soup, had a couple of main meals and ended with dessert. I had not been warned about these thirty-course meals. Neither had I been told what sequence to expect. Soup and dessert came somewhere along the middle, and not knowing how many more dishes were awaiting my rapt attention, it was impossible to pace myself. My grandmother had always liked me because I was a big eater, and I hoped my Chinese hosts would have the same response to my overindulgence.
We survived the judging, the food, the trips to the sites, even the generous offers of massage by the stunning women on all the floors of the hotel, or the women pimps in Beijing streets. Even if I say so myself, I, the bearded man in panjabi pajama from Manjala (Chinese name for Bangladesh), was a great hit. Old women stopped me in the streets to stroke my beard, while kids pointed and giggled. And of course I had found my cyber caf?, Spark Ice, near the World Trade Centre. An 8-Remimbee ride by taxi, until I realised a bus was 1/400th the price. Later I discovered they had pre-paid Internet cards which I could use from my laptop in my hotel room and no longer had to run the gauntlet of the Beijing pimps.
In the rare moments when our hosts had left gaps in our itinerary, we would go walking down the side streets, generally at night. While there were still the Tai Chi people performing to music early in the morning, I missed the bird people I had seen in Guangzhou way back in ’86. They would take their birds avec cage, for a walk in the park in the morning. Later they would take them to the tea stalls, and introduce them to friends over breakfast. I could spend hours photographing those tea stalls.
Meanwhile the floods were raging in Harbin (90 minutes by air from Beijing), and as photojournalists we had to go there. There were a couple of snags. The Chinese government had completely banned foreign media from the flood- affected areas, and I didn’t have my passport. In China you need to show your passport even for domestic flights and mine was at the travel agents awaiting a permit for visiting The Tibetan Autonomous Regions. Bryn “Campabell” sensibly passed on the idea, but Vincent and I decided to have a go, and our newfound Dutch friend Astrid, who worked for UNHCR in Beijing, joined us.
We landed at an airport near Harbin and managed to bluff our way out of it. We did have a contact through the journalists in the local radio station but our lead led to a dead end. So we hired a taxi and decided to try our luck. When the road led to the first of the many Chinese military checkposts, with an immense degree of confidence we asked to immediately be taken to ‘the leader’.
Bureaucracy loves to run along a single, well-grooved channel. And our technique worked like a charm on the intrinsic inertia of the bureaucrat, the fundamental urge of the bureaucrat to do nothing and pass the buck. By letting us through to ‘the leader,’ (saying the ‘great helmsman’ would have been too much, even for the likes of us!) the officers would avoid taking a decision themselves, would neatly avoid either permitting or denying us permission for whatever purpose we had really come for. They were passing the buck and they loved it. So we passed unimpeded, and merrily, through military checkposts, gaining confidence as we progressed. And curiously, as the checkposts became more imposing the farther we went, the more effective was our charade. The very fact that we had progressed that far gave us a degree of credibility that our bureaucrat friends were loathe to question.
Eventually we got to the river itself. The banks had indeed broken and the soldiers were working furiously with typical Chinese efficiency. It was impressive to watch. Still, we needed our ‘leader’ and repeated our plea to the most impressive-looking officer. He clicked his heels smartly and said he would take us to the control tower. Hey, we realized, we were going to get an audience. Quick thinking was necessary, and given our credentials as nationals of sea-level nations, we rightly felt we should present ourselves to ‘the leader’ as ‘flood experts’ from Bangladesh and Holland who had come to evaluate their flood prevention efforts.
The press and media officer came along, and briefed us that the floodwaters had risen 14 metres in the last day. I dared to suggest that perhaps it was 14 centimetres, but the media officer was adamant. 14 metres was what his press briefing said, and that was what it was. It was an awkward moment, but then the leader arrived. An extremely polite gentleman who spoke little and gestured a lot. We were then asked whether we had a vehicle. When we mentioned that we had a taxi waiting, they asked us to let it go. This move had us worried: had they grown wise to our little caper? Not to worry. Soon we discovered that we were no mere mortals, but honest-to-goodness VIPs, and they were going to arrange a limousine for us. But first we had to join them for lunch, no doubt an extravagant Chinese affair. This unexpected turn of events required delicate handling. We had come on a morning flight and needed to catch the afternoon flight back. I had a meeting in Singapore the next afternoon and needed to catch the morning flight the following day. The others had similar plans. Still we couldn’t refuse this hospitality. Eventually, imploring that our work was extremely urgent and we needed to hand in our report within the deadline, we managed to avoid the grand lunch, but they filled our limo with packed lunches and off we went (in a limousine!) to the heart of the flood-affected area.
I couldn’t really get the shots I wanted from the limo, so a speedboat was arranged, and we went down the river. In many ways it was like Bangladesh, with families pooling together to share resources. Animals and people sharing the small bits of dry space. Makeshift tents where people were busy tending goats, cows and chicken. And as ever, children peering into the lens, making sure they utilised every photo op. We even got pictures of a political leader making a speech. With profuse thanks to ‘the leader’ and suitable congratulations for doing an excellent job, we scurried back to the airport, eager to exit before the VIP shine wore off.
A smooth take-off, much laughter on board, then back to Beijing, a flight to Singapore, and work, work, work!
Shahidul Alam heads Drik Picture Gallery in Dhaka.

