Blink

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Phaidon?s new book ?Blink?

It?s a free world, they tell us. A free market economy, where we can ?choose? the life we want to lead. A world without barriers, for some. The ?centres? of photography are not accidental constructions. Neither is the conscious decision to live and work outside them an accidental one. As an outsider, I have identified with these photographers. Not all of them live outside the west. Some have even chosen the corporate world as their arena. But they have all chosen to be different. They too are outsiders.

These are photographers who have intrigued me. Whom I?ve learned to love, whose work gives me joy, and people for whom I have an abiding respect. In some cases, I know of them only through their work: A book, an exhibition, perhaps a film. The Internet has introduced me to the work of a select few, and in some cases provided surprising insight into the work of those I thought I already knew. Others are personal friends, comrades on a well-trodden path, fellows in exile. Some are young, others not so young, but they are all people who have chosen to stay away, and have carved out a space of their own. The pressure from dominant cultures is relentless, and these independent spirits will often be alone. This book I hope will strengthen the scaffolding of these peripheral spaces, without making them grist to the mill.

Shahidul Alam

Look out for the work of the photographers of my choice, Abir Abdullah, Pablo Garber, Sameera Huque, Eva Leitolf, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Mala Mukerjee, Swapan Parekh, Plonk & Replonk, Michel Szulc-Kryzanowski, Hywell Waters, and the work of the ninety other photographers chosen by Marcelo Brodsky, Joan Foncuberta, Alasdair Foster, Dennis Freedman, Christine Frisinghelli, Shino Kuraishi, Simon Njami, Wendy Watriss and Paul Wombell, in ?Blink? the new book by Phaidon. www.phaidon.com (ISBN 0714841994) Phaidon Press.

The massive book also contains essays by writers of our choice, Frits Gierstberg, Christian H?ller, Vinay Lal, Angel Moll?, Jean Loup Pivin, Arundhati Roy, Charles Stainback & Vik Muniz, Hripsim? Visser, Peter Watson, and Akihito Yasumi & Osamu Kanemura

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.

We Would Have Had So Much Fun Shooting Them Down

Paris, Charles De Gaulle airport, 13th October 2001.

