There’s Power in Photography: The Undying Resilience of Dhaka’s Chobi Mela Festival

Interview with Shahidul Alam by Daniel Boetker-Smith
Photojournalist and activist Shahidul Alam speaks out about the effects of his detainment on Dhaka’s Chobi Mela Festival, and how the event still plans to persevere for years to come.
SHAHIDUL ALAM Photo: Tom Hatlestad
The year 2018 is one that Shahidul Alam, and the wider international photographic community, will not forget so easily. In August last year, just hours after an interview on Al Jazeera where he openly criticized the Bangladesh government’s violent response to student protests, Alam was forcibly taken from his home by the Dhaka Metropolitan Police and arrested.
While remanded, Alam was interrogated and beaten. Following a significant outpouring of support and pressure from Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and other Bangladeshi and international organizations and notable figures, Alam was released after spending 107 days in prison.
As a widely respected activist, photojournalist and academic, Alam is most prominently known as founder of the Drik Picture Library, the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and the biannual Chobi Mela Photography Festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which returns on February 28th of this year for its tenth edition.

In one of his first major interviews since the events of late last year, Alam talks to Daniel Boetker-Smith about the upcoming festival, the political power of photography, and the state of the medium in Bangladesh, South Asia and beyond.


Tunisia, from the series “Exodus from Libya”. Bangladeshi migrant labourers who have fled the unrest in Libya walking along a road from the border post at Ras Ajdir towards a refugee camp set up by UNHCR near the town of Ben Gardane in Tunisia. Tens of thousands of people have fled the unrest in Libya, which started on 17 February 2011 as a popular uprising against the 41-year rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. © Chris de Bode

DBS: Given recent events that we have all followed closely, how has planning for this Festival been different to previous years?

SA: The last few months have meant that this year’s festival is coming back to its roots. Chobi Mela began as a very small event, and over the past 20 years it grew significantly in stature. But this year, we are activating a diverse range of less formal exhibition venues around Dhaka. This shift is one of necessity, because Chobi Mela is not an organization that everyone in Bangladesh wants to work with at the moment—we are seen as dangerous. A lot of previous supporters and sponsors of the festival are businesses in Dhaka, and right now they are being tested. They know that their decisions are being monitored and that there is high level of government surveillance surrounding the event. Because of this, we have had to be more inventive, finding new ways to show work, utilizing different types of exhibition and event spaces for photographers and audiences. Some public venues and government-owned buildings are no longer available to us, and we are choosing to see this as an opportunity to move away from the traditional ‘white cube’ mode of presentation, to a much more raw and community-oriented festival. Continue reading “There’s Power in Photography: The Undying Resilience of Dhaka’s Chobi Mela Festival”

Crossing the Threshold

The Drik Calendar 2019

We were behind schedule. Every August, I find myself writing the introduction to the Drik calendar. Over the last few years, we’ve developed a practice of featuring Chobi Mela on odd years and finding a topic of common interest on even ones. With my arrest on 5th August-for reporting on ongoing events-the equation changed. Drik, Pathshala, family and friends had all run ragged trying to arrange my release. The calendar was simply not a priority.
Cover of Drik calendar 2019 featuring work by Pathshala alumni

As things settled, we decided we would continue doing the things we did. That would become part of our resistance. However, the Bangladeshi Jail Code has restrictions on what a prisoner can send out. In my case, it meant a complete firewall.

Resourceful as ever, Rahnuma and Saydia, managed to get a short list of suggested photographs through to me, and I was able to do an edit. Abir Abdullah and Tanzim Wahab were to co-write the introduction. But we had underestimated the power of our brilliant legal team and the sheer doggedness of the local and global campaigners and I was finally granted bail on 15th November. Even that didn’t lead to my release, and after a lot of drama in and out of court, and tension constantly rising outside the jail gate, the political dam burst, leading to my release on the night of the 20th. As we sang our way out of prison, Rahnuma whispered in my ear “you have an intro to write.” No rest for the wicked. Continue reading “Crossing the Threshold”

Justice for Shahidul Alam

By Mahfuz Anam: The Daily Star

Who is this man whose arrest has sparked outrage and condemnation from global bodies and media, including Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), PEN International, SAMDEN (South Asia Media Defenders Network) and publications such as the Guardian, The Washington Post and many South Asian media?

