Remaking Destiny

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www.migrantsoul.org

Who am I? Where do I belong? Who determines my future? Society has no answer to these restless questions. Our sense of identity, kinship and community, are at worst shattered by the experience of migration and at best are thrown into uncertainty.
The universal declaration of human rights talks of a world “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. The reality, particularly for the economic migrant, is very different.
Physical, emotional, social and intellectual exclusion reinforce a migrant’s sense of displacement and alienation. The powerful may glide over such barriers, touching down for business, for pleasure or even out of guilt. For those without power, parting is painful, and each barrier crossed, like the ferry ghats of the big rivers, broadens the distance they must travel to return.
Expectations, dreams, duties and needs circumscribe the life of an economic migrant. The single hope, to change one’s destiny, is what ties all migrants together, whether they be the Bangladeshis who work in the forests of Malaysia, the bonded labourers in the sugarcane plantations in India, the construction workers in the Middle East or the hopeful thousands bound for the promised lands of Europe and North America. They see migration not merely as a means to economic freedom, but also as a passport for social mobility. The wealthy can purchase the future they desire. But a migrant who chooses to rewrite an inherited destiny swims against the current and faces the wrath of the gatekeepers who shape that destiny.

Shahidul Alam

Fri Jul 18, 2003

Midwife to a Bloody Birth

Portrait of Jahanara Imam at Shahbagh Square, who led the campaign for the trial of war criminals. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Portrait of Jahanara Imam at Shahbagh Square, who led the campaign for the trial of war criminals. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World


Keeping the door ajar, so she wouldn’t get accidentally locked out,
Amma stood waving at the doorstep of 1, Birkdale Road, long after the taxi was out of her view. I didn’t bring it up then, but as I headed for Heathrow, I remembered the stories about Jahanara Khala that Amma used to tell us. It was almost exactly nine years earlier, on our arrival in London, that Georgie had given us the news. Khala had been ill for a while, but her death was still sudden, and a blow to us all. This obituary was written for the Guardian. Continue reading “Midwife to a Bloody Birth”

Juggling, juggling, juggling

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The Daily Star
Volume 4 Number 25
Sat. June 21, 2003

Literature

Travel Writing

Juggling, juggling, juggling…

Shahidul Alam

And while last week Fakrul Alam went on vacation to Indonesia, this week another, and very different, Bangladeshi (a photographer/gearhead in loosekurtapyjamas) flings himself headlong into Singapore to arrange a photography exhibition. With very different results.

 

I was getting closer to my usual time of arriving forty minutes before departure. The Singapore Airline guy had warned me to arrive three hours early. "The new computers…" he went on. I assured him I had flown several times since the new computers had been introduced at Zia. I had been there on day one, when these glistening new machines had led to long queues as confused immigration officers tapped in a letter at a time and constantly consulted more computer-savvy colleagues about the entry of some insignificant data.

Usually it was the migrant workers who were on the defensive, being made to feel worthless as they struggled with immigration forms. The roles had now been reversed. The workers seemed to enjoy waiting in line while their tormentors fumed in silence at the wonders of technology.

The flight was uneventful, except for the problems of trying to find a safe parking place for my six-foot print. Eventually the air hostess took my print away, leaving me nervously peering through the alleyway hoping she didn't fold it up to fit the container!

As we disembarked, we were greeted by another marvel of science. Another queue developed as the infrared cameras, revealed your body warmth. Posterised colours showed the relative warmth of every part of your upper anatomy as you walked by. It was live television!

It took people a while to work out who those people with strange colours were, but once it dawned, then it was movie time. Many years ago, on a cold day in London, I had noticed the coldness of the tip of my nose, and the near frost on my beard. I had always been curious about how the hairs on my chest would appear in infra red which the Singapore climate was far more suitable for observing.

Lance and Gim Lay ambled in. Gim Lay was a gallery official and had to make an appearance for her visiting artist, so she didn't have a choice, but I felt sorry for Lance, having to wake up at the ridiculous hours that Singapore Airlines arrives at, just because he's a friend.

