|Preface to Drik Calendar 2006|
It was a stinker of a letter. Written to an organisation I knew little about. I was angered that World Press Photo (WPP) had little to do with the world and was largely about European and North American photography. Though it featured work from all over the globe, the jury, the photographers who entered the contest and the winners were largely white western males. So in my letter I had suggested that they rename themselves Western Press Photography. The phone call was a surprise. We didn’t get too many overseas calls in those days. The managing director of WPP Marloes Krijnen, politely pointed out that they too had written me a letter, still on its way, which was dated prior to my letter, and hence had not been written in response to my tirade. They had just asked me to be a member of the international jury. My letter had also mentioned that I considered WPP to be a very important contest despite its shortcomings, and should the opportunity arise, I would be interested in hosting the show in Bangladesh . This led to the second part of the conversation. While the exhibition is generally booked way in advance, there had been a cancellation, and should we want it, the show could be made available in three weeks.
Having recovered from the initial excitement of being asked to be on the jury of what is considered the pinnacle of press photography, I tried to compose myself and considered the options. I needed time, and asked Marloes whether she could call back in a couple of hours. The exhibition could only be shown in its entirety, and we had faced considerable problems with our own exhibitions. The major galleries were either state-owned or belonged to foreign cultural centres not prepared to question the government, or be controversial in any way. Our work had always been critical of the government and the elite, the donor community, the patriarchal system and of the self appointed protectors of religious and family values. We didn’t know of a single gallery that would guarantee that no censorship would take place, except for our own gallery. There was just one small problem. Our gallery hadn’t yet been built. We had drawn up the architectural plans for it though, and part of the superstructure was in place, but still no gallery. I was stalling.
Rafique Azam was then not the superstar that he is now. This was his first project, and we had wanted to give these young architects a free hand to interpret our ideas. I rang him up and asked him if he could build us a gallery in seventeen days! Rafique didn’t react as badly as one might have expected. He knew I was crazy enough to have meant it and having told me how ridiculous the idea was, settled down and gave me a list of all the things he would need to make it happen. He needed to work round the clock, a fair bit of money, some of it the following morning, and full freedom. There could be no slip ups in the supply chain. It was going to be a race to the finish as it was.
Osman Chowdhury was a client, but it was as a friend that I rang him up. There was no way he could organise the sort of money we needed at such short notice from his company, but he was able to promise a sum that we could get started with. And he could provide it the next morning.
Marloes rang as she had promised, and I said we would be happy to host the exhibition, in our own gallery. There the polite conversation ended. But that was also the beginning of a wonderful relationship between our two organisations, World Press Photo and Drik. A relationship that has blossomed over the years.
It didn’t take long for the news to spread. Mr. Gajentaan, the Dutch ambassador was a friend who had a strong interest in the arts, and had arranged photo exhibitions in his home in the past. Excitedly he rang me and wanted to come straight over. WPP coming to Bangladesh was big news, and he wanted to be part of the action. He was calm enough when we told him about our plans to have it in three weeks and in our own gallery. It was when we told him he was standing inside the gallery that he flipped. There was no gallery. ?Do you realise this is the most prestigious photo exhibition in the world?? he asked. Yes, we knew. And we would have a good show. A much shaken ambassador went back to Gulshan. To be fair, he didn’t call World Press to tell them that the gallery was only being built.
There was more to the story. It was 1993 and the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party were fighting each other in the streets, locked in a bitter battle for power. This we felt, could be a chance to unite these warring factions. We knew there was no chance of getting the two leaders of the parties at the same table, but the deputy leader of the BNP was Dr. Badruddoza Chowdhury, a student of my father, and we could probably approach Abdus Samad Azad through a personal friend Kaiser Chowdhury who was then the chief whip of the Awami League. Having been so critical of World Press Photo in my letter to them a week earlier, I was now extolling its virtues to two of the most powerful politicians in the country. Kaiser and my mum did the original groundwork, and I put in a good pitch about how this would demonstrate to the nation that they were forward looking political parties, and how much media coverage the event would have. It worked, and they agreed to jointly open the show. Now I had another tool to play with. While local media didn’t really know much about World Press, the fact that these two sworn enemies were going to open a show together was big news, and we managed to get the media excited. Mahfuz Anam of The Daily Star, the biggest English daily, agreed to do a whole media campaign around the event, and the bits were beginning to fall into place. At the packed press conference on the veranda of my parents’ home (Drik rents the upper floors), we were stalling for time, to let the paint dry in the gallery upstairs!
