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
Getting hold of a copy of the banned magazine was difficult, but most of the people who were subscribers seemed to have read the article. As often before, censorship had given the Time Magazine piece a notoriety, and readership appeal, it might not otherwise have had. The ban was short lived, and soon the article had been forgotten.
The Bangladesh government’s treatment of its journalists however had not been so short lived. The Channel 4 journalists were predictably, released well before Christmas. For Saleem Samad, and Priscilla Raj, the situation was considerably different. Tortured and terrorised, they fell victim to a government in permanent fear of being labelled `fundamentalist’. When a pineapple rolls it is the grass that suffers, and post 9/11, it is the small states that have felt the pangs of `terrrorism control’.
The ban of the 28th July 2003 Newsweek issue was based on fears at home. “Repeated bans on international magazines on account of articles on Islam constitute a flagrant violation of the free flow of information,” Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to Bangladeshi information minister Tariqul Islam.
The RSF statement fails to address the wider issue of control on the media. Arranging photo ops, planting questions at press conferences, removing access to the `pool’ for dissenters, spin, corporate control of the media and the newly found ally of embedded journalists are beyond the reach of a government with limited media management skills. Fisk, Chomsky, Pilger, Monbiot et.al. have made valiant attempts to overcome media control in the west. But neither their work, nor the excellent independent analyses that have circulated on the Net, have managed to create a significant challenge to a well-entrenched propaganda machinery. They have largely preached to the converted.
The handling of the Channel 4 incident and the ban on Newsweek by the Bangladesh government were at best clumsy. Buying out the limited copies that are imported for Dhaka’s elite, could have far better stymied the tiny readership to Time and Newsweek in Bangladesh. An “Out of Stock” label has far less glamour than a “Censored” sticker. The harassment of Samad and Raj, was unnecessary. These were ill paid professionals trying to make a living helping foreign journalists.
A flimsy majority that depends upon a small but significant Islamic party, makes things further complicated for the government of Bangladesh. Dissent within has to be managed along with keeping in the good books of powerful states. The earlier Time Magazine article on Al Qaeda links, was tenuous at best, and the Far Eastern Economic Review article on the rise of fundamentalism was shoddy journalism. But when it is so important to say one has been a good boy, any slander, no matter how unbelievable, has to be vehemently denied. Banning the award winning film Matir Moina, (now showing in cinema halls, with only minor amendments) was a knee jerk reaction, symptomatic of a nervous government trying to juggle with appeasement outside and appeasement within.
This is not the first time the Islamic parties (Islami Oikya Jote, IOJ) have played a key role in parliamentary dynamics. Popularity for major parties far exceeds the following of OIJ, a small and disciplined party. Despite their low votes however, they have had a key presence in all governments since the elections in 1991. “We could withdraw from the alliance if the demands are not met,” Mufti Fazlul Huq Amini has threatened at strategic moments, and the government does not want to rock its own boat.
While we may be thankful that the Bangladesh government is not media savvy, the more crude attempts to suppress free journalism doesn’t bode well for media professionals. We have now had three largely free and fair elections, but the elected representatives of the people have hardly behaved in a democratic manner. Each of the three governments have resorted to violent means to ensure loyalty. More recently, warrants of arrests, issued against five editors and one executive editor on defamation charges, within a period of three weeks, represents a shift in strategy. The minister’s statement “Wherever you will find journalists, break their bones,” was really intended for rookies on the streets, and rural journalists. Going for the big boys is a more recent affair.
So how does a nation, scared of big brother, and managing a rickety coalition handle the media? Letting the journalists speak appears to be the most sensible route out. Surely, not all western journalists will be as incompetent as their Times and FEER counterparts. Maybe they themselves, given a more free hand from corporate control, would exercise the journalistic rigour required of them. Strengthening local media would go a long way in providing alternative analysis to western viewpoints. Murdered journalists don’t write too well.
“Not a hair will be touched” the minister had said in 1994, when feminist writer Taslima Nasreen was facing persecution. Not a hair was touched, and Nasreen, still under threat, was provided safe exit to a land of her choosing. In the same July 1994 issue where the NYT covered this story, there was another news, of a US doctor going to work in a bullet-proof vest and being shot in the head. While one tripped over the word fundamentalism in the Nasreen article, religion or fanaticism was never mentioned in the story of the doctor’s death. When journalists regurgitate a state’s values, control is complete. Thankfully, Bangladesh has not reached such levels of state control, and our journalists have not reached such levels of acquiescence.
A responsible media which operates freely, could do wonders for Bangladesh, for its image and its people. But there is a downside to this. A more informed public would be less easily manipulated, corruption would be more difficult, absolute power would be more readily questioned. Government acquiescence in the face of western interests flies against the rhetoric of demands for free press by western states. Secret deals are more easily made in the absence of meddling journalists.
As for terrorism, we would love to see it end. If only the US would stop manufacturing it.
Fri Aug 15, 2003