After a very short pit stop at Teek's spacious studio, it was down to the gallery of the Singapore History Museum. We had agreed to give the show a 'raw' look. So construction scaffolding, helmets, sandbags, bricks, warning tape and cones had all been set up. Canvas strips hung on the scaffolding were to be our exhibition panels. By now I had been nearly eight hours without Internet and was getting withdrawal symptoms. Lance hurriedly inserted the appropriate IP numbers and I was online. Singaporean broadband was considerably different from Dhaka 'broadband' and I quickly went through my backlog of mail. Most of it was junk of course. After deleting the 101 tips for enlarging my privates, making 50,000 dollars a week offers plus the few Nigerian scams, I settled down to the urgent mail. Deadlines were looming. Salgado's images needed to be sourced, the workshop in Prague needed to be settled, and there were Pathshala exam sheets to be marked! I tried to get as much done using the museum connection. Even with these fast speeds, paying 15 Taka a minute at the hotel, took a bit of getting used to. The 15 Taka an hour Dhaka cyber cafés didn't seem so bad after all!

An army of volunteers had arrived, and I was expected to direct them about the setting up of the exhibition. It is difficult to appear intelligent when a horde of excited youngsters wait for each word to drop, especially when you don't have a clue as to where you are going. Still, the experience of having done this many times before did help, and with my eager volunteers, we were slowly getting the exhibition in shape. Gim Lin stormed in and out, pressing a row of panic buttons. The mounters were having problems with the inkjet prints. The precise positioning of my large prints needed my immediate attention. The television interview needed to be scheduled in, and what could I not eat?

Meanwhile I had other concerns. I had been surreptiously relieved of my Nokia Communicator the week before in a tram in Brussels, and being the techie freak that I was, not having a PDA phone was almost as bad as not being online 24 hours. So friends had been mobilised to research the PDA phone scene. What was available, where could we get it, who would give the best discount and who was going to accompany me to ensure I didn't get ripped off. I also needed a local person who would get the account on my behalf, as the phone company needed a local address.

Meanwhile Chor Lin, the director of the museum, came in for a courtesy visit. Her husband Peter Schoppert had masterminded the "Day in the Life of" series books for the Asean region, and we had many common friends. Raghu Rai in particular had been a frequent visitor while his books were being printed in Singapore. The technicians interjected in between: What did I need for my presentation? What program was I going to use? It all seemed so serious!

I managed to ring Justin. The last time we had met was when he had come over to Pathshala with David Wells for the workshop that led the lead story on Aramco magazine. Since then I had seen his Dhaka pictures in Time magazine, and I remember that ex-minister Abdul Mannan, during an earlier flight to Dhaka from Kuala Lumpur, had waxed lyrical on his slide show on Bangladesh. Justin was off the next morning to Shanghai, so that night was our only chance to meet. Eddie dropped me there and after a few mobile calls (how did we manage in the Dark Ages before mobiles?) Justin appeared at the other end of the park and directed us to the flat. The flat was a spacious house in Newton Circus and couldn't have been more ideally placed. Kaychin, Darren and Nick appeared bringing along P and P, who had set up the new photographic school Objectives and we all went to the food stalls. The food at Newton Circus was always nice and Justin knew where the best sting ray, guava juice and satay were to be found. Leaving Justin to pack for Shanghai, we went back to the museum, where I showed Darren the Chobi Mela II catalogue. They had been there throughout the circus that we had with customs and hadn't had a chance to see the shows that the customs had blocked, so the catalogue was the first chance they had to see the Malaysia and Salgado shows. We trundled home at around 3 a.m. to Tuck's Geylang Road studio, ready to drop.

