ShahidulNews

(Moved to http://www.shahidulnews.com)

Bangladesh, standing on the edge

Preface by Christian Caujolle

Expressions, hands, faces, presence and pain, tenderness and anxiety, light and encounters, questions and determination as well as a thousand other things run through Munem Wasif‘s photographs.

The way Wasif takes his photographs can be summed up into two ways: people and the frame. He definitely belongs to a humanist tradition, contemporary in content for the attention he gives to people and to the way they live, what they have to endure and all they bear in today’s pitiless world, disrupted, torn by drastic climatic changes and economic speculation. A world where speed is queen and profit king inconsiderately leaving on the wayside the rejected that it spawns. It is salutary that an eye such as Wasif’s reminds us that these things exist, that there are men, women, children, “little people” like us who have to withstand much more than we do.


In photography, the approach and the representation of suffering and exclusion are often entangled in a jumble of good intentions, generous in intention, they call for tearful compassion, with clichéd images that end up making us weary, forever repeating themselves, they end up by anaesthetising our capacity to react. Wasif produces the opposite effect. He makes us question and makes us concerned.

This is done with so little and at the same time goes to the essential. We can not doubt his commitment to those he photographs, the excluded, the victims, panic-stricken by a world ruled by the race for profit and blinded by immediate return based on solely commercial value. He puts this world into form, radical in its description, he imposes it and gives it to us to see clearly.

This is where the frame comes in. A way of focusing in on the world, to sum it up in a series of specific points of view, classic in their composition, forcing us to see and to perceive their intention.

Munem Wasif‘s frames are clean-cut, precise, almost cold. Without flourish. He asks us to look, to perceive, to take a stand. Therefore to act.

—————————

Wasif’s work will be shown at Visa Pour la Image at Perpignan. He won the City of Perpignan Young Reporter’s Award for 2008. He graduated from Pathshala, The South Asian Institute of Photography, and works at DrikNews. His work is represented by Agence VU and Majority World.

July 29, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Photography, Photojournalism issues | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Another View

Lucia Chiriboga portrays the deep spirituality in Ecuadorian life. Long before Photoshop became commonplace, Lucia began creating complex images by subtle multiple exposures, as a way of weaving multilayered stories of her ancestors. ã Lucia Chiriboga/Drik/Majority World

It was a grand opening. The ‘Who’s Who’ of development in Britain was there, championing the noble cause – the Millennium Development Goals, making poverty history.

The Bob Geldof circus could perhaps be pardoned. Geldof is neither a development worker nor someone particularly knowledgeable about the subject. But for the organizers of the ‘bash’ at the OXO Tower on London’s South Bank to produce such a culturally insensitive event was revealing.

Apart from parading a few young black people from Africa, who extolled the virtues of ‘development’, there was little contribution from the Majority World. The key speakers, typically white Western development workers, spoke of the role that they were playing in saving the poor of the Global South. The token dark-skinned people, having played their part, were soon forgotten.

The centrepiece of this celebration was an exhibition entitled Eight Ways to Change the World. All the photographs were taken by white Western photographers. No-one questioned the implication of such an exercise. When I confronted one of the organizers he explained that the curator – a director of a Western photographic agency – had decided not to use Majority World photographers because they ‘didn’t have the eye’. The sophisticated visual language possessed by the Western audience was presumably beyond the capacity of a photographer from the South to comprehend, let alone engage with at a creative level.

New rules

This represents a shift from the position of 20 years ago when we started asking why Majority World photographers were not being used by mainstream media and development agencies. The answer then had been: ‘They don’t exist.’ Today our existence is difficult to deny. The internet; the fact that several Majority World agencies operate successfully; and that photographers belonging to such agencies regularly win international awards: all these things mean we are no longer invisible.

Now it’s a different set of rules. We have to prove we have the eye. A similar statement about blacks, women, or minority groups of any sort, would raise a storm. But when such prejudice is used against a group of media professionals from the South, who happen to represent the majority of humankind, no-one appears to bat an eyelid.

I have, of course, faced this situation before. There was, for example, a fax from the National Geographic Society Television Division asking if we could help them with the production of a film that would include the Bangladeshi cyclone of 1991. They wanted specific help in locating ‘US, European or UN people… who would lead us to a suitable Bangladeshi family’. The irony of making such a request to a picture agency dedicated to promoting local voices had obviously escaped them. We had gotten used to requests for iconic objects of poverty that international NGOs insisted existed in abundance and had to be photographed – but which locals neither knew nor had heard of.

The economics of suffering

Charities and development agencies need to raise money from the Western public. The best way to pull the heart strings – and thereby the purse strings – is to show those doleful eyes of the disadvantaged.

Perhaps photographers from the South cannot be trusted to understand this. Perhaps they are so hardened to such images of daily suffering that they are unable to appreciate the impact these sights might have on Western audiences – and the coffers of Western aid agencies.

But certain changes have been taking place, forcing various adjustments. Media budgets have become tighter than they were. Flying people to distant locations is expensive. Having Western photographers ‘on the ground’ can be dangerous in some cases – and costly in terms of insurance premiums. Better to have locals in the firing line. So, slowly, local names have begun to creep in. Certain rules still apply of course, such as the vast differentials in pay between local and Western photographers.

Stories about Nike regularly make the headlines, but the exploitative terms on which local photographers work rarely surface. The Bangla saying ‘kaker mangsho kak khai na’ (a crow doesn’t eat crow’s meat) seems to apply to journalism: criticism of the media is taboo. Not only do the workers on the media sweatshops have to work for peanuts, they need to know which stories to tell. None of this journalistic independence rubbish: gimme stories that sell.

This, of course, affects Southern photographers. When they know certain stories sell, they themselves begin to supply the ‘appropriate’ images. A man known to carry a toy gun in the streets of Dhaka is repeatedly photographed at religious rallies, and despite common knowledge that it is a fake gun, news agencies run the picture without explaining the nature of the situation. Numerous wire photographers have been known to stage flood pictures and in one famous instance, a child was shown to be swimming to safety in what was known to be knee deep water. The photograph went on to win a major press award.

Money also affects publishers. Smaller budgets require careful shopping. The Corbis, Getty and Reuters image supermarkets are rapidly squeezing out the ‘corner store’ suppliers and a small Majority World picture library simply can’t compete.

But there are other factors in the equation. Development isn’t simply about money. What about developing mutual respect; enabling equitable partnerships; providing enabling environments for intellectual exchange? What about creating awareness of the underlying causes of poverty? These are all integral parts of the development process. When all things are added up, cheap images providing clichéd messages do more harm than good. They do not address the crucial issue: poverty is almost always a product of exploitation, at local, regional and international levels. If poverty is simply addressed in terms of what people lack in monetary terms, then the more important issues of exploitation are sidelined.

