Lucia Chiriboga portrays the deep spirituality in Ecuadorian life. Long before Photoshop became commonplace, Lucia began creating complex images by subtle multiple exposures, as a way of weaving multilayered stories of her ancestors. ã Lucia Chiriboga/Drik/Majority World
It was a grand opening. The ‘Who’s Who’ of development in Britain was there, championing the noble cause – the Millennium Development Goals, making poverty history.
The Bob Geldof circus could perhaps be pardoned. Geldof is neither a development worker nor someone particularly knowledgeable about the subject. But for the organizers of the ‘bash’ at the OXO Tower on London’s South Bank to produce such a culturally insensitive event was revealing.
Apart from parading a few young black people from Africa, who extolled the virtues of ‘development’, there was little contribution from the Majority World. The key speakers, typically white Western development workers, spoke of the role that they were playing in saving the poor of the Global South. The token dark-skinned people, having played their part, were soon forgotten.
The centrepiece of this celebration was an exhibition entitled Eight Ways to Change the World. All the photographs were taken by white Western photographers. No-one questioned the implication of such an exercise. When I confronted one of the organizers he explained that the curator – a director of a Western photographic agency – had decided not to use Majority World photographers because they ‘didn’t have the eye’. The sophisticated visual language possessed by the Western audience was presumably beyond the capacity of a photographer from the South to comprehend, let alone engage with at a creative level.
This represents a shift from the position of 20 years ago when we started asking why Majority World photographers were not being used by mainstream media and development agencies. The answer then had been: ‘They don’t exist.’ Today our existence is difficult to deny. The internet; the fact that several Majority World agencies operate successfully; and that photographers belonging to such agencies regularly win international awards: all these things mean we are no longer invisible.
Now it’s a different set of rules. We have to prove we have the eye. A similar statement about blacks, women, or minority groups of any sort, would raise a storm. But when such prejudice is used against a group of media professionals from the South, who happen to represent the majority of humankind, no-one appears to bat an eyelid.
I have, of course, faced this situation before. There was, for example, a fax from the National Geographic Society Television Division asking if we could help them with the production of a film that would include the Bangladeshi cyclone of 1991. They wanted specific help in locating ‘US, European or UN people… who would lead us to a suitable Bangladeshi family’. The irony of making such a request to a picture agency dedicated to promoting local voices had obviously escaped them. We had gotten used to requests for iconic objects of poverty that international NGOs insisted existed in abundance and had to be photographed – but which locals neither knew nor had heard of.
The economics of suffering
Charities and development agencies need to raise money from the Western public. The best way to pull the heart strings – and thereby the purse strings – is to show those doleful eyes of the disadvantaged.
Perhaps photographers from the South cannot be trusted to understand this. Perhaps they are so hardened to such images of daily suffering that they are unable to appreciate the impact these sights might have on Western audiences – and the coffers of Western aid agencies.
But certain changes have been taking place, forcing various adjustments. Media budgets have become tighter than they were. Flying people to distant locations is expensive. Having Western photographers ‘on the ground’ can be dangerous in some cases – and costly in terms of insurance premiums. Better to have locals in the firing line. So, slowly, local names have begun to creep in. Certain rules still apply of course, such as the vast differentials in pay between local and Western photographers.
Stories about Nike regularly make the headlines, but the exploitative terms on which local photographers work rarely surface. The Bangla saying ‘kaker mangsho kak khai na’ (a crow doesn’t eat crow’s meat) seems to apply to journalism: criticism of the media is taboo. Not only do the workers on the media sweatshops have to work for peanuts, they need to know which stories to tell. None of this journalistic independence rubbish: gimme stories that sell.
This, of course, affects Southern photographers. When they know certain stories sell, they themselves begin to supply the ‘appropriate’ images. A man known to carry a toy gun in the streets of Dhaka is repeatedly photographed at religious rallies, and despite common knowledge that it is a fake gun, news agencies run the picture without explaining the nature of the situation. Numerous wire photographers have been known to stage flood pictures and in one famous instance, a child was shown to be swimming to safety in what was known to be knee deep water. The photograph went on to win a major press award.
Money also affects publishers. Smaller budgets require careful shopping. The Corbis, Getty and Reuters image supermarkets are rapidly squeezing out the ‘corner store’ suppliers and a small Majority World picture library simply can’t compete.
But there are other factors in the equation. Development isn’t simply about money. What about developing mutual respect; enabling equitable partnerships; providing enabling environments for intellectual exchange? What about creating awareness of the underlying causes of poverty? These are all integral parts of the development process. When all things are added up, cheap images providing clichéd messages do more harm than good. They do not address the crucial issue: poverty is almost always a product of exploitation, at local, regional and international levels. If poverty is simply addressed in terms of what people lack in monetary terms, then the more important issues of exploitation are sidelined.
Materially poor nations should have a say in how they are represented. This picture, taken in the early days of the Maoist movement, by Nepalese photographer Binod Dhungel, shows members of his country’s Maoist Movement long before it was breaking news. ã Binod Dhungel/Drik/Majority World
A broader picture
However, the type of imagery required from the Majority World is broadening. This is coming less from growing political sensibility and more from global economic shifts. Negative imagery is seen as a deterrent to foreign investment in emerging markets. With transnationals interested in cheap labour, and a wider consumer base, a different profile is now required to stimulate investor confidence. So, along with the standard fare of flood and famine, there are stories of Indian and Chinese billionaires and how they have benefited from capitalism.
Furthermore the new ‘inclusive’ media now take on more ethnic-minority journalists. But when they come over to do their groundbreaking stories, it is the rookie on the streets of Dhaka who provides the leads, conducts the research, translates, drives, fixes, and does all that is necessary for the story to emerge. If things do go wrong – as when Britain’s Channel 4 TV attempted an ill-fated exposé in Bangladesh in late 2002 – the Western journalists are likely to be home for Christmas while the local fixers face torture in jail.