The next morning the museum had geared up for action and every visitor was being asked to fill in a SARS form. Had you had any fever? Which countries had you visited. Any other symptoms? Who should we contact in case of trouble? A big A4 sheet every day for all gallery staff and visitors. More awaited. Chor Lin took us out for dinner in the evening, and the other speakers and the moderator were all there. As we walked towards the entrance of the restaurant and riverside point, a woman approached us with a thermometer in hand. Held rapier like, this tiny but evil looking device was clearly something she would relish inserting into some unsuspecting orifice. Gingerly we suggested we would sit outside in the patio. We didn't really need the airconditioned interiors and we were not going to have the buffet anyway. They agreed to make room for us by the river bank, but the rapier had not been sheathed. Gloved fingers tugged at my ear as it was brutally inserted inside. Chor Lin was delighted. This was a photo op! Being a photographer I could hardly say no. I was the only one with a camera, so I had to face the indignity of having my own camera used for immortalising on celluloid my ear-pulling session. The photographer was fussy. We had to stand in front of the aquarium, and crouch a bit so he would have the right composition. Not too much movement, as it was a slow shutter speed, and could the tester crouch too? At least my mother had not raised me for nothing. My one offering to humanity could be the pleasure I had given to so many Singaporeans as they chuckled to this spectacle. Oh how I waited for their turn!

It was refreshing to see so many photographers working into the early hours, as we mounted, trimmed, adjusted, hung the photographs. It reminded me of the early days of the Bangladesh Photographic Society. It felt so long ago.

Thursday was the big day. The opening was in the afternoon, and we still had plenty to do. Sandwiched between interviews, captions, a final edit and lighting adjustments took up most of the next day. Still no PDA phone. What was I going to do? Eddie suggested secondhand phones. Singaporeans apparently change phones every 2-3 months. A six-month-old phone was passé. So we should have been able to find a very good deal on a decent six-month-old set. The press had done their job, and friends whom I hadn't been able to contact, came over as they had seen me on TV. I had to sneak off to the computer several times as MC was breathing down my neck: were my exam papers marked yet? Some of the photographers had brought in their portfolios in between. Would I have time to review them please? It was going to be another long night. The next morning Nick and I went for a recce to Bugis. The salesman was quick to spot the techie freak and impressed me with the virtues of the operating system of the OX2. The Nokia and the Ericsson didn't stand a chance, and he was going to give me a special deal! I did have the judgement to take the time to consult my friends, and do some further research. Ed had mentioned scouting the Saturday papers where the best deals were to be found. But the salesman had done his job, and I was well and truly hooked.

Choy had asked us to arrive early to the auditorium to plan the presentation, and I arrived a bit late: There had been so many phones on offer at Bugis!

But everything went fine, all according to plan. And on the plane back home, I slept the sleep of the dead.

Shahidul Alam heads Drik Picture Gallery in Dhaka.   

Fathers and Sons

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Fathers and sons

Subject: Thinking of you
Sent: 02/13 3:21 AM
Received: 02/13 5:09 AM
From: shahidul@drik.net
To: Pedro Meyer, pedrom@directnet.com

Dear Pedro,
I have not written to you for a long time now. Things have been difficult here, and now with the elections only three days away, it is difficult to know what the next few days will bring. It is fairly certain there will be violence, but to what extent and with how many casualties, one can only guess.

I have been remembering you for very different reasons. For three days now my father has been ill. He has always been poorly, and with diabetes, gout, arthritis, and a failing heart, adding to his childhood bone marrow defects, he feels he has done well to keep going without any major mishaps. Yesterday, he had a blackout and slipped in the bathroom and fell, cutting himself on the head in the process. He was sweating when I found him, and as I changed his clothes and mopped his body with a towel, I found a new relationship developing between myself and this man who had fathered me. He was frail, and his skin hung loose, and he was slightly uneasy with this new role that we found each other in, but he did not resist, not because he was as weak as he was, but because he was brave enough to venture into this unknown territory at this late an age. A territory, I had never braved. I tried to gently mop the sweat from his body, feeling him lean on me, letting me feel his weight.
I had played with him as a child, but since then, we had had little scope for physical contact. I remember once, when I was twenty one, and about to leave for several years, that he stiffly held out his hand to shake mine. I went up to him, and his hug was so warm. Later, from a thousand miles away, I wrote to him to say that I loved him. It was the first time I had done so, but we had broken the ice. We wrote often since then, each time renewing and expressing our knowledge that we loved each other, but there had still been little to follow up on that hug. When I left for a visit, or returned, we would hug, a soft gentle hug, knowing, trusting, but still holding back ever so slightly.

