Reflections on Chobi Mela VII

By Alakananda Nag


Chobi Mela, a biennale photography festival held in Dhaka, Bangladesh just completed its 7th edition in January 2013. Chobi Mela (literally, photo fair), started in 1999, is Asia’s largest photo festival. This year the theme was Fragility. Chobi Mela has earned its name as an egalitarian platform for any photographer. And one is surprised by the true diversity. Bangladeshi photographer and festival director, Shahidul Alam (also the founder of Drik agency and Bangladeshi photography school Pathshala) points out that major festivals are located in the west, driven by western concerns. It is very difficult for someone from outside to get in. Here, it is possible to see the work of a student alongside that of Eugene Richards (Eugene Richard’s War is Personal was showing at the festival).

Image from Eugene Richard's exhibition "War is personal"
Image from Eugene Richard’s exhibition “War is personal”

Dhaka was abuzz with the activities that were held in multiple venues spanning 2 weeks. It was packed from morning till evening with lectures, discussions, exhibition openings, and presentations. This year there was participation from 23 countries. One would be juggling between looking at the works of young photographers like Mahdieh Merhabibi, Leandro Viana de Paula, Maika Elan in the morning and roll over to the works of icons like Mexican photographer Garciela Iturbide, Australian photographer Max Pam in the evening; stride discussions with passionate Bangladeshi photographers, with photo editors from major publications the world over.


Patrick Witty, International Photo Editor, Time, was excited by the range of photographers. “There are Kurdish students here, there are Iranians here, Nii (a photographer from Ghana), I’ve never even met Nii. Would I meet Nii in Perpignon? No. Would I meet him here? Yes! That’s what’s cool about Chobi Mela.” One of the main reasons Witty went to Chobi Mela is because he wanted to meet a new set of professionals from the photography world. He continues to say this about Bangladeshi photographers: “I knew they are really good photographers, but the level of work is really strong…it’s a small country to have such a strong tradition of photography.”   Munem Wasif, Bangladeshi photographer and teacher at photography school Paatshala says “Chobi Mela is an interesting platform where the whole world comes to this part of the world. I photograph in Bangladesh, but I also show my work to a global audience. In that sense Chobi Mela & I have grown together.”   Veneta Bulen, Group photo Editor, The Guardian stresses this by saying that Chobi Mela brings together the amazing works of unsung photographers who would otherwise not have the opportunity.


Iranian photographer Mahdieh Merhabibi was an actress in her home country. But she got tired of being directed and decided to draw her own path. That’s when she took up photography after dealing with resistance from her family. She decided to leave Iran and traverse a broader geography to find out why and how people live with war.   Nayantara Gurung a Nepalese photographer started the National Photo Archive – an unique repository of Nepalese history through photographs. Gurung presented a slideshow of the inexhaustible work she and her team are doing in Nepal. “It stated as a DIY process” she says.  As a photographer she was always drawn to family photographs, and perhaps that is where a subconscious interest started. Gurung started going to Chobi Mela in 2009. It is an added advantage that it is so close to home and the chance to meet the best industry professionals from the world over as well as from the region. “In 2009 we met people from the Arab Image foundation, and their work really inspired us.”


“My mind is opening wider because I just understand the level of ignorance we have in terms of communication with each other. Maybe that’s what photography is allowing us to do; bridge these differences and to be able to see the common space between us. To see that really we are all in the same planet.” Said Ghanaian photographer Nii Obodai. Nii has also been working to take African photography to the world (he curated a slideshow with works of photographers from West Africa) says he draws his inspiration from Alam. “I’m happy” he says, “my world is becoming broader.”   And the world was becoming broader at Chobi Mela with its diversity. Whether its Hai Zhang, a Chinese photographer based in New York who was seeking inspiration from the range of work showing at the festival or Kurdish photographer Ari Jalal, who was there to just see and learn since such opportunities are still rare back in his country. It was a reflection of the truly global world we live in.   South African photographer Jodi Bieber was conducting a workshop, and gave a telling presentation of her phenomenal work. Iturbide was dividing her time between attending lectures, her own show opening, and merging in the fabric of Bangladesh taking photographs. The philosophy of Chobi Mela for Iturbide has been significant. She feels Alam is vital to the photography world because he made Chobi Mela from nothing.