Remaking Destiny

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www.migrantsoul.org

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.

Shahidul Alam

Fri Jul 18, 2003

Midwife to a Bloody Birth

Portrait of Jahanara Imam at Shahbagh Square, who led the campaign for the trial of war criminals. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Portrait of Jahanara Imam at Shahbagh Square, who led the campaign for the trial of war criminals. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World



Keeping the door ajar, so she wouldn’t get accidentally locked out,
Amma stood waving at the doorstep of 1, Birkdale Road, long after the taxi was out of her view. I didn’t bring it up then, but as I headed for Heathrow, I remembered the stories about Jahanara Khala that Amma used to tell us. It was almost exactly nine years earlier, on our arrival in London, that Georgie had given us the news. Khala had been ill for a while, but her death was still sudden, and a blow to us all. This obituary was written for the Guardian. Continue reading “Midwife to a Bloody Birth”

Juggling, juggling, juggling

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The Daily Star
Volume 4 Number 25
Sat. June 21, 2003

Literature

Travel Writing

Juggling, juggling, juggling…

Shahidul Alam

And while last week Fakrul Alam went on vacation to Indonesia, this week another, and very different, Bangladeshi (a photographer/gearhead in loosekurtapyjamas) flings himself headlong into Singapore to arrange a photography exhibition. With very different results.

 

I was getting closer to my usual time of arriving forty minutes before departure. The Singapore Airline guy had warned me to arrive three hours early. "The new computers…" he went on. I assured him I had flown several times since the new computers had been introduced at Zia. I had been there on day one, when these glistening new machines had led to long queues as confused immigration officers tapped in a letter at a time and constantly consulted more computer-savvy colleagues about the entry of some insignificant data.

Usually it was the migrant workers who were on the defensive, being made to feel worthless as they struggled with immigration forms. The roles had now been reversed. The workers seemed to enjoy waiting in line while their tormentors fumed in silence at the wonders of technology.

The flight was uneventful, except for the problems of trying to find a safe parking place for my six-foot print. Eventually the air hostess took my print away, leaving me nervously peering through the alleyway hoping she didn't fold it up to fit the container!

As we disembarked, we were greeted by another marvel of science. Another queue developed as the infrared cameras, revealed your body warmth. Posterised colours showed the relative warmth of every part of your upper anatomy as you walked by. It was live television!

It took people a while to work out who those people with strange colours were, but once it dawned, then it was movie time. Many years ago, on a cold day in London, I had noticed the coldness of the tip of my nose, and the near frost on my beard. I had always been curious about how the hairs on my chest would appear in infra red which the Singapore climate was far more suitable for observing.

