‘THE TIDE WILL TURN’ By Shahidul Alam; edited by Vijay Prashad (Steidl). The eminent Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for more than three months in 2018 for denouncing the repression of protesters. Released after a mobilization of local and foreign support, he reflects here on his prison experience and a life of fighting for justice (for laborers, survivors of gender violence, Indigenous groups, and others) through image and deed. Some of his finest pictures illustrate the text, as do his selections of noteworthy images by other Bangladeshi photographers. Solidarity and integrity reign, along with tenacious optimism, expressed in a heartfelt exchange of letters with the writer-activist Arundhati Roy. (Read about his current exhibition.)
Where’s your bicycle? The Uber driver asked me jokingly. Yes, I had been known in photography circles and it is true that I did know a few Nobel Laureates. Given that I am a public speaker, and wear several hats, I do also come across the odd head of state, or celebrity. I’d be overstating it if I said they all knew me well. I have featured prominently in a film produced by Sharon Stone, but the long conversation on the phone, after my release, was very much an exception. But now that I have Uber drivers recognizing me, and people stopping me in the streets for selfies, I need to be careful I don’t trip over my own ego. Maybe I should be thanking the same person that everyone else thanks for everything that ever happens in Bangladesh.
I flatly deny making payments to the Bangladesh government for running a media campaign on my behalf. Neither is it true that I deliberately planted the inconsistencies in their fake news, making it appear they can’t tell a Kaffiey from a tablecloth. Let’s not get too technical. It started with me being a Mossad agent and taking money from Israel. Now I’ve been placed in the Al Qaeda farm, and definitely anti Israel. Considering that Israel is the one country that my government does not have diplomatic relationships with, and the only country my passport is not valid for, being anti Israel should theoretically make me a pal. My enemy’s enemy is my friend and all that.
The dot matrix Olivetti printer was noisy. The XT computer came without a hard drive: two floppy disks uploaded the operating system. When the electricity went (as it often did), we had to reload it. Our bathroom doubled as our darkroom. A clunky metal cabinet housed our prints, slides, negatives and files. Anisur Rahman and Abu Naser Siddique were our printers; I was photographer, manager, copy editor and part-time janitor. Cheryle Yin-Lo, an Australian who had read about us in a magazine, joined as our librarian. We offered and she happily accepted a local salary. My partner Rahnuma Ahmed often got roped in when we were short-staffed, which was often.
LOOKING at this photograph, one of the few in our library where the photographer is unknown, I realise how times have changed. This is the undisputed leader of a country with his arms across the shoulder of a newspaper photographer not known for being affiliated to his party.
No security guards, no party goons, no chamchas. Both men are at ease with the situation. The smiles, the casual gait, Rashid Bhai with his camera dangling, a single prime lens. Not even a camera bag (and this was the time of film when you only had 36 exposures). How times have changed. Sure, we live in a more security conscious world, but the distance between the leaders of today, and the people, isn’t simply about changed situations, it is about changed attitudes. Today the proximity between leaders and the people surrounding them has much more to do with business and benefits, than with humility and largesse. There was much more give and much less take.
Rashid Bhai was doing poorly and I was keen that the incredible history this talented photographer had documented over the years should not be lost. Initially we commissioned Momena Jalil and Moinul Hassan Tapu to get the information associated with the photographs, mostly kept in a large plastic bag in Rashid Bhai’s house. Tapu sat at Rashid Bhai’s bedside and meticulously wrote down what he could salvage from the photographer’s fading memory. Rashid Bhai was slipping away, and rather than tax him further with what was for him becoming a laborious task, we decided to scan the key photographs, project them and have him talk over them.
Even with this failing health, Rashid Bhai was still the master storyteller. His ready wit, candour and inimitable charm surfaced throughout the ‘interview’. One of the stories he said that day said a lot about the friendship that these two men shared.
It was the wedding of Sheikh Kamal (Bangabandhu’s son). Rashid Bhai was going about doing his paparazzi stuff. Like any other mother at her son’s wedding day, Begum Mujib was trying to bring some sort of order into the chaos. The paparazzi got in the way and the mother told him off. This was when the Bangali trait of Rashid Bhai surfaced. He was miffed, and decided he would not join the wedding dinner. Word got to Bangabandhu and he came to appease him, but the photographer would not relent. He was hurt and that was that. It was pure obhiman, a Bangla word difficult to translate. A hurt that only someone you are especially close to can cause. This had nothing to do with the status of a head of state, or his wife, or a photographer going about his job. It was maan/obhiman and all about relationships.