Shahidul Alam at one of the evening sessions at Goethe Institut
Shahidul Alam at one of the evening sessions at Goethe Institut

“I’m not married to photography,” says Shahidul Alam. But is instead married to what he can do with photography. With the vibrant Chobi Mela VII Alam has more than proven that one can do so much with photography.

Chobi Mela talks

Some of the highlights of Chobi Mela VII presentations

Pablo Bartholomew (India) in conversation with Munem Wasif and Shahidul Alam Continue reading “Chobi Mela talks”

Chobi Mela VII on Nafas

Nafas Art Magazine
Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations
A project of the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa, Germany) in cooperation with Universes in Universe
Chobi Mela  VIIChobi Mela VII ? Photo: Drik
Chobi Mela VII ? Photo: Drik
Chobi Mela VII ? Photo: Drik
Chobi Mela VII ? Photo: Drik
Chobi Mela VII ? Photo: Drik
Chobi Mela VII
International Festival of Photography, Bangladesh, 2013
February 2013Since its inception in 2000, Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography has aimed at exploring the semiotics of present-day photographic practice in a broad international context, to bring about an understanding of the medium both within the industry and amongst the public at large. Continue reading “Chobi Mela VII on Nafas”

Good bye! See You in 2015!

Photo by Drik/Majority World

We would wish to thank all the exhibiting artists, event participants, workshop conductors, sponsors and everyone else who helped make this festival a success.
Sparks of Chobi Mela VII will linger on over the next couple of weeks ? with certain workshops only having begun and the touring exhibitions still to be dispatched ? but hopefully the Chobi Mela fire and passion for photography will sustain us until the next edition of the festival in 2015.
Over the past weeks we?ve come to understand that fragility need not be a weakness but can be a source of strength and that there is kindness not only in listening to other people?s opinions but great hope in empowering their stories. Now we just need to build on that.
Barbara AKA Shift
Photo by Drik/Majority World
With the end of the festival my time in Bangladesh is slowly running its course? So, good bye for now and see you back in Dhaka for Chobi Mela VIII.
Let?s see if we can get 2 Rolls Royce for the opening rally in 2015.
Visit the Chobi Mela Blog

In a visual age, visionaries

Nii Obodai Photo by Chris Riley
Nii Obodai Photo by Chris Riley

by Chris Riley

From portraits of the men and women who made Bangladesh, to a poem to The Buriganga. From an intimate examination of the bond between two sisters and a rare skin disorder to the documentation of Chinese pollution. From Mexican magical realism to Iranian reality and the brutality of war. From students to mentors and beyond. The picture editors from Time, Geo andThe Guardian meet the Majority World as it finds both voice and vision. In among the teeming Dhaka Chobi Mela?s white background posters seem to be beacons of a new world: less depressed, less angry and newly empowered to write not only Bangladesh?s future but our own.

Ruth Eichhorn
Ruth Eichhorn from GEO magazines
Photo by Chris Riley

Last time I was here I loved the student show and this year was no different. Tutored, mentored and cajoled by Morten Krogvold a group of 25 students documented Dhaka?s human side and created a show in four days, including the shoots and the printed catalogue. Rather than descend into the depression of all of Dhaka?s problems the students plundered its substructures to elevate the fine and the fun. Idiosyncratic, profound and often simply cool, the show was a triumph of story-telling with a twist: stories told by young men and women about the goodness of the human spirit and its capacity to prevail. This work was not full of parental anger, it was full of a child?s delight. I loved it.

Continue reading “In a visual age, visionaries”

Chobi Mela VII: Opportunity Knocks

Photo by Adnan Wahid/Drik/Majoity World
Photo by Adnan Wahid/Drik/Majoity World

The 3rd February ?saw the opening ceremony of the last exhibition at Chobi Meal VII. The festival intends to bring together veteran and budding photographers ? and what better way to do so than to hold workshops. During?Morten Krogvold?s workshop?titled??Opportunity Knocks?, the Norwegian photographer sent out the participants to find new ways of looking at their surroundings and the city of Dhaka.
Morten Krogvold at the opening ceremony Photo by Adnan Wahid/Drik/Majority World
Morten Krogvold at the opening ceremony Photo by Adnan Wahid/Drik/Majority World
Norwegian Ambassador Ragne Birte Lund during the opening ceremony Photo by Adnan Wahid/Drik/Majority World
The exhibition ?Students Work? will be on view at the?Asiatic Gallery of Fine Arts?(5, Old Secretariat Road) until 9 February.

