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Lalon and Terror. Re-configuring the Nation’s Political Map during Emergency

by rahnuma ahmed

Drifting in cage and out again
Hark unknown bird does fly
Shackles of my heart
If my arms could entwine
With them I would thee bind

— Fakir Lalon Shah, “Khachar bhitor ochin pakhi,”
translation by Shahidul Alam.

Baul sculpture, and the nation’s most powerful man

‘No decision is taken without the the army chief’s consent, that’s why we informed him,’ said Maulana Noor Hossain Noorani, amir of Khatme Nabuwat Andolon Bangladesh and imam of Fayedabad mosque, at a press conference. `He didn’t like the idea of setting up an idol either, right in front of the airport, so close to the Haji camp. It was removed at his initiative’ (Prothom Alo, 17 October).

The `it’ in question was a piece of sculpture, of five Baul mystics and singers. Titled Unknown Bird in a Cage, it was being created in front of Zia International Airport, Dhaka. Madrasa students and masjid imams of adjoining areas were mobilised, Bimanbondor Golchottor Murti Protirodh Committee (Committee to Resist Idols at Airport Roundabout) was formed. A 24 hour ultimatum was given. The art work, nearly seventy percent complete, was removed by employees of the Roads and Highways Department, and Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh.

Artists, intellectuals, cultural activists, writers, teachers, students, and many others have since continuously protested the removal of the sculpture, both in Dhaka, and other cities and towns of Bangladesh. They have demanded its restoration, have re-named the roundabout Lalon Chottor, and accused the military-backed caretaker government of capitulating, yet again, to the demands of Islamic extremists, and forces opposing the 1971 war of liberation.

Soon after its removal, Fazlul Haq Amini, Chairman of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ) and amir of Islami Ain Bastabayan Committee (IABC) said at a press conference, if an Islamic government comes to power, all statues built by Sheikh Hasina’s government (1996-2001) will be demolished, since statues are `dangerously anti-Islamic’. Eternal flames, Shikha Chironton (Liberation War Museum), and Shikha Anirban (Dhaka Cantonment) will be extinguished. Paying respect to fire is the same as worshipping fire.’ What about statues built during Khaleda Zia-led four party alliance government (of which he had been a part). ‘Where, which ones?’ Rajshahi University campus was the prompt reply. `Why didn’t you raise these questions when you were in power?’ ‘We did, personally, but they didn’t listen. We were used as stepping stones.’ Amini also demanded that the National Women Development Policy 2008, shelved this year after protests by a section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties, should be scrapped (Prothom Alo, 18 October).

Noorani and his followers demand, a haj minar should be built instead, and the road should be re-named Haj road. ‘Men from the administration and the intelligence agencies,’ he said at the press conference, `wore off their shoes, they kept coming to us.’ (Prothom Alo, 17 October). Now where had I read of close contacts between Khatme Nabuwat and the intelligence agencies?

I remembered. A Human Rights Watch report, Bangladesh: Breach of Faith (2005) had stated that KN had close links to the ruling BNP through the Jamaat-e-Islami and the IOJ, its coalition partners. I remembered other things too. It was the same Noor Hossain Noorani who had said, Tareq Zia, Senior Secretary General of the BNP, was their “Amir and same-aged friend,” and had threatened police officials saying Tareq would directly intervene if Khatme Nabuwat’s anti-Ahmadiya campaign was obstructed. According to reports, highup intelligence agency officials (DGFI, NSI) had mediated contacts between the ruling party and the KN. He had met the DGFI chief in Dhaka cantonment thrice, Noorani had thus boasted to Satkhira reporters in 2005, a statement never publicly refuted by the intelligence agency (Tasneem Khalil, The Prince of Bogra, Forum, April 2007, issue withdrawn, article available on the internet).

What links does the present military-backed caretaker government, and more so, its intelligence agencies, have with these extremist groups? I cannot help but wonder. Is there more to what’s happening than meets the eye?

Other questions pop into my head. The Baul sculpture was not advertised, as public art should be. No open competition, no shortlisting, no selection panel. On the contrary, the contract seems to have been awarded as a personal dispensation. The only condition seems to have been that the sculptor must get-hold-of-a-sponsor. High regard for public art, for Baul tradition, listed by the UNESCO as a world cultural heritage, and for procedural matters. Particularly by a government whose raison d’etre is establishing the rule of law, and rooting out corruption.

Simplifying the present: from `1971′ to the `Talibanisation’ of Bangladesh

British historian Eric Hobsbawm terms what he calls the ‘short twentieth century’, The Age of Extremes (1994). I can’t help but think, things seem to be getting more extreme in the twenty-first century.

In his most recent book, On Empire. America, War and Global Supremacy (2008), Hobsbawm traces the rise of American hegemony, the steadily increasing world disorder in the context of rapidly growing inequalities created by rampant free-market globalisation, the American government’s use of the threat of terrorism as an excuse for unilateral deployment of its global power, the launching of wars of aggression when it sees fit, and its absolute disregard of formerly accepted international conventions.

The US government’s role in not only contributing to the situation, but in constituting the conditions that have given rise to extremes, of being the extreme, is disregarded by many Bangladesh scholars, whether at home or abroad. Most of these writings are atrociously naive, exhibiting a theoretical incapacity to deal with questions of global inequalities in power. Authors repeatedly portray American power — in whichever manifestation, whether economic or cultural, military or ideological — as being benign. Two images of Bangladesh are juxtaposed against each other, a secular Bangladesh of the early 1970s, the fruit of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle of 1971, and a Talibanised Bangladesh of recent years. `National particularities’ and ‘the dynamics of domestic policies’ are emphasised (undoubtedly important), but inevitably at the cost of leaving the policies of US empire-building efforts un-examined.

