Saturday, November 11, 2006

Thursday 9 November: 24 hour party people

Thursday was a big day. The opening street march, opening ceremony, Contact Press Images at the National Museum, talks at the Goethe Institute and finally a night-long boat ride down the river. So we flew around on rickshaw and jumped into cars between venues, braving the heinous traffic and street blockades to get across town.

Lots and lots and lots of photographs were taken today. I think that Robert Pledge and Shahidul Alam may have surpassed even Bettie Page’s record for being captured on film.

It all started-off quietly enough though. Trent and I sauntered over from DRIK to the Bengal Gallery where we waited for the arrival of a journalist from the Daily Star (Bangladesh’s main English language newspaper) to arrive for an interview. And we waited and adjusted the frames on the walls until we got a call from the journalist to say that she wouldn’t be able to make it until tomorrow morning.

So, Trent and I sauntered down the road to the shops where we thought we might pick-up some gifts and possibly some lunch. As we walked, the traffic started to dissipate and a couple of hundred male protesters holding banners ran around the corner in front of us. All of the shops and restaurants had their security grilles locked down. Being a wuss, I started to make some noises about it possibly being a bad idea to continue walking in the same direction as the protesters. Trent assured me, “Don’t worry, mate” that there would be plenty of time to “duck for cover” if anything happened. He was saying this around the time that we walked past a blockade of the main road, manned by police wearing riot gear. Nothing happened, but safe to say, we took to the back streets after finishing our shopping.

Later though, we joined a far more celebratory demonstration outside the front of the National Museum, all clad in our white Chobi Mela t-shirts. Up and down the street, the brass band played. We marched and clapped, while the younger generation of photographers went a bit wild, sending Shahidul crowd-surfing across a wave of their bodies.

Unfortunately, everyone forgot to bring their cameras. Not!

That's me with the band.

Inside the museum, the official opening ceremony took place in the auditorium I photographed last Saturday. It included speeches by Dr Shahidul Alam, Australian High Commissioner Douglas Foskett, Robert Pledge, Trent and advisors to the caretaker government (I have to find the names again!!). I can’t describe the frenzy of photography around this event. I can show you a picture though. Trent likened it to the kind of media ruckus you get around the Prime Minister of Australia during election time.

Two lifetime achievement awards were presented during the ceremony, one to one of Bangladesh’s most well respected photographers. The award also takes the form of a scholarship program assisting a rural photographer to come to Dhaka to study.

We were released from the theatre into the extraordinary exhibition of Contact Press Images. The exhibition marks thirty years of Contact Press Images, but it’s not a retrospective as such. Robert has selected 30 key, important images in reportage, one for each year that the organisation has been operating and the contact sheet from which the image was selected. The contact sheets are huge (about 1.2m x 2m each) and they form the main component of the exhibition. Besides being a real treat (one doesn’t usually get to see the images that are taken before and after the one photograph we get to see in journals and magazines) the exhibition would seem to be in keeping with the broader philosophy that Robert revealed during the review with Pathshala students. The exhibition shows individual process, personal stories and something more about the nature of photojournalism. It reveals the frailties and the dangers of the practice, the way that photographers come to take particular images – some sense of a thought-process and deliberation, as well as the subjective decision-making process of editing a single frame from a body of work. A very cool show that was also accompanied by another selection of key colour work by photographers from the agency.

After the crowds vanished, we traveled to the Goethe Institute for the first in a series of talks expanding on ideas around photography and of photographic practice. The first was centred around archival practices and included a talk by Robert Pledge (they’re really working this man hard, I tell you!) on Li Zhensheng and the book he put together with Li called Red-Colour News Soldier published by Phaidon few years ago. Li’s archive as a news photographer during the Cultural Revolution was literally buried underneath his home as a deliberate act to preserve and protect not only his photographs and the moments that they documented, but also the newspapers of the time and his self-portraiture. The work and scope of the project is quite extraordinary. Being something of a lazy student of Mandarin and Chinese history, I have previously done a bit of study into China during this period and also the initiatives of the Great Leap Forward that occurred in the decade before the Cultural Revolution, and I find it so amazing that Li was able to survive it all intact. He even took his camera to the reeducation camp he was eventually sent to.

The next presenter was Jose Maria M Cruz talked about his own project of digitizing the lost archive of the Manila Times which was shut-down in 1972 when President Marcos declared the Philippines to be under martial law. He is working his way through 638,000 images covering the period 1947 – 1972. Jose is focusing on trying to reconnect images to stories and make the works available somehow online – a mammoth task. Then, using some images from the archive, he made some great demonstrations of the gap between illusion and reality when images are selected, edited and manipulated before they go to press. British lawyer and photographer Rupert Grey followed Jose by expanding upon some of the copyright issues that can be raised when dealing with archives and the steps that photographers can take to protect their work when dealing with newspapers and agencies.

This part of the evening finished with Yang Xiaogang on the explosion of photography in China and the courses that he is running at Daishan University with the university of Bolton in England (I may have some names wrong here, so apologies to all involved if this is the case).

Later: taking a boat from old Dhaka
The final part of the day was to last all night as we boarded a rather large, metal vessel at the port of Dhaka and floated down the river. There was food (of course!), singing and dancing to be had. I was the first on the dance floor strutting my stuff, I am happy to say, but it took a while for the young crew of Pathshala students and Drik emloyees and volunteers to join the melee. The entertainers were an amazing group of Bangla musicians, singing songs that drove the crowd wild!

By the end of the night, Shahidul was surrounded by cheering fans as he performed what looked like a Bangla version of Swan Lake (I’m sure it has a longer, more ancient history than ballet though).

The trip back to port is for another post though, perhaps a photo essay!

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