10 years of visual achievement
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.