One instance is Maneeza Hossain, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, who, in her 60 page study of the growth of Islamism in Bangladesh politics, tucks in a hurried mention of US’ supply of weaponry to Afghan jihadists, and moves on to call on the US to shake off its `indifference’ to Bangladesh, to use its ‘good offices’ to help democratic forces within Bangladesh prevail (The Broken Pendulum. Bangladesh’s Swing to Radicalism, 2007.

Ali Riaz, who teaches at Illinois State University, author of God Willing. The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh (2004) provides another instance. International reasons for the rise of militancy are the Afghan war, internationalisation of resistance to Soviet occupation, policies of so-called charitable organisations of the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and (last, it would also seem, the least) `American foreign policy’. A token mention showing utter disregard towards 1,273,378 Iraqi deaths, caused by the invasion and occupation. 1971 was genocidal, but so is the Iraq invasion. On a much larger scale. Unconcerned, he goes on, policy circles in the US are `apprehensive’ about militancy in Bangladesh. Even now. The solution? He advocates open debates, particularly between the intelligence agencies and the political parties (Prothom Alo, 3 February 2008).

And then one comes across Farooq Sobhan who claims that president Bush has ‘taken pains’ to convince Muslims that the war against terror is not a war against Islam or a clash of civilizations (no, it’s a crime against humanity). Rather petulantly, he asks, why has Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, not figured prominently on the US ‘list of countries to be wooed and cultivated.’ Further, he writes, “High on the US agenda has been the issue of Bangladesh sending troops to Iraq“. Sending ‘troops’, like crates of banana, or tea? Surely, there are substantive issues — of death and destruction of Iraqis and Iraq, of war crimes — involved.

Re-configuring Politics during Emergency

Creating a level playing field so that free and fair national elections could be held, that’s what the military-backed caretaker government had promised. Twenty-two months later, after failed attempts at minusing Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, with their respective parties in shambles, thousands of party workers in prison, constitutional rights suspended due to the state of emergency, economy in tatters, police crack-downs on protests of garments workers, jute mill workers, women’s organisations and activists, on human chains against increasing prices of essentials, the only two forces to have remained unscathed are the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Muslim clerics, Islamic parties and madrasa students, those who protested against the Women Development Policy, agitated for the removal of Baul sculptures, recently caused havoc in the DU Vice Chancellor’s office protesting against newly-enforced admission requirements. Are these accidental, or deliberate governmental moves? I cannot help but wonder.

Several western diplomats — members of the infamous Tuesday Club, particularly ambassadors from United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and the EU representative — and also the UN Resident Coordinator actively intervened in Bangladesh politics prior to 11 January 2007, in events that led to the emergence of the present military-backed caretaker goverment. Renata Dessalien did so to unheard degrees, leading to recent demands that the UN Resident Coordinator be withdrawn.

In a week or so, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon arrives in Dhaka, to see for himself electoral preparations, and extend support for the government. A visit that has nothing to do with politics, we are told. In the eyes of many observers, Ban is one of the most pro-American secretaries general in it’s 62-year history. He has opposed calls for a swift US withdrawal from Iraq, and is committed to a beefed-up UN presence in Baghdad. The UN staff committee has protested Ban’s decision saying it would `make the institution complicit in an intractable US-made crisis’ (Washington Post, 24 September 2007).

In the name of bringing ‘beauty’ to politics in Bangladesh, the lineaments of political reconfiguration undertaken by this military-backed caretaker government are becoming ominously clear: mainstream political parties in shambles, Jamaat-e-Islami intact (`democratic party,’ Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State, 2006), Muslim clerics and Islamic forces re-emerging as a political force under state patronage, and the exercise of rampant power by western diplomats.

A beast in the guise of beauty? Time will tell.

On the Flight Path of American Power

I borrow the title from British-Pakistani historian Tariq Ali’s coming event: `Pakistan/Afghanistan: on the Flight Path of American Power,’ to be held at Toronto, November 14.

Seven years after the US led invasion, Pakistan, America’s strong military ally, is now “on the edge” of ruin. Pakistani political analysts repeatedly warn Bangladeshis that they see similar political patterns at work here: minusing political leaders, militarisation, milbus, National Security Council etc etc. I do not think that an Obama win will make any difference to the American flight path for unilateral power. As atute political commentators point out, Obama and McCain differ on domestic policies, not substantively on US foreign policy. A couple of days ago, president Bush signed the highest defense budget since World War II.

Maybe there should be an open public debate in Bangladesh, as Ali Riaz proposes, but with a different agenda: are we being set on America’s flight path to greater power by this unconstitutional, unrepresentative government, one which is more accountable to western forces, than to us?

October 29, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Showing off the Bride

Photographers the world over know the late afternoon light. The warm glow, the soft slanting shadows, the delicate glancing sheen that brings everything alive. In Bangla, this light has a special name. kone dekhano alo [the light for showing off the bride.] Apart from the universal issues of brides being seen as commodities, and of marriage being a social spectacle, it speaks of how the environment in which things are displayed, reflects upon what is displayed. Photographs are visual representations. Exhibitions are collective displays of photographs. Festivals are displays of exhibitions. Within this biennial Chobi Mela is a display of a festival. At each level, the alo [light] that we use to display the festival, the exhibition, the print, has a bearing on how we see it.