Lacking the advantages of our Western counterparts, image-makers in the South have had to rely on ingenuity and making-do in order to move from being fixers to being authors in their own right. We have had to be pioneers. With one filing cabinet, an XT computer without a hard drive, and a converted toilet as a darkroom, we decided we would take on the established rich-world photo agencies. On 4 September 1989 Drik Alokchitra Granthagar was set up in Dhaka.
The Sanskrit word Drik means vision, inner vision, and philosophy of vision. That vision of a more egalitarian world, where materially poor nations have a say in how they are represented, remains our driving force.
The European agencies I had encountered wanted a minimum submission of 300 transparencies and told you not to ask for money for the first three years. This constituted a massive investment for a Majority World photographer, and virtually ruled out her entry into the market. We had a very different approach. If a photographer had a single good image which we felt needed to be seen we would take her on, try and sell the picture and pay her as soon as the money came in.
It allowed the photographer to buy more rolls of film and carry on working. The photographers didn’t have printing and developing facilities so we set up a good quality darkroom and trained people to make high quality prints. They had no lights so we set up a studio.
The only gallery spaces available were owned by the State or foreign cultural missions, none of which would show controversial work. So we built our own galleries. Few would publish pictures well so we built our own pre-press unit and published postcards, bookmarks and calendars which we sold door-to-door to pay for running costs.
Photography was largely male-dominated, so we organized workshops for women photographers. There were no working-class people in the media, so we started training poor children in photography. We couldn’t afford faxes or international phone calls, so we set up Bangladesh’s first email service and lobbied for the introduction of fully fledged internet. Professor Yunus, the Nobel Prize winner, was our first user. We set up electronic bulletin boards on issues important to us, such as child rights and environmental issues.
We started putting together a database of photographers in the South, and wrote off to as many organizations as we could, offering our services. No-one replied. Undeterred, we put together a portfolio of black-and-white prints, largely by Bangladeshi photographers.
On a rare visit to Europe, I visited the office of the New Internationalist in Oxford. Dexter Tiranti greeted me warmly. He had received our letter, but hadn’t given it too much importance. An agency in Bangladesh seemed too far distant for the NI to work with on a regular basis. Having seen the portfolio, however, Dexter sat me down at his desk and started ringing picture users across Europe. I remember feeling envious of this ability simply to pick up a phone and call someone in another country, but was grateful for the contacts. Dexter asked us to submit pictures for the NI Almanac. The next year we got a letter from him that stated: ‘The photographs are beautiful and the reason we are using only six is because we can’t really have too many from one country.’ Others Dexter had phoned that day, and many others we have contacted since, have responded similarly, and so picture sales slowly grew – but it was no easy ride.
Knife wounds and death threats
Our problems weren’t simply ones of surviving on slender means and competing against agencies based in London, Paris and New York. Our activism created problems on our home soil too. We had, by then, set up our own website and had helped to establish the first webzine and internet portal in the country. Our email network had been put to use when Taslima Nasrin was being persecuted. The website became the seat of resistance when pro-government thugs committed rape in a university campus. So the site, and later the agency, came under attack.
The day after our human rights portal www.banglarights.net was launched, all the telephone lines of the agency were disconnected. It took us twoand- a-half years to get the lines back, but that never stopped our internet service and we stayed connected. Later, Drik became the seat of resistance when the Government used the military to round up opposition activists. I was attacked on the street, during curfew and in a street protected by the military. I received eight knife wounds.
So we learnt to walk a fine line.
It wasn’t just the Government that found us unpalatable. The US embassy felt it couldn’t work with us because we opposed President Clinton’s visit to Bangladesh.
Letter by John Kinkannon (director of USIA in Bangladesh) to Mayeen Ahmed, coordinator of Chobi Mela (2000).
The British Council demanded we take down a show that talked about colonialism, and threatened that future projects might be jeopardized when we openly opposed the invasion of Iraq. Death threats, some real, some less serious and a whole range of sabotage attempts have been part of the path we’ve travelled.
Current strategies are more subtle. We know we will never be given work by certain agencies and that visas for some of us will be more difficult to get, but it is certainly not all negative. The main strength of Drik has been its friends and their support. None of what we have achieved would have been possible without the contribution of a large number of people, ranging from ordinary Bangladeshis who have rallied when it mattered, to influential people thousands of miles away who have provided moral and material support. Combining our compulsion to be socially effective with the requirement to be financially independent has remained our biggest challenge. It is a difficult balancing act.
A great high
Taking a principled position has other drawbacks. People work long hours for salaries below the industry norm. There are few perks. But working at Drik is a special experience; a great high. Not everyone can survive on these highs, of course, and job satisfaction doesn’t help pay the bills, so we need to be competitive and ensure a level of quality so that we can hold our own despite the political pressures.
Eighteen years down the road, we now have a workforce of around 60. Graduates from our school of photography, Pathshala, hold senior positions in major publications. The working-class children we’ve trained have gone on to win Emmys and other awards, and I believe Majority World photographers feel they have a platform.
The big agencies like Reuters and Getty can provide images at a cost and a speed impossible for independent practitioners to match, a very real consideration for picture editors under time pressure and working to tight budgets. The fact that Corbis (owned by Microsoft) is buying up picture archives like the Bettman is important for their preservation, but the images that now exist 200 feet below the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania are no longer accessible to the students, scholars and researchers. An important part of our visual history is now in the control of one person – Bill Gates.