No less a Bangali Mujib responded: tahole ami o khabo na. tui ki chaish amar cheler biyete ami na khai? OK, so I too won’t eat. Is that what you want, that I not eat at my son’s wedding? Rashid Bhai relented. Food was brought. The two men sat side by side and ate. The use of the word ‘tui’ which Mujib often used, is one of extreme familiarity with multiple connotations. It can denote status, hierarchy and familiarity, and shifts with situations. Mujib was famous for the way he used it. Seamlessly switching between tui, tumi and apni as needed, and with marvellous ease.
It was this trait of the man that we have forgotten. Mujib was a great leader and a great politician. Like many revolutionaries who became statesmen, he too made mistakes. Some significant. In the end, he was a man, with human triumphs and failings. In our polarized political environment, we have either deified or demonised the leader and the man has never been able to surface. His humility, his closeness with the people, his ability to be ordinary, was perhaps his greatest strength. A strength we have not recognised and certainly not emulated.
I have noticed this in other great leaders. Nelson Mandela had once changed the date of a photo shoot, because I had not been able to arrive in time to Johannesburg. It was a long trip from Mexico City and on the 8th of July 2009, when I was meant to have been at his home in Jo’burg, I was still stuck in Dubai. Photographer friends have told me of how he cut short his speech, so the photographers standing in the rain could get to dry shelter. Stories of Mujib, taking time off from important meetings because a child wanted to meet him, is legendary. In the complex political quagmires they operated in, these great men have sometimes stumbled. We need to recognise the slips, analyse the reasons and learn from the mistakes, so they are never repeated. In the end it is their humanity that will surface. That remains their endearing trait.
The statesman and the photographer were both at the pinnacle of their craft. They were also great friends and fine human beings, each having an abiding respect for the other. The latter trait we seem to have forgotten.
Shahidul Alam is a photographer and social activist. He is the founder of Drik.
AZIZUR RAHIM PEU, born 10th June 1964, died 14 October 2014
“If you let me go, I’ll kill myself.” I’d never given a job to anyone before. So this response to my suggestion that there was a better future for him elsewhere, was something I wasn’t prepared for. I had returned to Bangladesh after having been away for twelve years. Not having the capital myself, I had set up a photographic studio in partnership with a businessman cum photographer Khan Mohammad Ameer and his businessmen brothers. The studio ‘Fotoworld’ was posh, and we photographed the glitterati. We also took pictures of factories, the odd milk powder tin, food, cigarette cartons and pretty much anything people would pay us (and sometimes not pay us) to shoot. Azizur Rahim Peu was my first recruit. I’d come to know him through the Bangladesh Photographic Society, where I was the general secretary and had taken an immediate liking to the young man. Continue reading “Chasing Windmills”
The dot matrix Olivetti printer was noisy. The XT computer came without a hard drive: two floppy disks uploaded the operating system. When the electricity went (as it often did), we had to reload it. Our bathroom doubled as our darkroom. A clunky metal cabinet housed our prints, slides, negatives and files. Anisur Rahman and Abu Naser Siddique were our printers; I was photographer, manager, copy editor and part-time janitor. Cheryle Yin-Lo, an Australian who had read about us in a magazine, joined as our librarian. We offered and she happily accepted a local salary.
The New Internationalist Magazine in Oxford, has been a long time friend and supporter. This two page spread was put together by them to commemorate Drik’s 25th anniversary. Thanks NI. Continue reading “Drik’s 25th Anniversary”
As is often the case, a very North American/European bias. But still a useful list
A.M Qattan Foundation: Founded in 1994, the A.M. QATTAN FOUNDATION is a UK-registered charity focusing on two principal areas, culture and education.
American Press Institute: Founded by newspaper publishers in 1946, the American Press Institute is the oldest and largest center devoted solely to training and professional development for the news industry and journalism educators.
Arab Image Foundation: The Arab Image Foundation aims to promote photography in the Middle East and North Africa by locating, collecting, and preserving the region’s photographic heritage. Continue reading “Photojournalism Resources”
Photographer Balazs Gardi co-created the experimental media project Basetrack, which documents the deployment of the 1st Battalion, Eighth Marines, at Combat Outpost 7171 in Helmand, Afghanistan. Image © Balazs Gardi / Basetrack.org
As the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper was making plans to lay off its entire photography staff, Fred Ritchin was putting the final touches to his latest opus, Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen. Keenly aware of the current dismal state of traditional media, the former picture editor of The New York Times Magazine and professor of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts prefaces his essay with 16 questions and two pages full of interrogations about the future of news – photography in particular.