Setting up the show. 16th October 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The choices made as the photograph is taken, as an exhibition is put together, as a festival is assembled, as a biennial is visualized, take into account the way each entity will be perceived by the intended audience. The relationship between the viewer and the viewed. This is impossible to pre-visualize at the moment of photography. So there are several authors who play with this alo. The political space within which an exhibition operates is tempered by the tertiary meaning that a festival director imparts, in choosing to display a body of work. In determining how it is shown, and how it relates to other work on display. The alo is not static. A festival put together when the world witnesses unjust war and an illegal occupation, will be seen differently from a festival that is viewed at a time of peace. The same exhibitions (though exhibitions are never the same and change with each displacement), seen in a different venue, nation or continent, with different proximities to zones of tension, will change in meaning even when the images remain the same. Relocating a festival allows further interpretations. So what alo do we use for showing off this festival?

Artistic Director of Brussels Biennial Barbara Vanderlinden introducing show to artists and curators 18th October 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Chobi Mela was conceived in a nation that was far removed from the established capitals of photography. Bangladeshi photographers did not feature in the classical books on this medium. The images of Bangladesh seen worldwide were images produced largely by white western photographers. There had been no festival of photography in Asia. In much of Asia and most of the majority world, photography is not considered an art form. So several issues were being tackled. The ignorance about non-western photographic practice (this was true even within Bangladesh, where photographers knew about Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, but were unaware of important work being done in neighboring countries.) The non-recognition of photography as a valid profession and an art form. The limited opportunities that Bangladeshi and regional photographers had of seeing photography.

Chobi Mela exhibitions at Post Sorting Center. Avenue Fonsnylaan- 48. 1060 Brussels. Level 4. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Chobi Mela exhibitions at Post Sorting Center. Avenue Fonsnylaan- 48. 1060 Brussels. Level 4. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

There was another significant but very localized goal. In a nation where the majority of people cannot read or write, photography provided one of the few means through which ordinary people could be reached. As the festival migrates to Brussels, several of these goals diminish in importance. Others, however, take on greater relevance. An ignorance of photographic practice outside Europe and North America is perhaps a greater ailment in Brussels than it is in Dhaka. A critique of western lifestyles is perhaps of greater importance to Europeans. An understanding of majority world cultures outside their stereotypical representation in the West is certainly a more crying need in a culture fed largely on fast-food photography.

Artist at entrance of Post Sorting Center Brussels.

Artist at entrance of Post Sorting Center Brussels. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

There are commonalities too. Belgium is in a state of flux with internal tensions that threaten to divide the nation. Bangladesh also has its internal politics of dominance, and the power struggles between the major political parties have taken it to the brink of civil war. While the show goes on in Brussels, Bangladesh will continue to be in a state of emergency with fundamental freedoms curtailed. The streets of Dhaka were in flames while Chobi Mela IV was being held. An evening presentation was interrupted by the news that the military were in the streets and the government had announced a curfew. The future of the national state is very much in question in both countries.

Tiers État, the term for the commoners of France, has now become the defining expression for the majority of humankind. The Third World is not a name we chose for ourselves. The G8 countries make decisions that have a profound effect on our lives, yet we never chose to be represented by them. So we call ourselves the majority world, for that is indeed who we are, the majority of this world. Our portrayal as icons of poverty is one chosen by the West, through image-makers who are free to roam a world where boundaries exist only for this excluded majority. Europe builds a fortress around itself, choosing carefully whom to include.

Chobi Mela evolved from the need for self-representation of this excluded majority, for the creation of its identity, and for the expression of its creativity. The themes for Chobi Mela have reflected this need. Differences. Exclusion. Resistance. Boundaries. Freedom. These are words that circumscribe our existence. It is through our engagement with what the words represent that we look for our space in a rapidly globalised world.

The selection of Contacts 30 presented a problem. It was clearly one of the key exhibitions in the festival. Isolated in the Bangladesh National Museum, it could be seen in its entirety without casting a shadow on smaller intimate exhibits, which were as important, but with a substantially smaller footprint. The intimacy of one did not impinge on the volume of the other. With that separation removed, could they coexist? Were we in danger of drowning the quieter voices? Would the imposing presence of one, prohibit the quiet reflection necessary for the other? What about the show itself? Would the thirty images presenting thirty years, work in year thirty-two? Given the same images but a changed global dynamic, would the same images have been chosen? One never knows, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What is being shown is a display in a certain time and space and it is only within that time/ space matrix that it can be negotiated. Festivals are live, as exhibitions are. The historical context of an earlier showing, planned in the same venue and by the same curator, having been removed in protest against censorship, adds a layer of complexity that might escape the viewer, but adds to the legacy of the festival and its history of resistance.