Golam Kasem (nicknamed Daddy) was Drik’s oldest photographer when he died at the age of 103. His original glass plates date back to 1918. This 1927 image is one of many where Daddy records everyday life in rich detail. ã Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World
Father Paul Casperg, who has been working for many years with the tea plantation workers in Kandy, has an interesting story to tell. Nearly 30 years ago, in his Masters thesis at the London School of Economics, Father Casperg was able to show that an increase of two pence (four US cents) in the price of a cup of tea being sold on the British railways would, providing it went to the Kandy tea plantation workers, result in more income than the total foreign aid received by the Sri Lankan Government.
Father Casperg rightly concluded that it was fair trade that Sri Lanka needed, not more aid.
That is what fair trade imagery organizations like majorityworld.com and kijijiVision (see Action) are trying to do. By invoking ethical standards in the trading of images, these organizations address not only the distorted and disrespectful depiction of people of the Global South, but also the economic divide.
Organizations that call for Majority World governments to be more transparent and accountable need to reflect upon their own ethical standards when it comes to depicting and dealing with the South. Practices such as not allowing photographers to retain copyright or film are justified by the ‘convenience’ of distributing images. Such ‘convenience clauses’ are rarely applied to Western photographers, who know the law and can exercise their rights.
Light, flexible, potent
We are resisting, though. The new portal, majorityworld.com, supported strongly by its lobbying partner kijijiVision.org, has built on the extended groundwork done by Drik. DrikNews.com, though still very young, threatens to give the wire agencies a run for their money, and photographers in the South are pooling their resources, including developing close partnerships with like-minded Western organizations.
Recently, I was sitting with a small group of photographers, painters and filmmakers in a corner of the top-floor gallery of the Voluntary Artists Society of Thimpu (capital of Bhutan). At the end of the showing of a film on Chobi Mela IV – the festival of photography in Asia – projected on a bedsheet pinned on the gallery wall, the conversation veered to pooling resources in neighbouring countries. Sharing computers, scanners, and contacts, we talked of bus routes to neighbouring countries, and finding public spaces for showing work. What we needed was an online solution that would serve all Majority World photographers.
Having purchased expensive software produced in the West for selling pictures online, we were further bled by consultancy fees we had to pay every time we needed to adapt it to our situation. So, eventually, we developed our own software. It is an inexpensive but highly efficient search engine that local newspaper archives can use. Developed using largely open-source modules, it is constantly updated based on feedback from users from all over the globe and it has worked well on low bandwidth.
Groups in Bhutan, Peru, Tanzania and Vietnam recognize that the wire services and the big agencies have a different agenda. If it’s a guerrilla war against the corporations that has to be fought, then we need different tools. Light, flexible, inexpensive and potent ones.
A revolution is taking place. As new names creep into the byline, unfamiliar faces step up to the award podium and fresh imagery – vibrant, questioning and revealing – makes it into mainstream media, a whole new world is opening up. A Majority World.
Originally published in the New Internationalist Magazine in August 2007
In the 1990s independent picture libraries and agencies disappeared at an alarming rate as they were absorbed or driven out of business by larger ones. Dominating the field was Corbis, created by Microsoft Corp founder Bill Gates. Corbis now has 24 offices in 16 countries, represents some 29,000 photographers and controls around 100 million images. Last year it acquired the Australian Picture Library, entered a partnership with IndiaPicture.com and opened a new office in Beijing. Its 2006 revenue was more than $251 million.
Other big players have included Getty Images, founded in 1995, which now has 20 offices worldwide and controls over one million images. Jupiterimages, a division of the Connecticut-based Jupitermedia Corporation, manages over seven million images online, while Reuters has an archive of over two million images.
In recent years the microstock photography industry, led by iStockPhoto and later ShutterStock, Dreamstime, Fotolia, and BigStockPhoto has emerged as a rapidly growing market. Using the internet as their sole distribution method, and recruiting mainly amateur and hobbyist photographers from around the globe, these companies are able to offer stock libraries of pictures at very low prices. Corporate giants Corbis, Getty and Jupiterimages have now muscled their way into this market too, adding to their everexpanding fortfolio of the world’s imagery.
A true Pathshala
The story of an extraordinary school, told by Sameera Huque and Shahidul Alam.
Lifecycle: with a few exits
Images from Nepal and Bangladesh.
Coping with pain
Images from India and Bangladesh.
Lifestyles: disappearing and aspired
Images from Bangladesh and Japan.
Action on Majority World photography
Contacts and websites for agencies that hold or promote Majority World photography.
Turaj Ahmad takes a look at the work done at Pathshala, South Asian Institute of Photography — its method, its achievements, its contribution to the field of photography and its international affiliations- on the eve of its tenth birthday
Amidst, more often than not, the chaotic traffic on the roads of Sukrabad in Panthapath, with various inter-city bus terminals on either side, a relatively narrow gate with a board bearing a logo of a wide branched mango tree — even perhaps the trade being plied inside to an extent — often tends to go unnoticed. The mango tree, generally associated with a ‘Pathshala’, a traditional Sanskrit word for a seat of learning, is symbolic of just that, a Pathshala, though of a different type where the language of images is explored.
February 1 marked the commencement of celebrations lasting three days, for those associated with Pathshala, South Asian Institute of Photography, on its completion of 10 years. A photography exhibition titled ‘Studying Life’, featuring the works of Pathshala students and alumni marked the beginning of the celebrations. The exhibition, inaugurated by pioneer playwright and theatre person Atiqul Huque Chowdhury on February 1 at Drik Gallery is set to last till February 15, open to all from 3 pm up until 8 pm.
During its 10 years in existence, the institute has certainly redefined photography as a whole. ‘Pathshala’s contribution to photography is not just limited to Bangladesh, but in a sense is global,’ says Rezaul Karim, tutor and administrator of Pathshala.