Materially poor nations should have a say in how they are represented. This picture, taken in the early days of the Maoist movement, by Nepalese photographer Binod Dhungel, shows members of his country’s Maoist Movement long before it was breaking news. ã Binod Dhungel/Drik/Majority World

A broader picture

However, the type of imagery required from the Majority World is broadening. This is coming less from growing political sensibility and more from global economic shifts. Negative imagery is seen as a deterrent to foreign investment in emerging markets. With transnationals interested in cheap labour, and a wider consumer base, a different profile is now required to stimulate investor confidence. So, along with the standard fare of flood and famine, there are stories of Indian and Chinese billionaires and how they have benefited from capitalism.

Furthermore the new ‘inclusive’ media now take on more ethnic-minority journalists. But when they come over to do their groundbreaking stories, it is the rookie on the streets of Dhaka who provides the leads, conducts the research, translates, drives, fixes, and does all that is necessary for the story to emerge. If things do go wrong – as when Britain’s Channel 4 TV attempted an ill-fated exposé in Bangladesh in late 2002 – the Western journalists are likely to be home for Christmas while the local fixers face torture in jail.

Drik’s vision

Lacking the advantages of our Western counterparts, image-makers in the South have had to rely on ingenuity and making-do in order to move from being fixers to being authors in their own right. We have had to be pioneers. With one filing cabinet, an XT computer without a hard drive, and a converted toilet as a darkroom, we decided we would take on the established rich-world photo agencies. On 4 September 1989 Drik Alokchitra Granthagar was set up in Dhaka.

The Sanskrit word Drik means vision, inner vision, and philosophy of vision. That vision of a more egalitarian world, where materially poor nations have a say in how they are represented, remains our driving force.

The European agencies I had encountered wanted a minimum submission of 300 transparencies and told you not to ask for money for the first three years. This constituted a massive investment for a Majority World photographer, and virtually ruled out her entry into the market. We had a very different approach. If a photographer had a single good image which we felt needed to be seen we would take her on, try and sell the picture and pay her as soon as the money came in.

It allowed the photographer to buy more rolls of film and carry on working. The photographers didn’t have printing and developing facilities so we set up a good quality darkroom and trained people to make high quality prints. They had no lights so we set up a studio.

The only gallery spaces available were owned by the State or foreign cultural missions, none of which would show controversial work. So we built our own galleries. Few would publish pictures well so we built our own pre-press unit and published postcards, bookmarks and calendars which we sold door-to-door to pay for running costs.

Photography was largely male-dominated, so we organized workshops for women photographers. There were no working-class people in the media, so we started training poor children in photography. We couldn’t afford faxes or international phone calls, so we set up Bangladesh’s first email service and lobbied for the introduction of fully fledged internet. Professor Yunus, the Nobel Prize winner, was our first user. We set up electronic bulletin boards on issues important to us, such as child rights and environmental issues.

We started putting together a database of photographers in the South, and wrote off to as many organizations as we could, offering our services. No-one replied. Undeterred, we put together a portfolio of black-and-white prints, largely by Bangladeshi photographers.

On a rare visit to Europe, I visited the office of the New Internationalist in Oxford. Dexter Tiranti greeted me warmly. He had received our letter, but hadn’t given it too much importance. An agency in Bangladesh seemed too far distant for the NI to work with on a regular basis. Having seen the portfolio, however, Dexter sat me down at his desk and started ringing picture users across Europe. I remember feeling envious of this ability simply to pick up a phone and call someone in another country, but was grateful for the contacts. Dexter asked us to submit pictures for the NI Almanac. The next year we got a letter from him that stated: ‘The photographs are beautiful and the reason we are using only six is because we can’t really have too many from one country.’ Others Dexter had phoned that day, and many others we have contacted since, have responded similarly, and so picture sales slowly grew – but it was no easy ride.

Drik’s email network was put to use when writer and feminist Taslima Nasrin, pictured here in hiding, was being persecuted. ã Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Knife wounds and death threats

Our problems weren’t simply ones of surviving on slender means and competing against agencies based in London, Paris and New York. Our activism created problems on our home soil too. We had, by then, set up our own website and had helped to establish the first webzine and internet portal in the country. Our email network had been put to use when Taslima Nasrin was being persecuted. The website became the seat of resistance when pro-government thugs committed rape in a university campus. So the site, and later the agency, came under attack.

The day after our human rights portal www.banglarights.net was launched, all the telephone lines of the agency were disconnected. It took us twoand- a-half years to get the lines back, but that never stopped our internet service and we stayed connected. Later, Drik became the seat of resistance when the Government used the military to round up opposition activists. I was attacked on the street, during curfew and in a street protected by the military. I received eight knife wounds.

So we learnt to walk a fine line.

It wasn’t just the Government that found us unpalatable. The US embassy felt it couldn’t work with us because we opposed President Clinton’s visit to Bangladesh.

Letter by John Kinkannon (director of USIA in Bangladesh) to Mayeen Ahmed, coordinator of Chobi Mela (2000).

The British Council demanded we take down a show that talked about colonialism, and threatened that future projects might be jeopardized when we openly opposed the invasion of Iraq. Death threats, some real, some less serious and a whole range of sabotage attempts have been part of the path we’ve travelled.

Current strategies are more subtle. We know we will never be given work by certain agencies and that visas for some of us will be more difficult to get, but it is certainly not all negative. The main strength of Drik has been its friends and their support. None of what we have achieved would have been possible without the contribution of a large number of people, ranging from ordinary Bangladeshis who have rallied when it mattered, to influential people thousands of miles away who have provided moral and material support. Combining our compulsion to be socially effective with the requirement to be financially independent has remained our biggest challenge. It is a difficult balancing act.

A great high

Taking a principled position has other drawbacks. People work long hours for salaries below the industry norm. There are few perks. But working at Drik is a special experience; a great high. Not everyone can survive on these highs, of course, and job satisfaction doesn’t help pay the bills, so we need to be competitive and ensure a level of quality so that we can hold our own despite the political pressures.

Eighteen years down the road, we now have a workforce of around 60. Graduates from our school of photography, Pathshala, hold senior positions in major publications. The working-class children we’ve trained have gone on to win Emmys and other awards, and I believe Majority World photographers feel they have a platform.

The big agencies like Reuters and Getty can provide images at a cost and a speed impossible for independent practitioners to match, a very real consideration for picture editors under time pressure and working to tight budgets. The fact that Corbis (owned by Microsoft) is buying up picture archives like the Bettman is important for their preservation, but the images that now exist 200 feet below the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania are no longer accessible to the students, scholars and researchers. An important part of our visual history is now in the control of one person – Bill Gates.