?rp?d Gerecsey the curator (who later went on to become managing director of WPP) and Bart Nieuwenhuijs, the board member who had come to setup the show, huddled with my colleagues and spoke in agitated whispers. Who was going to bell the cat? Eventually it was Bart who came up to me. They wanted to put in nails on the freshly painted walls! We did put in those nails, and the show was a spectacular success. The two deputy leaders cut the ribbon together, and confessed that they enjoyed sharing a cup of coffee, despite their political differences. The media went gaga. WPP and Drik had together pulled it off.
Since then, the two organisations have continued to work together at many levels. An impromptu seminar for press photographers followed. We arranged for the show to go to Kathmandu and Kolkata. Rabeya Sarkar Rima of the Out of Focus group became the first Asian child jury member. I remember telling Marc Proust when he came to curate yet another WPP exhibition in our gallery, that Nurul Islam, the young man who sold us flowers in Monipuri Para, had also been a former child jury member. We had the WPP retrospective exhibition at the National Museum at the first Chobi Mela, the festival of photography that we launched.
We collaborated on many other things. We started nominating young Asian photographers for the Masterclass, and one year, two photographers from Pathshala, our school of photography, GMB Akash from Bangladesh and Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi from Zimbabwe were amongst the twelve talented photographers in this international pool. Pathshala itself relied heavily on WPP for its existence. With no state or other external funding, it was always going to be difficult to setup and maintain a school of photography in our region. We utilised the first WPP seminar programme to launch the school, and the tutors and the workshops that WPP provided became important anchors for what has now become a degree programme. WPP even provided a grant which was a big help in those early days. Since then we have collaborated on training Asian and African photographers in regional programmes organised in Jakarta and Kenya , and been involved in longer term educational projects in Sri Lanka and Tanzania . I myself worked in the jury another three times, once as chair, and I have spoken at several WPP events.
Interestingly, it was the very issues I had raised in that original letter which the two organisations have worked together to try and solve, and both WPP and Drik are very different organisations today.
It is to celebrate that friendship, on the 50th Anniversary of World Press Photo, that we put together this calendar. The images are by the majority world participants of WPP seminars and their tutors, some of the finest photographers around. It is a protest against the continued use of exclusively white western male photographers to document the majority world that developmental agencies and western media have made their standard practice. It is a direct answer to the superior race argument that they continue to use to justify their actions and to dismiss our work when they say ?they don’t have the eye?.
Born Aid 20. The Commission on Africa. Live 8. Make Poverty History. The G8
Summit in Gleneagles. We are witnessing renewed debate about global poverty,
disasters and development, especially in Africa. Coming two decades after
the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980’s the time is ripe for a
reconsideration of the power and purpose of disaster pictures given the way
the images of the Ethiopian famine spawned the original Band Aid/Live Aid
Imaging Famine is one of several intriguing events I’ll be involved with in
September 2005. The event in New York is not public, so I’ve left out the
details, but I will be there in case anyone wants to meet up.
5th and 6th September: Imaging Famine Conference
The Newsroom. Guardian. London. UK
contact: Dave Clark, Bolton University: dj at djclark.com
*8th September: Panel Discussion: Imaging Development*
*Open University Campus, **Milton Keynes**. **UK***
*contact: Helen Yanacopulos, Open University: H.Yanacopulos at open.ac.uk *
10th September: Symposium, A Critical Evaluation of Photographic
Sunderland University. Sunderland. UK
contact: Bas Vroege, Paradox: Ebv at paradox.nl
12th ? 14th September: New York
17th and 19th September: 15th Videobrasil International
Electronic Art Festival
Sesc Pomp?ia, S?o Paulo. Brazil
contact: Luciana Gomide, Video Brasil: *fcfcom at uol.com.br*
22nd September: Launch of Internatioanal Touring Exhibition: Tales From a
Drik Gallery, Dhaka, Bangladesh
contact: Rezaur Rahman, Drik: reza at drik.net
24th September: National Geographic’s All Roads Film Festival
Egyptian Theatre: Los Angeles. USA
contact: Alexandra Nicholson, National Geographic: anichols at ngs.org
26th September: Presentation: “In Search of the Shade of the Banyan Tree”
UCLA. Los Angeles. USA
contact: Angilee Shah: angshah.asiamedia at gmail.com
29th September: Conference: Free Media
The Norwegian Institute of Journalism
contact: Solberg Oona, MFA: oona.solberg at mfa.no
It was Drik’s birthday yesterday! Sweet Sixteen!
ps: we’ve started a data entry unit and are looking for work. So if you have
Over the years, February has become our month of resistance. This is the window that successive repressive governments have allowed us, to vent our steam. The open air plays in Shahid Minar, the book fare in Bangla Academy and of course the midnight walk and the songs of freedom on the night of Ekushey, the 21st February, are all tolerated, for one month.
