Letter from Dhaka

By    Friday March 14, 2008

Here at the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, the internet is up sometimes, down at others. But having a connection in my room is an enormous luxury in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I count my blessings, hold my breath and double click: the system is working.

I first came to Dhaka in 2002 to report on the Chobi Mela Photography Festival, held by Drik, the pioneering Bangladeshi photo agency. The second edition of Asia's first international photo festival, it was an ambitious, improvised, and ultimately thrilling event. The organizers didn't surmount all the challenges inherent in mounting a four-week-long photo festival in one of the world's poorest countries; they rolled with them.

For example, when customs officials inexplicably impounded a set of exhibition prints at the airport, the maestro of Chobi Mela, Shahidul Alam, borrowed photos from a sympathetic international aid organization and hung them until the captive pictures were released. He routinely pressed guests like myself into service as exhibition installers, lecturers, and proofreaders, to take up the slack.

I came back this time to do a video news story on Pathshala, the educational arm of Drik. The school, which opened in 1998, grew out of a three-year collaboration between Drik and World Press Photo. Ten years later, under the direction of Alam and the staff, the school runs a range of programs, including a 3-year B.A. in photography.

Left: Young girl on the steps of the Rose Garden, a late 19th-century mansion in Old Dhaka that is now a popular as film location. Right: An ecstatic family celebrating Holi, the springtime festival of colors. Photos: Munem Wasif.

"Photography is very much linked to social movements here, " says Alam. "Because the state had forgotten the majority of the people, Bangladeshis now look upon the photographer as the person who tells their stories. We have very important role, a great responsibility and a strong belief that critical thinking leads to social change." And photography is particularly suited to Bangaldesh, a country where fewer than 50% of people 15 and older are literate, but which is saturated with all manner of images through movies and photos.

Over the years Drik has had several serious encounters with authority and with the nebulous powers-that-be: its phone lines have been cut, and Alam himself was stabbed in 1996 by assailants who were never apprehended. But Drik and Pathshala kept going. However, Bangladeshi journalists are routinely punished for reporting on corruption, which has been a persistent problem since the country was founded in 1971. Today, the school and the photo agency behind it remain committed to producing thinking image makers who can tackle topics vital to Bangladeshis.

Photographer, Pathshala instructor (and graduate) Munem Wasif, 25, was just named one of PDN's 30 emerging photographers. "Nobody will cover the aftermath of Cyclone Sidr," which devastated parts of Bangladesh last year, says Wasif. "When a cyclone hits, most will go for two days, and after that, the news is finished. Nobody's interested." But that's when the real story begins for him, he says. "It's the fight of our people after this flood, after this storm" that he focuses on, the essential human story behind the immediate and obvious tragedy.

Instructor Din Muhammad Shibly, another Pathshala graduate, says that judging from articles and news report in the Western media over the years, "all the world knows that Bangladesh is a poor country. But it's much more than that," Shibly asserts. Outsiders tend to photograph the symptoms of the nation's poverty - the trash pickers and rail-thin rickshaw drivers of Dhaka - he says, without understanding, much less exploring, the context.

Left: A survivor of floods in northern Bangladesh that inundated 1.5 million acres of crops; destroyed over 89,000 homes; killed more than 500; and uprooted more than 9.5 million people. Photo: Abir Abdullah/Drik. Right: Shahra Khatun on the balcony of the government-allotted house inside the refugee camp for stateless Pakistani Biharis where she has lived for 36 years. Photo: Andrew Biraj.

Naeem Mohaiemen, an interdisciplinary artist who has collaborated with Drik, places less emphasis on the East/West divide. "I think even the question of the ‘Western lens' can be debated," Mohaiemen says. "The Western lens on Bangladesh is also changing as a result of Drik, so it's actually in some ways impossible for outsiders to shoot those kind of photos today."

Instead, Mohaiemen focuses on what is happening now: Bangladeshi photographers like Wasif, Abdullah, Andrew Biraj, GMB Akash, and Shahidul Alam himself regularly work for international publications. But perhaps more tellingly, in recent years increasing numbers of Westerners have come to Asia and stayed. "I see this mass migration of Westerners to Asia, not to take stories back, but to be in Asia," he says. "I don't just mean Bangladesh, but this entire Asian area, because there's a lot more action going on here."

Brian Palmer is a journalist and filmmaker based in New York. He has written for national publications including Newsday, Newsweek International, Aperture, Fortune, The New York Times Magazine, US News & World Report, and Entertainment Weekly. He is completing his first feature-length documentary based on several embeds in Iraq with a US Marine combat unit.