Lance and Gim Lay ambled in. Gim Lay was a gallery official and had to make an appearance for her visiting artist, so she didn't have a choice, but I felt sorry for Lance, having to wake up at the ridiculous hours that Singapore Airlines arrives at, just because he's a friend.

After a very short pit stop at Teek's spacious studio, it was down to the gallery of the Singapore History Museum. We had agreed to give the show a 'raw' look. So construction scaffolding, helmets, sandbags, bricks, warning tape and cones had all been set up. Canvas strips hung on the scaffolding were to be our exhibition panels. By now I had been nearly eight hours without Internet and was getting withdrawal symptoms. Lance hurriedly inserted the appropriate IP numbers and I was online. Singaporean broadband was considerably different from Dhaka 'broadband' and I quickly went through my backlog of mail. Most of it was junk of course. After deleting the 101 tips for enlarging my privates, making 50,000 dollars a week offers plus the few Nigerian scams, I settled down to the urgent mail. Deadlines were looming. Salgado's images needed to be sourced, the workshop in Prague needed to be settled, and there were Pathshala exam sheets to be marked! I tried to get as much done using the museum connection. Even with these fast speeds, paying 15 Taka a minute at the hotel, took a bit of getting used to. The 15 Taka an hour Dhaka cyber cafés didn't seem so bad after all!

An army of volunteers had arrived, and I was expected to direct them about the setting up of the exhibition. It is difficult to appear intelligent when a horde of excited youngsters wait for each word to drop, especially when you don't have a clue as to where you are going. Still, the experience of having done this many times before did help, and with my eager volunteers, we were slowly getting the exhibition in shape. Gim Lin stormed in and out, pressing a row of panic buttons. The mounters were having problems with the inkjet prints. The precise positioning of my large prints needed my immediate attention. The television interview needed to be scheduled in, and what could I not eat?

Meanwhile I had other concerns. I had been surreptiously relieved of my Nokia Communicator the week before in a tram in Brussels, and being the techie freak that I was, not having a PDA phone was almost as bad as not being online 24 hours. So friends had been mobilised to research the PDA phone scene. What was available, where could we get it, who would give the best discount and who was going to accompany me to ensure I didn't get ripped off. I also needed a local person who would get the account on my behalf, as the phone company needed a local address.

Meanwhile Chor Lin, the director of the museum, came in for a courtesy visit. Her husband Peter Schoppert had masterminded the "Day in the Life of" series books for the Asean region, and we had many common friends. Raghu Rai in particular had been a frequent visitor while his books were being printed in Singapore. The technicians interjected in between: What did I need for my presentation? What program was I going to use? It all seemed so serious!

I managed to ring Justin. The last time we had met was when he had come over to Pathshala with David Wells for the workshop that led the lead story on Aramco magazine. Since then I had seen his Dhaka pictures in Time magazine, and I remember that ex-minister Abdul Mannan, during an earlier flight to Dhaka from Kuala Lumpur, had waxed lyrical on his slide show on Bangladesh. Justin was off the next morning to Shanghai, so that night was our only chance to meet. Eddie dropped me there and after a few mobile calls (how did we manage in the Dark Ages before mobiles?) Justin appeared at the other end of the park and directed us to the flat. The flat was a spacious house in Newton Circus and couldn't have been more ideally placed. Kaychin, Darren and Nick appeared bringing along P and P, who had set up the new photographic school Objectives and we all went to the food stalls. The food at Newton Circus was always nice and Justin knew where the best sting ray, guava juice and satay were to be found. Leaving Justin to pack for Shanghai, we went back to the museum, where I showed Darren the Chobi Mela II catalogue. They had been there throughout the circus that we had with customs and hadn't had a chance to see the shows that the customs had blocked, so the catalogue was the first chance they had to see the Malaysia and Salgado shows. We trundled home at around 3 a.m. to Tuck's Geylang Road studio, ready to drop.

