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`Still pictures are not still…’ Fore-seeing the effect of visual images

by Rahnuma Ahmed

`Still pictures are not still…’ said Mahasweta Devi. She was in Dhaka to inaugurate Chobi Mela V, and, fortunately for us, had expressed her wish to put up with Shahidul Alam, the director of Chobi Mela. Having Mahasweta Devi, and Joy Bhadra, a young writer and her companion, as house guests, was a `happening’. I will write about that another day.

Mahasweta Devi consistently used the words stheer chitro (exact translation is, `still images’). Still pictures, she went on, inspire us. They move us. They make us do things.

However, I thought to myself, many who are working on visual and cultural theory may not agree. Some would be likely to say, things are not as simple as that.

The effect of visual images needs to be investigated

The debate about the power of visual images has become stuck on the point of the meaning of visual images, on the truth of images. This, said David Campbell, a professor of cultural and political geography, doesn’t get us very far. He was one of the panelists at the opening night’s discussion of Chobi Mela V, held at the Goethe Institut auditorium (`Engaging with photography from outside: An informal discussion between a geographer, an editor and a curator/funder of photography’, 30 Jan 2009).

David went on, it is much better to focus on the effect of images, on the function of images, on the work that images do — and that, is how the debate should be framed. At present, attention is overly-focused on the single image, and what we expect of the single image. By doing this we have invested it with too much possibility, we place too much hope on it’s ability to bring about social change. The effect of visual images needs to be investigated, rather than assumed.


Amy Yenkin, another panelist in the programme, and head of the Documentary Photography project at the Open Society Institute asked David, Why do you think this happens? Is it because people look back at certain iconic images, let’s say images from the Vietnam war that changed the situation, that they try to put too much meaning in the power of one single image..? David replied, `In a way, I am sceptical of the power of single images, a standard 6 or 7 in the western world, that are repeated all the time. I was personally affected by the Vietnam war images, by the image of the young Vietnamese girl fleeing from a napalm bomb, but I don’t know of any argument that actually demonstrates that Nick Ut’s photograph demonstrably furthered the Vietnam anti-war movement.’ He went on, `Now, I don’t regard that as a failure of the image, but a failure of the interpretation that we’ve placed on the image. It puts too much burden on the image itself.’

The discussion was followed by Noam Chomsky and Mahasweta Devi’s video-conference discussion on Freedom (Chobi Mela V’s theme), and I became fully immersed in watching two of the foremost public intellectual/activists of today talk about the meanings and struggles of freedom, and of imperialism and nationalism’s attempts to thwart it in common peoples’ lives.

But the next day, my thoughts returned to what David had said, and to the general discussion that had followed. On David’s website, I came across how he understands photography, `a technology through which the world is visually performed,’ and a gist of his theoretical argument. I quote: `The pictures that the technology of photography produces are neither isolated nor discrete objects. They have to be understood as being part of networks of materials, technologies, institutions, markets, social spaces, emotions, cultural histories and political contexts. The meaning of photographs derives from the intersection of these multiple features rather than just the form and content of particular pictures.’ .

In other words, to understand what happens within the frame, we need to go outside the frame.

Abu Ghraib photographs: concealing more than they reveal

A good instance is provided by the Abu Ghraib prison torture and abuse photographs taken by US military prison guards with digital cameras, which came to public attention in early 2004. The pictures, says Ian Buruma, conceal more than they reveal. By telling one story, they hide a bigger story.

Images of Chuck Graner, Ivan Frederick and the others as “gloating thugs” helped single out, and fix, low-ranking reservist soldiers as the bad apples. As President Bush intoned, it was “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonoured our country and disregarded our values”. None of the officers were tried, though several received administrative punishment. As a matter of fact, the Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations specifically absolved senior U.S. military and political leadership from direct culpability. Some even received promotions (Maj. Gen. Walter Wodjakowski, Col. Marc Warren, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast).

The gloating digital images, no doubt embarassing for the US administration, probably helped “far greater embarrassments from emerging into public view.” They made “the lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians who made, or rather unmade, the rules—William J. Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, David S. Addington, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, Douglas J. Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—look almost respectable.”

But there is another aspect to the story of concealing-and-revealing. Public preoccupation with Abu Ghraib pornography deflected attention from the “torturing and the killing that was never recorded on film,” and from finding out who “the actual killers” were. By singling out those visible in the pictures as the “rogues” responsible, it concealed the bigger reality. That the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, as Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris point out, “was de facto United States policy.”

Lynndie England, who held the rank of Specialist while serving in Iraq, expressed it best I think, when she said, “I didn’t make the war. I can’t end the war. I mean, photographs can’t just make or change a war.”

True. Photographs can’t just make or change a war. But surely they do something, or else, why censor images of the recent slaughter in Gaza? To put it more precisely, surely, those who are powerful (western politicians, journalists, arms manufacturers, defence analysts, all deeply embedded in the Zionist Curtain, one that has replaced the older Iron Curtain) apprehend that the visual images of Gaza will do something? That they will, in all probability, have a social effect upon western audiences? And therefore, these must be acted upon i.e., their circulation and distribution must be prevented.

At times, their apprehension seems to move even further. Images-not-yet-taken are prevented from being taken. Probable social effects of unborn images are foreseen, and aborted.

Censoring Gaza images, for what they reveal

All of this happened in the case of Gaza. But before turning to that, I would like to add a small note on the notion of probability. I am inclined to think that it’ll help to deepen our understanding of the politics of visual images.

As the organisers of a Michigan university conference on English literature remind us (“Fictional Selves: On the (im)Probability of Character”, April 2002), the notion of probability went through a major conceptual shift with the emergence of modernity. What in the seventeenth century had meant “the capability of being proven absolutely true or false” as in the case of deductive theorem in logic, gradually altered in meaning as practitioners searched for rhetorical consensus, and the repeatability of experimental results, leading to its present-day meaning: “a likelihood of occurring.”