Golam Kasem (nicknamed Daddy) was Drik’s oldest photographer when he died at the age of 103. His original glass plates date back to 1918. This 1927 image is one of many where Daddy records everyday life in rich detail. ã Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

Fair trade

Father Paul Casperg, who has been working for many years with the tea plantation workers in Kandy, has an interesting story to tell. Nearly 30 years ago, in his Masters thesis at the London School of Economics, Father Casperg was able to show that an increase of two pence (four US cents) in the price of a cup of tea being sold on the British railways would, providing it went to the Kandy tea plantation workers, result in more income than the total foreign aid received by the Sri Lankan Government.

Father Casperg rightly concluded that it was fair trade that Sri Lanka needed, not more aid.

That is what fair trade imagery organizations like majorityworld.com and kijijiVision (see Action) are trying to do. By invoking ethical standards in the trading of images, these organizations address not only the distorted and disrespectful depiction of people of the Global South, but also the economic divide.

Organizations that call for Majority World governments to be more transparent and accountable need to reflect upon their own ethical standards when it comes to depicting and dealing with the South. Practices such as not allowing photographers to retain copyright or film are justified by the ‘convenience’ of distributing images. Such ‘convenience clauses’ are rarely applied to Western photographers, who know the law and can exercise their rights.

Light, flexible, potent

We are resisting, though. The new portal, majorityworld.com, supported strongly by its lobbying partner kijijiVision.org, has built on the extended groundwork done by Drik. DrikNews.com, though still very young, threatens to give the wire agencies a run for their money, and photographers in the South are pooling their resources, including developing close partnerships with like-minded Western organizations.

Recently, I was sitting with a small group of photographers, painters and filmmakers in a corner of the top-floor gallery of the Voluntary Artists Society of Thimpu (capital of Bhutan). At the end of the showing of a film on Chobi Mela IV – the festival of photography in Asia – projected on a bedsheet pinned on the gallery wall, the conversation veered to pooling resources in neighbouring countries. Sharing computers, scanners, and contacts, we talked of bus routes to neighbouring countries, and finding public spaces for showing work. What we needed was an online solution that would serve all Majority World photographers.

Having purchased expensive software produced in the West for selling pictures online, we were further bled by consultancy fees we had to pay every time we needed to adapt it to our situation. So, eventually, we developed our own software. It is an inexpensive but highly efficient search engine that local newspaper archives can use. Developed using largely open-source modules, it is constantly updated based on feedback from users from all over the globe and it has worked well on low bandwidth.

Groups in Bhutan, Peru, Tanzania and Vietnam recognize that the wire services and the big agencies have a different agenda. If it’s a guerrilla war against the corporations that has to be fought, then we need different tools. Light, flexible, inexpensive and potent ones.

A revolution is taking place. As new names creep into the byline, unfamiliar faces step up to the award podium and fresh imagery – vibrant, questioning and revealing – makes it into mainstream media, a whole new world is opening up. A Majority World.

Originally published in the New Internationalist Magazine in August 2007

Image take-over

In the 1990s independent picture libraries and agencies disappeared at an alarming rate as they were absorbed or driven out of business by larger ones. Dominating the field was Corbis, created by Microsoft Corp founder Bill Gates. Corbis now has 24 offices in 16 countries, represents some 29,000 photographers and controls around 100 million images. Last year it acquired the Australian Picture Library, entered a partnership with IndiaPicture.com and opened a new office in Beijing. Its 2006 revenue was more than $251 million.

Other big players have included Getty Images, founded in 1995, which now has 20 offices worldwide and controls over one million images. Jupiterimages, a division of the Connecticut-based Jupitermedia Corporation, manages over seven million images online, while Reuters has an archive of over two million images.

In recent years the microstock photography industry, led by iStockPhoto and later ShutterStock, Dreamstime, Fotolia, and BigStockPhoto has emerged as a rapidly growing market. Using the internet as their sole distribution method, and recruiting mainly amateur and hobbyist photographers from around the globe, these companies are able to offer stock libraries of pictures at very low prices. Corporate giants Corbis, Getty and Jupiterimages have now muscled their way into this market too, adding to their everexpanding fortfolio of the world’s imagery.

Sources: Corbis-Corporate Fact Sheet, BAPLA, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Photo District News, StockPhotoTalk.

Belongings: felt, presented, challenged
Images from Bangladesh, Iran, South Africa and Sri Lanka.

A true Pathshala
The story of an extraordinary school, told by Sameera Huque and Shahidul Alam.

Lifecycle: with a few exits
Images from Nepal and Bangladesh.

Coping with pain
Images from India and Bangladesh.

Lifestyles: disappearing and aspired
Images from Bangladesh and Japan.

Action on Majority World photography
Contacts and websites for agencies that hold or promote Majority World photography.

July 26, 2008 Posted by | Drik and its initiatives, Photography, Photojournalism issues | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Dancing amidst the Baobabs

They called her Yatounde, the one who returned. Like her priestess grandmother Aloopho, who knew the secrets of the dance, Yatounde had dance in her blood. Her father had disobeyed his mother the priestess, by withholding the knowledge he had been told to pass on. Yatounde knew anyway, and at nineteen, went against family plans and became a dancer. Her father knew the time had come, that Aloopho had returned. By then the given name Germaine had stuck to Yatounde.

Yatounde (Germaine Acogny) at Ecole des Sables. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

She made us feel the moon, the stars and the sun. We stood on the bare rocks and soaked in the desert sun. She taught us to feel the strength of the skies above and the soil beneath our feet. They connected through our bodies and soaked away the poison from our skin.

Germaine had egged us on, squeezing movement out of our ungainly bodies. “It’s okay to make mistakes” she said. “Okay if you can’t make it. Okay to try.” She had wanted us to join in with the Sabar dancers in the village. We knew it was wishful thinking. From the small child barely able to stand, to the grandmother who danced with elegant grace, the bodies move in rhythm, the passion flowed. Never had I seen such exuberance, such joy of life. Music taking over so completely. But no, not even Yatounde’s persuasion could coax Senegalese rhythm into our bodies, our veins. But the vibrations reverberated in us long after we left. Allessio, from Triangle Arts, cried. The rest of us watched in awe.

Video of Sabar dancers. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
We had come together from Argentina, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Germany, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Netherlands, Tanzania and the UK, to the desert studios of Jant-Bi in Senegal. It was the network partners’ meeting of the Prince Claus Fund. We shared successes, talked of failure and fed off each other’s passion for the arts. Just being in this crazy, wild, gritty team energised. We were survivors and would survive together. Dancing under the desert sky was one of the many ways we came together.

Yatounde took us for a walk before sunrise. We walked in silence across the desert sands. The warm morning breeze drifted in from the sea. With the first sun rays lighting up the clouds we came to the Baobab tree. We circled the tree and soon it became part of us. It had stood there for a thousand years. Its hollow womb, the final resting place of the Griot, the village story teller.

