With Photography as My Guide: After entering the world of photography quite by accident, a Bangladeshi visual journalist learned the techniques needed to make a living shooting portraits and accepting ad work. But it was as a protestor on the street, camera in hand, that the storyteller inside him began to surface.
Jimmy Christian was a director of Lock-woods Constructions, the company I worked for. He was a jovial chap who loved his job. Jimmy would wear a felt cap and have a pencil stuck on his ear. He was a carpenter, and being director of a big company didn't stop him from working with the rest of us, his hammer and his plane at the ready. We'd lunch together, have a drink at the pub together. There, apart from those racist digs (never from him), which were not limited to the building site, we were equals. One would never have known Jimmy was a director of the company.
Both the racism and the egalitarianism were important lessons that have guided me. The manual labor served its purpose: paying my way through university. I took on a research teaching position in London, which included studying for a PhD in organic chemistry. That was when I joined the Workers' Party and actively engaged in campaigns against racism and sexism and took to the streets in support of Lech Watesa. Those were heady times, and we felt we could change the world.
I entered the world of photography by accident. Freddie Laker had introduced the first budget airline, Laker Airways. A London to New York flight cost 90 [pounds sterling] on the skytrain. As a poor student, I felt this was my big chance to go to the US. The dollar was low, and the US was a good place to buy cameras, so a friend suggested I buy him one. This was before B&H, but there were still Jewish shops that provided the best deals. I purchased a Nikon FM, a couple of lenses, a flashgun, and a rickety tripod. With a sleeping bag and a tent on my back, I proceeded to hitchhike across the US and Canada. Of course I took pictures. Upon my return to London, my friend explained he had no money. I got stuck with the camera.
Being a research chemist did have some benefits. I could follow the guide for idiots in the darkroom, and though I didn't understand what contrast meant or what a "good black" was, it was easy to mix chemicals, and get the temperature right, and be precise about exposure and development. I was soon developing my own film and making competent prints. The chemistry knowledge also helped me find cheaper alternatives to proprietary chemicals and tweak things to get interesting results. My images weren't great, but they were original, so my work got noticed. I also provided darkroom services for a fee, which supported my own photography. I'd buy expired film and paper and knew what to do with outdated chemicals to still get acceptable results. So my photographic education cost me little. I devoured the books in the library, and would often go out on a "shoot" without film in my camera. Even with an empty camera, there was a joy to taking pictures.
Joining the local camera club introduced me to the world of salon photography. I made technically sound pictures that followed all the "rules" of composition. Images were judged on their adherence to these values, so it was a simple affair to win contests. Knowing what the judges wanted and reproducing them to perfection was an easy formula for success. Then came the more challenging task of making a living. The Young Rascals studio provided simple equipment and a basic formula. I would stop people with children, set up an appointment, and go to their homes to take smiling pictures of the kids. A reasonably well-exposed, more or less in-focus enlargement of a happy child was something few parents could resist. So I made a good living and, more importantly, learned the basic skills of running a business. The awards fed the ego, and the money filled my pocket, but the soul still yearned for the photographs I wanted to take--the ones that would make a difference, would make people care about issues that mattered.
So I headed back to Bangladesh, to an uncertain but exciting future. The initial years were, in some ways, uneventful. Since I had no credentials as a photojournalist, the only paid work I could get was doing corporate and advertising work. It paid well and honed my skills but still left me yearning for that elusive work that would feed the soul.
The opportunity came without my knowing it. Hussain Mohammad Ershad was a military general who had taken over power. As a protestor in the streets, I was photographing our struggle for democracy. I had a camera in my hands and was documenting my movement. No commissions, no deadlines, no budgets, just raw passion and as much freedom as the military would allow me.
My photography was changing, too. The need for making pretty pictures for the sake of making them had gone. Freed of the commercial need for making things look good, I began showing things as they were--capturing uncertainties, fleeting moments, relationships of power and love. The storyteller in me began to surface. The camera was merely a step along the path.
Ershad clung to power, and the resistance peaked and ebbed. Noor Hossain had painted on his chest, "Let Democracy Be Freed." He was one of several who died of police bullets. We received death threats, our flat was raided, and on 4 December 1990, when friends warned me that I was being hunted, we left our flat to go to the house of my partner's brother. That was the night the general announced he was stepping down. We joined the jubilant crowds in the streets. Shimul Billa, the Bangladeshi Shirley Temple, now a well-known artist, sang under the streetlamps in the early hours of the morning. The words were strangely prophetic: bichar poti tomar bichar korbe jara, aj jegeche ei jonota (O judge, today is the day of your judgment. The people have risen).
The euphoria of a people's victory did lead to a fair and free election. I photographed a woman casting a vote in a makeshift ballot booth. I saw her avenging Noor Hossain's death. Then came the realization that a fair and free election did not in itself guarantee a democracy. The new government proved as autocratic as the general before. I was a bit scared when I sent out an open letter to the prime minister, in protest against the use of national TV as a state propaganda tool. The new government didn't take kindly to dissidents. I needn't have cared. It simply ignored the letter.
The people's movement to bring down an autocratic general would have been of interest to the West had we been an oil-rich country or important for some other reason. Back in the 1980s, no one cared about Bangladesh. In 1991 we had a massive cyclone. Suddenly, members of the Western media were all over us, their appetites insatiable. The image of the starving Bangladeshi with outstretched arms with the white man as the savior was the image they craved. My battle had just begun.