He is sleeping now, in the hospital bed, and in the strange environment of the ward with the sound of sick and dying men all around me, I can hear him breathe. Even in his sleep, he knows I am here, and that is reassuring for both of us. I can feel his soft wet skin, the weight of is limp body. The almost imperceptible way in which he leaned against me as I held him. We have spoken very little in the hours when he has been awake, and much of what we’ve said has been functional, spoken while I have been feeding him, making sure the mosquitoes don’t bite.
Tomorrow I will be back in the streets, facing the inevitable police bullets and the teargas, in the heat of the battle perhaps I will forget this hospital bed, the squiggly lines on the oscilloscope, the gentle breathing, but I know he will await me. And tomorrow night, like tonight, I will sit by his bed, half awake, while he sleeps, happy in the knowledge that I have touched more than a bare patch of skin.

I remember you now, for the thoughts that ran confused in my mind as I watched “I photograph to remember” in a quiet corner of the gallery in Arles. I have my camera with me, but have taken no pictures, not yet. Perhaps I’ll wait for the skin to dry.


In loving memory,……..,
Shahidul Alam
…….



Subject: My father
Sent: 02/20 11:30 AM
Received: 02/20 12:35 PM
From: Shahidul Alam, shahidul@drik.net
To: pedro meyer, pedrom@directnet.com

Dear Pedro,
The text is a bit formal. It will take me a while to write to people individually. I hope you will understand.
RENOWNED BANGLADESHI SCIENTIST PASSES AWAY
Professor Kazi Abul Monsur, a microbiologist of international repute, passed away on the 20th February 1996 at Suhrawardy Hospital of a heart attack. A brilliant scientist, Professor Monsur was a gold medallist from Calcutta Medical College, and was later awarded the “Pride of Performance” by the President of Pakistan. He developed the world’s best known culture media for cholera, known as “Monsur’s Media”.
He was the founder of the School of Tropical Medicine, and also the initiator of the first IV fluid plant in Bangladesh. His work brought international recognition and he served as the director of the Public Health Institute. Professor Monsur started his teaching career in Dhaka Medical College where he was professor of Bacteriology and Pathology, which was followed by many years of international work. He retired from Government service as Director of Health Services. Dr Monsur has left behind his wife, Dr Anwara Monsur, founder and principal of Agrani Balika Bidyalaya, daughter Dr Najma Karim, son Dr Shahidul Alam, grandchildren, and many well wishers. Dr Monsur was a director of Drik Picture Library Ltd.

Abba

It was the first rain of the year, the end of winter. I hadn’t noticed the weather till then. The previous week had been one of turmoil and discovery. I had spent hours watching my father’s face, looking at the lines in his hands, the fingernails. The shape of his toes. Never before had I noticed the little cleft at the tip of his nose, which I too had. His eyebrows were thick, bush and soft. The doctors had told us it would need a miracle but we clung on. Abba had been very clear about how he wanted to leave. There were to be no heroics. No expensive treatments, no trips abroad, above all, he had not wanted to live a life where he could not be fully active. On the second day in the hospital, the doctor suggested that I ask my sister who was a doctor in the UK, to come over. The implications were obvious. She might never see him again. There was a national strike in the country, in protest against a one-sided election. Rahnuma’s brother Saif, arranged for an ambulance to get my sister from the airport to the hospital. She wept and he smiled as they met.