What might have occured if Israel had allowed journalists into Gaza? What might have occurred if the BBC instead of hiding under the pretence of “impartiality” had agreed to air the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza Aid Appeal aimed at raising humanitarian aid for (occupied and beseiged) Gazans? What might have occurred if USA’s largest satellite television subscription service DIRECTV had gone ahead and aired the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine’s `Gaza Strip TV Ad‘?

Could pictures of Israel’s 22 day carnage in Gaza, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, have sown doubts in western minds about the Israeli claim of targeting only Hamas, and not civilians? Could photos of bombed UN buildings, mosques, schools, a university, of hospitals in ruins, ambulances destroyed, of dismembered limbs and destroyed factories have forced BBC’s viewers to question whether both sides are to blame? Could pictures of the apartheid wall, the security zone, the checkpoints controlling entry of food, trade, medicine (for over two years) make suspect the Israeli claim that it had withdrawn from Gaza? Could photos depicting the effects of mysterious armaments that have burned their way down into people’s flesh, eaten their skin and tissue away, have given western viewers pause for thought? Could the little story of Israel acting only in self-defense, begin to unravel? Could pictures of Gaza in ruins have led American viewers to wonder whether there is a bigger story out there, and could it then lead them to ask why their taxes are being spent in footing Israel’s military bill (the fourth largest army in the world), to ask why they should continue to sponsor this parasitical state, even when its own economy is in ruins?

May be.

After all, as Mahasweta Devi had said, still pictures are not still. Still pictures (may) move us. They (may) make us do things. The powerful, know this.


First published in New Age on Monday 16th February 2009

February 15, 2009 Posted by | Photojournalism issues, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Copyright is for losers* or What’s yours & mine is ours

By Rupert Grey

On the way over here I read the obituary of Francoise Demulder.  Some of you will remember that she was the first woman to win the World Press Photo of the year Award in 1977. The photograph was topical enough – Palestinians in Beirut. She was one of the stars of the Paris – based agencies which made France the centre of world photo-journalism during the last years of the golden age of European and US photographic magazines. Like many photographers here in the sub- continent/Bangladesh she felt “compelled to document how it always was the innocent who suffered while the powerful get richer and richer”. Like a lot of photographers here she was an artist, and she bore witness to the times during which she lived.

I am glad to be back here – this is my third Chobi Mela – and most particularly to see such a rich diversity and high standard of photography over the last few days and – importantly for me – many powerful documentary images which reflect the same passion for justice which drove Demulder, to be a part of the struggle for change in lives of the oppressed.

1.   The Title

The title of my talk tonight is Shahidul’s fault. He sent me an email a couple of weeks ago and asked me to give this talk tonight and said could he have the title by return. Just about to go to print, he said.  I thought for a few seconds and recalled a phrase which appeared on the introductory page to one of Banksy’s books which I brought as a present for someone before Christmas: copyright is for losers. Catchy enough, but it raises a question which is central to the profession of photography. Banksy is a well known artist in London. So well known that nobody quite knows who he is: his art takes the form of graffiti in public spaces, and I should imagine that he has a very healthy disrespect for the establishment; so it was surprising, and yet not surprising, to see at the foot of the same page that Banksy invoked the protection of the law of copyright for his book.

2.   The Central Issue

Banksy’s schizophrenic approach to copyright symbolises the conflict, the tension, between the desire for artists to find their way into the minds of all people, and the need for those artists (and their agents) to maintain a monopoly in order to earn a living. This question, how society produces and distributes its information, literature and art, goes to the very core of freedom. It is an international issue – who gets to say what, to whom? Who has access to it, who gets paid? The answers determine political outcomes. They determine wealth. They determine the extent to which an individual is able to play a central role in altering his or her own life. All this is governed by the law of intellectual property.

3.   History of Copyright

Hogarth, the great cartoonist whose images of 17th century life in England are central to our understanding of his era, refused to permit his works to be publicly exhibited until Parliament passed an act prohibiting copying. Which is why the first Copyright Act in UK legislation is called Hogarth’s Act. The first in history, I think. The protection was narrow and the duration short. Since then there has been a great deal of legislation in which the overall trend (to put it mildly) has been to increase protection, reduce the exceptions and extend the duration. Before the 1911 Act in Britain – on which copyright law in Bangladesh is based – the protection was between 7 and 14 years. In 1911 it was increased to 50 years from creation of the work. In 1956 it was increased further to 50 years from 1st publication. Towards the end of the last century it was 70 plus life of the author. Policy makers and their advisors regarded the ownership of intellectual property as they did motor cars: you owned it exclusively, and when you lent it to somebody else – or granted a licence if it is was copyright – it was on strict terms. The thinking was that the more it was protected the more artist & writers would produce their works.

The US patent system was overhauled in the early 1980’s – protection was strengthened – the reach and scope of exclusivity was broadened; and the same thing happened to copyright and trade marks. Universities registered patents and required the payment of royalties: thus institutions dedicated to disseminating knowledge, information and understanding in the widest possible way were in fact impeding the sharing of that knowledge as if they were a commercial enterprise. The proprietary model for disseminating information was, and is, in the ascendant.

4.   Internet

At the same time, reflecting perhaps the same concerns, a counter-trend has developed. As the law tightens the control given to the rights-owners and cultural producers, the consumer pushes in the opposite direction: in the networked information economy the ethic of sharing exchanging, building on the past, is the primary driver.  Social networks share – with abandon and some would say a blithe disregard for their own privacy –  information, knowledge and culture – so that the political and legal pressures which favour the proprietary business model runs head-on into a generation of savvy and determined consumers. There is an increasing resistance to attempts to enclose the information environment. International boundaries, indeed boundaries of all kinds, are becoming blurred, cultural values fused, sovereignty pooled authority subverted. Creative commons, the non profit organisation dedicated to granting royalty-free licenses, expands the range of creative work available to others to build on and share.  There is, in short a strong movement which aims to counter the restrictions of the permission culture erected by the dominant producers of culture and the legal systems they (largely) control.