Hollow interior of Baobab tree. We had entered through the hole on the bottom right. The tree was thirty three metres in circumference. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The tree had a thousand stories to tell. While we had danced together earlier, this morning we danced on our own. As the sun rose from behind the distant hills, we found expressions to unite the sun, the sand, with the Baobab reaching out to the sky.

Baobab tree at sunrise. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Our visit to the detention cells in the “House of Slaves” in Gorée island, a short ferry ride from Dakar city, reminded me of the slave dug outs in Zanzibar. The “House of Slaves” now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built in 1780. The ten foot by ten foot cells held about fifty men. The women and the children, all separated, were in similar cells. They all stood naked and chained, waiting for the journey across the sea where some six million, sent from many such islands across Africa, would eventually die. There were no records of the ones who died on the journey overland. Force-fed to meet the sixty kilo minimum weight set by the traders, they ate and excreted standing in those cells. The ones who resisted, if left alive, were put in cells that were smaller, lower, darker. The dead were fed to the sharks. Some of the living became shark feed as well. Some of the women provided sex to the traders. For some, bearing mixed children was the route to salvation. Africa still bore the scars of their pain.

“The Door of no Return” was the exit point from the “House of Slaves”. Slaves were either shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, or fed to the sharks. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Security corridor separating cells from outer wall of “House of Slaves”. Gorée Island. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

As we walked out, numbed by the horror of it all, women with trinkets surrounded us. We were terenga (foreigners). The moneyed ones. They needed tourists to come to Gorée Island. Tourists to see the spectacle. Buy souvenirs. “I give you good price” they all said. Some had mastered more sophisticated terminology, and some NGO jargon. They talked of their poverty, of their need, of our responsibility. “You are my human rights father,” Bijou said as she sold me a seed necklace, a basket of cloth dolls balanced on her head.

Bijou with dolls for sale. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Ibrahim invited me to his grotto. A cave like corridor on the roof of the cells. He and a friend had set up a studio there. Ibrahim painted and composed music and shared his studio with a friend. He saw me not as a foreigner but as a fellow artist. He posed amidst his artwork. The gentle waves of the Senegalese shore still beckon me through the old seashell he gave as a parting gift.

Ibrahim in his studio. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Agnesio lived in a house at the back of the church in the Mandingo village in Saloum. She invited me in as I photographed the graffiti on her wall. She didn’t speak my language, I didn’t speak hers, but she knew what she wanted. Pulling me to her room, she stood me against the wall. She then sat on the bed and held her hands together. I was to take a photograph of her praying. I had no way of giving her a print. We both knew I would probably never see her again, but this was a photograph that needed to be taken. Grateful that I had a digital display we shared the photograph. It was a specific image she was after and she directed the shoot until she was satisfied. She thanked me warmly as I left. I came back with an image. The picture she kept needed no pixels. It was etched in her mind.

Agnesio praying. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Cheik Guaye waited outside Osman’s house in Medina, in Dakar. I was a prospective customer and sales were low on Sundays. I wasn’t going to buy his antiques, but we sat and chatted by the roadside anyway. He had been a student of philosophy at university, but had dropped out. The elder brother of nine children, he needed to earn so the others could study. Lacking the capital to buy the antiques himself, he sold them for a friend, living off the commission. Some months I’ll make 400.000 he said (about 600 euro), but other months there might be nothing. “What happens then” I asked. “We survive” he said. “we are survivors.” He had heard of Yunus and micro-credit. “Here they only give loans to those who have money” he said. While I admired Yunus’ achievements, I had met too many people who suffered under the weight of micro-credit, to see it as a cure-all. He had antiques to sell, I had a flight to catch. This was one discussion that would have to wait.

Cheikh Guaye outside Osman’s house in Medina. Dakar. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

There were many survivors in this land. Cheik had many dreams and few illusions. He wished to introduce foreigners to the arts of Senegal. To dancing, music and cooking. He had been trained as a hotel manager, but without connections he knew he would never get a job. “If the world was a fair place, Africa would never be in the state that it is. The slave traders have left, but the colonisation continues. Our leaders are no better. Many have robbed our land more than the white man.” But he was a pragmatist. “I don’t hold it against the tourists. Why should one be blamed for what one’s ancestors did? We need the foreigners. We forgive, but we do not forget.”

The night before we were to leave, as we gathered in Germaine and Helmut’s home, Kaolack a dancer of the troupe, and his wife Diarra, told us of the party they were going to that night. This was African life we hadn’t seen, and while we were weary, we decided to go. Directions were given. It was close to the headman’s house, and with only three thousand people in the village we were heading to, we were confident we’d find it. The stars were out and the milky-way shone brightly as we headed toward the drumbeats, but it was another Sabar we found ourselves in. While we realised we had come to the wrong party, it was still riveting. When we did go again in search of Kaolack and Diarra, the music led us to a third party. We discovered there were others, though Chez Paolo was where it really happened.

Dancers at first party. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Dancer at first party. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Max and Janine at Chez Paolo night club. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Late arrivals to Chez Paolo night club. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Tired by now, I was ready to go back for I had wanted to return to the Baobab tree in the morning, but I was happy I stayed. For a people with such a destroyed past, for a continent with such a ravaged present, for there to be such celebration of life, for dance and music to be so integral a part of their being, told me more about Africa than I could otherwise have known. This was not the dark continent of my childhood books. The gaunt images of Darfur and Rwanda, the hollowed eyes of those dying of AIDS, the turmoil of conflict, were not what I saw around me. I saw proud people. Generous. Full of life. Of living. People who rejoiced in music and dance. I wondered how an entire continent had been transformed into an icon of poverty. I wondered what role image-makers played in perpetuating these stereotypes.

It was time to leave. On my last day, before the sun rose again, I went back to the Baobab. On my own this time. I needed to be alone with the tree. The giant tree with a thousand arms pointed up to the sky reminded me of Mike Royko’s epitaph:

“When my time comes, I hope no one drains my veins of their sustaining fluid and fills them with formaldehyde, then wastes me by putting me in a concrete box in the ground for eternity. Rather, just a simple pine box with an acorn on top of it. Find a place where a tree is needed and return me to nature. When the acorn grows, I can nourish it and give back in some measure what I’ve taken. Maybe someday kids can crawl in my branches or a raccoon might curl up in my trunk or the larks can sing out from my leaves. At any rate, I would rather let an oak tree be my epitaph than a marble slab be my tombstone.”