Yuppie Bangladeshis put on their silk punjabis and saffron sarees, and become the torch bearers of our heritage, for one month. Come March, it will be business as usual. It has been difficult convincing development experts of the value of culture in our society. With ‘poverty alleviation’ being the current? buzzwords, one forgets, that it was the love for our language that shaped our resistance in ’71 or that ‘Bangla Nationalism’ has been used to justify repression in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. On the 1st February, perhaps we could look back at a collaboration between Drik in Bangladesh, and Zeezeilen in the Netherlands:
Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit
Culture glides through peoples’ consciousness, breaking along its banks, accumulating and depositing silt, meandering through paths of least resistance, changing route, drying up, spilling its banks, forever flowing like a great river. Islands form and are washed away. Isolated pockets get left behind. It nurtures, nourishes and destroys. Ideas move with the wind and the currents and the countercurrents. Trends change, flowing in the slipstreams of dominant culture. A few swim against this current, while others get trapped in ox-bow lakes, isolated from the mainstream.
Photography, more than any other media or art form has influenced culture. Photographs in particular take on the dual responsibility of being bearers of evidence and conveyers of passion. The irrelevant discussion of whether photography is art has sidelined the debate from the more crucial one of its power to validate history and to create a powerful emotional response, thereby influencing public opinion. The more recent discussions, and fears, have centred on the computer’s ability to manipulate images, subsuming the more important realisation that photographs largely are manufactured by the image industry, one that is increasingly owned by a corporate world. The implied veracity of the still image and its perceived ability to represent the truth hides the ubiquitous and less perceptible manipulation enabled by photographic and editorial viewpoint. Not only can we no longer believe that the photograph cannot lie, we now need to contend with the situation that liars may own television channels and newspapers and be the leaders of nations. Given the enormous visual reach that the new technology provides, the ability to lie, is far greater than has ever been before.
Photography has become the most powerful tool in the manufacturing of consent, and it remains to be seen whether photographers can rise above the role of being cogs in this propaganda machine and become the voice for the voiceless.
11th September 2002. I was at Heathrow Airport, flying home to Dhaka. Friends had warned me against flying that day, but I wasn’t too bothered and looked forward to the empty seats I could stretch out on. In place of the flight notices, the loudspeakers made an unusual announcement. It was a call for a minute’s silence for the people who died at the World Trade Centre and year ago. A minute’s silence, and then it was business as usual.
The piece that follows was written in February 2003, in the week following the judging of World Press. Before the invasion of Iraq, before the advent of embedded journalism. Later at the award ceremony at the Oude Kurk, I was impressed by Wolffensperger’s speech (Chairman of the Board, World Press Photo), made in the presence of the Dutch Prime Minister, where he clearly stated his position regarding the attack on journalists and the media coverage during the invasion. I was left wondering however, why we as a community have never called for that minute’s silence, for those killed in Afghanistan or in Iraq, or the industry’s silence on the killing of its workers. We are responsible for the words that we speak, and the images we produce. Who will take the responsibility for the silences we maintain?
Much is made of the figures, but this is not a numbers game. While the sheer volume of photographs is daunting, it is still in the end a qualitative choice. How does one weigh one photograph against another? What makes one compelling image more special than another? What criteria do juries use to determine which one is best?
The parameters for the World Press Photo of the year are known; a photograph showing outstanding visual qualities and representing a news situation of global importance. News photographs are often taken on the run, in situations of extreme stress, often in situations of danger. Only outstanding photographers are able to create powerful, moving, beautifully constructed images even under such conditions. But their qualities need to combine with outstanding news-value to create the most talked about press image of the year.
2002 was a year of waiting. Waiting for UN resolutions to be applied equally to all. Waiting for aggressors to be punished. Waiting for a war that the world abhorred but seemed unable to stop. Missing were the moments that news networks paid millions to cover. Disasters in western countries lacked significant death tolls. Nothing significant had happened in the countries that mattered.
That is not to say that nothing had happened, or that the world was at peace. In a world where all lives are not equal, some lives are easily forgotten. Their daily plight does not count. Their struggles are insignificant. No war machines come to their rescue. Unless material interests intervene.
But riots, earthquakes and indiscriminate bombings have taken place, and occupation continues. And there have been photographers who have been there. At a time when defence pools, restricted access, and editorial policy define the perimeters of journalism, some photographers have gone against the grain and covered stories which should have been news but weren’t, about people who should have mattered but didn’t.
Clinging to the trousers of his dead father, a young boy cries for a loss that is as universal as it is personal. The image talks of humankind’s eternal struggle against nature, and a community’s ability to stand by the afflicted. Yet, amidst all these people, the young man is alone in his misery. The death he mourns might not matter to a world that doesn’t care, but to him, the world might well have stopped. And one photograph preserved that moment, a silent witness of an emptiness that speaks to us all. One photographer takes on the challenge of questioning our definitions of news.
As for the judging itself, it was a complex, passionate, fervent affair. Time and time again, we were humbled by someone’s insight into a moment, that had completely passed us by. Again and again, our zone of comfort was invaded. We were shaken into responding to an argument that questioned the values that we had always considered unshakeable. Our tools of measurement were cast aside. We stood naked, our prejudices exposed.
The photographers too stretched us. Images that explored the gaps in our visual spaces, played with our sense of balance. War was presented through lingering traces. Political systems presented through emptiness and solid structures. Consumerism and decadence exposed through garish images, unashamedly rejecting the classical norms of image construction. Tender moments rendered without sentimentality. And of course those stark images, where the photojournalist, at the right place at the right time, but hopefully for not too long, returned with the horrors of what man does to man.
When the credibility of our media, shrouded in propaganda, struggles for survival, a few brave women and men continue to report the news that is no longer newsworthy. This contest salutes their courage.
21st February. Oldham.
Chairman of the Jury 2003
I took the picture at one of the refugee camps in Tanzania set up by the government. I was trying to show the plight of the children who were lost and never reunited with their families. It was a hot and sunny day and I was a bit tired, having visited several camps in that area. 8 year old Kindaya Chikelema from Burundi stood in front of a notice board. More than 4000 children were lost while fleeing the war in Brurundi and Rwanda. Kindaya was one of the lucky children to be found by his parents after they saw his picture on the notice board at one of the camps.
A Different World
The many letters mailed all over the world had produced few results and it was ‘door to door’ time. I had placed the loose collection of prints on Dexter Tiranti’s table at the New Internationalist Magazine in Oxford. I remember Dexter’s letter the following year, regretting that he could only use six images from our agency, as the selection already had too much from Bangladesh. That started a long relationship between our organizations and led to my involvement in Southern Exposure, a platform, like Drik, for promoting photographers from the majority world. The Net has helped, but most of our contacts have come from information gleaned on motorbike rides down the back streets of Hanoi, or a meeting in a paddy field outside Beijing, or a visit to a museum in Tehran or similar opportunities for meeting photographers, whom I would not have come across in the mainstream directories. I remember excitedly going through boxes of prints that only fellow photographers or close friends had seen. Of newly found friends telling me of people I must meet. Friends from the Drikpartnership, students, colleagues at other agencies and at World Press Photo. Friends, who like us, have believed in the plurality of image sources and have been active in trying to bring about a change.
The images too have been different. These are not the ‘developmental images’ extolling the virtue of the latest World Bank fix, or the ‘news’ images that choose not to see beyond editorial briefs. The abandon of the flutist in Bangladesh or a ‘sweet fifteen’ dance in Peru, or the careless joy of the children on the branch of a tree in South Africa represent a personal involvement of the photographer, and a relationship with the photographed, often missing in the ‘big stories’ that the major agencies send their photographers to ‘capture’. Little of what you will see here is newsworthy to mainstream media. No hype reaffirms the success of a particular development plan. It is revealing that these majority world photographers have an insight and a sensibility that is strikingly different from that of their big name visitors. It is telling that an altogether different story emerges when a different pair of eyes is behind the lens. In their own back yard, they see a different world.
See Full Calendar
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.⁴ They are people who have to be pleased if one wants a loan, or access to education, or food.⁵
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 #25,000⁷. 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.
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