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Chobi Mela VI
The soul in question
Curator & Editor Soulscapes
Today, we are threatened by a drive towards a rigid social conformity and the struggle between differing conceptions of public morality and individual freedom. In this battleground the soul plays the role of a pawn. `Soulscapes? desperately seeks to explore these issues, beginning with an examination of society – the soul created and recreated ? and then moving through photographs and texts that consider the soul abused, objectified, discovered, aroused, desired, censored, mythologized, manipulated and celebrated. The images are corporeal, about the strengths, and vulnerabilities, of this most tangible manifestation of personal experience, ourselves, whether the soul in question is a child, a victim of suicide, a burning body or someone at the point of prostitution. Curating and editing might really be an instance of self-censorship, one of the most subtle and insidious assaults on literature and the arts. We hope that our audience will take this exhibition of `Soulscapes? to heart and mind at a moment when our souls are increasingly questioned and menaced.
With every picture you take, you enter a space that is unknown to you as a photographer. In the beginning it feels like forbidden territory, a place you are not supposed to enter surrounded by borders of privacy you are not supposed to cross. You, the photographer, are there at a factory, a old home or a brothel with your simple black bag hanging from your shoulder, eying everything around you as you are eyed by the people there. The first days following these intrusions I never take pictures because they would not be good. I wouldn’t know the people I met, wouldn’t understand the place I had just entered ? my photography would be stale and meaningless.
But there is always that moment when it feels completely natural to open that bag. And also there is no way of telling why it comes. Suddenly, I have a friendly conversation, or the afternoon light makes everybody around me relaxed and mellow, or someone looks at me in a trusting yet familiar way.
Then I take out my camera, and for me and everybody around me it is the most natural thing to do. There is consent. People don’t accuse me, or reject me or pose in unnatural ways. They are just there, doing what they normally do. Then I click away, and it feels like a conversation, a conversation between me and the people, between me and the location, between me and the light, between me and the souls that make this place alive. In such moments a landscape becomes a soulscape.
After such moments, life where I am working becomes trivial again, and the next day everybody asks for their photographs, and there is no difference if the people are girls from a brothel, children who work in a factory or farmers from the countryside.
But these little exchanges bring us closer to each other, and the ties between us, which started with small talk and conversation and continued with the first pictures I took, will become deeper and more meaningful, and so will the pictures I take.
And the closer I get to them and the deeper our friendship becomes, the simpler my photography gets. I am no longer looking for special angles or artistic points of views; I just open myself to these people, take a good look, frame and wait for the right moment. When I walk home, I have all the moments that I missed in my head, and they will become my source of inspiration in the days to come.
I see the beauty of people and the human soul in the pictures I take. And though the circumstances of some of the people I portray may be grim, back-breaking, depraved, the people themselves are always remarkable characters and souls. And it is my duty as a photographer and artist to point with my pictures at every aspect of existence in the society and world I live in, to show what can be shown, to go deep into every milieu and also into every aspect of poverty, deprivation and hardship that I encounter ? because the only sin for a photographer is to turn his head and look away.
Inaugural ceremony: Tuesday, 6 pm, 1 June 2010
Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts
House 275/F, Road 16 (new)
Sheikh Kamal Sarani
Dhanmandi, Dhaka 1209
The exhibition will remain open until 10 June 2010, daily from 12 – 8 pm
Well, Chobi Mela III is coming to an end. One of the artists visiting Chobi Mela III was the celebrated Mexican photographer, Pedro Meyer. Pedro is also the editor of one of the most popular websites on photography <
Bangladesh is according to economists, one of the poorest countries in the world. However, statistics tend to also obscure other aspects of life that seem to get lost in such descriptions as “among the poorest in the world”. I found that the people in Bangladesh are among the friendliest I have ever met any place, nothing to say that they must be the biggest enthusiast of having their picture taken that exists on the face of this earth. Probably the most efficient way of getting on with life is, how it is dealt with, in this very poor nation.
This event (Chobi Mela) here, is one of the largest of it’s kind in Asia. Bringing photographers and their work to the forefront during the two weeks of this festival. I have met photographers from all over the region, and I am sure that as this festival grows over the coming years, Bangladesh will increasingly become a major center for the development of photography. And what better place to have such an event than a city, where to such a large extent, photography is welcomed by the population.
Pedro Meyer left day before yesterday, Raghu Rai left yesterday, Ozcan Yurdalan left this morning, while Zhuang Wubin is still out there somewhere in Sylhet. The exhibitions by Morten Krogvold, Michel Szulc-Krzyzanowski, Srinivas Kuruganti (Alliance Fran?aise), John Lambrichts (Goethe Insitut), Raghu Rai (Drik Gallery One), Darren Soh, Student?s of Morten?s workshop, Zhuang Wubin and Chris Yap (Drik Rooftop Gallery) all end today. We will arrange separate showings for ?Bridging East and West?, by Saudi Aramco World, which was held up by customs, and the exhibition by students of Barbara Stauss at a later date. Those of you who cannot make it to the galleries should give your eyes a feast at <http://www.chobimela.org/> www.chobimela.org.