Baobab tree. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The Baobab did inspire me, but it was not death I was thinking of, Africa made me want to dance. We went to Medina in the afternoon where Osman, another dancer in the troupe, lived. His extended family lived in this poor part of Dakar. It reminded me of homes in the old part of Dhaka. The walls were decked with photographs of religious leaders the family were murids (disciples) of. We weren’t surprised when one of Osman’s friends came to invite us to another street party. The drummers were in the middle of the street, with the dancers in a circle around. It was a frenzied affair.

Dancer in streets of Medina. Dakar. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Dressed to kill, the women taunted and flirted with the drummers as the impossible rhythm mesmerised us. The balconies of nearby apartment blocks quickly filled. Cars realising the streets had been taken over by a dance found other routes. No questions asked. There was a wedding in the next street, prayers in the third, and just jubilation in another. Life was being lived.

On my way back to Dhaka, I imagined the shackles around the slaves on Gorée Island. But I also remembered Ibrahim and Agnesio and Cheik. Each had found a way to shake off the chains of their ancestors. This was an Africa that would stay with me. For they had taught me to forgive but not forget. For I had danced amidst the Baobabs.

June 18, 2008 Posted by | Drik's Network Partners | , , , , | 11 Comments

Ghosts

By Ian Buruma

Volume 55, Number 11 · June 26, 2008

The New York Review of Books

Two photographs, taken by digital camera at Abu Ghraib prison, on the night of November 5, 2003. The first picture shows a person in a ragged black poncho-like garment standing precariously on a tiny box. Hairy legs and arms suggest that this person is a man. His head is covered in a pointed black hood, his arms are spread, and his fingertips are attached to wires sticking from the concrete wall behind him. The pose hints at a crucifixion, but the black poncho and hood also suggest a witch or a scarecrow.

The second picture shows a young woman hunched over the corpse of a man. The corpse lies in a half-unzipped black body bag filled with ice cubes wrapped in plastic. His mouth is open; white bandages cover his eyes. The young woman grins widely at the camera. She holds up the thumb of her right hand, encased in a turquoise latex glove.

The photographs look amateurish, a crude mixture of the sinister and lighthearted. When they were published, first in The New Yorker magazine, we were provided with some background to them, but not much. The anonymous man in the first picture had been told that he would die of electric shock if he fell off the box. Hence the wires, which were in fact harmless. Information about the second picture was sketchy, but the woman seemed to be gloating over the man’s death. The bandages suggested serious violence. There were other Abu Ghraib photographs, published widely on the Internet: of terrified Iraqi prisoners, stripped of all their clothes, being assaulted and bitten by dogs (“doggie dancing”); of a naked prisoner on all fours held on a leash by a female American guard; of naked men piled up in a human pyramid; of naked men made to masturbate, or posed as though performing oral sex; of naked men wearing women’s panties on their heads, handcuffed to the bars of their cells; of naked men used as punching bags; and so on.

The photographs evoked an atmosphere of giddy brutality. The reputation of the United States, already tarnished by a bungled war, hit a new low. But interpretations of the photographs, exactly what they told us, varied according to the observer. After he was criticized for failing to apologize, President Bush said in a public statement that he was “sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliation suffered by their families.” But he felt “equally sorry,” he said, “that people who have been seeing those pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.” Donald Rumsfeld deplored the fact that the pictures had been shown at all, and then talked about charges of “abuse,” which, he believed, “technically is different from torture.” The word “torture” was carefully avoided by both men. President Bush, confronted much later with questions about a damning Red Cross report about the use of torture by the CIA, spelled out his view: “We don’t torture.”[1]

Susan Sontag, writing in The New York Times Magazine, had a different take on the pictures. She thought the “torture photographs” of Abu Ghraib were typical expressions of a brutalized popular American culture, coarsened by violent pornography, sadistic movies and video games, and a narcissistic compulsion to put every detail of our lives, especially our sexual lives, on record, preferably on public record. To her the Abu Ghraib photos were precisely the true nature and heart of America. She wrote:

Soldiers now pose, thumbs up, before the atrocities they commit, and send the pictures to their buddies. Secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given anything to conceal, you now clamor to be invited on a television show to reveal. What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality.[2]


Many liberal-minded people would have shared instinctively not only Sontag’s disgust but also her searing indictment of modern American culture. One of the merits of Errol Morris’s new documentary on the Abu Ghraib photographs, and even more of the excellent book written by Philip Gourevitch in cooperation with Morris, is that they complicate matters. What we think we see in the pictures may not be quite right. The pictures don’t show the whole story. They may even conceal more than they reveal. By interviewing most of the people who were involved in the photographic sessions, delving into their lives, their motives, their feelings, and their views, then and now, the authors assemble a picture of Abu Ghraib, the implications of which are actually more disturbing than Sontag’s cultural critique.

At first no one knew the dead man’s name. He was one of the “ghost prisoners,” brought into the “hard site” of Abu Ghraib by anonymous American interrogators, dressed in black, also known to the MPs as “ghosts.” These ghosts belonged to the OGA, Other Government Agency, which usually meant the CIA. Ghost prisoners were not formally registered before their interrogation in shower cubicles or other secluded parts of the prison. They disappeared as swiftly as they came, after the ghost interrogators were done with them. All that the MPs heard of their presence were screams in the night. If the Red Cross visited, the ghost prisoners were to be hidden away.

The man who would soon die arrived in the night before the photographs published in The New Yorker were taken, with a sandbag over his head, and nothing but a T-shirt on. MPs were told to shackle his hands to a window behind his back in “a Palestinian hanging position” (a technique allegedly used but certainly not invented by the Israelis). The man was breathing heavily. Then the MPs were dismissed. An hour or so later, they were called back in to help. The prisoner was no longer responding to questions. They hung him higher and higher, until his arms seemed at breaking point. Still no response. A splash of cold water. His hood was lifted. The MPs noticed that his face had been reduced to a bloody pulp. He had been dead for some time. The ghosts quickly left the scene. Medics were called in to clean up the mess, bandages were put over his puffed-up eyes, and the corpse was zipped into an ice-filled body bag and left in a shower room until it could be removed. The officer in charge of the MPs at Abu Ghraib, Captain Christopher Brinson, declared that the man had died of a heart attack.

Meanwhile, in the same prison block, another torment was taking place. Another nameless prisoner had been brought in, suspected of having killed an agent from the US Army’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID). He refused to divulge his name, so he was handed over to Specialist Charles “Chuck” Graner, an army reservist. Graner, a hulking mustachioed figure, seen laughing at the misery of Iraqi prisoners in many Abu Ghraib pictures, was not trained as an interrogator; nor did he have more than the vaguest idea of the rules and conventions that are supposed to guide interrogations. A corrections officer in civilian life, Graner enjoyed a “bad boy” reputation, with a taste for sinister pranks and an eye for the girls. He should never have been put in charge of terror suspects. He did not even have the security clearance to be a military policeman with custody over prisoners.