Kwaito Culture
Photographs: Neo Ntsoma

Kwaito Culture Neo Ntsoma

Kwaito Culture © Neo Ntsoma

Neo Ntsoma cried at the Goethe Institut Auditorium as she spoke of her isolation in Apartheid South Africa. But they were strong tears. Neo’s personal struggle as a black woman in a white male space, allowed her to look for the changing culture in today’s black South Africa. Her personal project on the SA Youth ID-Kwaito Culture speaks of much more than just the changes within the youth of her nation. The lions have found their storyteller. Ntsoma is a complex person. Highly strung, energetic, intense, passionate, laughing, crying, running, leaping, she is in the middle of everything and everywhere. A spring ready to uncoil. She is also deceptively perceptive. Having faced racism in every guise, she has toughened herself to face life’s challenges. But it is her black identity that has emerged as the soul within her work. She rejoices in her color and rejoices in color. Her search for identity within the black South African youth scene is no nostalgic trip down memory lane, but rather a buoyant leap at the crest of the wave of youth which captures the energy, the dynamism and the joy of a youth determined to find its own expression. Not surprisingly, it is the raw energy of her work that attracts.

The Tigers
Photographs: Gajaani

LTTE Sniper Gajaani

LTTE Sniper © Gajaani

They call her a terrorist. Gajaani’s work has been rejected by many, as she is a fighter in the LTTE, a listed terrorist organization. The label has of course been given to the ANC, and hence Nelson Mandela, while many who continue to terrorize the world, do so with abandon, knowing there will be no labels to tarnish their image. The labels do not concern me, and while I was intrigued by her history, it was the images I saw that provided the excitement. Never before had I seen the every day lives of the LTTE. Women fighters dancing, combing each other’s hair in the bunkers. Playing musical instruments. The children in bunkers, mines being planted, snipers in camouflage, reminded me it was a war zone I was peering into. For over seventeen years, Gajaani has photographed the war as seen by a Tamil Tiger. I have never met her, and our only contact has been through a mutual friend we both trust. The friend carries our greetings and ferries pictures back and forth. War changes people, but the changes in Gajaani are not simply due to war. She now sees beyond images of war. Her films are lyrical, but also reminiscent of the battle drums of old, strident, passionate and one-sided. She takes still life and sunsets, and photographs abstract shapes in the sand. This is not a photojournalist reporting on a war, but a warrior taking pictures. We may not like it. It might make us uncomfortable. But we cannot deny its existence. This is her war, her life and her call to freedom. In a world dominated by spin and propaganda, I recognize that seeing this work will be disturbing for many. But this is a disturbance that must not be avoided. The work romanticizes a war where many have died, on both sides. Most of them civilians. But to deny this work denies the fundamental inequalities that lead to such wars.

She first showed me her early work. She has sent more work since, along dangerous routes. Films, still photographs, hard images of the devastation of war, gentle images of soldiers being ordinary men and women, children in fear and in play. And she has written letters. I don’t know if Gajaani is her real name. I read again the lines that take on new meaning as the war moves to a more violent chapter. I know she will soon be on the front lines. The photographer will become a warrior again. She will trade her lens for guns.

Dear Shahidul Vanakkam,

…I hope that if our liberation war lets me live then I would love to meet you… Even after an artist’s death, art lives. After death it will be so. I have that small belief…

With love


Modern American Segregationists
Photographs: David Holloway

US Segregationists David Holloway

US Segregationists © David Holloway

He hails from a long line of farmers, carpenters, truck drivers, and mechanics. But the storyteller David S. Holloway has gone beyond the farmlands of Oklahoma and forests of Arkansas. The first multiparty elections in Tanzania, the SARS outbreak in Toronto, and the punk rock and politics of Washington D.C. provide the backdrop for the social tensions that his photography explores.

The struggle of working-class Americans give us a window into the realities of a nation so obsessed with world domination that it has forgotten who it is fighting the war for. Race, poverty and violence make their way into Holloway’s lens. His stark black and white images, frightening but beautiful, seduce you with their form before baring their crude baggage. Raw greed, manufactured fear, calculated indifference. Family gatherings fueled by hate.

Contacts 30
Photographs: Contact Press Images

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at Geneva Summit 1984 David Burnett/Contact Press Images

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at Geneva Summit © 1984 David Burnett/Contact Press Images

What makes an icon? What does a celebrity fashion photographer choose, to depict the ravages of war? How does a Salgado contact sheet look? The giant contact sheets, reincarnated by the very digital technology that rings its death knoll, reveal the structured approach and the inconsistencies that mark a photojournalist’s quest to find the perfect image. The viewer, like a giant magnifying glass, follows the journey frame by frame. The chosen image separated by curatorial treatment, becomes history. Its neighbors perhaps finding only oblivion. Thirty images. Thirty years. The contacts of the celebrated Contact Press agency span the quintessential moments of the times. Exhibited by curator, president and co-founder Robert Pledge, the contacts span the great moments of history. The death of Chairman Mao Zedong, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the measured tryst between Gorbachev and Reagan, George Bush with his poodle, a distraught Mary Decker photographed by Contact’s other co-founder David Burnett who in a contact sheet of his own, indulges in a self portrait. It makes the complex kaleidoscope that this exhibition mixes and pulls off with gusto.

Nowhere People
Photographs: Swapan Nayak

Nowhere People Swapan Nayak

Nowhere People © Swapan Nayak

India is the new darling, and negative stories about the nation refuse to surface. While a caste system refuses to lie down and die, a growing economic disparity amidst growing economic growth, fails to leave an invisible trail. The nation burns. The seven states in the geographically isolated and economically underdeveloped North-East India are home to 200 of the 430 of its tribal groups. With the poor moving to the less poor zones, an influx of migrants from neighboring areas leads to ethnic conflicts over land and fighting for political autonomy or secession.