The next morning the museum had geared up for action and every visitor was being asked to fill in a SARS form. Had you had any fever? Which countries had you visited. Any other symptoms? Who should we contact in case of trouble? A big A4 sheet every day for all gallery staff and visitors. More awaited. Chor Lin took us out for dinner in the evening, and the other speakers and the moderator were all there. As we walked towards the entrance of the restaurant and riverside point, a woman approached us with a thermometer in hand. Held rapier like, this tiny but evil looking device was clearly something she would relish inserting into some unsuspecting orifice. Gingerly we suggested we would sit outside in the patio. We didn't really need the airconditioned interiors and we were not going to have the buffet anyway. They agreed to make room for us by the river bank, but the rapier had not been sheathed. Gloved fingers tugged at my ear as it was brutally inserted inside. Chor Lin was delighted. This was a photo op! Being a photographer I could hardly say no. I was the only one with a camera, so I had to face the indignity of having my own camera used for immortalising on celluloid my ear-pulling session. The photographer was fussy. We had to stand in front of the aquarium, and crouch a bit so he would have the right composition. Not too much movement, as it was a slow shutter speed, and could the tester crouch too? At least my mother had not raised me for nothing. My one offering to humanity could be the pleasure I had given to so many Singaporeans as they chuckled to this spectacle. Oh how I waited for their turn!

It was refreshing to see so many photographers working into the early hours, as we mounted, trimmed, adjusted, hung the photographs. It reminded me of the early days of the Bangladesh Photographic Society. It felt so long ago.

Thursday was the big day. The opening was in the afternoon, and we still had plenty to do. Sandwiched between interviews, captions, a final edit and lighting adjustments took up most of the next day. Still no PDA phone. What was I going to do? Eddie suggested secondhand phones. Singaporeans apparently change phones every 2-3 months. A six-month-old phone was passé. So we should have been able to find a very good deal on a decent six-month-old set. The press had done their job, and friends whom I hadn't been able to contact, came over as they had seen me on TV. I had to sneak off to the computer several times as MC was breathing down my neck: were my exam papers marked yet? Some of the photographers had brought in their portfolios in between. Would I have time to review them please? It was going to be another long night. The next morning Nick and I went for a recce to Bugis. The salesman was quick to spot the techie freak and impressed me with the virtues of the operating system of the OX2. The Nokia and the Ericsson didn't stand a chance, and he was going to give me a special deal! I did have the judgement to take the time to consult my friends, and do some further research. Ed had mentioned scouting the Saturday papers where the best deals were to be found. But the salesman had done his job, and I was well and truly hooked.

Choy had asked us to arrive early to the auditorium to plan the presentation, and I arrived a bit late: There had been so many phones on offer at Bugis!

But everything went fine, all according to plan. And on the plane back home, I slept the sleep of the dead.

Shahidul Alam heads Drik Picture Gallery in Dhaka.   

It's For Your Own Good

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We will kill your children
Destroy your mosques
Grind to dust your citadels
With your oil, we’ll buy you food
Believe you me, it’s for your own good

Regime change, that’s what its about
Jay Garner* instead, what more could you want
You’ll have Big Macs and Coke
As we know you should
Believe you me, its for your own good

Forget your heritage, its so uncool
Face the facts, the US rules
Afghanis blew statues
They were ever so rude
We will raze Baghdad, for your own good

CNN, BBC, they report for our cause
Embedded journalists, they know the laws
Al Jazeera is not cricket
C’mon you dude
You know we care, its for your own good

US contracts, Haliburton rules
Conflict of interest? C’mon you fools
My interest in oil
That’s obscene, that’s lewd
Its Iraqis I care for, its for your own good

It’s freedom I want, get out of my way
A new Middle East map, drawn as I say
Imperialist expansion
Must you be crude
Are you not listening, its for your own good

World opinion, who gives a damn
My latest war cry, Saddam Saddam
United Nations
Step out if you would
Don’t get in the way, its for their own good

US weapons of mass destruction?
Don’t be absurd, we’re a peace-loving nation
Hiroshima Nagasaki
Why do you still brood?
As my God has said, it was for your own good.

I wish you’d believe me. I so wish you would


Shahidul Alam
30th March 2003, Dhaka.