FiveBooks Interview

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The Bangladeshi photojournalist tells us about the power of images and offers some striking examples of the photographer as artist, witness or activist

What are your thoughts on the power of images as compared with the power of words?
They complement each other very well. We storytellers use whatever works. Where a picture makes a difference is that it?s much more difficult to block out a photograph, because of its immediacy. You can choose whether you read a body of text or not, or on which of many layers you interact with it, such as just the headline. You may decide how you interpret a photograph, but very rarely is there the option to not absorb it. Something as powerful as photography can be used and abused ? it can push people into war, it can be used as propaganda, and it can create racism.
Let?s start with your own book, My Journey as a Witness, which contains over 100 photographs. How would you describe it?
My book documents the journey of an activist as a photographer. I suppose it?s also a history book ? the photography movement in Bangladesh was immersed in its political struggles. I was on the streets during the protests against?General Ershad?s regime. There was repression and people were killed. When Ershad announced he was stepping down on 5 December 1990, it was a major public victory, because the people had brought down a very powerful general. It was a phenomenal thing to be part of and observe. The experience led to my career in photojournalism.
As a photographer I?m a very late starter. I come from a middle-class home, and most middle-class men in Bangladesh are expected to take on respectable professions. Photography doesn?t fall into that category. I?ve always been a very political animal. I wanted to play a role in working towards social equality, in my country and globally. The media seemed the most sensible place to do that.
Photojournalists in Bangladesh continue to face repression. Your own exhibition,?Crossfire, on extrajudicial killings was banned by the government on the basis that it would create ?anarchy?, and you received death threats. The closure was criticised by Amnesty International and later retracted. Do you believe photojournalists enjoy greater freedoms today than in the past?
I think the level of repression has increased in Bangladesh. It?s ironic, in the sense that we now live in a democracy ? to the extent that there are regular elections.
Your book also contains images of the English aristocracy ? why were they of interest to you as a photographer?
I shot those photographs for an Arts Council project. I felt it was important to take pictures of the English aristocracy. By and large, what I?d read about photography was about European conquests ? how anthropologists, writers and sociologists came to the colonies to index and categorise us, by documenting the width of our cranium, the length of our penis, and all other attributes. ?This is what you are,? we were told. So I thought perhaps I should turn this thing around. The project?s theme was ?work?, and I wanted to photograph people of leisure. Work is seen in terms of activity, but not in terms of the power structures that determine it. I thought it would be interesting to look at the people who decide what work is and how it is regulated, but rarely have to do manual work themselves. It wasn?t an easy project ? the better-off have doors to close on your face. It was difficult to explain what I wanted to do and still be allowed to take the pictures.

Image of Soweto

Soweto

By Peter Magubane
Your second recommendation is?Soweto by Peter Magubane, who was the first black South African to win a photography award in the country. What makes this book special?
A lot of work about conflict has been undertaken by well-known war photographers. But?Soweto is the work of a black photographer living in the townships reserved for non-whites during apartheid. This book documents his struggle. He had close links with Nelson Mandela and was very involved in the struggle against apartheid. And as he was witnessing it he was also persecuted, and spent a lot of time in jail. Photography was much more dangerous as a black person.
Over a sustained period of time, and with a great deal of honesty and nearness, Magubane produced stunning images ? not just in terms of their action and strength, but also because he showed what was really happening in Soweto by capturing the relationship between blacks and whites. Take, for example, his photograph of a group of naked black men with their hands held up above their heads. Inspections such as these were standard procedure before allowing black workers to enter a mine. The humiliation and degradation of the search was, I suspect, part of the process to dehumanise them. Magubane?s work stands out as being the voice of the people.
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Rasel Chowdhury wins Ian Parry Scholarship 2011

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Pathshala student Rasel Chowdhury wins prestigious Ian Parry Scholarship 2011, while Jashim Salam is commended.

Photo: ??Rasel Chowdhury

Patron: Don McCullin Director: Aidan Sullivan
Highly Commended Alejandro Kirchuk / Commended Jashim Salam & Valentina
Quintano / Hon Mention Daria Tuminas
We would like to congratulate Rasel Chowdhury on winning the Ian Parry Scholarship 2011.
The level of entries we have received again this year was higher and more focused than ever
before. Our judging is done as a process of elimination, so portfolios are removed from each
round depending on their strength as potential winner. The final round of portfolios from
Institutions like Pathshala, Danish School of Journalism, LCC, Westminster, Ohio, Falmouth
and Leiden University, showed such flair and extraordinary vision that the judges found it
difficult to select just 3 finalists.
The judges felt that the over all winner had to be Rasel Chowdhury from Bangladesh for this
series called Desperate Urbanization. His landscape images are concerned with the
pollution of the Burigonga River, Dhaka. There are 700 brickfields and dockyards functioning
on its riverbanks and tannery chemicals, human waste and industrial chemicals flow directly
into the river. This constant source of pollution has created a breeding ground for diseases
such as Malaria, Filariasis and Dengu Hemoragi fever causing serious health problems
along the banks of the river. Low-income inhabitants are the worse affected, with little
access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation. ?I have an intrinsic relationship with this
city and river as I spent most of my life in and around them? says Rasel of his series.
We would like to thank our judges for their clear decision-making and expertise: Don
McCullin Patron / Tom Stoddart Trustee / Kate Edwards Guardian Weekend / Alixandra
Fazzina Noor / Jon Jones & Stephen Reid Sunday Times magazine / Charles Parry Ian?s
brother.
?Rasel?s conceptual approach and the desaturation of his images works well to produce a
very different view of Dhaka, which is intriguing and interesting. What really comes across is
his knowledge of the area and his subject. There is a consistent distance in the images and
yet every now and again you see figures interacting with the landscape, it moves from
pollution to shipbuilding ? Kate Edwards, Guardian Weekend Photography Editor
Save The Children are again sponsoring the award by offering one of the finalists an all
expenses paid assignment under the management of Rachel Palmer, Film and Photography
Manager and in addition to this, the World Press Photo automatically accepts the winner
onto its final list of nominees for the Joop Swart Masterclass in Amsterdam. This is a
significant prize for any photographer and continued with the support of Canon Europe &
Sunday Times magazine, which publishes all the finalist?s work; the scholarship provides an
excellent launch into a professional career in photography.
Once again our extremely well attended exhibition will be held at the Getty Images Gallery /
46 East Castle Street, London, W1W 8DX telephone: +44 (0) 207 291 5380 from the 17th
August for two weeks.
For further information, interviews or images please contact Rebecca McClelland Deputy
Director Ian Parry Scholarship at rebecca@ianparry.org and visit www.ianparry.org