5.   “One up on the Greeks”

I have selected, somewhat randomly, three cases to illustrate these conflicting trends: Perfect 10, the soft porn empire in the US, sued Google for enabling users to access Perfect 10’s thumbnail images of Perfect 10’s nude models. Google’s defence, that it was an exception to the usual rule (fair dealing, in lawyers’ jargon), failed in the lower court and won in the higher court. A significant victory for the consumer.

Last year a New Zealander called Elliot Smith uploaded a hundred videos from YouTube. No problem there, though I dare say there was an infringement or 2, but then he made the mistake of uploading Olympics footage without permission. Within 12 hours his entire account was completely deleted. The owners of the Olympic footage were savvy enough, or rich enough, to have at their disposal the necessary technology to force YouTube (now Google of course) to cut off anyone who is accused of infringing copyright. Whether or not they turn out to be guilty is no longer of interest. This is pretty outrageous. The judgment has been widely criticised as “deeply flawed”. Victory by technology, aka bullying, rather than law.

Google also feature in the third case I want to mention. It is by far the biggest and most significant. It settled just before Christmas. Four years ago Google started scanning millions of books onto the web. It asked permission of neither the publishers nor the authors, and pretty soon it got sued by both. Google’s aim was along the same lines as the chief librarian in the great library of Alexandria, burned to the ground by Caesar three centuries before Christ in one of the most destructive acts of vandalism in world history: Google wants to set up a library containing every single book, article, play or art work written or created in the history of the world. The Great Library in Alexandria housed, it is thought, between 40 and 70% of everything that had been written by that stage in world history. Google, not to be outdone by the Greeks is aiming for 100%. Furthermore, it maintains, access to its library is simple and free, neither of which was the case in Alexandria’s case.

As their archivist some what arrogantly remarked “this is our chance to get one-up on the Greeks… It will be an achievement remembered throughout time – in short, the entire works of human kind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time”. Worth mentioning in this context, I suppose, is that all this information, that is to say all the information that is can currently be housed in a building about the size of a small town library. No doubt tomorrow it will all fit into your Ipod.

Battle over copyright infringement commenced in the States but the ramifications are worldwide. Eventually Google caved in, and paid out 125 million to the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild. Part of the damages – US$34.5 million – will be spent by Google in creating a “book rights registry”, to make sure that authors are compensated for the use of their works. It will be independent of Google, and will oversee payments to authors much as the equivalent of the music industry oversee payments to songwriters and musicians. Google also agreed to pay $60 for every book uploaded onto the web, and to charge a licence fee of which 68% will go to the authors. For reasons that are wholly unclear, photographs were not included in this agreement, and thus no doubt will be excluded from access on the web.

6.   Searches

The new technology of searching renders archaic the concept of copyright; when is the process of copying an infringement, as opposed to just making it available?  Enabling a connection? Is it the same as creating a copy, in the ordinary sense?  There is a value in the connection created by the search, and the value of the work is increased the more it is shared. To put it another way, as no doubt Google did, the value of the created work is increased enormously by allowing a billion new connections. That in the previous generation would have been completely inconceivable. It is publishing on a scale which is incomprehensible.  Is that good for the creator? Is it, in effect, free advertising which will enhance a reputation, or a massively outrageous infringement of copyright for which compensation should be justly awarded?

7.   Review of Copyright Law

Against this background, it is not surprising that the law of copyright is being reviewed by Western Governments and the UK in particular. David Lammy, the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, launched the review earlier this year, pointing out that 8.3% of the UK GDP – at least as it was (down a bit since then I expect) – and is growing at twice the rate of the economy as a whole. It follows the Gower review a couple of years ago, amongst whose recommendations were to reform the copyright provisions in relation to orphan works – that is to say works to which owners cannot be identified after reasonable enquiries have been made by the prospective publisher – and secondly, a recommendation that a further copyright exception should be created for user generated content, on the basis that it is “transformative”  – technical jargon for which I have so far read or heard about 6 definitions.

Implicit in these proposals is an acknowledgment that the high level of copyright protection considered to be crucial for intellectual creation and development should to an extent be tempered. The European Commission’s recent green paper on copyright and the knowledge economy points out that the balance between ensuring a reward for creation and investment and the future dissemination of knowledge has been challenged, or rendered less effective, by the evolving internet technology. Difficult to argue with that.

A great deal of debate has been generated by these prospective changes, particularly the proposed orphan works exception; and the transformative use exception has been described as artistic stealing. These are significant steps within the framework of our existing copyright law.

8.   The Answer?

I have no idea. But I have three thoughts for photographers:

It is now critically important to ensure that your name is tagged to every one of your images on the web. Your paternity right is now more valuable than your copyright. It is the key to the management of your reputation as a photographer, and it is that reputation which will generate your income; by the same token, and equally important, tagging your name will prevent it becoming an orphan work.

Secondly technology. Not my field, to say the least of it, but programmes (on subscription) are now available to trace your image wherever it appears or is accessed on the web. They use advanced identification and algorithms to identify your images by the composition of its pixels, so its appearance on the internet sends an instant notification to the owner of the copyright.  In theory you can then ask for a fee, but the real point is that it works the other way round: publishers can use it to identify copyright holders, and will need to if they are to take advantage of the orphan works legislation.

