Sunday, November 16, 2008

Chobi Mela Files postscript

This blog was centred around my very short trip to Dhaka for the Chobi Mela photojournalism festival in 2006. The organisation that I worked for in Sydney, Australian Centre for Photography, had an exhibition in the festival by Australian Photographer, Trent Parke. The exhibition was called Minutes to Midnight and was shown at the Bengal Gallery in the Dhanmondi district of Dhaka. Chobi Mela is a festival organised by a contemporary arts organisation and gallery called DRIK. For more information on Chobi Mela, go to For more information on Drik, go to For more information on Australian Centre for Photography, go to

Monday, November 13, 2006

Friday 10 November: Cutting the ribbon on M2M

I'm back in Sydney now, trying to get my stomach to re-adjust to green leafy vegetables and coffee. Before my memory fades too much I need to get my last two days with Chobi Mela blogged and posted!

After a car ride back to Dhanmondi from old Dhaka, we started Friday at the Bengal Gallery with lightboxes to hang, labels to stick-up and Trent’s interview with the Daily Star journalist, Kavita Charanji ( Kavita has a very thorough journalistic style, and followed Trent around the exhibition while he talked to her in-depth about the photographs and how they were made.

After labelling and tweaking the frames in the space (and fiddling with one lightbox that thought it was a disco strobe), Trent and I departed for the hotel for much-needed sleep and curry nourishment.

On the way though, we came across this scandalous headline in The Independent!

Ah, yet another demonstration of the tricks of photography.

The opening of Trent’s exhibition was a very ritzy affair with speeches by Dr Shahidul Alam, Trent Parke, Bengal Gallery Director Subir Choudhury, and Australian High Commissioner, Douglas Foskett. The High Commissioner and Trent were kind enough to hold this pose so that I could take the only decent photo I have shot on my entire trip to Dhaka. I think it is quite expressive and dynamic (not at all blurry or out of focus).

The show was a hit with the local audience and visiting photographers, and Trent gave an informal floortalk to the High Commissioner and his wife, and to all those within earshot.

It seems to be a great tradition in Bangladesh to break for tea and cake during such events, so after taking photographs of the crowd, I hung-out with Chulie de Silva (not “Julie” as I had first heard) and – revitalised by refreshment – we headed-off to the Goethe institute for the next series of talks.

Chulie works for the World Bank and has an amazing personal story of surviving the Boxing Day Tsunami. Her account of the disaster can be accessed via the World Bank website on in their news and events section.

Friday 10 November: Into old Dhaka

Friday 10 November: Float on, first light

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!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Thursday 9 November: First, a photography lesson

I haven't been able to get to my computer for ages, so for the next few hours I'll be writing my diary entries for the last two days, which have been eventful, to say the least.

But first kids, a small lesson in photography.

Below you will see a photograph taken by me using my Canon PowerShot A640 of a dragonfly hanging-out by a flourescent light.

And below, you will see the same scene photographed by Trent Parke using the same camera on the same setting.

There endeth the lesson.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Wednesday 8 November: Crash landing, then taking-off

My day started really early with a call from Trent Parke at about 3am. I had finished publishing my last post at about 2am and in the hour between had been savaged brutally by many mosquitoes. Trent was stuck at the airport having not been met by anyone from the hotel and was duly concerned about being the last man standing, facing-off about 15 taxi drivers and many more hangers-on who wanted-in on a ride to the city.

I phoned reception to let them know that Trent was on his way, but was stirred again about 30 minutes later by a ruckus outside the gate. Whatever it was, I thought, I’d better bring my wallet and my phone. To cut a long story short, there had been a mix-up with the bookings and Trent ended-up having to stay the night at another hotel around the corner, which I was later to hear, evoked certain unpleasant memories of Calcutta in the mid-nineties.

But Trent Parke is a robust sort of fellow whose marvelous constitution allowed him to join us for breakfast at The Ambrosia in the morning. Laughs and sweet tea all round. By this time though, he was lunging at mosquitoes like an attack dog. Robert Pledge emerged from his room in fine form and appeared completely relaxed about his next 24 hours at the National Museum. A cool dude is Robert Pledge. We were joined by Reza and also Violet, a journalist from the Philippines (whose luggage had been accidentally redirected to Arizona) and made our various ways to DRIK.