The numerous political parties and armed groups that have mushroomed resort to “ethnic cleansing” in order to defend their interests against a real or perceived enemy. “Divide and Rule” rules. Violence has broken out in the states of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, involving at least eight different ethnic groups (Bodos, Nagas, Kukis, Paites, Mizos, Reangs, Bengalis and Chakmas). The largest forced displacement movements have occurred in the states of Assam, Manipur and Tripura.

Swapan Nayak operates within this unpredictability. Spending days on boats that navigate the treacherous waters of the Sunderbans, and mixing with the tribes that want revenge for their displacement, he travels along with his photographs. Together, they take the viewer into an unknown India.

Naxal Women

Photographs: Shahidul Alam; Interviews: Nesar Ahmed; Translations: Rahnuma Ahmed


One day my sister and I felt we had to see a meeting (of an underground party). Where were the meetings held? In our primary school, in our village. We went ever so quietly. We wore pant and shirt. We had tied gamcha on our heads. © Shahidul Alam

They had left their village homes to join the class struggle. They were young. Some were, so to speak, “born” to the party. Communist party members were frequent (albeit clandestine) visitors to their homes, which acted as party “shelters.” For some, there were no restrictions but for others, it wasn’t easy. Daughters wanting to go into politics, and underground politics at that? Never. Several were severely beaten by their families. The women rebelled. A woman in her early teens, whose marriage was being hurriedly arranged, left home and went to the Party-controlled “free” zone. One was forced to leave home when the Awami League’s para-military forces, the Rakkhi Bahini dowsed their house with petrol and set fire to it. Party members had been frequent visitors there. It was 1973.

They worked mostly as Political Commissars, doing organizational work. Some took part in armed conflicts. Two were chiefly couriers, one also cooked for Party members. Most married Party comrades. The Party vetted friendships. Conditions were attached: a year’s separation, no letters, monitored visits. Weddings were simple affairs, a few comrades present, signing on a piece of paper, which belonged to the Party. A handshake, an exchange of garlands. Perhaps a meal. But some weddings—maybe that of a party leader—were extravagant.

State repression continued. Cooption also occurred. In late 1979, the Party disavowed armed struggle. Its policy of annihilating class enemies had meant… “we created enemies in our own villages.” Women comrades were asked to return to their families, or to marry and settle down. Some feel there was no other option since the party was organizationally shattered, with many of its members either dead, or imprisoned.

It’s an open question. These women’s’ recollections help flesh out the actual lives and concerns of Bangladeshi Naxal women, women who are largely absent from Party literature and male-centered traditions of history-writing. A tradition that I have tried to challenge.

Tears Cloud Peace

Photographs: Masaru Goto

Grieving for a relative killed in battle. Masaru Goto

Grieving for a relative killed in battle. © Masaru Goto

Even in the paradise on earth, there is a line of control. Bullets kill, shrapnel maims. People “disappear.” Forever. Mothers mourn children’s death. Lovers part. 80,000 dead. Men, women and children from both sides. The 440 kilometer line of control. Masaru Goto works on the Michael village of border district Kupwara. A few miles from this line of death. The line of control becomes the line of fire. They are engulfed in flames. They die from each other’s bullets. Indians. Pakistanis. Kashmiris. In death they finally unite. Away from the romantic Shikara rides, the Shalimar Gardens, the snowcapped mountains. Away from the polarized depictions of freedom fighters/terrorists. Away from the militancy and the occupation. Goto shows us the lives of ordinary people not searching for paradise, but seeking survival on earth.

Not Your New York

Photograph: Pablo Garber

Pablo Garber

© Pablo Garber

Digital postcards in a digital age. Fleeting snapshots of Pablo Garber’s images. He gingerly places his feet on a moving, shifting, amorphous earth. Unsure of his presence. Indignant in his reasoning for making pictures, Garber is a stranger in a city he longs to call his own. The exuberance of a city that is larger than life. Here fortunes are made. Careers launched. But Garber rejoices in serendipity. He soaks in the larger than life city that is the Big Apple, rejoicing in its excesses, chuckling at its follies. He remembers the city streets as he had last walked them, nearly twenty years ago. He recognizes the shadow of 9/11.

He hears the city weeping as he looks for the missing World Trade Center. Garber’s work has always dealt with relationships. In the streets he searches for his own relationship with a long lost city.

A River Has Two Sides
Photographs: Jerome Ming

Burmese refugee children. Jerome Ming

Burmese refugee children. © Jerome Ming

The photographs by Jerome Ming are rarely “decisive moments.” Rather they reflect the seemingly timeless character of people’s struggle to survive. What is decisive, are the circumstances, often beyond their control, that shape their lives. As many other concerned photographers have done, Ming documents the plight of disenfranchised communities, but in doing so he neither sensationalizes their presence, nor disengages them from the evolving cultural shifts that have become a permanent characteristic of people in transition. They are subdued photographs that seep into you, rather than images that scream for attention. They are photographs that beg reflection, which rarely scream, but are always there. Echoing in some ways the inevitability of the changes and the relentless march of “progress” as defined by others.