Those few hours were lovely, despite his condition. We talked of politics, his flowers, of his grandkids. He was furious with the government for staging a mock election and wanted to know what was going on in the streets. Then the breathing got heavy and they put on the oxygen mask. Late at night, the doctor asked if we agreed with putting him on the ventilator machine. There was a risk attached, but she felt it was our only realistic chance. It needed a move to another building. He was for the first time unsure of what was going to happen. I held him tight in the ambulance. Making sure he knew I was constantly there. In the surgical ward, they were going to pump him with morphine so he wouldn’t resist as they pushed the tubes down his throat. Between gasps I saw his eyes scanning the room, looking for a familiar face. I called out gently, and the eyes rested as they met mine.

Abba and Amma before they left for London, leaving my sister Najma and my brother Khaled with my grandparents. Abba was 33, Amma was 28. I was a ‘mistake’ and came later.

Continue reading “Abba”

The Visual Representation of Developing Countries by Developmental Agencies and Western Media

by Shahidul Alam

A paper presented at the fourth workshop for the European Network for Bangladesh Studies, Amsterdam, 25th-27th August 1994.

Abstract: Developing agencies have a dilemma. Though the myth of humanitarian aid has been discarded, their manifesto involves empowerment of the poor and helping them attain self sufficiency, which their funds depend largely on the sympathy they can generate for the “helpless people out there who they are in the process of rescuing”, and their political clout is directly related to the maintenance of a patron client relationship between the donors and the recipient government.

The media depends on its survival on readership and circulation. Disasters and horror stories sell. In the Western media soft stories with human interest on sells when the subjects are more readily identifiable, and nearer home. Their home grown writers and photographers have a feel for the editorial style and viewpoint, and do not impose a political angle that may be alien to that of the loyal readers.

In both cases, it is expedient to show images of helplessness, a colonial view of saying the natives. While this was more the case in the late 60’s and early 70’s than it is now, at least in case of the developing agencies, who have recently actively advocated a different portrayal of people from the developing world, the change in the western media has been far less significant. Starving children and the begging bowl are still by far the most recognised stereotype amongst even concerned people in the west.

Are tear jerkers still the best way of raising money? If they are, then changes in the education system is needed not only in the poor countries, but also in the rich, where the emphasis must shift from the need to save souls to the need to form a balanced world with equal partners. And if they are not, then the west is guilty not only under the trades description act but also of bad marketing.

Perceptions of the developing world

I was staying with friends in Newry in Northern Ireland. Paddy and Deborah had kindly made their five year old daughter’s room available for me. Corrina was friendly and curious and would spend a lot of time in the room. One day as I was clearing my pockets of change I had accumulated, she suddenly remarked, “but you’ve got money, but, but you’re from Bangladesh.” The family had just returned from a trip to Bangladesh. Paddy was a development worker and they had visited many of the projects. At the tender age of five, Corrina knew that Bangladeshis did not have money.

Who portrays whom


A recent fax from the National Geographic Society Television Division, to our picture library – dedicated to promoting the work of indigenous photographers and writers – asked if we could help them with the production of a film that would include the Bangladeshi cyclone of ’91. They wanted specific help in locating “US, European or UN people ….. who would lead us to a suitable Bangladeshi family.”
The situation is not unusual. Invariably films about the plight of people in developing countries show how desperate and helpless the people are, the people who realize their plight and come forward to their support are usually white foreigners. In some cases even local people are seen to be helping, but invariably it is a foreigner who has enlightened them about the way out, and it is always a foreign presenter who speaks out for them. The foreigner is so strong and forthright and so caring. She could almost hand over the microphone to them, if only they could speak for themselves, if only they understood.

The construction of a stereotype

Wide angle b/w shots, grainy, high contrast images characterise the typical third world helpless victim. 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 (the developing world) shall always be there.” In that role (a passive existence necessary to be maintained) those who receive aid, the “client group,” remain.