Shahidul Alam. Photo Courtesy: Rahnuma Ahmed

He is one of the most respected photographers in the world. Very few Bangladeshi of his profession has reached his present global stature. His pictures have been published in almost all the global newspapers and magazines in the world. He is among that elite corps of global photographers who is regularly hired by the most renowned global publications to do assignments in various parts of the world. The Guardian (London) while carrying news of his arrest (Aug 6) wrote “his photographs have been published in every major western media outlet, including The New York Times, Time Magazine and National Geographic in a career that has spanned four decades.” Only those in the world of professional photography can really appreciate the honour and prestige of getting published in the media of such renown. Continue reading “Justice for Shahidul Alam”

CALL FOR ENTRY Chobi Mela X International Festival of Photography, 2019

CALL FOR ENTRY

Chobi Mela X
International Festival of Photography, 2019

PLACE
No heaven, no hell, no ever after, do I care for when I’m gone
Peace here I seek, in this sand and soil, this place where I was born
As oceans deep, as deserts wide, as forests and fences loom
As children die, as lovers sigh, no cross, no epitaph, no tomb
As bullets whiz by, as shrapnel shard, as hate pours from above
As blue skies curse, the wounded I nurse, as spite replaces love
It is home I long, as I boundaries cross, a shelter that I seek
A world for us all, white brown short tall, the boisterous and the meek
If my bosom is raised, or my beard is long, or I sleep with the ‘wrong’ kind
If my politics isn’t yours, nor my country of birth, a terrorist you will find
You return my boat to the cruel sea, back to the wars you wrought
Walls you will raise, to keep me at bay, my children in danger fraught
I love the land I was born in, the tree that gave me shade
My broken home, my shattered dreams, slain lover that goodbye bade
My slanted eyes, my dread lock hair, my tongue though strange may be
I bleed red blood, as flows in your vein, Is there a place in your heart for me?
-Shahidul Alam

 
 
Continue reading “CALL FOR ENTRY Chobi Mela X International Festival of Photography, 2019”

Embracing the Other

Shahidul Alam?s new show combats Islamophobia, extremism: The Punch

Interview by Ina Puri

 

For celebrated Bangladeshi photographer, writer and curator Shahidul Alam, a just world is a plural space where many thoughts can coexist. His latest show, Embracing the Other, opens in Dhaka on May 8

“If you?re not making certain people uncomfortable by your presence, you are probably doing something wrong.? Bangladesh?s best-known photographer, writer and curator Shahidul Alam, 61, has lived by that adage, which, by and large, sums up why he does what he does. 

For Alam, who has been actively involved in the movement for democracy in Bangladesh for over three decades, photojournalism was a corollary of being an activist on the streets, seeking to see himself on the edge, so as to constantly ?feel the heat?, questioning, going beyond the obvious, not settling  for safe options.  

Shahidul Alam in the thick of things at anti government protest. Photo: Md. Mainuddin

In Bangladesh, Alam is credited with many ?firsts?: Among other things, he set up Drik Picture Library, the country?s first picture agency, in 1989; Pathshala, its first photo school in 1998; and the first email network in the country in 1994. He also founded the first photo festival in Asia, Chobi Mela, in 2000. Continue reading “Embracing the Other”

Do Goats Go To Heaven?

The last meal. Dhanmondi. Rd 9A. 12th September 2016
The last meal. Dhanmondi. Rd 9A. 12th September 2016

Awake, deep in the silence of the night
I dread the sound, I?ll hear your bleat tonight
Your tiny toes tied together with twine
Your tiny body weighed down by people fine
Children circling, some in fright, others in glee
Butcher man with knife, crouching on his knee
You?ll struggle in vain, your bleat a garbled cry
Blood will spurt, red floor, no questions why
Is someone there, another goat, a baby even?
Who wants you, regardless of who goes to heaven
What God needs blood, as evidence of love?
What sacrifice in swapping, money for life above?
A shopping spree, celebrations on TV
What?s one goat less or more for you and me?
It is quiet again, a respite from the heat
The sound remains, I?ll forever hear your bleat
Shahidul Alam
12th September 2016
Dhaka

PATHSHALA?S RESPONSE TO BDNEWS24.COM?S REPORT

Pathshala Campus
Pathshala Campus

A report on Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, published by the online news portal bdnews24.com, has come to our attention (?Shahidul Alam?s Pathshala operates without affiliation,? bdnews24.com, 6 August 2016). Unsubstantiated allegations, backbiting and innuendo and the absence of cross checking characterise the ?report.? It is a shoddy piece of journalism. Continue reading “PATHSHALA?S RESPONSE TO BDNEWS24.COM?S REPORT”

The Empty Doorway

We chose not to be photographed. His broad smile was somewhat subdued, though the impishness of his chuckle still remained. The big hug didn’t work out. Even in the generous light through the large open window, a frail Kiarostami with tubes wasn’t how we wanted him depicted. He had cancer, and the surgery had gone wrong. My young friend Mansour Kiaei had accompanied me and had only met the great man for the first time. He wanted to photograph the two of us. We declined, saving the moment, for when Abbas would be better, and more the Abbas, as I had known him.

Abbas Kiarostami Untitled 1978 ? 2003, from a series of 32 photographs, 122 x 93 cm.
Abbas Kiarostami Untitled 1978 ? 2003, from a series of 32 photographs, 122 x 93 cm.