Thirdly new business models are arriving on the scene. On-line agencies aren’t just stock agencies; some of them commission work and actively engage with publishers. As the number of bricks & mortar agencies (and publishers) dwindle, undercut by fast-moving & shrewd on-line players with minimal overheads, the market-place is changing. In change there is opportunity.  And more the point, it does not matter whether you are here in Dalhmundi Bangladesh or in London’s Covent Garden. The only thing that matters is the quality of your image and the content – and accuracy – of your text.

According to the British Journal of Photography in London there are now 3 trillion images on the web. That was last August. So there’s a bit of competition.  But judging by the quality of some of the work I have seen in the last couple of days I can see no reason, particularly if you subscribe to a tracking device, why you should not be able to make a living out of photography.

Rupert Grey of Swan Turton, Solicitors

3 February 2009

Transcript of lecture by Rupert Grey @ the Goethe Institute in Dhaka on  4 February 2009. Dhaka, Bangladesh

* Acknowledgments to Banksy

(It is the third time that Rupert Grey has attended Chobi Mela)

February 12, 2009 Posted by | Photojournalism issues | , , , | 9 Comments

Through the cracks of a mirror

It was a moment that had been etched in her mind. In a workshop with Eugene Richards, one of the greatest photojournalists of our time, Dayanita had been asked, as had all the other workshop participants, to “photograph each other naked”. She was not comfortable with this, and questioned the value of such an exercise. “Trust me,” Eugene had said, “I want you to realise how vulnerable one can be facing a camera.” It was to be a turning point. Eugene might not have known, but it was this ‘vulnerability’ that Dayanita Singh chose to explore as her medium.

It would not occur to a grandmother to leave her children in an orphanage after the death of her sons and daughters-in-laws. Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

It would not occur to a grandmother to leave her children in an orphanage after the death of her sons and daughters-in-laws. © Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

It was as a curator of the show “Positive Lives” an exhibition on people’s responses to HIV/AIDS that I was first introduced to Dayanita’s work. As I looked through the archives at the respected Network Agency, I saw competent photo essays on sex workers in India. The work did not excite me. India, was known for its exoticism, its misery, its otherness. An Indian photographer, documenting the same stories that western photojournalists had established as the face of this great nation, was a disappointment. I could hardly dispute the images. She was a fine photographer, and while the prints I was shown lacked the quality one might have desired, the photographer was clearly one skilled in her art. That for me, was not the issue. I was later to discover that it was not the issue for this remarkable photographer either.

In Manipur the grandmother is affectionately called BOBOK. With the breadwinner of the family dead she will go out and beg on the street if necessary, but she will never throw out her grandchildren. If they are positive, she will care for them as long as they live.

In Manipur the grandmother is affectionately called BOBOK. With the breadwinner of the family dead she will go out and beg on the street if necessary, but she will never throw out her grandchildren. If they are positive, she will care for them as long as they live. © Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

The images Dayanita produced for Positive Lives were breathtaking. The exquisite composition and her sense of moment were the tactile elements that made her images stunning, but more persuasive was the humanity in her photographs. The tender relationships, the joy, the shared pain, the sense of belonging that she was able to nurture and portray. It was then that the trouble started, a trouble that I am glad I came across. We had meticulously gone through the issues of representing people with HIV/AIDS. They risks people faced due to stigma. The physical dangers the display of the images might lead to. Dayanita’s concern for the people she had photographed meant she had to protect them all the way. It was frustrating for me as a curator. To find pictures which were sublime in their construction, to be left behind, because the photographer felt there was too great a risk of repercussion. Too great a threat, of perhaps things going wrong. We put together a great show, but I knew, photographically it could have been much greater. I also knew we had done the right thing. Dayanita remembered too well, how vulnerable one could be facing a camera.

Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

© Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

I look back to the stroll through her flat in Delhi, the photographs taken by her mother, juxtaposed with her own. She had been questioning her own work for some time. Questioning her ‘success’ at producing images that regurgitated the “India” the west already knew. She chose to become a mirror to herself, and in that process begin a journey that would create a window to an everyday world. An everydayness that other photographers had shunned. Dayanita and her camera merged into one. She became the fly on the wall, the confidant, the muse. the critic. Before sub-continental literature had made its indelible mark, Dayanita was writing visual novels about middle class India. The glitzy, private, solemn, contradictory, celebratory world of the India today.


© Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures


© Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures

She harnessed photography’s unique ability to record detail, its penchant for capturing the fleeting. Its ability to make time stand still. She made the ordinary, special, and the special, ordinary. She also made an important shift within the profession. Recognising that the medium had shifted from the Life Magazine visual spectacles, aware that the spaces for visual journalism had shifted, Dayanita, took on the spaces that other photographers had feared to tread. Her venture into museums and galleries, her indisputable presence as an artist, has challenged the traditionalists in the field of art, who had been unable to grasp the magic of this new medium. Her presence while imposing is also path breaking. A new generation of photographers will wake up to this wider canvas. Some will take it upon themselves to explore this new space. And the ripples will spread. Dayanita meanwhile will continue to nurture the vulnerable. Through the cracks of her mirror she will take us to the other side.


Indian photographer Dayanita Singh was one of the Prince Claus Fund laureates for 2008. Indian writer Indira Goswami (1942, Guwahati, Assam) was presented this year’s Principal Prince Claus Award of €100,000 on Wednesday, 3 December 2008, in the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam. Other laureates were, Li Xianting (b. 1949, Jilin Province, China), Venerable Purevbat (b. 1960s, Tov Aimag, Mongolia) , Ousmane Sow (b. 1935, Dakar, Senegal), Elia Suleiman (b. 1960, Nazareth, Palestine) ,James Iroha Uchechukwu (b. 1972, Enugu, Nigeria), Tania Bruguera (b.1968, Havana, Cuba), Ma Ke (b.1971, Changchun, China), Jeanguy Saintus (b. 1964, Port au Prince, Haiti) and Carlos Henríquez Consalvi (El Salvador, b. 1947 Venezuela). Drik Picture Library has a special relationship with the Prince Claus Fund