Nonetheless, Graner was put in charge of the nameless prisoner and told by CID agent Ricardo Romero to “make his life a living hell for the next three days and find out his name.” Graner did his best, aided by Sergeant Ivan Frederick and other members of their Maryland reserve unit who happened to be around and were equally untrained in interrogation work. The prisoner was stripped of his clothes, yelled at, made to crawl on the floor, deprived of sleep, forced to stand on a tiny box, hooked up to wires sticking from the wall and told he would die if he so much as moved. This last game lasted for about fifteen minutes, long enough for Graner to take his photographs.

Morris didn’t manage to interview Graner. He is still in a military prison. But other witnesses of what happened that night, such as Specialist Sabrina Harman, claim that not much harm was done to the prisoner they nicknamed “Gilligan.” She said that he ended up laughing at the Americans, and actually became a popular guy of sorts, being given the privilege of sweeping up the prison cells. “He was just a funny, funny guy,” she said. “If you were going to take someone home, I definitely would have taken him.”


Sabrina Harman also happens to be the young woman in the second picture, hunched over the corpse. Like Graner, she worked as a guard on the night shift at Abu Ghraib. Harman is described by other interviewees in Morris’s film as a sweet girl who, in the words of Sergeant Hydrue Joyner, “would not hurt a fly. If there’s a fly on the floor and you go to step on it, she will stop you.” The reason she joined the army was to pay for college. Her dream was to be a cop, like her father and brother. Not just a cop, but a forensic photographer. She loved taking pictures, with a special interest in death and decay. Another prison colleague, Sergeant Javal Davis, said: “She would not let you step on an ant. But if it dies, she’d want to know how it died.”

So when water started seeping out of the locked shower cell, and she and Graner uncovered the dead man in his body bag, her first instinct was to take pictures. She told Morris and Gourevitch that she

kind of realized right away that there was no way he died of a heart attack, because of all the cuts and blood coming out of his nose. You don’t think your commander’s going to lie to you about something. It made my trust go down, that’s for sure.

This is when Graner asked her to pose with the body. Harman adopted the pose she always did in photos, with her friends, with prisoners, in the morgue, and now in the shower: she grinned and stuck her thumb up.

Later, she returned to the same place alone, curious to find out more. She took off the gauze over the dead man’s eyes and “just started taking photos of everything I saw that was wrong, every little bruise and cut.” She realized how badly the man had been beaten up:

It looked like somebody had either butt-stocked him or really got him good, or hit him against the wall…. I just wanted to document everything I saw. That was the reason I took photos. It was to prove to pretty much anybody who looked at this guy, Hey, I was just lied to. This guy did not die of a heart attack. Look at all these other existing injuries that they tried to cover up.

In her interview with Morris, Harman looks rather impressive: intelligent, articulate, plausible. The interviews are actually more like monologues, for with rare exceptions Morris’s questions are never heard. His genius is to get people to talk, and talk, and talk, whether it is Robert McNamara in The Fog of War or Sabrina Harman in Standard Operating Procedure. The fact that he paid some of his interviewees for their time has been held against Morris by some critics. It seems of little importance. There is no reason to believe that cash changed their stories. If only the film had stuck to the interviews. Alas, they are spliced together with gimmicky visual reenactments of the scenes described in words, which take away from the stark air of authenticity. But perhaps that is Morris’s point. Authenticity is always elusive. Nothing can be totally trusted, not words, and certainly not images, so you might as well reimagine them.

But I think we are meant to believe that Harman is telling the truth. Her letters from Abu Ghraib to her lesbian partner, Kelly, suggest as much. On October 20, 2003, she wrote about a prisoner nicknamed “the taxicab driver,” naked, handcuffed backward to the bars of his cell, with his underwear over his face:

He looked like Jesus Christ. At first I had to laugh so I went on and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my asp and started “poking” at his dick. Again I thought, okay that’s funny then it hit me, that’s a form of molestation. You can’t do that. I took more pictures now to “record” what is going on.


Two pictures, then. The first one, of Gilligan and the electric wires, was analyzed by Brent Pack, a special forensic expert for the CID. After much thought, he concluded:

I see that as somebody that’s being put into a stress position. I’m looking at it and thinking, they don’t look like they’re real electrical wires. Standard operating procedure—that’s all it is.

He was technically right. A memo drawn up by the Pentagon’s general counsel, William J. Haynes, on November 27, 2002, recommending authorization of interrogation techniques in Category II—which included humiliation, sensory deprivation, and stress positions—was formally approved by the secretary of defense. Donald Rumsfeld even scribbled his famous quip at the bottom of this memo, stating: “However, I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours? D.R.”[3]

And yet this picture, more than any other, including the ones featuring attack dogs and wounded naked bodies, became the most notorious, an icon of American barbarism, the torture picture par excellence, perhaps because, as Gourevitch writes, it left so much to the imagination. That, and its evocation of the crucifixion, Christ at Abu Ghraib. And Sabrina Harman? She was sentenced to six months in prison, a reduction in rank to private, a forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a bad conduct discharge. None of the men who were responsible for her subject’s death were ever prosecuted. No one above the rank of sergeant was even tried. As Morris said in an interview to promote his film, Harman and her friends caught in the photographs

were punished for embarrassing the military, for embarrassing the administration. One central irony: Sabrina Harman was threatened with prosecution for taking pictures of a man who had been killed by the CIA. She had nothing whatsoever to do with the killing, she merely photographed the corpse. But without her photographs we would know nothing of this crime.

It was just another death of a ghost delivered by ghosts.

2.

Morris has been faulted for not pointing his finger more directly at people more senior than Harman, Graner, Frederick, or Lynndie England, Graner’s girlfriend at the time, who held the naked prisoner on a leash. But this is missing the point of the film. For it is not about Washington politics or administration lawyers, or at least not directly, but about a particular kind of concealment, the way photographs which seem to tell one story actually turn out to hide a much bigger story. Compared to what was really happening at Abu Ghraib, where men were tortured to death in hidden cells, where children were incarcerated with thousands of other prisoners, most of them blameless civilians, exposed to daily mortar attacks, living in unspeakable conditions of filth and squalor, where there was no way out even for men who had been declared innocent, where unarmed prisoners were shot dead by nervous guards—compared to all that, the photograph of Gilligan was just fun and games.

The first thing human beings do when the unspeakable becomes standard operating procedure is to change the words. Even the Nazis, who never seemed to have been unduly bothered by what they did, invented new words, usually of a cold bureaucratic nature, to conceal their crimes: “special treatment” and so on. In public, the US policy toward “security detainees” or “unlawful combatants,” to whom, according to White House and Pentagon lawyers, the Geneva Conventions did not apply, was couched in the kind of language favored by Vice President Dick Cheney: “We need to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our intelligence communities in terms of accomplishing their mission.”

