Interview with Shahidul Alam

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Interview with Shahidul Alam

By Sabhanaz Rashid Diya and Ahmed Ashiful Haque Niloy

R.S: How did you start photography?

S.A.: First, I always had interest in the subject but as a middle class person it was a huge challenge to break away from the conventional professions that people take on. So it was while I was doing my PhD in London that I had an opportunity to go to the US. So while I was hitchhiking around Canada that I bought a camera for a friend, took a couple of pictures with it and when I returned to London, he didn’t have the money to pay for it. So I got stuck with a camera. But really it was a political justification of what I do that rode me into doing it. Being a political person myself I have always been concerned about social issues. I always wanted to have an impact on our present in terms of a social change and media is by far the most effective mechanism I could take on. Photography became an obvious choice to do this, particularly in a country like Bangladesh where textual literacy rate is so low. Images are the most powerful way of communicating to a wider public. I am also concerned that in an age where images are used to shape our minds where we are not taught about visual literacy or the language of an image. I find that a very strong deficiency in our education system and thus I can do it with my profession.

R.S: Is photography a complete, feasible career option? You have been tremendously successful. What about others?

S.A.: At first I would like to clarify my definition of success because most people see it as being able to make a living, being famous and being known as a criterion of success. I see those as by-products. Whether I am successful or not should be judged on whether I have achieved what I had started out to achieve. In my case, it has been the social changes I have talked earlier about and to that extent, yes, we have been successful and we have a long way to go. Sadly, the attributes you are referring to are the more common ones and in that regard, there has been success to a certain degree. I think that part of success is quite easy to get. If you are prepared to work hard, if you are intelligent then that kind of success is quite easy to achieve in any field and photography is no exception. Whether you are successful in the original definition which I described requires far more rigour, far more strategic position and a whole bunch of and certainly a whole lot of skills which again apply to all professions such as, sense of negotiation, sense of communication, sense of strategic positions. The skills of photography are actually a very small part of the entire skill set. If one has the basic skills as referred to, then that person can do well in pretty much anything.

The other guy: This is the fourth Chobi Mela. There has been three other Chobi Mela with different themes. Tell us about them.

S.A.: Chobi Mela themes have been Differences, Exclusions, Resistance and Boundaries. The words have been carefully chosen. In the beginning we were the ones deciding what the themes what the themes would be and now we have more participating artists in deciding what the future themes should be. In terms of how it has changed, one difference is in the structure of the event itself. Now Chobi Mela is one of the most important festivals in the world. When it started it was not so well known, it was difficult convincing people something like this could be done on Bangladesh. It was certainly difficult for us to get that kind of support. People weren’t convinced about the structure of what we were trying to do. Now that part is relatively easier. What we need to struggle with is win ourselves on international support. A huge amount of human resources is needed behind this event and finance. We are at a stage where Chobi Mela can be termed as something to be proud of, that positions Bangladesh into the international arena. It has huge grounding, it holds tremendous curiousity. Chobi Mela has become a site of pilgrimage for photographers worldwide; ‘The War We Forgot’ (a separate exhibition) was an important exhibition for Bangladesh as it had a chance to show the world that they hadn’t seen. Ironically, that was an event for which we got no support from Bangladesh. I would like to get to a point where Bangladeshis take recognition of an event like Chobi Mela.

Chobi Mela is not a group of exhibitions, it is a very diverge and strong collection of international work. I think a very significant part of Chobi Mela is the evening presentations that take place which are unique. I have been many festivals in the world where they do have presentations where the stars of the medium show their work, rarely one has very intense interactive sessions where people are able to question the practitioners, there are debates, very lively interchange, have critique which is absolutely great. Many of these practitioners are superstars who have to answer questions in Bangladesh, which they find difficult to cope with. What’s also very interesting are that many of these people are superstars, who are largely unquestioned in the way they present themselves. When they come in Bangladesh, they often have to defend themselves.

I think there’s a very diverse range of topics that are discussed in the workshops… we also looked at other topics, like archival procedures, preservation… how do you value your heritage.

The mobile exhibition that we had, I believe are unique. I do not know of a single festival anywhere else in the world, where non-gallery goers are taken to a festival. Usually festivals are for people who go to galleries. They see pretty pictures on pretty walls. And only certain people go there. Here, the biggest part of the audience of Chobi Mela, are from the rickshaw exhibition. And the results! We’ve got a large number of people, who’ve never been to a gallery before! They’ve been introduced to the work through the rickshaws, been inspired by it, developed a curiosity for it…and kids who pick litter… yeah, Rag pickers from the streets come to our show, and spend time there and have valid questions. And to me, that’s very significant.