Looking at a world where “image-making has become a form of communication nearly as banal, instinctive and pervasive as talking”, Ritchin asks: “Do we need – even more than we need photographers – metaphotographers who are capable of sorting through some of the billions of images now available, adding their own and contextualising all of them so they become more useful, more complex and more visible?” In other words: “How does today’s image-maker create meaningful media?”
To say that the wealth of images found online is overwhelming is an understatement. Absolute numbers are difficult to aggregate but, according to Fortune magazine, 10 percent of all the photographs ever taken were shot in 2011. The following year, while the Pew Research Center reported that 46 percent of American adult internet users post original photos or videos online, Facebook announced that seven petabytes – that is six zeros more than a gigabyte – of new photos were added to its servers every month. This equates to roughly 300 million images posted every day on Facebook alone. And according to Yahoo!’s estimation, in 2014 alone more than 880 billion images will be taken.
“There is an extraordinary need to make sense of the billions and billions of images available online,” says Ritchin. “Photographs originating from different sources need to be confronted with one another to figure out whether they are overlapping or contradicting each other.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, the author sees this evolving media landscape as an opportunity for photographers to expand their visual language, and for traditional media to revisit the way in which it interacts with its audience.
Nowadays, photojournalists – competing for what little work is left – are under extreme pressure to produce an arresting double-page spread at low cost and in a short space of time. “What this does is reduce the visual vocabulary,” says Ritchin. “For example, references to the Madonna holding a child keep coming up in all kinds of pictures because it is recognisable.” Recently, it was Samuel Aranda’s photograph, which won the World Press Photo Award in 2012, of a Yemeni mother cradling her son suffering from the effects of tear gas that was compared to a modern-day Pietà. A few months later, Edouard Elias’ image of a wounded Syrian man was likened to the Deposition of Christ. However effective these images are, their recurrence may well eventually tire the viewer.
A solution can be found in the very web platforms that traditional media is slowly getting a grip on, says Ritchin. “If a photographer has an Instagram account and a large number of followers, he does not necessarily need a magazine for people to see what he is witnessing and photographing. One now has the potential for more authority in the sense of authoring; one has to have a vision, as well as the resources and strategies to get his opinion across.
“Photographers can show their work in a more complex and interesting way. It is the difference between trying to say everything in one sentence or in five pages.”
Susan Meiselas’ mural project installation, Re-Framing History, is based on the original photographs she took in 1978 of the popular insurrection against Somoza © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos
“Marshall McLuhan [the media theorist] believes we were all going at 90 miles an hour looking in the rear-view mirror. We think we are moving forward when in reality we are simply copying older methods. The advent of cinema was like filming theatre – early photography imitated paintings.”
In 1996, inspired by the potential of non-linear narratives (Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a book in which readers can rearrange 16 sonnets, would later become a reference point for him) Ritchin, who had previously been picture editor of The New York Times Magazine, produced Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace with Magnum photographer Gilles Peress. “The reader could follow a path of his devising to understand the civil war. He became a co-author. The confusion on screen evoked the chaos on the field. It is still one of the most complex attempts in new documentary photography storytelling that I am aware of. That was 17 years ago.”
Many of the subsequent exemplary projects he cites – from Jennifer Karady’s re-enactments based on the experiences recounted by war veterans, or Laurie Jo Reynolds’ involvement with inmates in a maximum- security prison, or The New York Times’ Watching Syria’s War, a page where videos emanating from Syrian sources are decrypted by viewers – involve not only the readers but also the subjects. “Today, through crowdsourcing and citizen journalism, there is a lot more knowledge available. It goes beyond what a week-long assignment in Libya might accomplish. How can you know Libya in a week? You can’t. But if you make your images, have people from there comment on them, or show their own and allow the reader to participate as well, then you have access to more layers of meaning. Combining the points of view of professionals with those of the subjects is much more useful.”
