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.

Dhaka Traffic Blues

Politically Correct Eid Greetings

Well, the long holidays are over, and the streets of Dhaka are slowly getting back to their normal frenzy. The horns, the put-put of the baby taxis, the bewildered stare of the taxi driver as he tries to interpret the gyrations of the traffic warden, the gentle smile on the bus driver as he parks the bus in the center lane waiting for the passengers to offload the chicken coops on the rooftop, the suicidal pedestrian who tries to cross the road over to Jahangir Tower in Kawran Bajar, the glee on Asma, the flower girl’s face as she spots me, and skips between two trucks, to my bicycle, knowing she has a sure sale, the babu in the back seat with the newspaper covering his face, the blind beggar coughing through the thick black smoke of the BRTC double-decker are some of the familiar signs that tell me that there is stability in my life and the world has not changed. In this season of greetings, and eco conscious, politically correct messages, I send you a recycled, lead-free wish.

May you find a way to travel
From anywhere to anywhere
In the rush hour
In less than an hour
And when you get there
May you find a parking space
The year has had its usual ups and downs for Drik, but the adrenaline flowing due to the constant crisis management during Chobi Mela has everyone hyped up. The big show on the 10th January looms. The hits in the web site have climbed regularly, and the December total of 105,857 hits is an all time record for us. It’s a credit to you all for having stuck with us for so long.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
May the good light be with you.
Shahidul Alam
Wed Jan 3, 2001

Everything Smelled of Money

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Everything smelled of money
In 1994 Shahidul Alam and Drik Picture Library launched a unique initiative which involved training children from poor, working-class families in Dhaka as photojournalists. Their progress since has been remarkable ? now 16 years old, the ?Out of Focus? children are still learning but have had exhibitions, produced a photographic calendar and are now collaborating on a TV magazine programme for young people. Along the way, however, they have been thrown up against a world of money and opportunity, aid agencies and big business, to which people from their background never normally have access. The NI recorded a conversation about their impressions of this brave new world.

Abir Abdullah / DrikWe remember the time we had to go to some UNICEF meeting or other with Bhai?ya (Shahidul Alam). It was in the Sonargaon Hotel. A huge, fancy affair, where we had trouble walking, where our feet kept slipping on the shiny lobby floor. A different world, the world of the rich. As if that wasn?t enough, Pintu had lost one of his sandals on the way there. We knew we wouldn?t be allowed inside in bare feet, but Bhai?ya told us that there was no need to worry, that everything would be fine. So we walked on that slippery floor and looked everywhere. Everything seemed so grand, everything smelled of money. People throw away so much money! In the middle of the hotel was a swimming pool with almost-naked foreigners in it. We felt too ashamed to look at them.
When you have too much money what else can you do except go to a swimming pool to show off, to say ?Look at the money I have ? I go swimming in a big hotel?s pool.? The rich and their airs! Coming out with their cars just to show off to us, to the poor, to those of us who don?t have cars. The way they look at us! And their talk: which is better, a white car or a black car? It?s unbelievable, the arrogance!
Abir Abdullah / DrikWhen we go somewhere people usually comment ?Oh you poor deprived children?. Nonsense! If they grab all the opportunities of course we?ll be deprived. First they take everything for themselves, then they coo ?Oh, you poor deprived child?. If we are not given a chance, how can we make it? Our speech, the way we talk is offensive to the bhadrolok, the upper class. ?Oooh, your pronunciation,? they sniff at us, ?the way your language wanders all over the place.?
We are poor. But the fact that we have cameras and know how to take photos makes people uncomfortable. And so something simple becomes complicated. People who see us keep asking us ?Accha, are these the cameras you use?? But, you see, the camera?s not the point. The point is to take photographs. It doesn?t sit well with a lot of folks that the children of the poor should have cameras. Makes you laugh. Once Bhai?ya took some of our shots to the Lab for printing. The people at the Lab thought that one of the photos was his. ?Take a look at Shahidul Alam?s work,? they said. Well, it was actually taken by Iqbal, and when Bhai?ya told them so, they just shut up and wouldn?t say anything more.