¹ Peter Adamson: Charity begins with the truth. The Independent 18.05.1993

² Unpublished book ” Out of the Shadows” by Peter Stalker, commissioned by the World Bank in 1994

The assumptions and how they are validated


The end product in all these cases is the same. The Western public gets to see a distorted view of the developing world. A situation for which the public in question can hardly be totally free of blame. School children in the UK think 50-75% of the worlds children are visibly malnourished (the real figure is less than 2%), and that only 10-20% of the world’s six to twelve year olds start school (the real figure is almost 90%), and that the rate of population growth in the developing world is increasing (it is decreasing in every part of the developing world including Africa)¹. The fact that a high proportion of the information about the developing world for the average western reader comes from fund raising campaigns is another cause of this gross distortion.
There is of course the other tack where “Third World Participation” is created in the form of guided tours to paid Third World journalists who are given what amounts to a censored view of well to do countries. In a recent tour of the United States organised by the United States Information Agency, I was accompanied throughout by a person from the State Department, and my request to visit Harlem was turned down due to “security reasons.” My report on the trip was never made public. That people from the developing world do go on these trips and cater to these forms of tokenism is of course a slur on their own professionalism. Organizations like the World Bank do sponsor studies by people known to be mildly critical, with the proviso, that the World Bank would decide if the work would be published.² Thereby retaining ultimate control.

³ Less than 1% of the incomes of the poor world – less than 10% of the budgets of the developing world’s governments comes from foreign aid.  

⁴ In a world of want and hunger, what is more powerful than food and fibre. Hurbert Humpherey

⁵ In 1974 there was a severe shortage due to floods. Bangladesh needed to export jute to Cuba. The US objected and when Bangladesh went ahead, stopped the PL480 grain supply. There was a subsequent famine which besides causing innumerable deaths, also led to the fail of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

The business of development


Every organization has a goal, a means and a method. The apparent goal of donor organizations is to make the recipients self sufficient. For this it uses tax payer’s money, usually a fraction of a percent of its GNP. Genuine aid also constitutes a tiny fraction of the recipient’s income.³ The method varies, but invariably involves an input of a lot of personnel, and materials from the donor country which is paid for by the same money that was given out as aid. An organization’s growth depends on its ability to generate more work. There are a limited number of recipient countries, a restricted market. All donor agencies compete for this small market. A recipient country that truly becomes self sufficient (unheard of in the history of development), no longer needs a donor. The donor agency, by fulfilling its manifesto would make itself redundant. The same applies for a development worker. The myth of humanitarian aid, however, has long been discarded, and the donors are now openly more concerned about governance, (how we spend their money) and there has been a visible shift towards administering the flow of funds rather than the humanitarian utilisation of funds.

Every organization has a goal, a means and a method. The apparent goal of donor organizations is to make the recipients self sufficient. For this it uses tax payer’s money, usually a fraction of a percent of its GNP. Genuine aid also constitutes a tiny fraction of the recipient’s income.³ The method varies, but invariably involves an input of a lot of personnel, and materials from the donor country which is paid for by the same money that was given out as aid. An organization’s growth depends on its ability to generate more work. There are a limited number of recipient countries, a restricted market. All donor agencies compete for this small market. A recipient country that truly becomes self sufficient (unheard of in the history of development), no longer needs a donor. The donor agency, by fulfilling its manifesto would make itself redundant. The same applies for a development worker. The myth of humanitarian aid, however, has long been discarded, and the donors are now openly more concerned about governance, (how we spend their money) and there has been a visible shift towards administering the flow of funds rather than the humanitarian utilization of funds.

Donor agencies invariably declare themselves to be non-political. The very act of giving money, or its equivalent, to people who are badly deprived is strongly political. The development worker is in a very powerful position. They are people who have to be pleased if one wants a loan, or access to education, or food.
The truth is, that despite all their claims about delegation, very little decision making involves local people. And very little decision making by the foreign experts involves in-depth local knowledge. It would be hazardous for these foreign experts to permit the infiltration of people who could penetrate their information chain, something that photographs are particularly good at doing. Culture, once considered a hindrance to development has now, become fashionable to promote. But it has to be a particular type of culture packaged in a particular type of way.