The documents were impressive. I had an official letter from Le Directeur des Rencontres, Ministere de la Culture of Mali certifying that a visa was awaiting me in Bamako, a certificate of accreditation and an invitation letter from Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, a well-known personality in France and the director of AFAA/French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Still, I left well in time, knowing there might be problems. I was to do a report for the Prince Claus Foundation in the Netherlands and was on my way to attend the Fourth African
Photography Encounter in Bamako. I also had my yellow fever certificate.
None of what happened at the airport seemed sinister, until you realised what it was leading to. The immigration in Hall B in Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle is BEFORE the check-in desk. The questions started well before then. Where was I going, what did I have with me, why was I going. We went over and over the same things.
Lengthy manoeuvres that kept slowing me down. Still, there was almost an hour to go to departure time when I reached the check in desk, and immigration had already been done. I had a confirmed ticket, so I wasn’t worried. There were plenty of passengers at the check in desk, but when it came to me, the officer calmly said, “Sorry sir, the flight was closed at 10 o’ clock.” No degree of persuasion, or my insistence that I had arrived at the designated place in the airport well in time and that the delay was due to airport officials, seemed to matter. The fact that immigration, security and airlines check-in desks operate independently, made it easier for the check-in desk to deny responsibility. I had one of these cheap tickets, non- refundable, non-endorsable, so I was stuck.
Eventually, when I pointed out to the individuals who had delayed me, they did offer me an alternative booking for the outgoing flight. I could leave on a date FOLLOWING my date of return. No doubt they found it funny. I offered to pay to get onto another flight, but that too couldn’t apparently be done. By then I had worked out what was going on, and asked them to book me on the date they suggested, AFTER my due date of return. This they did. I could see people were still checking-in, and knew, if I could get through the blockade, I would get on the flight.
So I took a flight out to the nearest airport from which I could get a connecting flight. The idea being, that if I went through the check- in procedure elsewhere, where such barricades might not be present, they would no longer have grounds for refusing to let me fly. I left early in the morning from my hotel in Strasbourg, taking the tram and the bus through the fog at night to be the first person to arrive at the check-in desk. The woman at the desk at this small airport was extremely helpful. When I said I wanted to go to Bamako with a connecting flight, she immediately took my ticket and issued me a
luggage tag to Bamako. Then of course she discovered I was not booked on the flight. She made a tentative booking, issued me a `boarding pass’ without a seat number, and put in a note in the computer that I was a passenger bound for Bamako. She even gave my luggage (now tagged for Paris, in place of Bamako) a priority tag, so I would not lose time changing planes.
The luggage arrived early as planned. I rushed across to terminal B, arriving well in time to lay a claim to a seat. People were still checking in. When I approached the officer in charge, she whipped the temporary boarding pass from my hand, tore it to bits, and with a dramatic gesture, let the flimsy flight coupon fall to my hand. “The are no seats” was the terse reply.
This vulgar demonstration of power, reminded me of the article I had been reading on the 13th, the day I was first refused onto the plane, in the Wall Street Journal Europe (October 12-13, 2001, Brussels, page 3). [Lt. Ken, a 28 year old pilot from Washington state was munching on Twizzlers candy at the controls of his jet when the 57- millimeter artillery rounds started exploding below. “I’ve been peppered before, hunting pheasant, but it doesn’t really compare.” He said in Vinson’s ready room. Vinson’s air wing is trying to put all ts pilots through combat flights ? learning the tricks “before the other guys get smart,” as Capt. Wright puts it.
Capt. Wright saw two MIGs parked at the end of the runway. He fired a laser-guided bomb at one; the pilot of another F-14 nearby hit the second. “When they blew, they blew big ? you could see they were full of fuel and ammunition.” But infrared images indicated that the MIG engines were cold, which means that the jets weren’t about to take off ? much to Capt. Wright’s annoyance. “We would have had so much fun shooting them down” he said. As Capt. Wright flew back to the ship, chewing on a peanut-butter sandwich and sharing his post-battle emotions with the flight officer sitting behind, they suddenly had to dispense death to a different enemy: a cockroach had crawled up the airman’s legs. “We got a little bit of hilarity on that,” he said.]
John Wayne might have died, but these Texan-led soldiers could well have been riding into the prairie to `cut em off at the pass’. Five hundred years later, they continue to find new `Indians’ to `dispense death to’.
As for the luxuriant growth of hair on my face. I’ve decided to let it grow longer.
Shahidul Alam
Tue Oct 16, 2001

When a Modem Costs More Than a Cow

Bangladesh?s history is that of colonization, oppression and genocide. It is less than thirty years since several million people were killed and many more became refugees in perhaps one of the greatest atrocities of modern times. There were two basic tools that have engineered and enforced this domination, technology and language. Our war was based on language, and it was technology that provided the military, the muscle.

With technology and language both being owned by the wealthy, class divides are intrinsically linked to this hegemony. How then do we see the most dominant of modern cultures, the Internet? The ownership of the Net is almost entirely Northern globally, and exclusively urban and elite locally. The hype surrounding the Internet and the top down approach with which it is meant to provide deliverance, hides the politics of corporate ownership, the way in which this media is controlled, and the simple fact that for the majority of the world the Internet doesn?t exist, and for many others in the South, it is barely effective.

The propaganda surrounding this imperialist tool, fits in well with the stated objectives of our colonial rulers: ‘ Natives must either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are more wise, more just, more humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than any other rulers they could possible have.’ ?Minute by J Farish dated August 28, 1838, quoted in B.K.Boman-Behram, Educational Controversies of India, p. 239

Language forms the biggest barrier to computer literacy in Bangladesh, and when less than 15% of the population has access to electricity, and a far smaller fraction owns computers, it is clear that only the wealthy will have access to this technology. Here, a modem costs more than a cow. Yet this technology and this associated language both exist. We must stare this dual hegemony straight in the face, but we cannot, dare not, let this technology pass us by. To find creative routes to turn this technology to our benefit is our greatest challenge.

