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.

DBS: Tell us some other details about the overarching concept for the event. What is this year’s theme, and how has the focus of the festival shifted?
SA: One of the ways that the festival has changed over the years is its breadth in terms of the vocabulary of the photography presented. This year’s theme is “Place,” and it is intentionally loose so that we can incorporate a multitude of project types. Early on in Chobi Mela’s history, mostly due to our own interests and passions, the majority of the work we showed had documentary and photojournalistic concerns. In recent years, we have tried to encompass work that covers more conceptual and artistic practices, though social justice still remains an integral and core part of what the festival is about.
Image 3. This work will be shown in Mustafa Zaman’s solo exhibition “Near-tragic Farsightednes.” The project is about misrepresenting reality/unreality, which are often interchangeable – one man’s reality is another man’s unreality. © Mustafa Zaman
Letters from clients, 1927, from The Butt-Clermont Houseboats Collection. At the exhibition “Archives of Persistance,” the Bangladesh Garment Sromik Samhati, the Kashmir Photo Collective, the Rohingya Archive and the Burj al-Shamali collections emerge from places of conflict and transition, places in which people persist to transform their reality. The photographs and archives they compose, reveal not only the persistence of those represented but also the conflicts inherent to the very constitution of these archives. © Kashmir Photo Collective

For this year’s festival, we are also putting a lot of emphasis on education. From past experience, we know that a lot of the visitors are educators, and we are taking the opportunity to rethink and revisit photographic education internationally, as well as in this region. So, at this year’s event, there’s a big emphasis on archives—we have brought together a series of different projects that look at the politics of the archive, funding, collective memory, and the physicality of archives. We are presenting the Kashmir Photo Collective, the Rohingya Archive, the Burj al-Shamali collection, and the Bangladesh Garment Sramik Sanghati, all of which provide insights into the social responsibility of archives. We have also been doing some research into vernacular photography and local photographic studios operating in small towns in Bangladesh, which has turned into a sociological project as much as an image-based one.

DBS: What can we expect from the exhibitions and other initiatives organized for Chobi Mela?

One of the key exhibitions at the Festival contains the work of the late Rashid Talukder, one of the great photojournalists of Bangladesh. Before he passed away in 2011, he handed over his entire back-catalogue of images to us. He is most famous for photographing in the killing fields of Rayerbazar in December 1971, during the last days of the Bangladesh war for independence. During this period, hundreds of Bengali journalists, teachers, intellectuals and artists were murdered by the Pakistani Army. In fact, December 14th is still observed in Bangladesh as the “Day of the Martyred Intellectuals.” With access to Talukder’s image archive, we were able go through and explore the huge amount of wonderful work he made before and after the war, including images of ordinary people and everyday events from all over Bangladesh. This part of his archive is wonderfully extensive and has never been seen by the public before.

H.M. Ershad used goons to suppress students protest in Dhaka University. 1 March, 1984. © Rashid Talukder
In addition to this initiative, we are introducing a fellowship program, linking up with local artists from diverse backgrounds. We are reaching out to schools and have dedicated curators who will speak with student groups about the exhibitions. We are also working on television programs to activate interaction with the exhibitions, and to promote visual literacy. It’s also important to note that we are showing more films in this year’s festival program than we ever have before.
NICARAGUA. Masaya. June 8, 1979. Popular forces begin final offensive. This work will be shown at this year’s Chobi Mela in Susan Meiselas’ solo exhibition “Nicaragua in Time.” Susan Meiselas’s photographs of the revolution in Nicaragua form an extraordinary narrative, starting with a powerful and chilling evocation of the Somoza regime, following the course of the popular resistance that led to an insurrection, and the triumph of the revolution. Since that time, Meiselas’ photographs have become a reference for continued returns, both to the people within the images and the images themselves. © Susan Meiselas

DBS: On top of all this, you’re presenting some international figures of importance as well. Given recent events, have you had any issues with travel plans or visa applications?

SA: Yes, we are working with Susan Meiselas on a significant exhibition, as well as Polish photographer Rafal Milach, the wonderful Gauri Gill, and book publishing legend Gerhard Steidl, who will be visiting Dhaka. It’s important to state that we see this year’s Chobi Mela as an act of defiance. We are still working out what we are allowed and not allowed to do, and this extends to obtaining visas for our visitors and guests. One of our speakers is the Indian writer and political activist Arundhati Roy, and when we made the decision to invite her, we knew that getting a visa for her would be a challenge. But given that the festival has such a rich history, and given that we have respected and credible figures on our advisory panel, it puts pressure on the establishment to do the right thing in a situation like this.
1984 Notebooks. © Gauri Gill
Taranjeet Kaur’s grandfather Jeevan Singh was killed on Nov. 1, 1984. Here she reads at home in Tilak Vihar in 2009, from the 1984 notebooks. © Gauri Gill

DBS: Tell me more about your advisory panel. It seems to be a new step for Chobi Mela.

SA: Yes, this is a new direction. We have set up a panel of advisors—a list of respected people from a diverse set of disciplines. This stems from our belief that photography should not be restricted, and should always be contextualized with a much wider lens in terms of how it fits into the local social fabric. We identified people who have played an important role as citizens in Bangladesh and beyond—they are scholars, artists, lawyers, human rights activists, and finance people who are prominent in my country and region, and who have spoken out in the past. These voices are giving us a new perspective and fresh guidance in these challenging times.

DBS: What do you think the future holds for the Festival?

SA: At the moment, we are currently constructing a new 10-storey building to house Drik Picture Library and Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. Drik gave rise to Pathshala twenty years ago, and the new building that will house them both will facilitate a new synergy between the two organizations. This will have a positive impact on Chobi Mela, too.

From the series “She Dances on Jackson”. This work will be shown at this year’s Chobi Mela in Vanessa Winship’s solo exhibition of the same name. © Vanessa Winship

In the past, we have supported and nurtured other festivals and initiatives in the region. Currently, there are over 19 photography festivals in India, and events such as Photo Kathmandu and Delhi Photo Festival have been hugely successful! China also has a huge number of festivals. We hope to continue to collaborate with passionate and engaged people in the region—not just in Bangladesh—and try to include them within the Chobi Mela team, enabling us to grow and move forward. We have started partnering with organizations to share the exhibitions from Chobi Mela internationally, and we are looking at how we can transport what we do here to a much wider audience.

DBS: What do you hope people in Bangladesh, as well as around the entire world, learn from your tireless efforts to continue with Chobi Mela?

SA: Chobi Mela has and will continue to be about bringing people together and, more importantly, bringing them to Bangladesh. The nation does take pride in this festival—it’s a flagship event in Dhaka—but it has also become a pilgrimage for photographers internationally. Chobi Mela has become an entrance for foreign visitors into the culture of Bangladesh, and I find it wonderful that people come back again and again, and in turn have become part of the extended Chobi Mela family. Through this year’s event, we hope to make a statement that we can’t be ignored or discarded, and that we are ready and willing to fight. And finally, we want the world to know that Chobi Mela is still here, and will be for a long time.

Editor’s Note: Chobi Mela was founded in 2000, and is organised by Drik Picture Library Ltd. and Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. The tenth edition of Chobi Mela will be held on February 28 till March 9, 2019. For more information on tickets and events, check out their website.

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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