No wonder things get crazy here at night time. We’re living on the hell-mouth, people!! I can’t believe I didn’t notice this before! (That one was for “Buffy” fans only, sorry)

Fortunately, the beginning of the day didn’t set a template for the rest of it. Hanging the work at the Bengal Gallery with their lovely staff was fast, efficient and punctuated by a couple of rounds of lovely Bengali tea. I am happy to say that all but two of the works in the show are now hung, and Trent and I await the delivery of these lightboxes tomorrow morning. I revisited the Bengali restaurant that Khairul took me to earlier in the week with Trent for lunch, and we prepared ourselves for the press conference at DRIK at 4pm.

“Ten days ago, our city was in flames”, Shahidul reminded the audience during the press conference. And it’s true that Chobi Mela has come together as a stimulating program of exhibitions, events, lectures and workshops, through extraordinarily adverse circumstances. Trent and several other artists, as well as participants from other organisations and fields of endeavour (including myself) spoke to the crowd about our particular interest in attending the festival.

For me Chobi Mela is not only a festival that celebrates photojournalism but also challenges photojournalists and photographers to look at their practice from another place and another viewpoint. It also takes the work of internationally renowned artists to the streets, outside the exclusive zones of museums and galleries. It is therefore fitting that the theme of the fesival is "Boundaries". It is not easy to show this work here in Dhaka, either fiscally, practically or politically and yet it happens through the work of so many artists, workers, volunteers and supporters.

I have just arrived back from a function at the Australian High Commission in Gulshan. Gulshan is a suburb that looks like it’s quite close-by on the map, but being Dhaka and heavily congested with traffic, we found ourselves embarrassingly late by over half an hour (as almost comatose from the carbon monoxide we inhaled on the city’s fly-over).

The AHC and especially the Deputy Commissioner, Richard Rogers have been incredibly helpful with assisting Minutes To Midnight on it’s passage from Australian Centre for Photography to Bangladesh. After being here these few days, I fully realise how essential this support has been to the exhibition. Richard is a pretty easy-going bloke who shared a lot of interesting stories about his work in Dhaka, his moves from diplomatic posts in Perth, Adelaide, then Canberra, as well as the trials of recently contracting dengue fever which he described as a “a week in hell” and (less unpleasantly) of working a “10 kilo post”, which of course refers to the amount of weight that one gains eating a diet that consists of mainly Bengali curry and therefore, ghee, for three years.

Besides taking care of Australian and Bengali relations, the High Commission also runs aid and cultural programs in the country. Trent and I met a former photographer, Peter (have to look-up that second name again!) who coordinates one of these programs with street kids. The High Commissioner, Douglass Foskett gave a great speech congratulating Trent on his work and also acknowledged the work of invited artists and arts workers from Bangladesh who were present at the function – many of whom had already exhibited in Australia.

A cool little, hand-painted, natural gas CNV to say goodnight.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tuesday 7 November: Portfolios at Pathshala

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.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Monday 6 November: Situation under control

Well, it turns out I’m a bit of an ignoramus when it comes to politics in Bangladesh (and Australia for that matter). The caretaker government here are currently preparing for a general election which will then decide the next government. At the end of October, the BNP government collapsed after 100 leaders left to join another party, the Liberal Democratic Party. So the new party is going to stand against the BNP and the other major political parties in the next election, due in January. Adding to this, the Awami League have not accepted the caretaker government. If Chobi Mela had been scheduled earlier, I don’t think we international visitors would have been able to get into the country.

In other news, French head-butter Zinedine Zidane has arrived in Dhaka to rebuild his profile as a caring, sharing sort of fellow, Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to death by hanging, and Bangladesh is now the number one supplier of denim clothing to Europe. Now that’s something to think about when you’re contemplating your next pair of Tsubis, fashionistas.

Today I felt like a bit of a fifth wheel at DRIK and everyone looked a little more frazzled. I accompanied Robert Pledge to the office and asked Reza a few questions about the installation. There is a problem at the National Museum because the caretaker government has made Tuesday a holiday, so being bureaucrats, the museum staff naturally can’t come in to work. So Robert is also naturally a bit concerned about the turnaround time for the installation of Contact Press’ show. When I left he was working with Reza and other members of the team towards ironing-out a few issues about the space before they get into it on Wednesday.

The framed works for Trent’s show are due to arrive at DRIK tonight, by “midnight express” as Robert commented, and we could possibly start to install the work tomorrow. Reza (who is being incredibly helpful, despite all of the stress around him) is using phrases like “the situation is in control” and then running around talking to multiple staff at once and answering two phones that never stop ringing. I am wholly assured by his affirmations…not! In Bengali, you use nā at the end of a sentence to make it a negative. So you can sound like a Valley Girl if you leave enough of a pause. Āmi bānglā jāni… nā!

So I took a walk back to Ambrosia via some main streets and I’m plucking up the courage for a solo shopping adventure early morning.