It was in the foothills of the Himalayas that he was born. In a bullock cart amidst a snowstorm. It was in the cold chill of January, in the severest winter in Bangladesh’s memory, that he died. Alone and uncared for, the frail old man shrunken with age, but with a heart as wide as the ocean, and a mind as young as the children that he loved, Golam Kasem, nicknamed Daddy, died at the tender age of 104. The single storied yellow building at 73 Indira Road, with its unkempt garden, was home not only to Bangladesh’s oldest photographer, but also the first Bengali Muslim short story writer.
Born on the 5th November 1894, Daddy lost his mother shortly after birth. Brought up by his aunt, the young man took up photography the way many young men take up many things, to impress a young girl. She had promised to cook for him if he could develop a film that others had failed with. Kasem embarked with the same trait for disciplined research, that he maintained till his death. He went round the studios of Mednapur to find out the method that would win him his meal. He never talked of what the meal was like, but did describe how he used a hardner to prevent the emulsion from peeling off. Saving his bus fare to school to buy a brownie camera, he began taking photographs of the things he loved most, animals, flowers and children. And importantly, he preserved those negatives. In his archives, amidst old paper sachets marked in his neat handwriting are glass plates dating back to 1918. The harbour in Calcutta, early steam engines, the Gurkha regiment in shorts, and many many portraits. Period pieces lit in that soft natural light that early studios used.
Grainless negatives of people, generally in studied poses. His spontaneous pictures were those of animals and children, and amongst them are some gems. “Her first dance” is a delicate photograph of a child amidst a twirl, centre stage with her family as an audience. Strong portraits of his friend a teacher and the calm portrait of his grandmother belie the fact that he was an amateur, who took photographs for fun. He sold his first photograph at the age of 98, for Drik’s 1991 calendar.
The founder of the Camera Recreation Club, Daddy arranged regular meetings at his house in Indira Road where the club was housed. Regular visitors included poet Sufia Kamal, painter Qamrul Hassan and photographer Manzoor Alam Beg. His letters were hand-written, each one numbered, and the envelopes often made of recycled newspapers or book wrappings. Competitions at the Camera Recreation Club were unusual events. Photographers who would abstain from many local competitions would submit those small 4″ x 5″ prints. And they were proud of the simple prizes they sometimes won. The prize giving was always accompanied by a cultural programme. And Daddy would always sing.
The room next to his bedroom was his darkroom. A red plastic bowl stuck under a light bulb, his safe light. He mixed his own chemicals from old tins of chemicals. Often I would get a SOS. The same neat handwriting, asking for potassium ferricyanide or some other chemical that he needed for his latest experiment. Photography was his passion. Once at a meeting at the Bangladesh Photographic Society (BPS), where he had been presented a new camera, Daddy spoke of how the camera he had been given would be much more than a machine to him. He talked of how he kept his camera next to his pillow when he went to sleep. How, when he was sad, he would speak to it, and that it would talk back and comfort him. Unimpressed by the modern motor driven models, his preference was for a simple manual SLR, “preferably not too heavy” he would add with a mischievous smile. That is not to say he was shy of technology. I remember him holding up his thick glasses to read his first Email from his grandson in Canada. He asked me to come back the next day, and as I parked my bicycle by his rose garden, he was ready with his answer, again written in his neat handwriting. He was fascinated by Email and used it regularly, and curious about how the message would get through the ether.
He was fiercely independent. He cooked his own meals, fed his dog and his cats and did his own shopping. Until recently, he would even go on his own to a house down the road and guide himself up the stairs to meet a lady friend whom he occasionally visited. Rarely would he talk of himself and it was only in passing conversation with the late Mr Nasiruddin that I discovered that Daddy was the first Bengali Muslim short story writer. He used to write regularly for Shawgat, and continued to write, both technical articles on photography for the BPS newsletter, and short stories for general publication. His last manuscript, a simple manual on photography, sadly lies in my hands, unpublished. He had dearly wanted it printed before he died. The proofing was complete, the photographs selected, but ‘matters of consequence’ allowed other projects to take precedence. His last note, urging me on with the publication, will forever haunt me.
Always articulate, on his 100th birthday, at the opening of a joint photographic exhibition by him and the other photographic guru Manzoor Alam Beg at the Drik Gallery, he talked eloquently of how photography was the way for people of the world to make friends, to break barriers, to discover one another. Later as the chief guest at the opening of the 1996 World Press Photo, he talked of his own struggle to overcome the limitations of an ageing body. “My body says no, but my mind says you must, and in the end it is the mind that wins.” On Friday the 9th January 1998, the body finally said no and the mind took wings.
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