Photo by Jashim Salam/Pathshala

A show of Magic

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Posted on January 25, 2011 by Chris Riley
From the Chobi Mela VI Exhibition “Girl Who Fell to Earth by Joanna Petrie.

A trip to The British Council to see work by Gareth Phillips and Joanna Pettrie turned into a haunting journey into the macabre side of our, ok, my, dreamworld.

From the Chobi Mela VI Exhibition “Existence” by Gareth Phillips
While Phillips showed images from a hospice, Petrie showed work from her own shadow world. She talked gently about her task of bringing half experienced dreams into reality through staged photographs in a Lancashire quarry. Your humble correspondent is from Lancashire and was startled to find the images familiar and also meaningful in the context of Lancashire?s history as being a notorious home of witches and the occult. The Witches of Pendle, 12 of them, were executed in the mid eighteenth century in the biggest witch trials in English history. The hangings took place a few miles away from Joanna Petrie?s location for her work. A coincidence? I looked at the work again and again ? and invite you to come to your own conclusion.
Robert Pledge, President Contact Press Images. Photograph Chris Riley

Chobi Mela VI evening presentations at the Goethe Institut continued with a historical presentation by Robert Pledge of work by David Burnett, also showing at Drik. Having had a conversation about archives only a few days ago it was delicious to be sucked into this history. As far as I can tell, Robert?s selection of 100 Burnett images from John F Kennedy to Barack Obama by way of the Olympics and what seemed like a permanent war somewhere, was a helter skelter descent into the abyss of recent history. Punctuated by athletic prowess and the dawn of the space age it was a depressing and gorgeous presentation. Images of Burnett himself told a tale of technology, reducing in size increasing in power but seemingly decreasing in influence. Not that the work decreased in power, it was a spell binding slice of an American photographers sense of the real.
Which, of course, is the point. This archive is the archive of an American and as such reflects the world he created through the art of photography. I was personally stunned at how accurately it reflected my own sense of it all. Then again, he created that sense in no small way. Pledge also entered into a friendly spat with Pedro Meyer about photography before the shot and after the shot for an audience of photoshopping multimedia artists. Interesting.
Multimedia slideshows seem to be evolving the art of photography itself. There were several good ones at Chobi Mela. The story telling skills of the photographic mind are not the same as film makers. If film is the art of time then photography, being the art of light, is about being still, even when presented as slide show multimedia.
In one show computerized voices drifted across everyday Japanese artifacts and rooms creating a spectral presence of the banal which in it creating its own beauty destroyed the social asphyxia it represented. A mix of stills and very short form video added to the disturbance of a piece about the sexual objectification of, well, objects. The slide show as art form is here. Its very good. I would like this on an iPad.
The brilliance of Chobi Mela persistently emerges as a near contact sport between the past and the future, old and young. The best of this was to come: Under the expert tuition and mentorship of Morten Krogvold the students of Chobi Mela produced a stunning show of staggering genius. Old hands were left ?jealous? of a body of work that made the sublime out of the tension between the telling of a hopeful elevating story and the context of a sometimes hopeless situation: Dhaka itself. The city is its people, fifteen million of them living in an urban environment that redefines the idea of mismanagement. It was the people of the city that the students brought into the show.Yet the predictable images, those that dominate a western view of the world, a view that would focus on the squalid, the decayed and the hopelessness, were totally absent. Instead it was a euphoria of images that told of life and love, of death as life and of the sheer bloody brilliance of the human spirit. It is a body of work that is as unified as it is diverse, representing the innocence of young artists and the seriousness of their intent. Sure, they had been whipped into shape by their frustrated teacher but the whipping had been to a frenzy of creativity, personal, explicit and powerful. It was a joy to behold and, for me, the thrill of Chobi Mela. All the exhibitions of work are carefully curated and thought through. The talent is indeed international. But all of it is a background and stimulant for what is actually created here in Dhaka by an international group of students from far and wide. It is a hint of a future Dhaka, a city of light that is beginning to attract the storytellers of future history.