We dared to question. The New York Times was a big customer: prestige, plus dollar payments. But we insisted that the pictures they had asked for were not telling the story as it was. We provided alternatives, and I remember our collective satisfaction when the Sunday review of the New York Times had a story by us across its entire back page. There were pictures of people rebuilding their boats, farmers planting seeds, medical workers providing care. It was the only story on the cyclone we'd come across that didn't dwell on bodies, that showed strength rather than evoking pity.
The Drik agency by then was well on its way. We appropriated conventional tools using postcards, posters, and calendars to get our message out. Long before people had heard of CSR, our fight for social justice became our hallmark, and everything we did revolved around that cause. We didn't only take photographs. We used language, coining the term "Majority World" as we found the descriptors "Third World" or "Developing Countries" problematic. "If change was to happen, let it begin with the lexicon," we felt. We used technology, introducing email into the country to allow us to network, send out photographs, and later, when we had full-fledged Internet, to tap into the World Wide Web. We set up a school of photography, and later a festival of photography. In parallel, we set up activist forums online and the Bangladesh Human Rights portal. We were small, but we had a big footprint.
We were taking pictures, writing, publishing, networking, taking to the streets in protest. No space was left uncontested. But there was a problem. There weren't enough of us to make a difference. To fight a war, we needed an army. So we set up a school, Pathshala, a seat of learning. With bare rooms, basic furniture, and almost no equipment, but with songs on our lips and with fire in our bellies, we set out to create visual soldiers for the battle ahead. The resistance came from many fronts. Painters felt we were an uncultured lot trespassing into their territory. Press photographers felt we were fuddy-duddy academics mired in theory. Salon photographers dismissed our work as our horizons weren't horizontal and our composition wasn't "perfect." But that never dented our enthusiasm. We would arm-twist the finest professionals in the world to come over to Dhaka, sleep on our floor, share what we had to eat, and spend quality time with students. The greats from agencies like Magnum and magazines like National Geographic and Time did come over and were generous with their time. Sitting barefooted in class, we'd listen in awe to the greats of our profession. Starry-eyed and hungry for knowledge, we soaked in every word and gesture. We were naive enough to believe we'd change the world. We were on a permanent high.
The teachers, too, found this energy infectious. Arguing into the night, barely snatching some sleep before waking up to the early morning light, we photographed with abandon. Intoxicated, we were living, breathing, dreaming pictures. And the images changed. We were grappling with new vocabulary, exploring the visual space, finding new modes of expression. We were not merely seeing. We were hearing, smelling, touching light. It was a sensuous, sensorial, and completely overwhelming experience.
We were affected by what we saw. Not fully confident of ourselves, we emulated every great artist we came across. Salgado tonality, Bruce Gilden rawness, the punk rock German rebellion, the tenderness of a Sally Mann, and an awkward mixture of all of them pervaded our signatures. We cloned others, cloned ourselves. We tried to become what we thought others wanted us to be. It took time for the froth to settle, for our thoughts to mature, for us to discover a little more of ourselves.
Meanwhile, I looked at broadening the base. Teaching women, working-class children, encouraging village kids to have a go; while I wanted no passengers, I was ensuring that our fight would be inclusive. Some efforts worked, others spectacularly failed, but with the ones that survived, we had formed a formidable force. We were here to stay.
While all this went on, I continued on my quest to become a storyteller. The turbulence of the protest rally gave way to longer, more linear narratives, like a giant river, across countries, races, religions, and languages. I worked in color, used a gentler palette. Saturated colors cohabited with pastel shades. I borrowed from the salon days and became a pictorialist. Then I moved back. History became my muse. Forgotten tales, lost memories, and dreams revisited became the canvas on which I told my new stories. I went from documenting sweeping social movements to small personal ones: power relationships, issues of class. The unspoken language of acceptable norms and codes of conduct lay on my dissecting table. I moved from photographing events and objects to feelings and relationships. No longer content with others interpreting my work, I took up the pen. Soon I took to public speaking. I was going to have the entire arsenal at my disposal. I was fighting to win.
Then came a new challenge. Killings by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a government force with impunity, introduced a fear we had not known in independent Bangladesh. "Crossfire" deaths could not be documented by conventional means. Information was no longer enough, visual stimulus no longer sufficient. We needed to find a new vocabulary, a new mode of engagement. The terrain was shifting, requiring new strategies. I looked for answers, not only at an aesthetic level but also at how I would interact with the audience. The exhibition needed to become a performance. The battleground was moving from the gallery to the campus, and from the campus to the streets, and from the streets to the courtroom. We would fight on all fronts. On that particular occasion, we were spectacularly successful, measured by the criterion that mattered most. The crossfire killings went down. But it was short lived. RAB changed tack, and the even more disturbing "disappearances" began. Eventually, cross fire killings went up as well, though not to pre-exhibition levels.
So we, too, had to take on new strategies. We made poster sets of the exhibition, so now we had five hundred exhibitions, which we gave out to activists to take to the field and set up their own show. Human rights organizations, initially hesitant, began gingerly distributing them. The resistance had begun. Photography was just one more tool along the way.
Shahidul Alam (b. 1955) is a Bangladeshi photographer and writer with a special interest in education and new media. His work has been shown in leading museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts, the Royal Albert Hall in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. He is a recipient of numerous international awards and was the first Asian to receive the prestigious Mother Jones International Award for Documentary Photography. His work has been published in numerous publications all over the world, including National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, the Guardian, and Le Monde.
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2013|
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