Passion for pictures. Rabeya studies negatives while Moli, Iqbal and Shefali look on. Inset are photos of Shahidul Alam with a new group of children from a village in Brahmanbaria ? the ?Out of Focus? children are helping to teach them photography.
Photo: Shahidul Alam / Drik

Hamida and Rabeya have been abroad. The word has spread. That?s how they are introduced, as having gone abroad. We take photos. That is not our identity however. The point is who has gone abroad.
Yet another way to show off is English. You aren?t anybody if you don?t know English. As if the real thing, the only thing, is not the work itself, but whether you know English. It?s such a fashion to speak it. They say you have to know it, but what do the foreigners know? Shouldn?t all those photographers and all the other visitors who come here know Bangla? Nobody tells them ?You should know Bangla?.
Through our photographs we want to change things. But lately the going has been tough. With the children of the wealthy it is enough that they take photos, but with us it seems that we have to prove ourselves by learning English too. What will happen to those English-speaking friends who also carry on the struggle? Will they learn our language and join us? Oh come on! Will they not join ranks with us? What then is our language of photography to be?
These comments were made during an informal discussion involving
Faysal Ahmed Dadon, Hamida Akhtar Bristi, Abul Kashem, Refanur Akhtar Moli,
Rabeya Sarker Rima, Sopna Akhtar, Shefali Akhtar Setu and Md Zakir Hossain.
It was recorded/compiled by Manosh Chowdhury and translated by Khademul Islam.