‘An aspiring photographer needs to understand the difference of taking up the different aspects of photography, something an amateur would not catch right away, and that is what Pathshala tries to help one with,’ he says.
‘At the institute, we keep our students up-to-date with the world helping them make a more informed career choice. It helps them develop a stance in their work as well,’ he says.
The achievements of some of its students is a testament to the institute’s success, having won prestigious awards such as the Mother Jones, World Press, the National Geographic All Roads as well as being hired by leading publications which included the likes of Time Magazine, Newsweek and the New York Times to name but a few, in the process, undermining the common paradigm of photography as anything but a gainful profession.
‘Photography is not just about shutters and lenses, but about posing questions through critical thinking, leading to social changes which is what Pathshala tries to nurture in Pathshala ,’ says Dr. Shahidul Alam, the principal of the school of photography.
In 1998, Alam won the prestigious international award, the Howard Chapnick, the prize money of which was used to set up Pathshala. Pathshala was set up on December 18 1998, as part of a three-year World Press Photo (WPP) educational initiative, launched to coincide with Dhaka’s annual WPP exhibition, with Drik, already serving people in the trade, laying the foundations for the first credible institution for higher education in photography in this region.
‘At the time, there was only a single classroom and even though various well-renowned photographers would come over to conduct the workshops, I was predominantly the lone tutor as they could only stay over a limited time span, before Kirsten Claire, an English photographer joined, enabling us to form a two member faculty,’ Alam adds.
Since then, the number of faculty members have gradually increased to 11, out of which, eight are former students of the institute, as it pursues to maintain the goal set from the onset, that was to ensure employment for its students.
‘The skill we try to teach is more about how to tell a story and subsequently bring about a change for which we incorporate economics, visual anthropology, statistics, environmental studies along with the study of photography to make our students more adept when dealing with a subject,’ says Azizur Rahman Peu, a student of the first batch and now a teacher there.
‘Many of the staff photographers of most major newspapers are from Pathshala while many are working in various television stations as well,’ adds Peu, also the editor of DrikNews, a news agency emphasising on rural reporting which hires Pathshala students as part of its staff.
‘We aim to encourage a global perspective among students with the teachers teaching the significance of keeping informed, through the proper use of the internet and not just camera techniques for instance,’ explains Rezaul Karim.
‘We aim to produce not just photographers but photo readers with visual literacy. Visual language can be seen as a more communicative form of social interchange which is a vital part of the education provided in the institute,’ he adds.
Since its inception, the institute has also seen many an eminent names of the photography world, including Raghu Rai, Reza Deghati, Morten Krogvold, Robert Pledge, to name but a few, dedicating their time to the photographers of the institute, conducting workshops which many of the current students believe is one of the biggest privilege and opportunity provided at Pathshala.
‘Once during a workshop of Morten Krogvold, a girl flew all the ways here from Norway to work with the photographer who is a Norwegian himself while we were getting the privilege for free,’ says Tanvir, a former student of BUET currently in his third year at Pathshala.
‘I never thought that photography could be taken up as a profession while my family also did not approve of it, although that changed a little once I had one of my photographs published on Time.’
‘After taking part in the workshops where one has to work on a particular subject for up to a month at a stretch, for example, one of my subjects for a particular workshop was a member of a certain family. I realised that even though it would not guarantee a financially secure job, I could learn more about people in depth through photography, which would certainly not be the case with say engineering,’ adds Tanvir, who is currently working for DrikNews, while also contributing to the friendly rapport shared between the teachers and students to the enhancement of education in the institute.
Liton, another third year student of the institute, inspired by the works of Abir Abdullah, a prominent photographer as well as a former student and now a teacher at Pathshala, quit his job at the time as a studio photographer to join the institute. ‘In some classes, we had to draw out a subject presented to us,’ says Liton.
‘Although I was a keen artist as a young boy, I became a bit bemused by that particular task for I had left my job to study photography not drawing.
‘However, that exercise all but helped acquire a higher level of concentration which is essential in photography while the tips we receive from foreign photographers have also helped develop a strong thought process,’ he adds.
While the three year BA course provided by Pathshala is not UGC approved, it is nonetheless accepted in other world class institutions abroad such as the Sunderland University, Bolton University as well as the Danish School of Journalism, all of whom are long term affiliates of Pathshala, with many students transferring credits to these institutions.
The degree from Pathshala also bears a certain degree of uniqueness, as there are no other notable institutions providing one can parallel it, as a result of which, there aren’t much troubles faced by its students in terms of competition, according to faculty members. The internship opportunities at Drik, Chobi Mela and Drik News also offer students the chance to experience some of the requirements and demands of professional life.
Academic exchange programs with Oslo University College in Norway and the Edith Cowan University in Australia have also given the students of Pathshala the opportunity to work with students of diverse backgrounds.
A merger between Pathshala and the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) as well as the upcoming regional masters programme between universities in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Norway and Pakistani are also symbolic of the large strides made by the institute.
‘One of the main reasons behind the formation of Pathshala was to question our educational system which primarily focused on the methods of memorisation and taking a completely different path to that process,’ explains Shahidul Alam.
‘Most of the current crop of teachers here were students of this institution, leaving its future in good stead, however, we need more investments in order for the institute to achieve a greater level of financial independence as it is still quite reliant on Drik and hopefully through our endeavors, we can actually change the face of the mass media that exists here,’ he concludes.
