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

A project of the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa, Germany) in cooperation with Universes in Universe

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.

The theme for Chobi Mela VII this year is Fragility, and it presented the creative work of established as well as hitherto unknown photographers. The multi-faceted festival was launched on 25 January 2013. The festival brought together print and digital presentations that challenge the traditional perceptions of art reaching out to the public through gallery, open-air/unconventional locations and mobile touring exhibitions. Parallel to the exhibitions there were workshops, discussions, seminars and lectures initiating debates and discussions on issues central to contemporary photographic practice.

In keeping with the ethos of Drik, Chobi Mela has always symbolised a struggle against hegemony and oppression. The past festivals, thematically addressed Differences, Exclusion, Resistance, Boundaries, Freedom and Dreams gave an opportunity to fine art photographers, conceptual artists and photo journalists, to explore social inequality, in its myriad forms.

The festival featured:
33 Solo Print Exhibitions
Digital presentations
Portfolio review
Presentations by Picture Libraries/Agencies
Review of image-related publications/Book launches
Publication ceremony
Film screenings
Video conferences
Lifetime Achievement award

Exhibition Venues: Alliance Française de Dhaka, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Bengal Gallery, Dhaka Art Center, Drik Gallery, Lichutola-Dhaka University.

>> Images
19 image pagesChobi Mela VII

International Festival of Photography
25 January – 7 February 2013
Theme: Fragility
Artists from 23 countries
Chobi Mela
Drik Picture Library Ltd.
House 58, Road 15A (New)
Dhanmondi Residential Area
Dhaka 1209
Website / Email
Founder and Director:
Shahidul Alam

Bangladesh: Articles
in Nafas Art MagazineBangladesh: Artists
in Nafas and UiU

See also:
Shahidul Alam
The man who has transformed the face of photography in Bangladesh. About his series Migrant Soul. By Fariha Karim, April 2009
Chobi Mela IV
International Festival of Photography, Bangladesh 2006, organized by Drik and partners. By Fariha Karim, November 2006
Chobi Mela III
International photofestival in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Organized by Drik Picture Library Ltd. and partners. By Haupt & Binder, December 2004
Socially committed organization: Photo agency, gallery, festivals, publications, educational work, etc. By Haupt & Binder, October 2003

Good bye! See You in 2015!

© 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 ©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

Chobi Mela VII Preparation ©Ranak Martin

Complete article with more photographs at Le Journal De La Photographie

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.

I think it’s also very different in the sense that this time we have a much broader curatorial team, different styles, there’s been a far stronger curatorial input on this festival than there has been previously and of course new venues even within Shilpakala (National Art Gallery), it allows us to do things in a very different way.

I think it’s also different because there is much much more Bangladeshi involvement in this festival then there’s ever been. So in a sense while Chobi Mela is something we have been doing over so many years, its only now that the Bangladeshi public is waking up… What a fantastic event it is. And I think this will certainly be an event to remember.

Usually we go to festivals in France and in the US. The festivals there are usually supported by government funds or by funds from local institutions so the allocated budget they have is quite high. They have the opportunity to invite artists, create spaces and do lot of different things. How have you managed to run Chobi Mela over the past years without such financial support? What is the secret?

S.A : Usually we change the rules of physics, gravity does not work in Bangladesh. And the normal rules of physics would mean that we would need huge amounts of money that we simply don’t have. We hustle basically; we try and do a whole lot of things by barter, we try get people to support us in ways which save us money, without actually giving us things. And there’s so much goodwill from people, from volunteers like yourselves and other people who been very very generous with their time and effort. But we also have a lot of capability in-house, which means we can print the book, we do the posters, we have a couple of galleries of our own, so much of the work is being done in-house, we are able to do it at a fraction of the cost that any conventional organisation would need. But having said that I think it is important that we have much stronger government involvement. A festival of this sort, which would cost millions of dollars anywhere else, is impossible run on your own in the long run…

Festivals or big events such as this one tend to mostly take place in the west. Chobi Mela started 11 to 12 years ago. Do you think it made an impact on the younger generation here, because they can finally really see great work, meet amazing artists directly in Dhaka and get inspired and move from there? Then we also have Pathshala, where we have already hosted more than 100 international workshops… 
S.A : Of course. Rather then taking photographers to the rest of the world, we bring the rest of the world to the photographers. It changes the whole thing around. But it’s also different in a sense that this is our festival, so it’s not simply a question of a young photographer going to a festival it’s a question of young photographers taking ownership of a festival that they can truly call their own. But I think there are other things that happen because the festival happening here also allows people to look at the process, how it builds up what happens during, afterwards and the continuity. So in a sense the festival is a teaching laboratory within which photographers, students, whatever, can get involved. Just by visiting a festival you can never get that sense. Here it’s a living-breathing event.

