Photography in Bangladesh: a medium on the move

F’ted internationally, the country’s photographers have struggled for status at home. Could that be about to change?

Water reservoir is for the Komolapur Railway station. It’s the main station in Bangladesh. Dhaka.

From the series “Railway Longings” (2011-2015) by Rasel Chowdhury

The eerie moonscape of Munem Wasif’s new photographic series, “Land of Undefined Territory”, appears empty. On closer inspection, it reveals the scars of industrial activity, from vehicle tracks to stone crushing. The sense of menace and alienation is compounded by a three-channel video with a grating soundtrack.
These digital black-and-white shots were taken along an indefinite border between Bangladesh and India, disputed land that is now home to unregulated mining but which also soaked up the blood of past upheavals, from the first, temporary partition of Bengal under the viceroy in 1905, to Partition in 1947 and the Liberation war of 1971. Ostensible documentary veers into questioning in Wasif’s deeply unsettling yet distanced probing of history, territory, ownership and exploitation. Continue reading “Photography in Bangladesh: a medium on the move”

The Statesman, and the Photographer

The statesman, and the photographer

by Shahidul Alam

Photographer Rashid Talukder and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (photographer unknown)/Drik archives

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 tuitumi 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.

Originally published as an Op-Ed in The New

Related links:

The light we failed to see

Winner of Chobi Mela Lifetime Achievement Award

Rare and Unseen photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the Drik archives

The iconic Parliament Building of Bangladesh, designed by Louis Kahn. Site of the landmark exhibition on rare and largely unseen photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the Drik archives on Rashid Talukder. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The iconic Parliament Building of Bangladesh, designed by Louis Kahn. Site of the landmark exhibition on rare and largely unseen photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the Drik archives on Rashid Talukder. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

A self-taught photographer with a strong sense of humour Rashid Talukder received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Chobi Mela international photography festival in Dhaka, in 2006. His images of the war of liberation of Bangladesh and the political events leading up to it, are the most comprehensive visual documentation of Bangladesh’s political history on record. Rashid Talukder handed over his entire collection of negatives to the Drik Picture Library in Dhaka before he passed away.
With support from Drik’s long standing partner, the Prince Claus Fund Drik has been scanning the Talukder archives of over 165,000 original negatives. The archives contain rare images, many of them never previously seen. These include major political events, everyday life and photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, whom Talukder was especially close to. The photographs show Mujib, not only as a statesman, but also as someone close to his people. There are also private and intimate moments which give insights not only to the public figure, but also to the individual.

Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with girl scouts. Photo: Rashid Talukder/Drik/Majority World
Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with girl scouts. Photo: Rashid Talukder/Drik/Majority World

While Talukder is virtually unknown outside of Bangladesh, he was one of the foremost chroniclers of the struggle for independence, photographing its origins in the language movement of the 1950s and continuing through the war’s aftermath.

Now hailed as a founding father of Bangladeshi photojournalism, Mr. Talukder made some of the most important images of the war, which by some estimates claimed one million lives and turned 10 million of his countrymen into refugees. He also documented everyday life in Bangladesh during his 46-year career, during which he worked for the newspapers The Daily Sangbad and The Daily Ittefaq. Through an initiative of the new mayor of Dhaka North Annisul Huq, and his council members, a massive outdoor exhibition has been arranged at the iconic parliament building of Bangladesh, designed by Louis Kahn, based largely on the Drik archives. Special access has also been arranged for the general public where even rickshas will be allowed into the parliament complex.
Commemorating the 40th death anniversary of the father of the nation, this provides a rare opportunity for visitors not only to see these previously unseen photographs, but also visit this landmark building, considered one of the architectural masterpieces of the 20th century.

Invitation to the exhibition of rare and largely unseen photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, largely based on the archives of Drik Picture Library
Invitation to the exhibition of rare and largely unseen photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, largely based on the archives of Drik Picture Library

The honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, will inaugurate the exhibition today the 13th August 2015 at 5:00 pm.