The Internet can be a subversive tool. It remains the only medium which gives scope – relatively inexpensively, and without the support of the gatekeepers ? for a lone voice to be heard. It is this unique characteristic that we have to nurture. The bigger players have the money, the clout, the physical strength and the social control to bludgeon their way through, but they do not have the flexibility, the ability to pop up and disappear at will, the speed of action or the elasticity to slip through the holes, that the well trained individual has. Given the important proviso of access, the Net is fast, cheap, and difficult to stop. It is the Net that we must use, to fight its own dominance.

Cultures dominate by creating norms that are not questioned by creating ?accepted practices? that become tools of oppression and by defusing the need for critical analysis. Consumer forces convince us of the need for bigger RAM, faster processors and software that gives us greater choice. Wildly disproportionate pay scales, between locals and expatriates and between English speaking and non English speaking co-workers teach us the importance of fluency in English. Indecent consultancy fees that siphon back most of what is provided as aid, make us believe that western values and skills are what one must strive to attain. Dominant cultures define who is primitive and who is civilized. The dissenting voice that questions the goodness of donor efforts, quickly discovers the reach of donor funds. One must not stand in the way of progress, particularly when that progress is backed by individuals whose personal wealth is greater than that of entire nations they are trying to civilise.

Now we are to behold a literature so full of all qualities of loveliness and purity, such new regions of high thought and feeling? that to the dwellers in past days it should seem rather the production of angels than of men. Madras Christian Instructor and Missionary record (1844) Let us examine these ?productions of angels? in Bangladesh in greater detail. Networking has traditionally been a strength of global organizations, multinationals, international donor agencies and NGOs, and large local NGOs. International telecommunications has been way beyond the means of small local players. Even interconnectivity amongst themselves has often been too difficult to maintain.

It was to address these specific issues that Drik set up a small Email network in 1994. Our server was a used 286 computer, and the phone line was shared for voice, fax and data. We used Fidonet, and rang Amsterdam (our gateway to the Internet) only twice a day, but even that transformed the way we worked. Our clients included large and small NGOs, government ministers, western embassies, The World Bank, students, corporations, activists. There were frequent power cuts, the telephone lines didn?t always work, a thunderstorm destroyed most of our modems, and we ourselves were only semi-skilled. Still our network grew. And though we were paying our Dutch counterparts 30 cents per kilobyte for transmitting files, we were making the system pay. We setup fax gateways, and an Email club where more experienced users taught the others how to use Email to extract information from the net, how to compress files to save on transmission costs, and how to decode files that looked like garbled messages.

Our oldest user, photographer and writer Golam Kasem, had just turned 103 and had never seen a computer before. I would cycle over to his house in Indira Road with a printout of a message from his grandson in Canada and next day peddle up to collect his reply. I remember the frail old man, straightening up the computer printout and adjusting his thick glasses as he held the paper by his tungsten lamp. Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen received a death threat from Islamic fundamentalists and was charged with blasphemy by the Government. We needed to move quickly – to create national and international pressure so Taslima could come out of hiding to alert friends overseas, PEN (the international writers support group) and Amnesty International and the campaign took off. Our fragile network was working.

There were other ways in which the technology was being used. The Daily Star newspaper set up a ?Live from the Internet? column. Readers who had no access to either computers or the Internet would write to the Star, which the newspaper would relay to Internet chat groups. The responses would get printed in the column. These hybrid off-line techniques became an important means for our communication. We setup electronic bulletin boards and a whole set of discussion groups sprang up. Important campaigns were initiated through these virtual conferences, and the network became a seat of resistance.

When full Internet services became available however, networks such as ours were quickly ditched. The government ignored us and gave permission only to large corporations and major NGOs. Interestingly, Grameen Bank, BRAC and Proshikha, three giant NGOs who used to get connectivity from us, set up their own ISPs. In Bangladesh, they owned the Internet. The conferences disappeared, and local networks that we had painstakingly setup rapidly vanished. We were being squeezed out of the market. Unable to compete at an economic level we found alternative means for providing support to our users.