First Published in the New Internationalist Magazine

When A Pixel Paints A Thousand Words

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When A Pixel Paints A Thousand WordsI remember my fascination with Charles Babbage's machine, and my inward fear when first given the chance to use a computer. Logging in to the VAX was a great thrill, but that was the day of punch cards, and writing programs for everything. Learning was a slow process. A young kid told me of a program he had written. It was a simple program in basic that merely printed on the screen "This is my first program," but I was impressed. Boolean numbers were the next marvel. Soon I was changing things, making things happen. I worked with computer models. Intermediate structures of molecules I was synthesising in a chemical laboratory. A Tektronix monitor allowed me to see the shapes of the nucleotide rings that I worked with. I stretched bonds, distorted angles, looked for conformations of low and high stress. Almost listening to my molecules scream as I bent them into painful configurations. Watching them relax as I discovered the lowest energy states.
The printout churned out numbers, hundreds of them. These were what I needed for my quantification. Figures that I could translate into bond energies for transition states, numbers my examiners would understand. What fascinated me was that by changing numbers I could look at my molecules differently. I would change the window size, the azimuth angles, rotate them, look at them from above and below. I was like a little child with a giant model hovering above me that I could twist and turn at the press of a button. The computer and I had made friends.
I remember the excitement my father had when I bought my first computer. He had been a scientist all his life, but had to adopt an administrative role to achieve much of what he had done. He was an artisan who had wanted to work with his hands and his mind and sad that much of modern technology was passing him by. He was like a child in front of the machine. We watched together in amazement as the printer rattled out text noisily. I remember coaxing my partner Rahnuma into trying out the computer. She was convinced "the computer would bite." I remember sharing her deep sorrow when all her work got accidentally deleted. I remember the joy of adventure as the technician searched the disc for disjointed bits of information, trying to make a patchwork file out of her lost data. I remember feeling sad when my first motherboard died.
I got my video digitiser as compensation from someone who had lost one of my books. My friends and I couldn't get it to work, but the thought of animated images being created and manipulated in the computer and then transferred to video, got our imagination soaring. The next major event was my friend buying a hand held scanner. Soon I had bought one, and the next few weeks were merrily spent dithering, sharpening, solarising. I tried, without too much success, repeating some of the things I had done in the darkroom. My excitement had been blunted. Though there was the joy in discovery, I was expecting too much. The first darkroom I had worked in was cold, Spartan, and very large. I remember dancing in the room when the first black and white print emerged. I still feel that tingling joy when the first shadow details begin to emerge on the wet paper glistening in the red muted safelight. The computer image forms section by section, each bit complete and unchanging as the whole forms. I miss seeing it happen, breathing on the developer, rubbing furiously to darken a hot spot, willing the print on when the blacks aren't rich enough. Perhaps there is something about that slow process of making masks, the uncertainty of the outcome, the sheer joy of seeing a full range of shimmering tones that will never be replaced. But curiously, with so many tools at ones disposal on the desktop, it is as if my imagination and not my tools which is the limiting factor.
When I teach about colour, I tell people to close their eyes and think of a colour they have never seen. Neither I nor they have ever succeeded. We are so limited by our experiences. I believe that is what we should try and overcome. All these tools are darkroom based. Things people have done mechanically in some form or other.
What I would like to do is to be able to visualise what I have never experienced. Not some darkroom trick made easy, not yet another combination from a million and a half palettes. I would like to see the world as I might after I was dead. Or perhaps through the eyes of a giant caterpillar, with its UV vision and its huge towering compound eyes. I would like to see as a lover sees through joyous and tear streamed filters.
Digitising things is in a way like breaking things that we know and perceive — elephants, numbers, colours, sounds, loved ones — into elemental particles that are within the group identical, sexless, classes, and nondescript, surviving almost as conceptual entities. Our universe defined as electrons, mesons, pions. These characterless wave particles, by virtue of their collective structure, make up blades of grass, Einstein's and Mohammed's, shafts of lightning, our thought processes. In digitising words, numbers, graphic, sounds, colours, we convert all these objects of our perception to strings of 0s and 1s. The ultimate deconstruction. A scream, an iridescent hue, an irrational number, all translate to 0s and 1s.
Is that the goal of technology? The search for the ultimate truth? The oneness we so long to find? Is that what our genes perpetuate — 0's and 1's? What a let down for our romantic dreams. What a wonderful discovery. What staggering simplicity. Just two building blocks, a zero and a one.
Sitting at my terminal I feel the cool breeze of the monsoon afternoon, heavy with the sweet scent of ripe mangoes. A crow calls from the coconut tree, the call fighting for recognition amidst the ever rising clamour of the construction workers building yet another sky scraper. The soft cold light from the textureless grey sky bounces gently from the green leaves. The keyboard makes a quiet clatter as my cursor moves across the screen. WYSIWYG. Is this reality? Or has David Hume's immateriality found a new meaning. There is no you or I, or the universe or God, just 0s and 1s.
I print my pictures full frame. In a way exercising a certain discipline upon myself to be rigorous about what I include, and exclude. In a way to accept the accidents that take place, the elbow in the corner, the dismembered torso, the blur of a passing stranger, the obstruction of a carelessly outstretched limb, the bit we didn't really want to show. The certain grace of serendipity that is difficult to replicate. I shoot on roll film, and therefore do not have the preconceived notions of zones, that my fine art colleagues espouse, I do not give N- 1 development and N+ 2 exposure, unless it is for the whole shebang.
I am easily seduced by the dark rich tones of a juicy print. I like my catch lights clean and sparkling highlights with a hint of texture. I like subtle detail in my shadows. I try to capture what is and create what isn't. In no way do I attempt to simulate "what there was." The myth of objective perception never moved me.
My print is at least as much a product of my values, my desires, my moods, my ability , as it is of the physical entity that gave rise to it, and I have never been ashamed of it.
