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.