December 6, 2008 Posted by | Photography, Photojournalism | , , , , | 2 Comments

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

What Matters

The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time

Sterling. 2008. 335p. ed. by David Elliot Cohen. photogs. index. ISBN 978-1-4027-5834-8. $27.95. POL SCI

An ice cave on the edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont on Anvers Island,

Cover photo by GARY BRAASCH: An ice cave on the edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont on Anvers Island,

PHOTOGRAPHY EXPOSES TRUTHS, advances the public discourse, and demands action. In What Matters, eighteen important stories by today’s preeminent photojournalists and thinkers poignantly address the big issues of our time—global warming, environmental degradation, AIDS, malaria, the global jihad, genocide in
Darfur, the inequitable distribution of global wealth and others. A “What You Can Do” section offers 193 ways to learn more and get involved.

A four-year-old girl in Ghana walks two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) twice each day to fetch buckets of water for her family.

Back cover inset by BRENT STIRTON: A four-year-old girl in Ghana walks two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) twice each day to fetch buckets of water for her family

Photographed by:

Shahidul AlamThe Associated PressGary BraaschMarcus BleasdaleRaymond DepardonPaul FuscoLauren GreenfieldMaggie HallahanEd KashiGerd LudwigMagnumSusan MeiselasJames NachtweyShehzad NooraniGilles PeressSebastião SalgadoStephanie SinclairBrent StirtonTom StoddartAnthony SuauStephen Voss

SATHI’S FACE is covered with carbon dust from recycled batteries. She is eight years old and works in a battery recycling factory in Korar Ghat, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

SATHI’S FACE is covered with carbon dust from recycled batteries. She is eight years old and works in a battery recycling factory in Korar Ghat, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. © Shehzad Noorani/Drik/Majority World

Commentary by:

Omer Bartov • Judith Bruce • Awa Marie Coll-Seck • Richard Covington • Elizabeth C. Economy • Helen Epstein • Fawaz A. Gerges • Peter H. Gleick • Gary Kamiya • Paul Knox • David R. Marples • Douglas S. Massey • Bill McKibben • Samantha Power • John Prendergast • Jeffrey D. Sachs • Juliet B. Schor •
Michael Watts

A MEMORIAL to the 1994 Rwanda genocide at the Church of Ntarama, in Kigali Province. Photograph by Raymond Depardon

A MEMORIAL to the 1994 Rwanda genocide at the Church of Ntarama, in Kigali Province. © Raymond Depardon

What Matters—an audacious undertaking by best-selling editor and author David Elliot Cohen—challenges us to consider how socially conscious photography can spark public discourse, spur reform, and shift the way we think. For 150 years, photographs have not only documented human events, but also changed their course—from Jacob Riis’s exposé of brutal New York tenements to Lewis Hine’s child labor investigations to snapshots of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. In this vein, What Matters presents eighteen powerful stories by this generation’s foremost photojournalists. These stories cover essential issues confronting us and our planet: from climate change and environmental degradation to global jihad, AIDS, and genocide in Darfur to the consequences of the Iraq war, oil addiction, and the inequitable distribution of global wealth. The pictures in What Matters are personal and specific, but still convey universal concepts. These images are rendered even more compelling by trenchant commentary. Cohen asked the foremost writers, thinkers, and experts in their fields to elucidate issues raised by the photographs.

A WOMAN TAKEN to an emergency feeding center in Somalia established by the Irish charity CONCERN waits for food and medical attention. Photography by James Nachtwey.

A WOMAN TAKEN to an emergency feeding center in Somalia established by the Irish charity CONCERN waits for food and medical attention. © James Nachtwey.

Some stories in What Matters will make you cry; others will make you angry; and that is the intent. What Matters is meant to inspire action. And to facilitate that action, the book includes an extensive “What You Can Do” section——a menu of resources, web links, and effective actions you can take now.

A PIPELINE carrying drinking water to more prosperous districts of India’s largest city, Mumbai (population 20 million), passes through the shantytown of Mahim, where it serves as an impromptu thoroughfare. Photography by Sebastião Salgado.

A PIPELINE carrying drinking water to more prosperous districts of India’s largest city, Mumbai (population 20 million), passes through the shantytown of Mahim, where it serves as an impromptu thoroughfare. © Sebastião Salgado.

Cohen hopes What Matters will move people to take positive steps——no matter how small——that will help change the world. As he says in his introduction, the contributors’ work is so compelling that “if we show it to you, you will react with outrage and create an uproar.” If, says Cohen, you look at these stories and think, “What’s the use? The world is irredeemably screwed up,” we should remember that, historically, outraged citizens have gotten results. “We did actually abolish slavery and child labor in the US; we abolished apartheid in South Africa; we defeated the Nazis; we pulled out of Vietnam. As the saying goes, ‘All great social change seems impossible until it is inevitable.’ ”

PHILANTHROPIST Abdul Sattar Edhi with a few of the many thousands of children he has helped. Shahidul Alam

PHILANTHROPIST Abdul Sattar Edhi with a few of the many thousands of children he has helped. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

– Michael Zajakowski, Chicago Tribune

TRANS AMADI SLAUGHTER is the largest slaughterhouse in the Niger Delta. Workers kill thousands of animals a day, roast them over burning tires and prepare the meat for sale throughout the delta. Fish was traditionally the main source of protein here, but fish stocks have dwindled due to overfishing and oil pollution. Ed Kashi

TRANS AMADI SLAUGHTER is the largest slaughterhouse in the Niger Delta. Workers kill thousands of animals a day, roast them over burning tires and prepare the meat for sale throughout the delta. Fish was traditionally the main source of protein here, but fish stocks have dwindled due to overfishing and oil pollution. © Ed Kashi

A. Newspapers and Online

1. Hard to see, impossible to turn away – Issues and images combine in ‘What Matters,’ a powerful and passionate new book
“Great documentary photojournalism, squeezed out of mainstream newspapers and magazines in an age of shrinking column inches, has had a hard time gaining traction in other venues… But nobody has told the 18 photographers in “What Matters: The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time.” These are photo essays by some of today’s best photojournalists following the great tradition begun over a hundred years ago with the exposés of New York tenement life by Jacob Riis. Through the doggedness of these photographers—who are clearly committed to stirring us out of complacency—all the power and passion of the medium is evident in this book… Some of the pieces will break your heart, some will anger you. All will make you think. To channel your thoughts and feelings into action, the book ends with an appendix “What You Can Do,” offering hundreds of ways to be a part of the solution to these problems.”