Continue reading “The Empty Doorway”

New Developments: How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices

How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices

Rasel Chowdhury, winner of?the?3rd Samdani Art Award, People on low incomes living in slums beside the railway station at Khilgaon, Kamalapur, Dhaka, 2012, (from the?series ?Railway Longings?, 2011?15)

Rasel Chowdhury, winner of the 3rd Samdani Art Award, People on low incomes living in slums beside the railway station at Khilgaon, Kamalapur, Dhaka, 2012, (from the series ?Railway Longings?, 2011?15). Courtesy the artist

I just got back from the third Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) in?the Bangladeshi capital. DAS is the?brainchild of Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, a young collector couple based in the city; it?s not a biennial, nor an art fair or a festival, but an?intense four-day summit. For it?s third edition, the Chief Curator of DAS, Mumbai-based Diana Campbell Betancourt, decided not to focus on a particular theme per se but on the South Asia region as a?whole, which in itself is a contradictory concept. (What exactly is South Asia? Is Australia a part of it? Sri Lanka? Iran?) She engaged several curators, including me; I was invited to organize an exhibition for the Samdani Art Award, which is given to a Bangladeshi artist between the ages of 20 and 40. Back in October 2015, I had spent a week in Dhaka meeting the 20 artists who had been shortlisted for this award by Aaron Cezar, director of the London-based Delfina Foundation. From my very first conversation with the artists, I?sensed that?we?were at the beginning of an extremely interesting week.
I learned a lot about Bangladesh ? the local scene, art education, religion and why, for instance, art?works about love do matter. Some artists I met mentioned that their partner was either Hindu or?Muslim and that they could not tell their respective families. As the?week went on, I became increasingly enthusiastic about the obvious sense?of urgency with which all of the nominated artists work: Bangladesh is rapidly changing on all levels, and?these artists are all embracing the challenge to get involved, to have their voices heard and to find appropriate forms of?expression for that.
This seemed particularly true?for many of the photographers on the shortlist. As it turned out, they all came from a single school: Dhaka?s Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. Set up in 1998?by the Bangladeshi photographer, writer, curator and activist Shahidul Alam, this private school has been dedicated to documentary photography and reportage from the beginning. Located in the central Dhanmondi/Panthapath area of Dhaka, it is a small institute for about 90 students who follow the three-year professional programme, and for about 600 students enrolled in the short, one-semester course. Initially funded by international organisations, Pathshala now is entirely supported through tuition fees. (Though relatively modest at?US$460 per semester for the professional programme, inevitably, as in Europe or the US, students are?likely to come from more affluent backgrounds, while there are scholarships allowing five students?per year to study for free.) Continue reading “New Developments: How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices”

Chobi Mela IX: Transitions

Imagine being told you have only ten more days. To love, to live, to celebrate, to cherish, to repent, to ponder. Perhaps ten weeks, maybe months. Perhaps you have cancer, or you are on someone?s hit list. Or you have just been sentenced.Perhaps someone thousands of miles away will press a button. Perhaps you are in jail, being tortured. Perhaps death to you is a release, and end to pain, an ?acceptable price for your belief. Let?s move to happier thoughts. Perhaps you will start a new life. Maybe your first child is about to be born. You have crossed many miles and you near land. You see sunlight after years in solitary confinement. You bathe in rain after months of drought.
Maybe you have a discovery that will transform the way we live. Are you at a fork in your life as an artist? Have you embraced another medium, has someone given new meaning to your work? Is there a new visual language that will help interpret your world?
Perhaps you are seeing, or hearing for the first time. Maybe you are in love.Perhaps years of research have unearthed hidden wonders in the artistic space you walk on? Have you found a sparring partner, who stretches you to the limits of your potential? Is there a new way of seeing? Does your artistic journey, bring new relevance to the work you produce? Are you ready to emerge, as a butterfly from a chrysalis, momentarily waiting for your wings to dry?
Are you a curator whose interpretation has caused the world to look at a body of work anew? Are you on the other side of the fence, seeing what artists within have forgotten to see?? Are you prepared to take on the complexities of seeing, when doors are closed, minds are locked?? Perhaps space is your forte, and you work with the physicality of a venue, producing site-specific work that is ephemeral in its form, but eternal in its concept. Are you tied down by the shackles that define photography, or are you prepared to take flight, going outside the boundaries, reaching out to the periphery, unearthing the unknown?
Are you the old or the new, or do you not accept such definitions? Does your visual space extend to the non-visual, do you hear, touch, feel through your eyes? Is your photography trapped between the corners of a two dimensional frame, or will new relationships between dimensions be the catapult that releases your art? Do pixels move you? Are you married to grains of silver? Are objects found and unearthed, part of your domain?
Does the white cube encumber you? Do you seek open spaces? In spirit, in mind,in form. Are you able to connect the dots? Are you the artist, the curator, the scientist, the historian, the editor, the journalist, the collector, who will find the magic that will take photography to new heights? Who will tell your story? Share your thoughts, cherish those moments. Who will help you live after you die? Who will hold your hand as you dance naked in the sun, wear bright colours, sing out loud? Are you the storyteller who visualizes a changing planet?
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Continue reading “Chobi Mela IX: Transitions”