Pathshala, The South Asian Institute of Photography celebrates its 10th anniversary
Members of the Pathshala family have a lot to celebrate. “My son had once written an essay in class, where he wrote that his mother is a photographer,” says Munira Morshed Munni, freelance photographer, photo editor at Drik News and teacher at Pathshala. She is also one of the first students of Pathshala, and has been with the school for the last ten years. “His teacher, upon reading the line, immediately cut it out, assuming it to be a mistake made by the child. Later on, I had to go speak to her and explain that I really am a photographer and also make a living out of it. She was dumbstruck for a while.” You can’t blame the teacher, adds Munni. It is still very difficult for the society to accept this art-form as anything but a hobby, a side interest or a skill that is more or less limited to documenting wedding receptions or capturing nice images. Most people are unaware of the detailed calculations made by the seasoned photographer, of the possible number of angles that can be used for one shot, or the analysis of composition, frame and subject in the blink of an eye.
Pathshala, The South Asian Institute of Photography, located on Panthapath, has played a pivotal role in the last decade, in changing the social attitude towards photography as a profession. Offering basic and advanced levels courses in this field, the institution also offers diploma and Bachelor equivalent courses to students. Very soon, a Master’s level programme will also begin in collaboration with the University of Liberal Arts. The school is also a part of the upcoming regional Master’s programme between universities in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Norway and Pakistan.
Back in 1998, Pathshala had begun as a part of a three-year World Press Photo educational initiative in 1998. As the name Pathshala symbolises the ancient education system held in the open air, under the shade of a tree, free from the confining walls of a classroom, the institute emphasised on not merely conventional teaching the students. It allowed students to ask questions and develop their own style and perspective. The school was designed in a way that leads students to experience knowledge beyond the confines of the discipline.
According to Shahidul Alam, the Principal of the school and MD of Drik, Pathshala strives to do much more than teach photography. “It is about using the language of images to bring about social change. It is about nurturing minds and encouraging critical thinking. It is about responsible citizenship. In a land where textual literacy is low, it is about reaching out where words have failed. In a society where sleek advertising images construct our sense of values, studying at Pathshala is about challenging cultures of dominance.” Dr. Shahidul Alam speaking on the institute’s anniversary. According to Alam, in the South Asian region, the need for a structured education in photography has always been felt. Since photography plays a significant role in the mainstream media, this need is mostly felt in the field of photojournalism. “The people’s right to information is generally not recognised by the official media in many countries,” he says. “This is clearly also true for the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) nations. The lack of sufficient professional skills in the media, especially in the field of photojournalism, has also allowed successive governments to pass on propaganda in place of news, and the people’s role in governance has been totally ignored.” Interestingly enough, most students, who go to this school, are studying subjects like Engineering, Medicine, BBA at other universities to comply with the conventional social mindsets. There are some, however, who end up choosing between passion and tradition, hence letting go of the so-called educational system approved by society. One such student is Azizur Rahman Peu, editor of Drik News, teacher at Pathshala and also one of the first students to have entered the school ten years ago. “I was studying medicine in Rongpur,”he says, “when I practically ran away from home to Dhaka. I wanted to be a journalist. Back then, I didn’t know how one would define a journalist. I used to think that a photographer was, obviously, what described a journalist, capturing and documenting moments in history. My love for photography, eventually, led me to start studying here at Pathshala.” Pathshala’s certificate awarding ceremony. Blaming not only the social net, but also the media in Bangladesh, students claim that even inside newsrooms, photographers are not given their worth. A photograph tells a story as well, which should complement the journalist’s written work, rather than act as a side support. “Newsrooms have news editors,” says Shahidul Alam. “However, the concept of a photo editor is not seen in newspaper offices here.” According to Alam, it was the Independent in the UK which had practically revolutionised the way photographs were used in newspapers, hence breaking the system. “Other newspapers like the Guardian had to eventually accept this idea as well.” Pathshala also has regular academic exchanges between Oslo University College in Norway and Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia. It is not really an exchange programme, since students from these countries come to Bangladesh to learn about photography and not the other way around, adds Alam. However, this provides Pathshala students an opportunity to share experiences with students of very different backgrounds. “The long-term partnerships with Sunderland University, Bolton University and the Danish School of Journalism, offer educational opportunities for students with other world class institutions. The internship opportunities at Drik, Chobi Mela and Drik News offer on-the-job training that is invaluable in professional life. The regular participation in international festivals and workshops provide a world-view essential to becoming established in the global marketplace. And then there is the acid test. Emerging students are in demand, and ever since Pathshala started, all students who have graduated are gainfully employed. Some are already at the very top of their profession,” says Alam. Celebrating a decade with fireworks. Norman Leslie, the programme director from ECU, says that his students have had the chance to experience life in all its reality and colours through this exchange programme. “ECU is located in Perth, which is a city extremely isolated even in Australian terms,” says Norman. “Students from this university, besides having the advantages of international exposure through this programme, have also created a certain bond between the two cultures which is extremely important when it comes to the art of photography.” Even though passionate about art and photography from an early age, Shahidul Alam had decided to take up photography as a profession by accident. Back in the 80s, Alam was doing his PhD in Chemistry in the United Kingdom. As was the norm and still is in the society, studying a proper subject define the integrity and depth of being a true man. “And that is what my parents believed as well,” says Alam. “I did not have much money and would work to pay my tuitions.” One of his close friends got into the airlines business and asked him to fly to the United States with him. “A poor student like me would never get this opportunity ever again and so I decided to go. My friend in the UK asked me to bring him back a camera since cameras were cheaper in the US.” Alam got a full set complete with a tripod and lens and got back to the UK, only to find that his friend did not have the money to pay him back. “And I was stuck with it!” laughs Alam. Pathshala recently entered its tenth year. Celebrating the school’s anniversary, a three day festival was organised where both the old and the new students presented their works, amidst other festivities.