The ISPs were not interested in servicing non-urban users. We maintained our off-line service, which could still service people with DOS based machines, with analog lines, living in remote areas. We leased lines from these NGOs and used them to transfer data to the Net, reducing our transmission costs. We began setting up new discussion groups and mailing lists. Most importantly, we set up our own web site, which we used to support our campaigns. We moved from providing connectivity which we could no longer provide reliably, to providing content.

Recently, when women students at a nearby university began a campaign against campus rape, our web site became a principal tool for advocacy. Pressure that was exerted internationally and nationwide added to the massive physical protests by the students forcing the establishment to conduct an enquiry. Five students of the ruling party were indicted. At it?s peak, our site was getting over 5000 hits per day. Articles were sent to the newspapers, and we began publishing things they had censored out. We were learning to wield our new weapon. We had been concerned by absence of working class and rural representation in mainstream media.

At about the time we set up our Fidonet network, we began providing photojournalism training to working class children. The going was never smooth and we made many mistakes, but these children progressed remarkably.

Excited by what the children had achieved, we tried setting up a distance education programme for rural Bangladeshi children. We set up a server in a town called Sylhet in the North East of Bangladesh. Using microwave links we then connected schools in nearby villages (using computers bought collectively by students and by us) to the server, A dial up link to Dhaka provided Internet mail. Sylhet has a lot of migrant workers who have gone overseas, and Email reunited these families. We are now helping develop multimedia training modules for teaching vocational skills. We tried linking the education programme with an afforestation scheme and even tried setting up a commercial service that would help subsidise the project. Things didn?t work as well as we had planned, but enough progress was made to interest other players in the project.

The focus however already seems to be shifting from the basic grass roots work that we had set out to do. Now that the big boys are interested, the transformation they may bring, might have the same effect as the changes they introduced to the Internet scene. A major cause of the high connectivity costs in our region is the monopoly of the telecom sectors in all our countries. This is not merely a national issue, but is linked to the unequal trade terms between nations of the South and the North. Alliances between global telecom players and local governments have resulted in local consumers getting shortchanged.

Vested interests have often required entire nations to follow technological solutions totally unsuited to local requirements. We began using the Net to pool together a team of regional IT professionals. We pleasantly discovered that our collective knowledge base could easily cut through the hogwash that the governments and corporations used.

The other useful collective decisions we were able to make related to developing local language tools, from standard UNICODE formats to OCR for local languages. Since many of our languages have common roots we found that work being done by several people across local borders could provide a lot of synergy. An area that has to be addressed, particularly where the international donor community is involved relates to the mind set that ?appropriate technology? is necessarily ?low technology?. It is fashionable to design ergonometric rickshaws, and better spinning wheels. When we talk of Internet or IT there is the feeling that it is inappropriate for poor people and cannot have a role in ?poverty alleviation?.

It is important to recognize that poverty cannot be addressed unless one addresses exploitation and distribution modes within society. This applies not only to regional power relationships but also to global imbalances. Politicians rarely feel accountable to voters and hide behind the lack of transparency of the government sector. Major decisions that affect community life are taken behind closed doors, where the people most affected have no access. Though the constitution grants equal rights to all citizens, legal, medical and educational rights are only realized for the minority in power, with women and children of poor communities, pegged at the other end of the spectrum, rarely aware of these rights, let alone being in a position to extract them from society.

Where information is power, denying information to marginalized communities, actively prevents the rural poor from overcoming the unequal power structures that they are trapped within. While it is in the interest of the powerful in society to restrict such access, it is also in the interest of the powerful nations to deny access and maintain domination. The unrestricted flow of general information is an essential pre-requisite for an egalitarian society

Shahidul Alam

Dhaka, 30th April,1999

First published in bytes for all

Changing their destiny

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www.newint.org/issue287/contents.html

Letter from Bangladesh

Changing their destiny

Shahidul Alam travels with the poor who chase a dream to distant lands.