That’s one. And there’s the fact that all the other festivals are either European or euro-centric or north-American. When we started, we were the only festival in Asia. Now Chobi Mela has spawned many others in Asia. There’s one in China, there’s one going on Angolans in Cambodia.

There were none before?

No. Chobi Mela was the first photography festival in Asia. There wasn’t one in China, there hasn’t yet been on in Japan, there hasn’t been on in India, so this was an opener in Asia. And many of the people who’ve set up festivals in their own countries are people who’ve been to Chobi Mela. There is a festival now in Singapore, there’s one in Malaysia, which were initiated by people who got their ideas from Chobi Meal in the first place. And in many of these festivals, they are still very European, large number of European work, very small amount of local participation, certainly not a lot of south Asian participation, almost no work from Africa, no work from Latin America.

See that is the part of our challenge right from the beginning. We wanted to challenge the way photography was portrayed. Which is if you take a standard textbook of photography, European and North American photography is all that exists! So our aim it was to change that dynamic.

Certainly when we started, threw wasn’t much work form Bangladesh. Bangladeshi photographers themselves hadn’t engaged with this exhibition the way they now do. So, certainly, you get a far better mix of non-western work and practitioners here in Chobi Mela than you get anywhere else in the world.

What is it like to be a photographer in Bangladesh?

It’s tough, and hugely exciting.

Well, it’s tough, because photography isn’t really understood, not even by the media. Your newspaper, for example, doesn’t have a photo editor; which is bizarre. We have galleries up there, we should be the finest photographers in the world, and they don’t even sell. We show mediocre painting, ant they get sold out. Because the audience isn’t matured enough, to appreciate photography at this point. It’s also difficult because, parents don’t understand the profession sufficiently to invest in their children’s education, to the same extent. We have a school of photography, it’s hugely subsidized by Drik, but even then, student find it difficult for their parents to pay for them to go to the school. Yet, because our school is so well know, it’s a very good stepping-stone for overseas education. When it comes to the same people going overseas, suddenly, money becomes available, from the same parents. So parents haven’t yet seen the value of photography as a profession And that is understandable, because they’ll compare it with 60’s professions. But, if you turn the thing around, a city like London has about 45000 registered professional photographers. If we were to work in London, I’d have a lot of competitors. In a country like Bangladesh, you know, a young photographer staring today if he or she really wants to put the work in, and does well, getting to the top is nothing! It’s so easy! Which is part of the danger. And I think that’s one of the problems I face. Because it’s so easy, to become something in a country like Bangladesh, you’ll have to hold the reigns and convince people, “Hey there’s a lot more to be done ”, there’s a long road ahead. But the point remains, any profession at its infancy is where one can make his mark. And this is the time, it’s bubbling, it’s happening. WE’RE AT THE TIME! There is a lot of excitement about photography, yet the progression isn’t saturated. It’s a very exciting time. But it’s a tough profession. And if you want to do really well, you’ll have to give up normal things other people take for granted. It’s not a 9 to 5 job. There are risks involved. There are uncertainties. It’s extremely hard work. And the reason it’s satisfying, because with it, you’ve the most powerful tool in the world. More powerful than money, more powerful than bombs.

What is it about the new photographers who are coming out, that really stands out or encourages you??

I think their main difference is their thinking style. They are receptive, they are committed, they are passionate. And they also happen to be very talented, but I think talent is a pre-requisite. But where the difference lies, is I think, is a lot of the issues the Bangladeshi photographers deal with today, are issues that have become jaded in the west. It’s no longer fashionable to stay committed to photography. No longer sexy to really have that sort of drive… and I can see a lot more photographers over there start to see that career as lot more mechanical because it’s a job – get the photos, deliver them, get them published… that’s the mechanism you go through there. Here, the photographers still dream. And that dream I think has faded in the West to some extent.

And that’s one of the benefits of being a photographer in Bangladesh?