Images of Independence, Finally Free

By JAMES ESTRIN New York Times Lens Blog

The photographs were shockingly graphic, detailing the torture and execution of men suspected of collaborating with pro-Pakistani militias during Bangladesh?s 1971 war for independence. Featured on front pages and magazine covers around the world, they provoked outrage and won awards, including World Press Photo and a Pulitzer ? both shared by Horst Faas and Michel Laurent.

Members of Kadiria Bahini – a guerilla independence militia – bayoneted a collaborator of the Pakistani Army, in Dhaka after the Liberation War. 18th December 1971.

Only three Western photographers were on the scene of the executions: Mr. Faas, Mr. Laurent and Christian Simonpietri. The Magnum photographer Marc Riboud left the scene minutes before and later said he did so because his presence was only encouraging the brutality.
But there was another photojournalist there, whom the others didn?t know: Rashid Talukder, who worked for a Bangladeshi newspaper. Though he also made dramatic images, he did not publish them. He couldn?t. Mr. Talukder knew that ? unlike the foreign photographers ? he would not leave Bangladesh and dash to the next overseas hot spot. He would be staying. And the men behind the executions were among the most powerful in the country. Continue reading “Images of Independence, Finally Free”

The light we failed to see

Subscribe to ShahidulNews


Rashid Talukder 1939 – 2011
?Daktaaar?. The loud call would be promptly followed by a big grin and a bigger bear hug. He insisted on calling me by that title and always referred to it, when addressing me in public. Rashid Talukder (Rashid Bhai ? elder brother – to all of us) didn?t speak ?posh? Bangla, struggled somewhat with English and wasn?t encumbered with any of the polish of ?bhodrolok? upbringing many of us were trapped in. Unlike many others however, he took pride in his upbringing. That his apprenticeship involved making tea for the darkroom team, was something he was completely at ease with. There lay his charm. Quick witted, fast on his feet, streetwise, gregarious, loud and completely disarming. Rashid Talukder was an unlikely rebel who was impossible to dislike. He took ownership of my title. Despite his genius, he was all too aware of how photojournalists were regarded. In a profession way down in the pecking order of the hierarchical newsroom, he had felt the full brunt of the class structure where the photojournalist was the illiterate worker. Visually illiterate news editors would call the shots when it came to picture use. The concept of a picture editor had never entered newspaper parlance. The status my Daktar title implied to a photojournalist was something we were all going to share.

Photographer Rashid Talukder receiving the Chobi Mela Lifetime Achievement Award from the adviser to the caretaker govenrment C. M. Shafi Sami.

Those were the days one would check the chemistry in the developer from its taste. An extra puff of the cigarette would serve as a safelight to check if the film had been sufficiently exposed. Deadlines often meant printing directly from wet negatives. Once the twin lens reflex cameras gave way to the more versatile 35 mm, the film stock itself was often the back end of a roll of cine film bought cheaply from movie industry rejects. Fibre base wasn?t a fashionable thing in those days. It was the only type available. Chinese Xiamen and Era paper were found in limited grades with changes in the chemistry providing variation in contrast. It was in those grueling unventilated toilets converted to darkrooms that Rashid Bhai made print after print that documented the painful, rebellious, joyous moments of a young nation in the making.
I chided him for the fact that he had never made any contact sheets. His life?s possession, a garbage bag filled with negatives in no specific order or category, made it impossible to work from his archives. But what photographs! This was the man who had witnessed every major event in Bangladesh?s turbulent history. Interspersed between the iconic images of our nation?s past were the curious observations of a natural story teller. Kids bathing in the river with a real live elephant for a rubber duck. The courtship rites of hill people, a child being blessed by a sadhu, a duck sedately walking her ducklings across a busy Motijheel street were the slices of life that peered out of the more remembered seminal moments of our history that this remarkable photojournalist had meticulously recorded.
Continue reading “The light we failed to see”