The War Rooms
Photographs: Tarek Al-Ghussein and Chris Kienke

The War Room Tarek-al-Ghoussein-UAE and Chris Kienke-USA

The War Room Tarek-al-Ghoussein-UAE and Chris Kienke-USA

It is an unusual mix. Tarek Al-Ghussein and Chris Kienke. A Palestinian and an American. But it is a war that belongs to us all. In a globalized world, the invasion of Iraq affects all our lives. The images, seemingly arranged at random, become the pixels of war. Choosing not to choose, they let a mechanical selection determine the sequence. Yet another dehumanization in this “clinical” war game. Like the old telex machines churning out ticker tape, these mobile images converted to still life are like corpses of movies. Segments of life frozen by war. Pop stars, sports fields, cartoons, most view programs on spin, smart bombs homing in on target. Yet there is no cynicism depicted in this collage. The cynicism is implied. Saddam, Nighthawks, Bush and his poodle, all serve to create a relationship with the viewer, which is both complex and riveting. Are we awed, enraged, disillusioned, relieved? None of these. In this image-saturated world of ours, we have become desensitized to the messages. Engulfed in a war room, we whisper. Careful not to annoy the generals. Displaced from its roots, this festival within a biennial-festival, tries to recreate a sense of place, a sense of community and a sense of struggle. The passions that gave rise to Chobi Mela, the need for such a festival, the photographic family that has grown around it, has a collective identity that will not be diluted in a bigger event. It draws on the inherent story exhibiting qualities to which the photography lends itself. While the work shown encompasses the globe, the photographers address issues that are universal in themselves, regardless of their geography.

Shahidul Alam

Brussels 19th October 2008

Festival dates: 19th October 2008 – 4th January 2009

Special thanks to: Nesar Ahmed, Rahnuma Ahmed, Abdullah Al-Faruque, Refanur Akhtar Moli, Md. Shafiul Azam Khan Tushar, Dominique Deschavanne, Mohammed Harun Ur Rashid Nipun, Irfanul Islam and Tanvir Murad.

October 19, 2008 Posted by | Photography | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Against Surveillance: More on the National ID Card

by: Shahidul Alam and Rahnuma Ahmed

Rahnuma Ahmed writes 

My last column had ended with these words: ‘The current regime’s voter registration list has, in all probability, lessened the likelihood of fraudulent votes. But it also has, in all likelihood, laid the groundwork for installing a new regime of surveillance, one that will be deployed against the citizens of Bangladesh‘ (National ID Cards. In the Interest of Surveillance?, New Age, 29 September 2008).  

Little did I know when I wrote it that Bangladeshi bloggers had intensely debated the pros and cons of national ID cards four weeks earlier. The discussion in had been generated by Ashiq’s Amra O Pari post, eulogising the electronic registration of voters, a feat that was termed a ‘silent revolution.’ Ashiq wrote, at first, no organisation had expressed its willingness to complete the task within the period stipulated by the government, not even foreign companies. Sky-high figures had been quoted. But fortunately, the Bangladesh army had submitted its own proposal to the government, just like any other organisation. Its budget was also the lowest.

A person who writes under the name of Incidental Blogger had raised these questions: 

— The Bangladesh army’s budget was the lowest — what is your source of information? Do you know who were the second and third bidders? Do you know why the latter failed to secure the contract? 

— Who was in charge of the selection process? Who were the commitee members? Could you tell us how much freedom they had in reaching their decision, and your source of information? Was any internationally-recognised independent evaluator assigned? 

— What was the criteria for selection? 

Chor, another blogger, commented further down, the national ID card project is the task of the Election Commission. Of course, the EC can request the help of the army, this is not the problem. The problem is when public money is used to charge the public for services rendered.  

Incidental Blogger further wrote, the ID card issue is linked to the issue of individual freedom, privacy etc., this is why western governments are finding it difficult to get their own electorates to agree. Not mincing words, he wrote, does the caretaker government in Bangladesh have the right to make a decision on something as fundamental as the national ID card, something that is a matter of state policy? Did it not happen very conveniently, almost too easily? Are you sure this information will not be shared with western intelligence agencies? He went on, you may look at it positively, but I look at it as the first step in Bangladesh turning into a fascist state.  

I read and re-read the blog. It is good to know that my fears are shared by others.  

While researching for my previous article, I had surfed the internet for information, and learnt that the voter roll project in Bangladesh was a “co-operative venture” between BIO-Key in the US, TigerIT in Bangladesh (their “systems integrator on the ground”), and the Bangladesh army.   

I had asked Shahidul when he came home whether he knew of TigerIT Bangladesh. No, never heard of them, he said. Hmmm, I said, their webpage says, the Cofounder and Chairman is Ziaur Rahman, it lists a Joseph Fuisz, as the Cofounder. And guess what, a Daily Star Weekend magazine article on Info-Tech says, `TigerIT Bangladesh Limited is an offshore technology campus of TigerIT, USA, with its corporate headquarters located in Northern Virginia’ (March 2, 2007), but this is not mentioned in their website.  

Shahidul became curious. Read what happened next, in his words.

Shahidul Alam writes 

I knew about Tigers. There were the Bengal Tigers, our cricket team, even Tiger Beer. TigerIT was new. Having initiated DrikTap, the pioneering email network in Bangladesh in the early nineties, I thought I knew about the IT scene in the country. So when Rahnuma told me about this ‘cutting edge’ Bangladeshi company, I asked around amongst IT savvy peers. No one had heard of TigerIT. A quick search of the ‘who is’ database revealed that the domain had only been registered on 21st August 2007. So when on the 1st May 2007, the chief election commissioner had said the “countdown of the 18-month timeframe starts from today,” the domain did not even exist!  