Running a successful festival involves lots of logistics. Sometimes we can’t get the artists’ prints because of problems at customs. Other times, the artists themselves encounter difficulties coming here. I just got an e-mail from an artist from Vietnam, Maika Elan. She is applying for a visa at the Bangladeshi embassy in Vietnam and the ambassador looked at her exhibition ‘The Pink Choice’ and his reaction was quite out of proportions, saying he can’t accept these photographs, which might prevent her from getting a visa. We face these problems going to other countries and people are facing similar issues to come to our country. So how do you handle such matters? 
S.A : Well bureaucracy has its own grammar. And I think bureaucrats world over are solidarity group that behave in a particular way, our government is no different sadly but to be fair we have actually been able to negotiate with the ministry of foreign affairs. Many of the artists are coming from countries which do not have Bangladeshi embassies. Graciela is arriving this afternoon in a few hours. Mexico does not have a Bangladeshi embassy so we have arranged for her to get a visa on arrival. We have informed pretty much all the relevant embassies giving them a list of the people they’re likely to expect. But as you rightly say some local guy somewhere will get up on his high horse and take a moralistic stand and decide he is the authority on what needs to come Bangladesh. There is much we live without but we have also been able to overcome many of these things. I agree that, government involvement is very necessary certainly at a financial level, logistic level. But on the other hand the fact that we don’t have it, does give us a lot of freedom that we would otherwise not have had.

Talking about the local community, there are different kinds of biennial art happening in the country where photography is not included. Yet just this year one of the grand prizes at the Asian Art Biennale was given to an artist from Lebanon who used photography in the winning work. Sad and contradictory! Chobi Mela is a photography festival but have you tried to engage people or artists from different parts of Bangladesh to engage ina broader range of artististic and performance presentation? How do you look at these things? 
S.A : Firstly there is question about whether photography is art. It’s such a ridicules question in the first place. I don’t think we need to waste time discussing it. The problem with the Asian biennale and things like that, is that it is run by fossils. People who have no clue and live 50 years back in time and haven’t realised the world has moved on. What is sad is that their entry rules prevent Bangladeshi photographers and people working in the plastic arts from submitting work. Foreign artist naturally have never assumed there will be such ridicules rules… they submit work and it is judged for what it is. I think there needs to be a huge shift, a shake up in that structure altogether. But in terms of what we do, I personally think pretty much all the arts benefit from people who work in the periphery, in the edges. I think photography has lot to gain from people outside the field of photography, in terms of what they have to offer, how they can contribute to the medium and Chobi Mela always encourages that interaction. It’s been a very fluid border in movement and direction. I think certainly the fact that this is a festival where fine art photography, conceptual work, documentary work, 3D work, whatever, gets space is one of the things that makes it so rich. It’s not so predictable. Every year it is different. And I think every year it is evolving.

What are you working on right now? I saw you working with some prints of Eugene Richards. Tell us little bit about that. 
S.A : Well there are two shows I’m directly involved with. One is WAR IS PERSONAL by Eugene Richards. As a photographer he is someone I have huge respect for. I think the work is very strong and powerful. It is also very personal, very sensitive, very moving. Its does not translate too easily because this work is done in a cultural space where those images will be read in a particular way. Here in Bangladesh even by other people (from other cultures) the same readings might not take place. So one of the things I’m working on is how to ensure that the physical space exudes the sensitivity and the emotions that Eugene tried to capture in his original work. So we are doing it through artefacts, we are actually using incense to make it more culturally specific because it gives the sense of sobriety, you also get a sense of loss which comes from the way we use incense. That with the gallery space creates the linkage. There are other artefacts we are using within it.

With Ojeikere’s work, its very interesting work. Very significant in African terms. Of Africans recognising their own style and taking pride in their own traditions. Ojeikere himself is a pathfinder in his own country, own region. But the problem we had was elsewhere… technical problems. We got one set of pictures that were 8000 pixels another set of pictures 2800 pixels. And I particularly wanted really big blow-ups. The 2800 files aren’t big enough for that. Now I’m downloading software, which allows us to make larger print without losing quality. I hope. Because I wanted to create a particular physical presence in that space which those images would make. Now I might have to rearrange the whole thing, but that’s the reality.

OK, one final question: Give us three reasons why people should visit Chobi Mela this year? 
S.A : It’s fun! It’s specular! And it’s wonderfully different!

Thank you so much!

The interview was conducted by Munem Wasif

Chobi Mela – International Festival of Photography
January 25 to February 7, 2013
House 58, Road 15A (New),
Dhanmondi, Dhaka 1209