The phrase “the gloves are coming off” gained currency. As in an e-mail, quoted by Gourevitch, sent to MI unit commanders in Iraq by Captain William Ponce of the Human Intelligence Effects Coordination Cell: “The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees. Col. Boltz”— Colonel Steven Boltz, the deputy MI commander in Iraq—”has made it clear that we want these individuals broken.” The likes of Harman, Graner, England, and Frederick were at the very bottom of the chain of command. They were told to “soften up” the prisoners, to make their lives hell. They should “treat the prisoners like dogs,” in the words of Major General Geoffrey Miller, commander of the prison and interrogation camp at Guantánamo Bay. He said this before the photographs were taken, during a visit to Abu Ghraib, where he felt the prisoners were treated too well. His methods, honed at Guantánamo, were soon adopted. One of Morris’s (or Gourevitch’s) more arresting ideas is that the photographs of the treatment meted out to the prisoners are evidence that the people who were ordered to take their gloves off, if you will, had not entirely lost their moral way. Gourevitch writes:

Even as they sank into a routine of depravity, they showed by their picture taking that they did not accept it as normal. They never fully got with the program. Is it not to their credit that they were profoundly demoralized by their service in the netherworld?

Credit is perhaps not the mot juste. Nazis who took pictures of naked women lined up in front of their own mass graves might not have considered the scene quite normal either, but this does not mean that they were not with the program. Heinrich Himmler was well aware that what he was asking from his SS men was not normal. That is why he told them to steel themselves against any feelings of humanity that would hamper them in their necessary task.

That Harman, for one, was often disgusted with what she saw at Abu Ghraib is indeed clear from her letters to her partner, Kelly. And even Graner, the baddest of the bad apples, was apparently taken aback when he was told by “Big Steve” Stefanowicz, a contract civilian interrogator, just how roughly prisoners were to be “broken.” Graner was reminded of 24, the popular television series, starring Kiefer Sutherland, about the necessity of using any means, including torture, to stop terrorists. Graner claims that he told Big Steve: “We don’t do that stuff, that’s all TV stuff.” Graner was surely unaware that 24 had actually been discussed in all seriousness at brainstorming sessions at Guantánamo led by the staff judge advocate, Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver. She recalled the mounting excitement among her male colleagues, including men from the CIA and the DIA, as different interrogation techniques were being bandied about. She told Philippe Sands, author of Torture Team: “You could almost see their dicks getting hard as they got new ideas.”


That was in Guantánamo, where ideas were hatched, noted on legal pads, recorded in memos, debated in air-conditioned offices. Now back to Graner in the filth, noise, and menace of constant violence in Abu Ghraib prison. As the authors point out, there is a kind of pornographic quality to many of the pictures which would indicate that Susan Sontag’s cultural critique was not entirely off beam.

The deliberate use of women, for example, in the humiliation of Arab prisoners is striking. Graner may have asked his girlfriend, Lynndie England, to pose for a picture holding a prisoner on a leash. This might have given him, and possibly her, an erotic frisson. And Sabrina Harman, too, is seen to have been a grinning accomplice in several of Graner’s pranks with naked prisoners. That is why she ended up being convicted. But in fact these games—some clearly staged for the camera as cruel photo-ops—were also part of the program. The women’s panties, the nudity in front of women, the poking of the genitals, the enforced simulation of sexual acts, were all part of the program. Graner was told in writing by his commander, Captain Brinson, that he was “doing a fine job.” He was told: “Continue to perform at this level and it will help us succeed at our overall mission.”

The MPs at Abu Ghraib, as Gourevitch rightly observes, knew little about Middle Eastern culture, but they were given “cultural awareness” training at Fort Lee, before being flown out to Iraq. They were told that sexual humiliation was the most effective way to “soften up” Arab detainees. A person does not have to be corrupted by the popular culture deplored by Susan Sontag to be vulnerable to feelings of pleasure when the sexual humiliation of others is officially sanctioned, even encouraged. Graner’s real sin for the administration was not that he went too far (which, measured by any moral yardstick, of course he did), but that he took pleasure in what should have been a grim job. As Dick Cheney said: “It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena.” Hard dicks should have been kept strictly out of sight, under conference tables. But Graner turned the dirty business into his own pornographic fantasies; and what is worse, he recorded them on film, for all the world to see.

Lynndie England played a walk-on part in these fantasies. She loved Graner. She would have done anything he wanted. That was her tragedy. England was sentenced to three years in a military prison for maltreating detainees. “All I did was what I was told to do,” she said, in the oldest defense of men and women landed with the dirty work. “I didn’t make the war. I can’t end the war. I mean, photographs can’t just make or change a war.”

Harman, too, acted out her fantasies, of being a forensic photographer, of recording death. As a result, she made the program public, and forced the president of the greatest power on earth to issue a public apology. As Morris says, in his interview: “Under a different set of circumstances, you could imagine Sabrina winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography.” Instead, she was charged not only with dereliction of duty and maltreatment, but with destroying government property and “altering evidence,” by removing the bandages from the dead man’s eyes. She told Morris: “When he died, they cleaned him all up, and then stuck the bandages on. So it’s not really altering evidence. They had already done that for me.” Since her pictures revealed the truth of this statement, these particular charges were eventually dropped.

Both Morris’s film and the book based on it by Gourevitch are devastating, even without going into detail about the complicity, or indeed responsibility, of top officials in the Bush administration. The photographs embarrassed the United States, to be sure. But for the US government, this embarrassment might have actually helped to keep far greater embarrassments from emerging into public view. Preoccupied by the pornography of Abu Ghraib, we have been distracted from the torturing and the killing that was never recorded on film and from finding out who the actual killers were. Moral condemnation of the bad apples turned out to be a highly useful alibi. By looking like a bunch of gloating thugs, “Chuck” Graner, Ivan Frederick, et al. made the law-yers, 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.

And Gilligan, by the way, was probably not the man anyone thought he was after all, but an innocent who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like up to 90 percent of the men and boys locked up in Abu Ghraib.

