I woke up today feeling terrified. I must have had a nightmare that crept into my waking life just a little. It’s exhilarating to be here though, and I guess that the flipside to that kind of heightened emotion is fear. Just walking to Drik and back to the hotel gets the heart racing, but I’m gradually getting more accustomed to the sights and sounds of Dhaka.
Today I called Reza to see if I could scam my way into Robert Pledge’s car for a lift to Drik, but instead Robert and I were met by the lovely Snigdha Zaman (who can be seen in the photo below with Robert and Reza). Snigdha is a photographer involved in organising the workshops for Chobi Mela that take place at Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography. So Snigdha hailed us a couple of rickshaw, and we were off.
As Trent’s images had not yet arrived from the framer, and the public holiday decreed that the gallery was closed anyway, I was offered the opportunity to accompany Snigdha and Robert to Pathshala where Robert was already running late for a portfolio review with eight 3rd year photography students. So back on the rickshaw we clambered and made haste.
Going to this portfolio review at Pathshala turned-out to be an eye-opening experience for me. Robert has a very generous way of approaching reviews, which is not to say that the work required his generosity, but rather that he set-up a platform for open discussion about practice in general. He made personal enquiries about each photographer, their perspective, why they were interested in taking photographs and what drove them and influenced the decisions that they made. Many of the students hadn’t yet questioned why they were taking the path they were on with photography, so I think that the session will have some longer-term effects down the track.
The review was such and education for me mainly because of the kind of subjects these young photographers were tackling in Bangladesh and the issues that they now face with their practice. All of the students were men, and mostly in their mid-twenties. About 5 of the 8 were employed as feature article photographers for newspapers in Dhaka. They have to work pretty hard for their money, with 5 or 6 assignments to complete each day. On top of this they have no expectation that any of their personal projects will ever see the light of day in journals and other publications because there aren’t any that would be interested in touching the work (and there aren’t really any around in the first place).
One of the photographers, whose first name is Oviek (I have to get Snigdha to send me the list of names) has, for the last few years taken photographs along the banks of the Buriganga River. At first, I thought he had taken a series of photographs of a boating catastrophe, but as the slideshow progressed I realised that what he was in fact documenting, was daily life on the Buriganga. The river is shown to be full of life as well as death. Survival and pleasure are juxtaposed in this series. Robert was keen to encourage Oviek to explore the diaristic side of his practice and involve himself more in the narrative and with the people he meets.
Another photographer was looking at the institutional care of disabled people in hospitals in Bangladesh, while another examined the living conditions and the trials of Bangladesh’s indigenous people against the government. One student, who has been selected to exhibit in the Chobi Mela festival, had traveled to a Burmese refugee camp to take photographs of the kind of life people live there as well as interview its inhabitants. In one quotation, the Burmese camp’s leader asked him (from memory, so I may have this slightly wrong) “…don’t just scratch this down and leave us like others have done before you.” Perhaps a chilling caution against using the disadvantaged merely as photojournalistic fodder. Throughout the portfolio review, Robert asked all the photographers, “What are you doing it for?” and “Why?” These are important questions not only for the students in the room, but for anyone who picks-up a camera with the intention of representing, documenting or illuminating struggle in our world.
What also came to light in the review session was that many of the students had decided to take-up photography as a direct result of seeing the first Chobi Mela festival which centred around photographs of Bangladesh’s fight for independence in 1971. The importance of Bangladesh’s independence and the survival of the Bengali language was something that many of the students individually expressed during their presentations. The first Chobi Mela festival was five years ago, so the fact that these men have become such accomplished image makers in that time is pretty amazing, as well as being a credit to Pathshala as a school.
In case you can't read the sign, it says "Please leave your excuses in the bin before entering the classroom".
After the review, we all posed for photographs in the Pathshala courtyard and grabbed a quick bite to eat. Then I accompanied Snigdha to her office where she runs a photographic studio and editing facility. The company that she and her colleagues own is called IKON, and they also do commercial photographic work. There I stayed for a lovely cup of sweet Bengali tea and we were off again.
After dropping into DRIK to pick up Julie (second name’s gone again!! I’ll update later) who had just arrived in town, we headed-off to do some late-night shopping – first and last opportunity before the installation of Minutes to Midnight tomorrow. After a whirlwind tour of Arrong shopping centre and a few crazy rides in various rickshaw, I arrived back at the hotel only to realise I’d made some pretty heinous fashion decisions. I don’t know how this has happened, but I think I’m going to rock-up to the grand opening of Chobi Mela looking like Jemima from Playschool. I selected a yellow and purple outfit with two kinds of stripes (the voice in the back of my head was saying “You’re in your thirties, choose the black, choose the black”, but I didn’t listen). Julie, on the other hand selected some rather glamourous sari out of a fully comprehensive range.