The “image business” is inextricably linked with the “development business.” From slide shows in remote villages to slick exhibitions in posh hotels, from A5 flyers to coffee table books, from fund raising campaigns to annual reports, image hungry developmental agencies depend heavily on image makers. One feeds off the other. It is hardly surprising therefore that the image producers (read mostly white men photographers) produce images that are good for business for both industries. Development or fair representation doesn’t enter the equation.

The Marketing Strategy


There is of course the need (amongst industrialized nations) to show the results of donor aid. The recent major feature in the Observer newspaper in the UK on OXFAM⁶ , was called the Poverty Supplement, and in Observer’s own words “The main aim of the Poverty Supplement was to persuade our readers to support OXFAM’s work financially. This was obviously successful.” The supplement was in fact an advertisement in the Observer to the tune of about #25,000. Pledges from the Observer readers amounted to a third of the annual budget for OXFAM’s development partnerships in Zambia. When a similar proposal was made for CONCERN’s projects in Bangladesh, though CONCERN had proposed a local photographer of international standing who had been working on the projects for over six years, and the Observer had initially agreed, they backed out in the last minute, and used a British photographer. They did however use stock photographs from the Bangladeshi photographer, but were only interested in the slum and poverty pictures which were a small part of the total work.

⁶ 7th MArch 1993 ⁷ Obsrver offer an independent evaluation of the sponsorship for £3,000

⁷ Obsrver offer an independent evaluation of the sponsorship for £3,000

The power of images


A camera can be a tool of extreme sensitivity or no sensitivity at all. A photograph can:
1) Be an eye check on memory
2) Give detailed information
3) Show what we cannot see
4) Store away complex data for future analysis
More importantly it can influence people and create powerful emotional responses. We are aware of the meaning of words, but forget that images may have different meanings to different people, and that the meaning of a photograph can depend to a large extent on the context in which it is used. “The Camera never lies” is the biggest lie of all.

The need for a different type of education


If we are to genuinely work for social change, what direction should developmental education go in? Teach local people about the fruits of good nutrition, family planning, education of their daughters. That is extremely important and is largely being attempted. What about teaching people (particularly development workers) to look for other options besides aid? What of creating role models of Bangladeshis running international developmental organizations, and giving these Bangladeshis the support and the clout necessary for them to succeed? What about foreigners trying to learn Bangla, and veering away from the policy that success in the development ladder correlates directly with a person’s competence at English? What about use of images that show a positive aspect of the country rather than the fund collecting images of helpless destitutes? What about not distorting captions by substituting them with dramatized, orientalist plethora⁸? What about desisting from patronizing the government and genuinely working with them rather than creating what is in effect a parallel government? What about teaching those working in development what the word really means?
The credit lines⁹ in articles dealing with poorer countries have no indigenous names. When questioned why this was so, picture editors and development workers claimed that there simply weren’t people in these countries qualified to do the job. Their reliability, their professionalism, their ability to understand the brief was all suspect. In response we began to make a survey of indigenous photographers working in their own countries. The response, both in terms of numbers and the quality of the work was overwhelming. If a small organization based in Bangladesh armed with no more than lists obtained from interested friends can pool together an impressive list of talented indigenous photographers doing good work in their own countries why has it been so difficult for the development agencies to ‘discover’ them. Discovery is of course a key word when photographing the natives. The photographer steps down from the plane, ‘discovers’ the native and goes back with the scoop. That discovery implies past ignorance, seems to never get noticed. Yet there are people who did know the local people, understood their language, were respectful of their culture and understood the underlying causes of things. These are the people, skilled, available and able, who do not exist. They have not been discovered.
The history of photography fails to mention the work done by photographers in poorer countries. While the heroic feats of Hill and Adamson are extolled, the photographers who had to import all their equipment and materials from the wealthier countries and documented their cultures for little financial gain have never been registered in the archives. The few exceptions like Indian photographer Din Dayal, given the title Raja by the British who had been legitimized for having served the crown. Other much more important names in the field from the same period, like Ali Ahmed Khan, never get mentioned, puzzling until one remembers that Khan had led a rebel attack on British troops.