A quick search on Joseph Fuisz the co-founder of the company revealed that he was based in Washington DC. Since I was scheduled to give a presentation at the National Geographic in DC, I dropped Mr. Fuisz a line asking if I could interview him. The “out of office” response was followed by a mail saying he was away on a family holiday in Miami. It just so turned out, that I was presenting at Miami University on 30th September. I suggested we meet in Miami and provided my itinerary. Upon arrival at Miami, I received the following mail, “Unfortunately, I have been tied up in meetings all day today. Thus, I am sorry that it does not appear I will get to see you in Miami.” This was the man who was away on a family holiday for a week. I offered to meet papa Fuisz (Richard C Fuisz, MD), in Washington DC. I should have anticipated the response: “I am so sorry — your prior email did not come through (I just found it) and so I did not forward it to my Dad’s assistant. I think it is too late to schedule now.  Please accept my apologies.  I will email you some things about Tiger and hope to meet in you Bangladesh some day — very best, Joe Fuisz.”  

I’ve had no further correspondence from Fuisz. 

Rahnuma Ahmed writes 

If you had met him, what would you have wanted to know, I ask Shahidul. His list of questions was ready:  

(1) What were the factors leading to a newly formed company, TigerIT BD, being able to obtain such a prestigious and lucrative contract?

(2) What are the implications of having a biometric database for Bangladesh? Who might benefit from this data, nationally and internationally?

(3) Does your company TigerIT (the parent company of TigerIT BD) have any previous experience of working in Bangladesh or the region?

(4) Why did you choose to work with relatively inexperienced people in Bangladesh and set up a new company rather than teaming up with existing IT companies with a track record?

(5) Who are the main clients of your company TigerIT (the parent company)?

(6) What is your equity in TigerIT BD? 

He grinned and added, but of course, I sent him a very general note saying we were fascinated by the news of what they had done and wanted to do a feature on the company for DrikNews. 

So, why are western citizens concerned? As Peter Boyle asks, what’s the fuss behind another little piece of plastic? What is dangerous is not the card itself, he says, but “the mother of all databases that is behind a compulsory national ID card system.” Chris Puplick, a former Liberal Senator who was a member of the joint select committee on the Australia Card, speaking of his `fear’ of national ID card systems wrote, “Should 20 million Australians have their liberties trashed so that we might — I repeat might — detect the two or three mad jihadists in our midst? Will files now be created on the basis that people belong to a certain religion, attend particular places of worship or hold specific political opinions?”  

Does the national ID card system help to combat terrorism? Privacy International (PI), a global human rights group, in a 2004 study on the relationship between national ID cards and the prevention of terrorism was unable to “uncover any instance where the presence of an identity card system” was a significant deterrent to terrorist activity. I remember coming across a blog comment somewhere: `Want to be rid of terrorism? Pull troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.’ Another blogger had said, ‘Governments quite often frighten me more than terrorists.’ 

Some Bangladeshis — still carried away by the present military-backed caretaker government’s drive against corruption — may think that it will help clean up corruption. As a blogger had commented in drishtipat: `Like driver’s license renewal or getting cars inspection every year, the national ID card… will have huge impact on and spectacular change in the society.’ Those pro ID cards probably don’t know that computer disks containing detailed personal information on 25 million individuals, and 7.25 million families in Britain, went missing last year. Personal information included names, addresses, national insurance numbers, and data on almost every child under 16. According to experts, the information “could allow crimes beyond identity theft,” since some people use a child’s name or part of their address as password on their bank account. In other words, a combination of these details could allow criminals to break their code. Another critic says, if a government or criminal wanted to frame someone, amending, erasing, or adding to the details on one’s medical records, employment history, could be easily done, since all information would be stored on a single device. 

Khushi Kabir had left a comment on my column at Shahidul’s blog, speaking of her own disturbing experiences: `What was also worrying was the religious and other profiling done, albeit arbitrarily in majority of cases, despite that this information was not asked for in the form filled up prior to getting photographed or finger printed. My big teep must have confused them, so they asked for my religion, which I did not find necessary to provide them, or any other information that was not on the form. Others were not asked but religion was put on the basis of their ‘assumption’. When challenged as to why they needed my religion or to keep it blank they stated that they were required by the ‘authorities’ to profile it. Shireen Huq had a similar experience. They informed her there was only space for four religions in the database ie Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian. No scope for others. This kind of information can be potentially frightening.’  

Of course yes, Khushi. As Jim Fussell of Prevent Genocide International points out, ethnic classification on ID cards in Rwanda, instituted by the Belgian colonial government and retained after independence, spelled a death sentence for Tutsis at any roadblock. No other factor, says Fussell, was more significant in facilitating the speed and magnitude of the 100 days of mass killing in Rwanda, that left 800,000 dead.  

The near-deafening silence of Bangladeshi human rights organisations and activists on the national ID card issue, is remarkable. I wonder why? Are their campaigns waged aganist ‘locals’ only — the neighbourhood bully, the local rapist, the village acid-thrower? Do they shy away when human rights violations are caused by ‘big’ actors? Does speaking out against Big Brother’s `war on terror’ fall outside the prescribed terms of reference?  

Do not misunderstand me, fighting against local power structures has not always been easy or convenient, as their own records of struggle show. But it is a global world, and we should learn from the African feminist who had said, I am oppressed not only by my patriarchal village headman, but equally so by the IMF and the World Bank. And I add, by western regimes who are waging terrorist wars against the world’s peoples. 


October 13, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

We miss you Yang

Yang Xiaoguang – My Best Friend

I have been trying to write for three days but every time I start to type I break down in uncontrollable grief. How do you start to honour such a unique man. Those of you who knew him will understand.