So what is this representation of reality, this myth that a photograph never lies? A photograph is a tool like any other, used in whatever way its user intends, to achieve whatever end by whatever means. The faded portrait in a dying soldier's wallet is part of the reality created by him and him and us who have sent him to war. So what if the person no longer loves him, so what if he is scorned for what he does? That reality gives him courage, strength, endurance. Helps him kill others with equally faded photographs.
Wide angle b/w shots, grainy, high contrast, huge billboards with a dying malnourished child in a corner with outstretched arms. A clear message in polished bold font in the top left corner cleverly left blank. The message reads "We shall always be there." A reality constructed for and by those who want us to forget the implications. That " you shall always be there". In that role, a passive existence necessary to maintain, to nurture, the act of giving, forever and ever. A reality perpetuated and propagated, till it becomes history. Till it becomes truth. Amen.
What of the other reality? The one about how she became the way she is? The one about the outstretched arm that takes back much more than it gives? It is a reality denied.
Advertising campaigns and fund raising events forget to tell you that when you sponsor a child, you largely sponsor the players in one of the best run businesses, one called development.
Perhaps the child wasn't sad enough. The tear large enough, the halo on the giver bright enough. We now have the power. They were almost catching you with the old technology. Even though we designed things that had to be used and stored in cool dry conditions. Even though cameras cost the same as a hundred bags of rice, they were catching up. They were making statements, asking questions, interfering with reality. They will need a million bags of rice for CD ROMS and high end scanners. Our new reality is safe.
Perhaps it is all for the better. In time we will accept that pictures are the product of those who produce them and do tell lies, as do people generally. Perhaps in a more mature world wars will not be won or lost, by the media. Perhaps we will be perceptive enough not to be led into a war that has always been present. Perhaps like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, we will really learn to fly. Like Maxwell's Demon we will tame the pixels and teach them to dance.
But for any of this to happen, this digital revolution must reach out to those who have always been denied. We must dance in unison.
While we unleash this flood of energy, this joy of numbers that can let our imagination wantonly soar, it must not be inaccessible to those whose reality we have always suppressed. Our gigabits and superchips must not widen the chasm that a monopolised technology already maintains. But if this was to be the way in which a little child in a village school was only a modem away. An affordable modem, like chalk and slate (still unaffordable to many). If we could paint together in a universal bulletin board. If the digital chorus included the boatman's song. If the dance of pixels syncopated with distant drumbeats. Then, surely, in a world where numbers obeyed no borders and vision was the only barrier to creativity. The new reality world belongs not only to the owners of silicon valley but to the child on the billboard.
I choose my format, use my favourite film, decide carefully on the texture of paper, without once realising that my "freedom" has always been defined by the multinationals who treat me as yet another number. Maybe I am not included in their numbers game. They publish literature that goes from 18° C to 24° C. My room temperature never goes down to 26°, but I am a buyer, and therefore I belong.
Today there is a new found freedom. I can create my own film, use Kodachrome or Fuji chrome, or the now extinct GAF 500, even my own customised brand, with a colour bias peculiar to my own taste. By changing the dot size, I simulate large format or 110 (I am already having troubled thinking outside the known formats).
Fancy software can change my perspective or magnification at will. I have Nikon's latest super lens in my armoury and even ones they haven't made.
From anamorphic lenses to ones with controlled barrel distortion, everything is in my reach. I can make pictures fuzzy, sharpen fuzzy ones. Mama take my microchip away.
It is no longer difficult to make intense highlights coexist with subtle shadow detail with ever expanding grey scales. But wasn't it the lack of grey that made Newman's portrait of Stravinsky, or Brassai's "Big Albert's Gang?" Photography's inability to retain an extreme range of tones used majestically to carve out sculptures of light in space. Surely this new technology will not tame a Newman or a Brassai. It will create new ones. The new magi, who will probe and tease, taking it to new visual heights, will ride the mighty pixel. Jerry Ullsmann's hypnotic seamless images will no longer need a master craftsman, just an Ullsmann's vision. What a test of visual puberty!
No longer will I hide my hand. My style, my approach, my visual signature will be for me to create, unfettered by manufacturers whims or market decree. What about the fight we had almost won? The one about ownership of negatives, of editorial control. Perhaps it is time to shun the obvious, the mad rush for greater circulation, the megabucks. Perhaps it is time for photographers to be their own editors.
With desktop publishing and laser printers, or even downloading page made material to high street up-market scanners, to obtain total editorial control.
A co-operative that could work as it had originally been intended, where photographs were made collectively. As for accuracy, it was always a misnomer, one's observation is always culture and context sensitive, and the photographer is no exception.
What of the photograph made out of nothing? What about painting with light? Is it photography? Surely if we can paint with light we can paint with dreams, create the morning mist or the afternoon glow. Is it a fake? Hardly. Whatever else may be false in this tenuous existence of ours, imagination is not. All that we value, that we strive to uphold, all that gives us strength, has been made of dreams, and we must dream on. If pixels be the vehicle that realises our dreams, be it so.
Perhaps the digital image will democratise photography. So many bytes per pound of flesh. Perhaps there will come a time when CD ROM costs a dollar a piece, and palm tops have gigabits of RAM. Perhaps with e-mail and electronic bulletin boards, points of view that could never before be heard will whisper in many ears, ever louder. Maybe, on the other hand, the digital revolution will create rifts within the third world itself, and limited access to an exclusive technology will widen gaps within poorer countries.
Perhaps wealth will have a greater bearing on a photographer's output than ever before.
It will no longer be the best camera and the fastest lens, but the biggest RAM and the finest peripherals which will decide. The poor will get poorer.

Perhaps that is the end result of democracy, an equality of opportunity that creates the opportunity of greater rifts. Will that rift in art, despite the natural processes of osmosis, lead to greater imbalance in society at large? Art does not have a conscience. Achievement is an end in itself that pushes it to ever extending limits. But this heightened sense of power, this endless opportunity, will need to grow a separate consciousness that will question the validity of our actions. And there is no going back. Like those Brazilian kids on the speeding trains, we must just hang on the roof, dodging the wires as best as we can, hurtling ever forward till the train stops, and just hope we are in the right station.