Chicago Tribune Book Review, 2 page spread

2. “Must viewing.”

San Francisco Chronicle, 2 page story

3. Photographs that Can Change the World
“David Elliot Cohen’s new book, What Matters, which hits bookshelves today, is a collection of photo essays that explore 18 distinct social issues that define our time. Shot by the world’s most renowned photojournalists, including James Nachtwey, who has contributed to V.F., the photographs explore topics ranging from genocide and global warming to oil addiction and consumerism, offering a raw view into the problems that plague our world. Each photo essay is accompanied by written commentary from an expert on the issue. Cohen hopes the book will inspire people to work toward resolving these problems. “Great photojournalism changed the world in the past, and it can do it again,” Cohen says. “I want people to see these images, get angry, and act on that anger. Compelling images by the world’s best photojournalists is the most persuasive language I have to achieve this.”

4. Book Review: What Matters

“Changing the world might sound like a lofty goal for a photo book, but that’s what the new book, What Matters, The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of our Time edited by David Elliot Cohen (Sterling Publishing, $28, 2008), hopes to do. Citing the power of socially conscious photographers over the last 150 years, the beautiful collection of 18 photo-essays by some of today’s prominent photojournalists hopes to “inform pre-election debate and inspire direct action.” Regardless of what side of the political fence you sit on, this collection of heartbreaking and powerful stories and images is guaranteed to get you thinking.”
Popular Photography

5. What Matters: The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time.
Those doubting the power of photojournalism to sway opinion and encourage action would do well to spend some time with this book. In 18 stories, each made up of photos by leading photojournalists and elucidated by short essays by public intellectuals and journalists, this book explores environmental devastation, war, disease, and the ravages of both poverty and great wealth. The photos are specific and personal in their subject matter and demonstrate how great photography can illuminate the universal by depicting the specific. Cohen has a goal beyond simply showcasing terrific photography. In his thoughtful introduction, he makes explicit his aim to connect the work compiled here with the great tradition of muckraking photography that helped to change conditions in New York tenements and to end child labor at the turn of the last century. A terrific concluding chapter directs readers to specific actions they can take if they are moved to do so by the book’s images, and it’s hard to imagine the reader who would not be moved. Highly recommended for public libraries and academic libraries supporting journalism and/or photography curricula. (a starred review in Library Journal generally means the book will be acquired by many libraries.)

Library Journal

6. First of five part series about What Matters
(The first installment drew 500,000 page views)

7. Second part in CNN. Black Dust by Shehzad Noorani

September 28, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues, Photography, Photojournalism, Photojournalism issues, reviews, World | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Two Day Visa

They sing in harmony. Rhythmic tunes with simple lyrics. The lilting songs and the dance-like-footsteps have a deceptive beauty. The metal sheets balanced on their shoulders may weigh tons. Bare feet on slippery clay weaving through scrap metal, is dangerous at the best of times. In pouring rain, and with the loads they carry, the smallest slip could spell disaster. They gently sway in careful steps singing to stay in synchrony. It is a song of death.

Online Norwegian version in Dagbladet

shipbreaking-magazinet1PDF in Norwegian Magasinet

dagbladet-nyhetPDF in Norwegian Nyhet

“You wouldn’t have the time” he’d said. It was a polite conversation. Salahuddin, the cousin of Jahangir Alam, had rung me to thank me for helping him get an ambulance at the Apollo Hospital in the elite Bashundhara Complex in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, 250 kilometres from the port city Chittagong. Despite the hospital’s motto of “Bringing healthcare of international standard within the reach of every individual,” it was understood that all patients were not equal. Jahangir and his family had been waiting for over five hours. The hospital was for rich people and Jahangir, a worker at Ziri Subeder Shipbreaking Yard was undeniably poor. Even though the money had been paid, Jahangir, on his deathbed was not going to get the same treatment the other VIP patients at Apollo were given. Eventually the presence of a pesky journalist taking pictures had enough nuisance value for the hospital to dredge up an ambulance. Jahangir would arrive at a cheaper, less equipped hospital in Chittagong, in the early hours of the morning. Knowing I was interested in the plight of the workers, Salahuddin had rung to tell me there had been another accident. A worker was in hospital and they were going to amputate his leg. He felt my presence might save the man’s leg. I was due to go to London the following day, for a brainstorming meeting with Amnesty International. Going to and from Chittagong that day would have been difficult. I had things to do before leaving. Salahuddin was right. Even though I knew that my presence might perhaps have made a difference to a man’s life. I didn’t have the time. We never have the time. Not for some people.

The working conditions at the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong are well known. It is the usual story. In order to get the ships, the Bangladeshi shipbreakers pay the best rates to the ship-owners. To retain their profits, they pay the workers the lowest rates in the world, and provide virtually no safety. Workers die and suffer injuries on a regular basis. Some receive modest compensation, others don’t. According to workers, many deaths are simply not registered with the bodies being ‘disappeared’ by the owners.