A photography exhibition titled “Studying Life” began marked the beginning of the festival on February 1 at the Drik Gallery. Exhibiting works by some of the most celebrated students of the school, this event was inaugurated by Atiqul Huque Chowdhury and Dr. Shahidul Alam. The exhibition, which will continue up to February 15, features thirty six photographers, including Munem Wasif, Abir Abdullah, GMB Akash, Tanvir Ahmed and many more. On February 2, certificates were distributed to the students who had finished their respective courses, starting from the basic to the undergraduate level. “We had a full-fledged festival, complete with a winter Pitha Utshob,” says Joseph Rozario, the Administrative Manager of Pathshala. “Students, teachers, along with a few photographers from outside the country had discussions on photography. These photographers also presented some of their unique works. The day ended with a film made by one of our own students,” he says.
The last day of the festival, February 3, was an “absolute blast,” according to Din M Shibly, a Pathshala graduate who now teaches at the school and works for the monthly magazine Ice Today. The highlight of the day was when Prachyanat, the musical theatre group, performed at the school, much to the delight of the students and also a number of guests who had turned up at the celebrations. The notion that photography cannot be a proper career no longer holds true. Many students from Pathshala are working in the media, both local and international. Tanveer Ahmed, student of Pathshala who now works at Drik News, recently had one of his photographs published in the Time magazine as the picture of the year. The photograph shows a grandfather carrying the dead body of his grandchild after being hit by the Sidr cyclone last year. Many other Pathshala students have won international awards. Alam says that young people believe that there is more glamour and less money in this profession. “It is actually the other way around,” he explains. He plans to work more on visual literacy, hold workshops in schools and develop this field as an academic subject in the educational institutions in Bangladesh. Photography is much more than capturing a mere image. It is what one captures within the image; emotions, environment, thoughts, social perceptions and so on. One simply has to look into a photograph to discover these elements, rather than looking at it. As actor and author Sir Dirk Bogarde had put, “The camera can photograph thought.”
10th year of Pathshala
Video on Pathshala by Brian Palmer. Commissioned by Pullitzer Foundation:
Rashid Talukder had been unwell and had excused himself. The other board members Afzal Chowdhury, Mahfuz Anam, Nawazesh Ahmed and I had pored over the crude portfolios. Much of the work was raw, but there was freshness and a vibrancy that touched us all. This new school would take risks. Ideas would be given a chance.
The students have emulated that principal characteristic of Pathshala. Reaching for the impossible has become the norm. Pushing the school and themselves to the limit has been their mode of practice. Dreaming, a way of life.
On the day of the first workshop, with World Press Photo in 1998, a hastily flung white cloth had covered up the bricks being used for the unfinished construction of the computer lab. On its tenth year, the school boasts achievements by students that is the envy of schools worldwide. The early partnerships, with World Press Photo Foundation, The British Council, Panos Institute, The Thomson Foundation and Free Voice (formerly CAF) have all played an important role, but the new liaisons, with the University of Liberal Arts in Bangladesh, and the upcoming regional masters programme between universities in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Norway and Pakistan are paving the way for a school that has matured beyond its years.
The academic exchanges with Oslo University College in Norway and Edith Cowan University in Australia provide Pathshala students an opportunity to share experiences with students of very different backgrounds. The long-term partnerships with Sunderland University, Bolton University and the Danish School of Journalism, offer educational opportunities for students with other world class institutions. The internship opportunities at Drik, Chobi Mela and Drik News offer on-the-job training that is invaluable in professional life. The regular participation in international festivals and workshops provide a world-view essential to becoming established in the global marketplace. And then there is the acid test. Emerging students are in demand, and ever since Pathshala started, all students who have graduated are gainfully employed. Some are already at the very top of their profession.
But the goal of Pathshala is far more than teaching photography. It is about using the language of images to bring about social change. It is about nurturing minds and encouraging critical thinking. It is about responsible citizenship. In a land where textual literacy is low, it is about reaching out where words have failed. In a society where sleek advertising images construct our sense of values, studying at Pathshala is about challenging cultures of dominance.
Curating an exhibition of so diverse a group is always difficult. One wants to be inclusive but selective. Demonstrate trends, but value differences. Nurture new talent, but recognise excellence. Choose favorites but not be partisan. The greater importance given to some artists has as much to do with what needs to be said now as it has to do with the calibre of their work. Pathshala cannot be an academic island untouched by local realities. While recognising the merit of those producing quality work, space has also to be given to voices that need to be heard now. These are images of ‘Now’ being articulated.
A True Pathshala
The word Pathshala, a traditional Sanskrit word for a seat of learning, was generally associated with the shade of mango trees in open fields. There were no walls, no classrooms, no formal structures, but children gathered to listen to wise folk. It was wisdom being shared.
Having decided that the language of images was the tool to use to challenge western hegemony and to address social inequality within the country, Drik had begun to put in place the building blocks to make it happen. The agency was serving people already in the trade, but opportunities for learning had to be created. There wasn’t a single credible organization for higher education in photography in the region. One had to be built. Taking advantage of a World Press Photo seminar on 18th December 1998, the school was setup. A single classroom was all that was available. The visiting tutors Chris Boot (formerly with Magnum, then with Phaidon) and Reza Deghati (National Geographic) conducted the workshops. I continued as a lone tutor. Kirsten Claire an English photographer whom a friend had recommended, came over soon afterwards and stayed for a year. We paid her a local salary, the best we could afford. The two of us formed the faculty.