June 17, 2008 Posted by | Photography, Photojournalism, Photojournalism issues | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Venturing Into The Impossible

” Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Sir Arthur C Clarke

“Oh you are going to take pictures? Let me put on my sincere smile. Don’t manage it all the time.” He chuckled, as he stroked his belly. I should have been awed by a man who had propagated the idea of the geostationary satellite. Arthur C Clarke was the author of one of the most significant books on science fiction, and has inspired the names of lost dinosaurs and spacecraft. I had not been sure what to expect. But he quickly put me at ease. “I’ll protect you from Pepsi.” He said, stroking the Chihuahua that curled up on his lap. “He fought a hound.”
arthur-c-clarke-bw-2482.jpg Sir Arthur C Clarke who died early morning on the 19th March 2008 at a hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since the 1950s. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I turned up at the designated time of 9:00 am at 25 Barnes Place in Colombo 7. I remember peering curiosly at the satellite dish through the bushes. Not too many people had a VSAT in their back garden in those days. Fittingly, it was the year 2001. I was in Colombo conducting a workshop for World Press Photo. I had also hoped to photograph Chandrika for my story “Women Leaders of South Asia”. It was going to be a busy trip. These are the times when you mobilise your friends into action. My friend Nalaka Gunawardene had arranged the appointment with Clarke. Chulie de Silva had finally pegged down an appointment with Chandrika. Sir Clarke was skeptical about my prospects for photographing the president. “Do you think she’ll see you at 4:30?” He said and then went into this funny tale of how Chandrika was always late, and always charming, going into great detail on the vegetarian meal the former president had served that day. The Science Fiction visionary was also good at short term predictions. Soon before the appointment, Chandrika’s secretary called to express her regrets.

He was childlike in his enthusiasm and insisted that I read the book on Polar bears he had just been given. Then he brought out the email by his friend Swarch the holography expert who had sent him 3D images, “including some nudes” he mischievously added. Then came out the hardback copy of Lionel Went’s book with original prints. The conversation flew in all directions. Blue and green lasers. Stereo images. Aerial photography. His ISDN connection. The Video Live Link which he’d used to communicate with Japan’s head of IT. “Must get Nalaka to get all these photographs scanned by you,” he said as he brought out piles of 35mm Kodachromes. We were like kids in a junk shop. It was hard to imagine that I was with the octogenarian king of Sci Fi as this genial man scurried around his large library. “Don’t go to the swimming club,” he suddenly said out of the blue. “It’s only for the posh. Until recently they didn’t allow natives.” I was flattered by the camaraderie.

arthur-c-clarke-on-computer-02.jpg

Sir Clarke at his computer in the library at his residence at 25 Barnes Place, Colombo 7. Sri Lanka. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Nalaka had asked me not to tire him too much, so I didn’t push the picture taking, instead we played that morning. Our workshop was taking place at the Galle Face Hotel. On the last day of the workshop, all I had was a public lecture. The flight was at night, so I had some free time. I had just walked out of the hotel onto the nearby roundabout when this red Mercedes pulled up. Sir Clarke wanted me to go with him to his club. I watched him play a vicious game of table tennis. Then we went back to Barnes Place and of course I took some more pictures. “Glad I won both games,” said a playful Clarke.

clarke-playing-table-tennis-03.jpg

Sir Clarke playing table tennis at his local club in Colombo. Sri Lanka. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

There were things we never got to talk about. His failed marriage. The Sunday Mirror accusation that he was a paedophile. He was cleared in the formal investigation and The Sunday Mirror later printed a retraction. He was to receive his knighthood from the Prince of Wales during the prince’s visit to Sri Lanka, but Clarke had felt it would be inappropriate given the scandals. He was made a Knight Bachelor later, on May 26, 2000.

Here was a man who had consistently come up with some of the most innovative ideas in modern telecommunications. The technologies he foretold have become integral parts of modern living. His stories have inspired entire generations. In 2001: A Space Odyssey as the supercomputer HAL is being switched off, with his logic completely gone, HAL begins singing the song Daisy Bell. One might see this as speech synthesis, but Clarke saw it as that twilight zone between humans and machine, as the human face of artificial intelligence. Nalaka and I were scared of losing the author’s insight. Despite having written over 100 books, and published over 1000 articles, the anecdotes, the wit, enormous wealth of knowledge, the joy of life of this remarkable man would disappear with him. This was the man who had believed, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” Despite his youthfulness, he was getting old, and both of us knew the clock was ticking. He had wanted me to scan the photographs. We wanted to peer into his mind, for the stories behind the images.

Last year, while I was in Sri Lanka for another assignment, Nalaka arranged for another photo shoot. A slightly more official one. Pepsi had died. At ninety Clarke could no longer play table tennis. But his mind was as sharp as ever. That was the last photo shoot that Sir Arthur was to feature in.

clark-with-dinosaur-2402-600-px.jpg

Sir Clarke with a dinosaur . Sri Lanka. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

clarke-with-globe-2494-600px.jpg

Sir Clarke with globe. Sri Lanka. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

nehru-jacket-profile-arthur-c-clarke-2431.jpg

Sir Clarke had put on his favourite Nehru jacket for this photograph at his residence at 25 Barnes Place, Colombo 7. Sri Lanka. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I had asked him for two autographs. One for my friend Maarten of World Press Photo and one for my mother. My regret was not that I didn’t have one for myself, but that like so many unfinished projects, the stories behind those photographs he had wanted me to scan, will never now be told.

But the world will remember his magic.

March 19, 2008 Posted by | My Photo Essays | , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Freedom

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

Rooms it had eight
And doors it had nine
Windows betwixt you find
Up above the glittering hall
Mirrors might make you blind

What fate alas makes bird do thus
Caged bird breaks free to fly
Of bamboo raw the cage I saw
This mind of mine still longs oh so
Lalon Fakir cries as he sees with his eyes
The cage wither and go*

The body, the soul, the self, the universe, Lalon saw freedom not as an entity outside oneself, but as a lived experience. Within yet afar. Ephemeral but tactile. With wings but encaged.

New forms of slavery form new forms of chains. Violence suffered in silence. Ancestral land commandeered. Resistance made illegal.

What mask does freedom now wear? Freedom to profit is the new elixir. Freedom to reach distant markets, to exploit cheap labour. The word that takes us to such dizzying heights leaves the deepest of wounds with its loss. ‘Foreign’ sounding names, ‘wrong’ coloured skin, ‘different’ passports, circumscribe our new freedoms.

Going beyond walls built to occupy territory. Beyond bombs dropped to coerce the unarmed. Beyond cells built to hold the other. Artists paint with colours that don’t exist. Write with words as yet un-invented. Photograph where light is yet to reach. The cage. The door. The wing. The soul. Freedom.

Shahidul Alam
Festival Director
Chobi Mela V

We invite photographers working in the fields of photojournalism, fine art, conceptual or any other field of photography, to interpret the theme “Freedom” in the widest sense possible. Submissions may be made online from 1st March 2008 through to 31st May 2008. Selections will be made by 15th June 2008. Final work must be submitted by 31st July 2008. Festival opens 6th November 2008. Submission guidelines will be available online.

*Translation by Shahidul Alam from “khachar bhitor ochin pakhi” by Lalon Shah.

February 16, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Photography | , , , , | 3 Comments