Chobi Mela VII first week round-up

Photo by Drik

Chobi Mela VII: Dhaka revisited

Le Journal de la Photographie

by Pablo Bartholomew
More photos at Le Journal De La Photographie

Med_pablo-bartholomew-shahidul-alam-jpgPablo Bartholomew ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
What is about Chobi Mela that makes it special and important?
So what makes me come back to Chobi Mela, this pioneering festival for photography in Asia? It is the question that I ask myself, now that I am here in Dhaka setting up both my father?s and my exhibitions. Obviously it is the opportunity to show the works and be part of discussions that may provide and lead up to good dialogues and debates. But the fact that the last time I was here was such an important reference point is something that I would like to share. Continue reading “Chobi Mela VII: Dhaka revisited”

Chobi Mela VII: Buy chips

Le Journal de la Photographie

More photos at Le Journal De La Photographie

Med_bring-chips-jpg? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The sign on the whiteboard said ?Buy chips?. I couldn?t quite work out why this was so significant in the task list for the festival. Our Slovenian volunteer Barbara explained. With everyone working long hours and Emad at the secretariat being in trouble with his wife. The secretariat had worked out a ploy. Emad?s wife loved chips, so they made sure Emad went home every night with a generous helping. A broken marriage was a distraction we couldn?t afford. Certainly not until the festival was over!
The next door neighbours of Drik have been complaining. With the team working 24 hours, carpenters banging away past midnight hasn?t made us popular. In between the Croatian volunteer Sini?a and the Chinese photographer Hai Zhang arriving, Arfun came in with a coffin. It was to go with Eugene Richard?s show, War is Personal. The powerful, but sensitive work needed to be contextualized for a local audience and the coffin was to be part of the exhibit. Arfun couldn?t resist playing corpse.
The volunteers have been streaming in all day. Young, energetic and somewhat awed. Graciela Iturbide, fine tuning her test prints, Pablo Bartholomew checking the texture on his frames. The energetic Zhang Hai improvising on the fly as pre-planned layouts turn out to be impractical. Rupert Grey?s 1936 Rolls Royce is making its way to Dhaka all the way from Petersfield in the UK, just in time to join the rally. Photographers are set to take over the streets of Dhaka.
The rickshaw vans are ready for their mobile tour. The theme music has been composed. The musicians have set up their sound systems. A lazy media is just waking up to the incredible event that is unfolding before their eyes, and the pressure mounts for places in the boat for the all night party. Let the party begin. Chobi Mela VII is on.
Chobi Mela – International Festival of Photography
January 25 to February 7, 2013
House 58, Road 15A (New),
Dhanmondi, Dhaka 1209

Munem Wasif interviews Shahidul Alam on Chobi Mela VII

Le Journal de la Photographie

Complete article with more photographs at Le Journal De La Photographie

Med__mg_6251-copy_1-jpgChobi Mela VII Preparation ? Ranak Martin
Festival Director Shahidul Alam talks about the challenges and expectations one faces when running a festival such as Chobi Mela and points out the festival?s uniqueness and beauty.
There?s only few days left before the beginning of Chobi Mela VII and there are still a thousand things to be done and we are awaiting many guests from all over the world. So tell me, how is this Chobi Mela different from previous editions of the festival? What is special this time round? 
S. Alam : ?Firstly, it?s actually an extension of previous ones, What we?ve always done in Chobi Mela is to ensure that it?s a very inclusive festival, there are people from all the continents, there is a very diverse range of work in terms of photographic practices, but also in terms of the ideas behind it. Of course we have some artists who are here for very first time, I mean Graciela Iturbide will be here for the first time, Max Pam will be here for the first time, we are not sure yet if Eugene Richards is able to make it, they have very tight schedules but their work is already here. So yes! Very exciting work. Continue reading “Munem Wasif interviews Shahidul Alam on Chobi Mela VII”