A stream of tutors, all friends willing to be arm twisted, came at regular intervals. For some we provided air fare and modest accommodation. Some came at their own cost. Some slept on our floor. Some, like Ian Berry, who had come over on an assignment, were simply roped in. The students, most new to the craft, didn’t know they were rubbing shoulders with the greatest names in photography. And it was an impressive list of names. Abbas, David Wells, Daniel Meadows, John Vink, Ian Berry, Ingrid Pollard, Martin Parr, Morten Krogvold, Pablo Bartholomew, Pedro Meyer, Raghu Rai, Reza Deghati, Robert Pledge, Steven Mayes, Tim Hetherington, Trent Parke and many others had spent quality time with Bangladeshi photographers. Some had come even before Pathshala started. Some, like Robert Pledge, Reza Deghati, Abbas, David Wells, Morten Krogvold and Raghu Rai, were repeat visitors. Few demanded payment; none flaunted their superstar stautus, one even made an anonymous donation. They all wanted to be part of a very exciting journey. One or two wanted to be on the faculty to embellish their CVs, but they all gave generously, and this organization has been built on their labour of love.
Lazy at first and unaware of how special the environment was, the students soon became infected by the passion of their marvelous tutors. They studied photography, economics, statistics, environmental studies, visual anthropology. They were in a true Pathshala, studying life. And it showed. Despite the limited resources of the school, we maintained one goal we had set for ourselves at the outset. Every emerging student was gainfully employed. The trend has continued since 1998. They got selected for the prestigious Joop Schwart Masterclass. They won awards like the Mother Jones, World Press, the National Geographic All Roads and a host of other prestigious awards. Time Magazine, Newsweek, New York Times and other leading publications began to hire them, and the reputation spread. Soon students and interns from other countries began to come in. Most were from neighbouring countries, but some from far flung places like Norway, the USA and Australia wanted to join.
The number of regular tutors has grown from the original two to eleven. Eight are former students. The tutor to student ratio remains very high. DrikNews, a news agency which gives emphasis to rural reporting, hires former Pathshala students for its their core staff. The staff photographers and picture editors of most major newspapers in Bangladesh are from Pathshala. Some are also working in television stations and other broadcast media. And Pathshala continues to defy gravity. A school of photography in one of the most economically impoverished nations and with no external support, continues to produce some of the finest emerging photographers.
The school of photography Pathshala, is entering its tenth year. Greetings to all students, teachers and well-wishers who have journeyed with us over the last nine years. An exhibition “Studying Life” featuring the work of Pathshala students and alumni will mark the beginning of our celebrations.
Pioneer playright and theatre person Atiqul Huque Chowdhury will inaugurate the exhibition on 1st February 2008 at 5:00 pm at Drik Gallery.
The exhibition will continue till 15th February 2008 and will be open to all from 3:00 pm till 8:00 pm.
You are invited.
Inauguration date: 1 February 2008
Time: 5:00 pm
Exhibition duration: 1 February – 15 February 2008 (3-8 pm. every day)
Venue: Drik Gallery, House 58, Road 15A (new), Dhanmondi Residential Area, Dhaka.
1 February 2008
5:00 pm, Drik Gallery
Opening of photography exhibition “Studying Life”
2 February 2008
Pathshala Campus (16 Sukrabad, Panthapath)
3:00 pm: Certificate Distribution
3:45 pm: Discussion on Photography
4:30 pm: Portfolio Presentation
5:15 pm: Film Show
3 February 2008
Pathshala Campus (16 Sukrabad, Panthapath)
2:30 pm: Portfolio Presentation
6:30 pm: Songs by Prachyanat
8:30 pm: Dinner
Selected photographs from the exhibition can be seen in the Drik 2008 Calendar:
Submissions are invited for Chobi Mela V. The theme is “Freedom”. The online submission form will be available at www.chobimela.org from the 7th February 2008.
Why do I do what I do? I know how I started, partly by accident, when I got stranded with a camera I had bought for a friend, but that in itself cannot explain the joy, the passion, the amazing high that I get when I see something magical in my frame. So I’m a photojournalist. Like so many others who started off in this noble profession, I too believed I was going to change the world through my images. It took a while for reality to settle in. A while to know, that taking good pictures wasn’t enough. There were gatekeepers who decided which pictures would get used, and how they might be used, and the gatekeepers generally didn’t share my ideology or passion.
It was children who shaped my visual world. Initially, as a photographer in London, I would go round asking adults with children, if I could take portraits of their kids. Some would agree, and I would go over to their homes, put down my synthetic sheepskin rug, get the kids to smile at my camera and take happy pictures. If things went well, they would buy some pictures, and we would all be happy. Not the ultimate in photography, but it paid the bills, and helped me save some money that I thought would allow me to start afresh back home.
In Bangladesh, the children had been swapped for a new range of subjects. Ice cream and plastic toys, the odd glamour shot, some celebrity. Ceramics and fancy machines. I photographed the lot. It was as an activist, in our attempt to remove an autocratic leader, that my camera finally knew what it wanted. With the adrenaline flowing as we marched through the teargas, my camera learned to love the smell of the streets. We braved the curfew, to photograph the courage of a people and the tyranny of a tyrant. I never got a picture published in those days, as a democracy movement in the majority world, was simply not news. A flood or a cyclone was much more interesting. But when we eventually forced the dictator to step down, I photographed the rejoicing, and later at our long awaited election, I photographed a woman casting a vote. When we put up the images for an impromptu exhibition, over 400,000 people came to our three day show.
But international media wasn’t interested, and it wasn’t till the cyclone in 1991, that they started asking for images again. The same western photographers came over at the first smell of disaster, and went back with the same helpless images, reducing a proud people to icons of poverty. Even locally, the images we produced and the words we wrote, seemed to have little effect. This powerful tool that I thought I’d picked up, suddenly felt blunt in the face of corruption and indifference.