Dave Clark

Professor Yang Xiaoguang. Photo: Dave Clark

Many I am sure have already written of Yang’s great achievements in life. He was indeed a remarkable man. This however is a personal testament to my best friend. I had only known Yang for four years but in that time he had become like a twin brother, we had planned to grow old together. I was never more content than when I was in his company, always laughing, always talking about new and exciting ideas and always happy. I have lived and travelled throughout the world but can honestly say I respected no other as much as Yang.

To me his greatest skill was always with people. I remember on a trip to Bangladesh he was as comfortable talking to a rickshaw puller as he was an ambassador. He truly believed all men were equal, whatever their race or position and most importantly he treated them all the same, with kindness, with respect and with a glint in his eye and a witty comment that made everyone laugh.

Dave Clark

Professor Yang Xiaoguang. Photo: Dave Clark

He was also a truly skilful manager and an inspirational teacher. Anyone who spent a day in his office would remember the constant phone calls and stream of people knocking on his door with problems. I never saw Yang angry, he would deal with each one with sympathy and then come up with a solution. People did things for Yang not because they felt it their job or duty but because they wanted to.

If wealth is measured in happiness then Yang died an exceptionally wealthy man. My greatest regret is that he can no longer share that wealth with all of us who knew him. However As Thomas Campbell wrote, ‘To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die’ and Yang’s spirit will always live in me.

We miss you Yang.

Dave Clark


MA Blog entry

It is with immense sadness that we report the sudden death of Professor Yang Xiaoguang, Dean of Dalian College of Image Art and founder of the Photo MA programme. Yang was killed in a car crash in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal on the 7th October. Yang died in the way he lived, enjoying life to the full.

Yang was brought up during the Cultural Revolution in China during which time he was banished to the countryside. Returning to Dalian in the post Mao era he took a job as a technician in Dalian Medical University where he was to work for the rest of his life. Learning English by himself he took advantage of a scholarship to America in the early 80’s where he first started to study photography, completing an MA in Visual art at Columbia Pacific University. Returning to Dalian he started what was then only the second University Photography BA programme in China and over the next twenty years grew it to be the most respected department in China and quite possibly the largest department in the world. He was visiting scholar at University of California Berkeley from 1988-1990 where he first developed an interest in documentary film making. A passion that saw him travel the world and develop film making into the University programmes. In his life he published eight books and countless articles, he was hugely respected throughout the Chinese and international photography community and leaves a large hole in global photographic education.

Though greatly respected for his achievements however Yang’s utmost quality was his energetic charismatic personality. He was a shining example of greatness in every respect. Always positive, never too busy to deal with the smallest request from anyone, whatever their position, nationality or need and kind, exceptionally kind to everyone who knew him. He was never short of ideas and answers to the numerous problems that faced him. A true ambassador to China and to Photography.

We will all miss him enormously.

Dave Clark





尽管他的成就已经使人望尘莫及,而杨晓光先生最为突出的优秀特质在于它充沛的活力、感召力、和人格魅力。他在各个方面都是我辈的光辉典范。他从不因为繁忙而拒绝任何人哪怕是最小的请求,而是永远积 极帮助,不论他人的地位、国籍、也不在乎是何种需求,他都和善、万般关怀地对待所有认识他的人。对于问题,他总会找出答案,提出观点。他是中国摄影与国际 交流真正意义上的一位友好使节。



Hi All,

It’s been a harrowing two days but all went smoothly. I spent most my time with Xiao Bing and Wang Jingchun both of whom are making good progress. Xiao Bing is recovering quickly, he has a minor neck injury and cuts and bruises but should be back to normal in a week or two. Wang Jingchun is more serious, still in ICU but stabilising. Both will be flown back to China later today.

I went with Yang’s wife, Chang He and a delegation from the University to see his body and carry out a series of Chinese rituals for the dead. I showed Yang’s wife the facebook site and all the messages you all sent for which she was very grateful. There is a big festival in Nepal at the moment and so all the paperwork was not yet complete for a cremation. Also Yang’s wife was undecided whether she wanted to bring the body back to China for burial. The Chinese consul in Kathmandu has been extremely helpful in sorting these matters out. She will remain until all is finished.

On the trip I also learned from those in the van at the time the full story of the event. They had hired a van with a driver to go on a trip. Presumably because of the festival the driver had not slept for two days. He fell asleep at the wheel and collided with an oncoming truck. Yang was sleeping on the back seat with his head against the window. Thankfully he was killed instantly and would not have known anything about it. Wang King Chun who was on the middle seat also on the driver’s side, was fortunately awake which gave him a split second to move out of the way and save his life. The driver was also killed instantly.

Many thanks for all your messages I will continue to pass them on to Yang’s family. His son has now returned from Australia and will be in Dalian for the next few weeks. I would also like to express immense thanks to Chang He who has worked tirelessly for his class mates and Yang’s family.

With best wishes to you all,



Professor Yang and Dave Clark were visiting artists at Chobi Mela IV (November 2006). Yang gave a talk on “Photographic Education in China” at Chobi Mela IV. During his visit he set up many links with practitioners from other parts of the globe to Dalian, which included Rupert Grey (UK), Norman Leslie (Australia), Robert Pledge (USA/France), Violet Valdez (Philippines) whom he met at the festival.

October 10, 2008 Posted by | Photography | , , | 2 Comments