They all have numbers. Jeans tucked into their high-ankled sneakers. They strut through the airport lounge, moving en masse. We work our way up the corridors leading to the airplane, but many stop just before boarding. The cocky gait has gone. The sad faces look out longingly at the small figures silhouetted on the rooftops. They wave and they wave and they wave. The stewardess has seen it all before and rounds them up, herding them into the aircraft. One by one they disengage themselves, probably realizing for the first time just what they are leaving behind.
Illustration by SARAH JOHNInside the aircraft it is different. They look around at the metallic finish of the interior, try on the headphones and drink lemonade. They have seats together and whisper to each other about each new thing they see. Abdul Malek, sitting opposite me, is in his early twenties. He is from a small village not far from Goalondo. This is his second attempt. He was conned the first time round. This time his family has sold their remaining land as well as the small shop that they part-own. This time, he says, he is going to make it.
As in the case of the others, his had been no ordinary farewell. They had all come from the village to see him off. Last night, as they slept outside the exclusive passenger lounge, they had prayed together. Abdul Malek has few illusions. He realizes that on $110 a month, for 18 months, there is no way he can save enough to replace the money that his family has invested.
But he sees it differently. No-one from his village has ever been abroad. His sisters would get married. His mother would have her roof repaired, and he would be able to find work for others from the village. This trip is not for him alone. His whole family, even his whole village, are going to change their destiny.
That single hope, to change one’s destiny, is what ties all migrants together ? whether they be the Bangladeshis who work in the forests of Malaysia, those like Abdul Malek, who work as unskilled labour in the Middle East, or those that go to the promised lands of the US. Not all of them are poor. Many are skilled and well educated. Still, the possibility of changing one’s destiny is the single driving force that pushes people into precarious journeys all across the globe. They see it not merely as a means for economic freedom, but also as a means for social mobility.
In the 25 years since independence the middle class in Bangladesh has prospered, and many of its members have climbed the social ladder. But except for a very few rags-to-riches stories, the poor have been well and truly entrenched in poverty. They see little hope of ever being able to claw their way out of it, except perhaps through the promise of distant lands.
So it is that hundreds of workers mill around the Kuwait Embassy in Gulshan, the posh part of Dhaka where the wealthy Bangladeshis and the foreigners live. Kuwait has begun recruiting again after the hiatus caused by the Gulf War, and for the many Bangladeshis who left during the War, and those who have been waiting in the wings, the arduous struggle is beginning. False passports, employment agents, attempts to bribe immigration officials, the long uncertain wait.
Some wait outside the office of ‘Prince Musa’ in Banani. He is king of the agents. His secretary shows me the giant portraits taken with ‘coloured gels’, in an early Hollywood style. She carefully searches for the admiration in my eyes she has known to expect in others. She brings out the press cuttings: the glowing tributes paid by Forbes, the US magazine for and about the wealthy, the stories of his associations with the jet set. She talks of the culture of the man, his sense of style, his private jet, his place in the world of fashion.
Apart from the sensational eight-million-dollar donation to the British Labour Party in 1994 ? which Labour denies, but which the ‘Prince’ insists was accepted ? there are other stories. Some of these I can verify, like the rosewater used for his bath, and the diamond pendants on his shoes (reportedly worth three million dollars). Others, like his friendship with the Sultan of Brunei, the Saudi Royals and leading Western politicians, are attested to by photographs in family albums.
He was once a young man from a small town in Faridpur, not too distant from Abdul Malek’s home or economic position, who made good. Whether the wealth of the ‘Prince’ derives mainly from commissions paid by thousands of Maleks all over Bangladesh or whether, as many assume, it is from lucrative arms deals, the incongruity of it all remains: the fabulously wealthy are earning from the poorest of the poor.
Whereas the ‘Prince’ has emigrated to the city and saves most of his money abroad, Malek and his friends save every penny and send it to the local bank in their village. Malek is different from the many Bengalis who emigrated to the West after World War Two, when immigration was easier and naturalization laws allowed people to settle. Malek, like his friends, has no illusions about ‘settling’ overseas. He knows only too well his status amongst those who know him only as cheap labour. Bangladesh is clearly, irrevocably, his home. He merely wants a better life for himself than the Bangladeshi princes have reserved for him.
An old friend of the NI, Shahidul Alam is guiding light of Drik, a remarkable photographic agency in Dhaka.