That was when, while talking to a group of working class children I was training, I was shaken. Sitting on the school verandah, 10 year old Molli, looked at the photograph of the bodies of children being dragged. “O that was the fire in number 10” she said.
“How do you know?”
“Nothing ever happens.”
Then she waits a bit, and says, “If I had a camera, I’d take his picture and put that guy in jail.”
It was the conviction of that 10 year old girl, that fired me up again. I remembered a moment six years ago, during a flood, where children who had taken shelter in a warehouse, insisted that I take a picture of them. As they stood by the large open window, all proud and standing at attention, I noticed that the boy in the centre was blind. He stood with his chest out, pushing back the other kids. Staring straight out at the camera he couldn’t see for the photograph he would never know. I began to realise how much more important the photograph was than simply my weapon for change. It represented hope and belief and could give a sense of dignity to many.
My photography slowly changed, as did the world around me. I began to see things that had never existed before. People mattered in a way that they hadn’t mattered before. The man in our neighbourhood, who collected the garbage late at night, pushing his cart in the rain, gathering each scrap of paper that he could sell to keep his family alive, took on a stature of enormous proportions. I wanted my camera to do what Molli and that blind boy had willed it to do. I wanted my camera to befriend the man with the cart. I felt ashamed, I had never stopped to ask his name.
It was at about that time that I met Abdul Malik, on an Aeroflot plane bound for Tripoly. He dreamt of somehow changing his destiny, and I dreamt of somehow documenting his dream. I have never met Abdul Malek since, and I don’t know if came back home and bought the piece of land he hoped to buy, and whether he was able to arrange a marriage for his sister, but I have seen that dream in many eyes. When the very things that the wealthy aspire to, becomes part of a migrant’s dream, the dream becomes illegal. I want my images to challenge that illegality, and all the illegalities that are sprouting around us. The illegality of a right to a homeland, the illegality of protest against oppression. The illegality of wanting a better life. I want to photograph Molli’s dream and that of the blind boy and the man with the cart.
17th August 2003
In 1994 Shahidul Alam and Drik Picture Library launched a unique initiative which involved training children from poor, working-class families in Dhaka as photojournalists. Their progress since has been remarkable – now 16 years old, the ‘Out of Focus’ children are still learning but have had exhibitions, produced a photographic calendar and are now collaborating on a TV magazine programme for young people. Along the way, however, they have been thrown up against a world of money and opportunity, aid agencies and big business, to which people from their background never normally have access. The NI recorded a conversation about their impressions of this brave new world.
We remember the time we had to go to some UNICEF meeting or other with Bhai’ya (Shahidul Alam). It was in the Sonargaon Hotel. A huge, fancy affair, where we had trouble walking, where our feet kept slipping on the shiny lobby floor. A different world, the world of the rich. As if that wasn’t enough, Pintu had lost one of his sandals on the way there. We knew we wouldn’t be allowed inside in bare feet, but Bhai’ya told us that there was no need to worry, that everything would be fine. So we walked on that slippery floor and looked everywhere. Everything seemed so grand, everything smelled of money. People throw away so much money! In the middle of the hotel was a swimming pool with almost-naked foreigners in it. We felt too ashamed to look at them.
When you have too much money what else can you do except go to a swimming pool to show off, to say ‘Look at the money I have – I go swimming in a big hotel’s pool.’ The rich and their airs! Coming out with their cars just to show off to us, to the poor, to those of us who don’t have cars. The way they look at us! And their talk: which is better, a white car or a black car? It’s unbelievable, the arrogance!
When we go somewhere people usually comment ‘Oh you poor deprived children’. Nonsense! If they grab all the opportunities of course we’ll be deprived. First they take everything for themselves, then they coo ‘Oh, you poor deprived child’. If we are not given a chance, how can we make it? Our speech, the way we talk is offensive to the bhadrolok, the upper class. ‘Oooh, your pronunciation,’ they sniff at us, ‘the way your language wanders all over the place.’
We are poor. But the fact that we have cameras and know how to take photos makes people uncomfortable. And so something simple becomes complicated. People who see us keep asking us ‘Accha, are these the cameras you use?’ But, you see, the camera’s not the point. The point is to take photographs. It doesn’t sit well with a lot of folks that the children of the poor should have cameras. Makes you laugh. Once Bhai’ya took some of our shots to the Lab for printing. The people at the Lab thought that one of the photos was his. ‘Take a look at Shahidul Alam’s work,’ they said. Well, it was actually taken by Iqbal, and when Bhai’ya told them so, they just shut up and wouldn’t say anything more.
Hamida and Rabeya have been abroad. The word has spread. That’s how they are introduced, as having gone abroad. We take photos. That is not our identity however. The point is who has gone abroad.
Yet another way to show off is English. You aren’t anybody if you don’t know English. As if the real thing, the only thing, is not the work itself, but whether you know English. It’s such a fashion to speak it. They say you have to know it, but what do the foreigners know? Shouldn’t all those photographers and all the other visitors who come here know Bangla? Nobody tells them ‘You should know Bangla’.
Through our photographs we want to change things. But lately the going has been tough. With the children of the wealthy it is enough that they take photos, but with us it seems that we have to prove ourselves by learning English too. What will happen to those English-speaking friends who also carry on the struggle? Will they learn our language and join us? Oh come on! Will they not join ranks with us? What then is our language of photography to be?
These comments were made during an informal discussion involving
Faysal Ahmed Dadon, Hamida Akhtar Bristi, Abul Kashem, Refanur Akhtar Moli,
Rabeya Sarker Rima, Sopna Akhtar, Shefali Akhtar Setu and Md Zakir Hossain.
It was recorded/compiled by Manosh Chowdhury and translated by Khademul Islam.