⁸ In a CARE supplement on its role in the ’91 cyclone, though a photography by a Bangladeshi photographer was used, the caption supplied by the photographer was substituted with text made up by the editor. The photographer was never contacted or even informed. CARE never responded to a letter to protest by their press and information officer, who later resigned.

⁹ In 1990 almanac of the New Internationalist Publications, only four of the fifty two photographs were by photographers of developing world origin. Three of those were Abbas and Salgado (weeks 14, 22, and 45), two of the finest photographers in the world. Both were at time working for Magnum and based in Paris. The other photograph by a little known photographer from Bangladesh, was the only photograph amongst the 52 which did not name the photographer in the credit line (week 33). Predictably, the photograph was of the 1988 flood. The almanac did include numerous photographs by Western amateurs. The same publication in a listing of the highlights of 1993, mentioned the flood in Bangladesh. The flood in question was minor, but they used a photograph of the flood in 1988.

Unpublished research for the book “Hot Photography” to be published by Wiley and UPL in 1994


In five years of operation as a picture library based in the developing world, we have had many requests for images of Bangladesh by publishers, NGOs, donor agencies. The most frequently requested picture so far have been of the floods, cyclones, and slums. There was even a request for flood inundation of Dhaka in the floods in ’93, which the client insisted had taken place. We have not for instance yet been asked for a picture of a person at a computer terminal, a very commonly stocked photograph in western libraries, and one which we too have several of. In one instance the client, an educational publisher in the UK insisted that our photograph of a tila (little stupa in the middle of a pond, used as cyclone shelters) was much too small and that they knew of huge giant stupas, which local photographers and community workers who had extensively combed the cyclone affected areas had never seen nor heard of.
The danger of being left out is not as great as the danger of being nullified. Books that teach you how to be a successful photographer, The ones that teach you the secrets of the trade, teach essentially how to become occidental. Since the person making the most important decisions regarding the usage of a photograph is invariably the person most distant from the event itself, the photographer’s ‘formula’ for producing acceptable pictures is to regurgitate editorial policy regardless of what is observed. That is what the indigenous photographer must produce if he/she is to get ahead. That is what makes them begin to ‘exist.’ The danger therefore, is of becoming a sheep in wolf’s clothing, and eventually of becoming a wolf.
Pretty much all NGOs seem to have the usual ‘income generating activities,’ the savings groups where the villagers gather round in a circle and sign the passbook, the functional education classes where village folk are taught urban middle-class expressions that even in cities only get used in formal situations. Where they are taught “the policeman is your friend…” and they know otherwise. Photographs of the activities of a hundred different NGOs would be largely identical. Where is the training to network that the donor circuit itself thrives on? Where is the emphasis on information technology that allows the richer countries to retain their stranglehold? The poor in these countries have been observed, analysed and understood, but why have they been built a cell with no exit? Why are entire nations guinea pigs for foreign anthropologists, sociologists, economists and photographers?

Functional education literature used in CONCERN schools in Khaliajhuri

In a recent effort by an independent agency to install E-Mail in Bangladesh for setting up an inter-nation and a South-South dialogue, it was discovered that many NGOs already had their own dedicated E-Mail line, but had not offered the service to others, even to other NGOs. Information appears to be a resource that people are very secretive about, access to information something developing countries are selectively denied. The nature of the images representing developing countries is an index of the media control that will prevent developing countries from developing.
A Halloween song sums up some of the attitudes portrayed:


(Sung to the tune of WE THREE KINGS)
We Trick or Treaters in bright costumes are
Asking your help for children afar.
We want no candy But cash is dandy,
Here is our UNICEF jar.
Oooooooooooooooooooh

Help the children, in foreign lands,
They are starving ? do what you can,
They1ve nothing to eat ? let alone no treats
Reach out and help your fellow man.
(there is now a non-sexist version with fellow human).

Shahidul Alam, Dhaka 30th May 1994
shahidul@drik.net