I had wanted to do a story on the shipbreaking yards for some time. When Halldor Hustadnes of the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet approached me I was immediately interested. I rescheduled a short assignment in Manila so that we could work together for the entire period. A loophole in the Basle Convention was allowing ship-owners to continue dumping ships with toxic waste with abandon in majority world countries that had little regulation.

The new International Maritime Organisation, convention was about to be ratified, but environmentalists felt it would not result in better conditions for workers. Norwegian ship-owners, who benefitted the most from loopholes in the convention (like the ships not being declared waste, and therefore not falling under waste jurisdiction), were a powerful lobby. Even Lloyds the insurers, who register and control the world’s shipping, felt the new convention would not have an effect.

We were hoping our story, timed to appear before the ratification of the convention, would bring attention to the plight of the workers. Getting access to the yard was going to be the main stumbling block. My student Sourav Das, put me in touch with Wahid Adnan. Adnan had good links with Rahman yard. We had been told that the Norwegian ship UMA was berthed at Rahmania yard. The slightly different name might just have been due to a mistake in communication. There was a ship UMA near Rahman yard. This was a breakthrough. Adnan managed to get me in, but though it was the right ship, it was the wrong yard. UMA was going to be broken at Royal, the yard next to Rahman, where we had no access.

The unique continental shelf near Chittagong allow ships to be brought right up to the beach. UMA at Royal Shipyard.

The unique continental shelf near Chittagong allow ships to be brought right up to the beach. The Norwegian ship UMA at Royal Shipyard. 8th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

So we started with the access we had, and worked our way across the porous beach. It was a Friday. The weekend in Bangladesh. We utilised the absence of the manager to bluff our way into the ship. The abundance of asbestos, the open chemical store, the sacks of Potassium Hydroxide pellets and other toxic chemicals left unprotected, were all fairly visible. One of the workers talked of the films they had been shown about how asbestos was toxic, and had to be buried under concrete and that workers needed to wear protective clothing. “But that was just a film” he said.

Young men work on the ship handling asbestos and other toxic chemicals.

Young men work on the ship handling asbestos and other toxic chemicals. 8th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Shujon and co-workers wading through toxic waste as they pull ship parts into the yard. 8th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Shujon and co-workers walking through toxic waste as they pull ship parts into the yard. 9th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Shujon was the smallest of the workers. With marigolds dangling from his ears, he insisted on being photographed. He behaved like a child, though we found out he was older than he looked. Only wealthy Bangladeshis have birth records. And with most children being malnourished, looks can be deceptive. Shujon was a helper. Hirolal, the cutter he was helping, didn’t look much older than him. They were cousins. Shielding his eyes from the intense heat with his hands, Hirolal, broke down larger pieces of metal into more manageable shapes. Shujon cleared the debris, oblivious to the sparks that flew around him. Both boys wanted to find work overseas. Singapore was their dream destination. I didn’t tell them that Bangladeshi workers in Singapore, often found themselves in similar bonded labour. At least Shujon and Hirolal had a dream. The contractor came over and started beating up Shujon. He needed to get on with his work. We were getting him into trouble and kept our distance.

An angry contractor beat up Shujon and warns him against talking to us.

An angry contractor beats up Shujon and warns him against talking to us. 9th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Welding goes on into the night. Often welders do not have protective glasses which are expensive and they have to pay for.

Welding goes on into the night. Often welders do not have protective glasses which are expensive and not supplied by the yard. 9th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Ship propellors are made of expensive metal and require special cutting skills and very high heat.

Ship propellors are made of expensive metal and require special cutting skills and very high heat. 9th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Early in the morning Rubel (14) begins ferrying workers from the beach to the ships being stripped. He has been doing this job for three years.

Early in the morning Rubel (14) begins ferrying workers from the beach to the ships being stripped. He has been doing this job for three years. 10th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Early the following morning I saw Rubel, bailing out the water from a lifeboat. Rubel was 14 and had been a ferry ‘man’ since he was 11. His mother didn’t really want him to be doing risky work, but they needed the money. We left before sunrise, before the manager arrived. Rubel was well into his day’s work.

That night when the manager had left, we went back into the yard and slept with the workers. We were guests and had the luxury of having a metal sheet to ourselves for a bed. They sung for us that night. Not the pop songs that we heard on television, or the Tagore songs that the wealthy elite took as a sign of culture. They were haunting songs of longing and parting. One was a song about visas:

With a two day visa
To this false world
Why did Alla send me
Why send me here

With the pain of seeking comfort
He sent me on my own
What game did he play
What game does he play

Using metal sheets for beds, workers sleep in crowded huts with no toilets.

Using metal sheets for beds, workers sleep in crowded huts with no toilets. 11th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

With an empty water bottle and a wooden box as a drum, we sang into the night. Their raw voices blending with the steady rain on the tin roof. “We are poor folk. There’s work tomorrow. We need to sleep.” The foreman said abruptly. We knew the songs had been sung for the entertainment of the guests, at the cost of much needed rest. I walked out into the rain. The tide was coming in. UMA was glistening in the yard searchlight. The guards in their yellow raincoats stood out in the darkness.

UMA, a ship formerly owned by the Norwegian company Odfjell, is beached at Royal Ship Yard in Chittagong.
UMA, a ship formerly owned by the Norwegian company Odfjell, is beached at Royal Ship Yard in Chittagong. 10th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagblade
Rubel's mother does not like her son doing such dangerous work, but accepts that the family has no choice.

Rubel's mother does not like her son doing such dangerous work, but accepts that the family has no choice. 11th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Beaching master Captain Inam by the Norwegian ship New Berge at Habib Ship Yard, which was beached by him.

