In a visual age, visionaries

Nii Obodai Photo by Chris Riley
Nii Obodai Photo by Chris Riley

by Chris Riley

From portraits of the men and women who made Bangladesh, to a poem to The Buriganga. From an intimate examination of the bond between two sisters and a rare skin disorder to the documentation of Chinese pollution. From Mexican magical realism to Iranian reality and the brutality of war. From students to mentors and beyond. The picture editors from Time, Geo andThe Guardian meet the Majority World as it finds both voice and vision. In among the teeming Dhaka Chobi Mela?s white background posters seem to be beacons of a new world: less depressed, less angry and newly empowered to write not only Bangladesh?s future but our own.

Ruth Eichhorn
Ruth Eichhorn from GEO magazines
Photo by Chris Riley

Last time I was here I loved the student show and this year was no different. Tutored, mentored and cajoled by Morten Krogvold a group of 25 students documented Dhaka?s human side and created a show in four days, including the shoots and the printed catalogue. Rather than descend into the depression of all of Dhaka?s problems the students plundered its substructures to elevate the fine and the fun. Idiosyncratic, profound and often simply cool, the show was a triumph of story-telling with a twist: stories told by young men and women about the goodness of the human spirit and its capacity to prevail. This work was not full of parental anger, it was full of a child?s delight. I loved it.

Morton Krogvold and student
Morten Krogvold and Hasib Zakaria
Photo by Chris Riley

It had to be seen in the context of a photography community questioning the fundamentals and economics of their trade even as the art form itself is emerging as a massively influential universal language of the digital age. Dhaka felt like the perfect backdrop to the conversations, a city with broken infrastructure trying to sort out a way to manage its prolific growth. It was noisy, dangerous and occasionally violent. Yet Dhaka provided the Dhaka Art Center and the Asiatic Gallery of Fine Arts among others as sanctuaries for art and thoughtful conversation. Images from Australia, Africa, Mexico and many more made sure Chobi Mela was as comprehensive a survey of world photography as it was a deep study into photography?s development in the digital age.

Rupert Grey on the Rolls Photo by Chris Riley
Rupert Grey on the Rolls Photo by Chris Riley

Chobi Mela starts with a rally and ends with a celebration. It is both radical and inspirational. From an activist past it is now becoming a focus of modern activism: an activism of rebuilding and reclaiming after the activism of tearing down the social structures that have created havoc. I come to the end of my second Chobi Mela, the seventh in its history, once again reminded that change comes not from the top or the centre but from the bottom and the edge.

The theme this seventh season was ?Fragility?, I wish the idea had been more thoroughly investigated because it seems perfect as a way of thinking about the photographic world itself. Massive changes are sweeping away reliable best practice and opening up photography to an instant and massive version of itself that causes concern among many practitioners. But what Chobi Mela demonstrates in the work shown is that there is no fragility or uncertainty in the fact that photographers are a powerful force in art. This is the visual age and, yes, these are the visionaries.

That is why I will be back in two years.

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Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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