Over a decade ago, Ritchin created PixelPress to encourage new forms of storytelling and foster more partnerships, namely with non-governmental or international organisations. He worked with Sebastião Salgado and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to produce a body of work that would compel viewers to support the fight against polio, and created several platforms, such as ‘The New World Order: Where are we now?’ and ‘Democracy in America’, calling for contributions from people in all walks of life using a variety of mediums to express their concerns. Although such initiatives are complex, the experienced photo editor dismisses claims that they are costly. “Small projects can actually be inexpensive. If you wanted 500 eight-year-olds to photograph their breakfast in one hundred different countries around the world [and put their photos online], we might learn more about one another’s eating habits than what Le Monde or The New York Times could ever tell us. And how much would it cost to do so? Very little. It is really the framework that we have to figure out.”
However, traditional media’s reluctance to do so might have more to do with economics. Consumed with the necessity to maintain readership, they have focused on speed and efficiency – attributes they believe their readers seek. When thanking its photo staff, the Chicago Sun-Times justified its decision by asserting that “our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. As a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.”
A similar faith awaited PixelPress, which halted its online activities after six years of operation. “I was hoping that, at some point, there would be a support system for our web publications to continue. But advertisers found us too political and readers were already used to being able to consult everything for free,” says Ritchin.
Despite that setback, he does not concede defeat. Last year, he organised What Matters Now, a two- week exhibition run in association with the Aperture Foundation. On the first day, the walls of the gallery were bare. Through discussions, lectures and public involvement, they were filled with what the audience felt was important imagery from around the world.
“Imagine,” he exhorts, “if we got to a point where 100,000 people were each willing to pay three dollars a month for a group of people to filter the important images and stories from around the world, then we would have enough money to create a new form of the front page and to assign photographers, videographers, painters and writers to do new kinds of stories.”
The wealth of material readily available, the medley of sources from all parts of the world, and the myriad readers’ comments, would then be arranged in a way that is useful and coherent, as opposed to an unintelligible mass.
“Everybody should be involved in trying to create that model – the photographers, the students, the artists, the filmmakers, the writers, and the small and large publications,” he urges.
“Young people have an enormous potential to make an impact, as well as a responsibility to figure out new media formats. If print media disappears, and no suitable alternative is created to replace it, you are left with an information void that is damaging for society, for democracy and for citizenship,” says Ritchin. “Citizen journalism is not just about producing the content, but also about supporting journalism and helping each other to create and curate it.”
Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen, by Fred Ritchin, is published by Aperture; www.aperture.org.
Dimitri Beck, the editor of Polka Magazine, worked with Drik in the Fredskorpset Partnership. Pathshala alumni Nazrul Islam was working with him while on placement from Drik in Aina, in Kabul. Aina was set up by Reza Deghati, one of the first tutors of Pathshala.
Newspaper pages from around the world speak to the international interest in the Boston Marathon tragedy. A collection of front pages can be viewed at the?Newseum website.?
It?s hard to write about any other photojournalism topic given what happened in Boston yesterday. Awful. The announcement of the photojournalism Pulitzers, dominated by the immense tragedy of the Syrian conflict, had the majesty of a clip contest. Continue reading “Tragedy and the Role of Professional Photojournalists”
Deadlines for some big grants are approaching.
Inge Morath Award
Administered by the Magnum Foundation, the Inge Morath Award of $5,000 is given annually to a female photojournalist under the age of 30. The Award supports the completion of a long-term documentary project, and is juried by Magnum photographers and the director of the Inge Morath Foundation.
Deadline: April 30.
Getty Grants for Editorial Photography
Starting April 1, Getty will be accepting applications for its 2013 Grants for Editorial Photography. Five grants of $10,000 each will be awarded to photojournalists ?pursuing projects of personal and journalistic significance.? Deadline: May 1.
The Aaron Siskind Foundation
The Aaron Siskind Foundation offers grants of up to $10,000 each to individual photographers, selected by a panel of judges. The entry fee is $10.? Applications are open to US citizens and legal permanent residents 21 years of age and older, and there is no requirement regarding subject matter, genre or process, except that the work must involve photography (no video).? Deadline: May 24.
W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography
Each year the W. Eugene Smith Fund awards a grant (in 2012, the award was $30,000) to a photographer whose past work and proposed project follow the tradition of W. Eugene Smith?s concerned photography and dedicated compassion. The board of trustees of the W. Eugene Smith Fund appoints a three-member jury to evaluate written proposals and photos. There is a $50 application fee. Deadine: End of May.