Beaching master Captain Inam by the Norwegian ship New Berge at Habib Ship Yard, which was beached by him. 11th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Captain Inam was a boisterous jovial man. He was the most experienced beach captain, and the de-facto spokesperson for the shipyard owners. He was much in demand. When we wanted to speak to the owners, they insisted that the good captain be around. The owners spoke little, leaving it up to the articulate seaman to fend our questions. They invited us over to Bonanza, a posh restaurant in downtown Chittagong. One of the many businesses owned by Mr. Amin, in whose yard two other Norwegian ships, the Gold Berge and New Berge were also being stripped. Captain Inam explained how the ship-owners who made the bulk of the profit took no responsibility for the situation of the workers. How they should allocate a percentage of their profits to building a modern shipyard in Chittagong. How these environmentalists were in collusion with the Northern ship-owners and working towards increasing their profits. Of how the shipyard owners really felt for the workers. Of how they provided helmets, and gloves and shoes to all workers, but that workers didn’t want to wear them. None of this matched with what the workers had to say. “A pair of shoes cost us 500 Taka” they said. That was four days’ wages for the average worker. Odfjell the Norwegian owner of UMA had made 7.5 million dollars from the sale of the dying ship.

The foreman cutter of Royal Ship Yard in his home. He claims attempts to set up a union have been brutally quelled by the shipyard owners.

The foreman cutter of Royal Ship Yard in his home. He claims attempts to set up a union have been brutally quelled by the shipyard owners. 11th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

The foreman cutter talked of how he had escaped death but the person next to him had died due to poisoned gas in the hull of a ship. He took us to his one room house where the parents and the two children shared a bed that almost occupied the entire room. He talked of the four times they had tried to set up a union. Each time the local goons were used to beat them into submission. The main organisers were tortured and lost their jobs. Captain Inam, has a different version. “There are no restrictions to forming unions.” He says. “The workers are simple people and don’t think in those terms.”

Security officers and contractors at Royal Shipping Yard.

Security officers and contractors at Royal Shipping Yard. 12th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

The number of injuries have gone down enormously says the captain. Now there are hardly one or two a year. They take us to the hospital they are building, to reduce medical fees paid to external hospitals. We never went into the logic of requiring to build a hospital to reduce costs if only one or two deaths and a few injuries were taking place all year.

One of the workers Saiful takes us to a nearby village. Walking a few hundred metres, we come across several families of injured workers. A few say they have received modest compensation. Some say they’ve received nothing. Even though these injuries were from a few years ago, the frequency of injuries has little in common with the captain’s figures.

Shahin, an NGO worker who has been campaigning for the rights of shipyard workers, rings us to tell us of an accident that has just taken place. We rush over to Chittagong Medical Hospital (CMH). As all other public hospitals in Bangladesh, CMH is overrun. The three workers were carried up the five flights of stairs and lay on the hospital floor. There were no spare beds. Jahangir was the most badly injured. His head was bleeding, and he couldn’t move. He was barely conscious. The other two workers had broken limbs but would survive. There were no stretchers and Jahangir’s family and friends, took him across to a less busy part of the hospital floor, carrying him on a stretched sheet.

Jahangir Alam being moved to a quieter part of Ward 28 in Chittagong Medical Hospital. They use a stretched sheet as there are no stretchers available.

Jahangir Alam being moved to a quieter part of Ward 28 in Chittagong Medical Hospital. They use a stretched sheet as there are no stretchers available. 12th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Critically injured worker Jahangir Alam lying on the floor of Chittagong Medical Hospital Ward 28.

Critically injured worker Jahangir Alam lying on the floor of Chittagong Medical Hospital Ward 28. 12th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

We contact Al Hajj Lokman Hakim, the owner of Ziri Subedar Yard. Mr. Hakim is angry. “They have accidents because of their own stupidity. Sometimes they have minor injuries, and we have to pay for it. If these foreigners care so much about our workers why don’t they build a new dock for us?” Cursing everyone in sight as we go down the lift of his highrise building, the Lokman Tower, Mr. Hakim drives off in his shiny car. A 5.5 million Taka car according to our driver.

Lokman Tower, the office of Al Hajj Lokman Hakim, the owner of Ziri Subedar, the shipyard where Jahangir Alam was injured. The cart being pulled in the foreground carries steel rods used for construction, which are made from scrap metal obtained from ships.

Lokman Tower, the office of Al Hajj Lokman Hakim, the owner of Ziri Subedar, the shipyard where Jahangir Alam was injured. The cart being pulled in the foreground carries steel rods used for construction, which are made from scrap metal obtained from ships. 14th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Al Hajj Lokman Hakim's house in Chittagong. He is angry that we have arrived and does not want to answer questions.

Al Hajj Lokman Hakim in his house in Chittagong. He is angry that we have arrived and does not want to answer questions. 14th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

The news was more than Jahangir’s mother Nurjahan could take. Her eldest son had an accident a year ago. Two months ago her husband had died. Two weeks later, Alamgir, Jahangir’s younger brother had been injured while working in a different yard. The yard owner had paid for Alamgir’s treatment, but there was no knowing if he would ever be able to work again, or how long the owner would keep paying for the treatment. Jahangir had been the only earning member of the family. As it was, the family depended upon the generosity of the neighbours for their survival. Jahangir’s injury had left the family in tatters. “It is poverty that has driven my sons to this life,” says Nurjahan. “If my Jahangir returns, I will never send him to the yard again.”

Jahangir's mother Nurjahan and his younger brother Alamgir.

Jahangir's mother Nurjahan and his younger brother Alamgir, in their home. 15th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Jahangir never returned. On the night of the 6th September, Jahangir had spoken. He seemed to be on the verge of recovery. He would never walk again, but at least he would live. The following morning Shahjahan heard he had died. Shahjahan knew that the company had been concerned about the rising medical bills, and wondered if Jahangir’s death had been necessary to keep the bills down. One thing was certain. His two day visa had expired.

The ship owners in Norway, will never know he lived.

September 12, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Photojournalism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments