Crossing the Threshold

The Drik Calendar 2019

We were behind schedule. Every August, I find myself writing the introduction to the Drik calendar. Over the last few years, we’ve developed a practice of featuring Chobi Mela on odd years and finding a topic of common interest on even ones. With my arrest on 5th August-for reporting on ongoing events-the equation changed. Drik, Pathshala, family and friends had all run ragged trying to arrange my release. The calendar was simply not a priority.
Cover of Drik calendar 2019 featuring work by Pathshala alumni

As things settled, we decided we would continue doing the things we did. That would become part of our resistance. However, the Bangladeshi Jail Code has restrictions on what a prisoner can send out. In my case, it meant a complete firewall.

Resourceful as ever, Rahnuma and Saydia, managed to get a short list of suggested photographs through to me, and I was able to do an edit. Abir Abdullah and Tanzim Wahab were to co-write the introduction. But we had underestimated the power of our brilliant legal team and the sheer doggedness of the local and global campaigners and I was finally granted bail on 15th November. Even that didn’t lead to my release, and after a lot of drama in and out of court, and tension constantly rising outside the jail gate, the political dam burst, leading to my release on the night of the 20th. As we sang our way out of prison, Rahnuma whispered in my ear “you have an intro to write.” No rest for the wicked.

We grow up learning to obey rules. Acceptable behaviour hinges on conformity. Rules have their uses. Basic technique is certainly useful. Mastery over one’s medium is rarely achieved without a great deal of discipline. Behind the glamour and the glitz of celebrity photography lies many hours of relentless graft. Being good requires hard work, and knowing the rules is an essential pre-requisite. So where does a school position itself? How does it encourage creativity? How does one nurture without shielding? Set examples, but avoid cloning? How does one prepare students for mainstream careers while retaining their joy in bucking the trend?

In an educational culture that celebrates textual literacy above all else, the compulsion to understand visuals was itself a radical approach. The idea that in an image-saturated world, we could get by without understanding the primary tool for shaping minds-while bizarre-is understandable. Policy makers after all, are old school, having grown up in the same “sit, heel, beg” environment that has stifled creativity. New ideas rarely emerge from old ways of thinking. It also involved moving into uncharted territory. Bureaucrats are not known for taking risks.

The finest practitioners in the world sat under our mango tree and rapped with students. The students responded, producing strong work that dealt with crucial issues. They had great skills, but lacked the confidence to make mistakes. Their fear of getting it “wrong” was the hurdle we needed to cross. A careful mix of teachers, with diverse approaches to photography, coupled with a conscious effort to encourage experimentation, opened doors to unexplored spaces. It didn’t always lead to “good” work, but the crossing of that threshold led them to a whole new world and many forms of storytelling. As we enter our twentieth year, we find a diversity that is vibrant and has a refreshing unpredictability, which is rare for a school. That combination of excellence, flair and individuality, as opposed to a unified and sanctioned approach has become the hallmark of Pathshala.

It is not simply form that we are talking about. The “why” remains an integral question. The images presented in this calendar deal with complex issues ranging from social inequality, religious intolerance, violence against women, state repression and exodus while also looking at interpersonal relationships, love and desire.

Some approaches are visual, some performative, others are more conceptual. Materiality is explored through found objects and metaphors. The limits of the medium and its inability to record extremes of luminance levels are turned into the essential features of an image. Stolen moments, constructed tropes, collages and photograms straddle the entire gamut of the medium from photojournalism to fine art and every shade in between. The medium is stretched till it screams. But it screams in delight.

Shahidul Alam
Managing Director, Drik
Founder, Pathshala – South Asian Institute of Photography

Author: Shahidul

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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