Absolutely! I think this is a wealth of opportunities. Our school of photography Pathshala is said by many people to be one of the finest photographic education institutes in the world. So, someone in Bangladesh starts off by being in a city with the best school in the world. We have a visiting faculty that is unparalleled. Any established schools in Europe don’t even have a fraction of the profiles that our international faculty does. So that’s something you have. We have students from Norway and Denmark, for example, coming over. They do their courses in international Photojournalism in Bangladesh because it’s the best place to study. So you have some students who pay their airfare, come over to Bangladesh, and live in Bangladesh for six weeks and study in our school. Yet local photographers have that kind of an opportunity right next door. The workshops in Chobi Mela free for Pathashala students. Anywhere else in the world, you’d have to pay one thousand, two thousand dollars just to attend them, so that’s a positive bit. Also, we’re here in a country, which has so much happening. I mean, not just from 71 onwards, but even today, everyday – it’s volatile, it’s changing, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful and all those in such a tiny country! You have so much happening that a photographer can turn into their material. If you look at it, if a photographer from United States, can pay his or her airfare, come over to Bangladesh, shoot from for a week, and go back and make money out of it, someone sitting in Bangladesh, with the same sort of skills, should make a killing!

The disadvantage that Bangladeshi photographers have is they have not yet tapped in into the international market. While that American photographer, with all the disadvantage of being a foreigner, working overseas, investing and coming over simply goes back to tap into the international market because in their own country they have their contacts. The one thing that has to happen in Bangladesh is that now we have the good photographers, but we don’t yet have photographers who understand the international market sufficiently well. There are many other things that need to happen besides developing competence in photography. You have to learn business skills, you have to develop a network, you have to write a lot, you have to submit proposals, do budgets, you have to negotiate. These are all complex skills, which do not happened overnight. And I think our photographers, while they are learning heir skills need to go somewhere to develop all that. Chobi Mela is a tremendous opportunity But really I think the most exciting tool for Bangladeshi photographers is a website called It’s a website that we set up, primarily to promote the work of majority world photographers. At the moment, not enough photographers have taken that on.

Part of that also involves infrastructure they need computer skills, they need good bandwidth, they need to have access, they need language skills, These are all things that our part of the resources they need, and yeah, they are learning it, the ones who’ve done it better than the others are doing well, I think that’s also an area where people make mistakes. They assume that being able to take good pictures is what’s it’s all about. But that’s actually a very small part of the profession.

Having good knowledge of English, having a very good network, having an understanding of how the business works internationally, being able to negotiate, having people skills these are all part of what they need to learn to do. And part of the challenge we have in our school, that when photographers come in, they assume, that learning about shutter speed and aperture is all they have to do. In fact that’s a very small percentage of the skills they actually need. Which is why in our school, we also teach visual anthropology, we teach statics, we teach economics. We teach them to produce budgets, write proposals, negotiate with clients, develop contracts, and learn about copy write – these are all things that we’ll have to do. So, from a professional point of view, what learning about photography does, it doesn’t only teach you about photography, but helps develop professional skills which apply to any fields. If you went through all the things I talked about and decide to become a photographer, you’ll be a good photographer. If you become a brain surgeon, you’ll become a good brain surgeon. You can take on any profession you want.

So do the photographers need to tap into the international market only? What about the local market?

There is a local market, of course. But that market isn’t particularly sophisticated. The problem lies in the risks and appreciation of Copy write. Most newspapers steal photographs. Then you have big newspapers like yours, who doesn’t commission freelance photography. Everywhere else in the world, there are very few photographers who actually are staff photographers. The publications mostly work with freelance photographers because freelance photographers have specific skills and specific styles. If I need a particularly type of photograph, I’d choose a particular freelance photographer who’s best at it. Here, the concept of taking on freelance work hasn’t yet developed. Newspapers aren’t for example, used to paying for photos. There are even so many people believing that if a picture is on the Internet, you can download and print it for free. It’s illegal, it’s stealing. But there are a whole lot of social values that needs to change.

But I think what needs to happen is… having something like Pathshala is nowhere near enough. I think photography needs to be taught at schools. I think people who study art, in country like Bangladesh are being exploited by their academic establishments. Photography is by far the most exciting art medium there is in the world. Yet the people who study in our schools and collages of art, doe not have an nay any understanding of photography! And that is despite the fact that they happen to live in one of the photographic capitals in the world! I’d be really embarrassed! If a student coming from a school of such heritage. And say hey, I’m sorry but I don’t have an understanding of something my country is so famous for. Yet, Charukola doesn’t teach photography. Shilpokola doesn’t teach photography. Dhaka University doesn’t teach photography.

Well, outside of London, Paris and New York, Dhaka that is seen as the most important city for photography. I mean you have people form all over the world coming for Chobi Mela, ‘cuz this is where they want to be! Yet it takes a bomb to make a newspaper like yours to take seriousness about the issue!

Why is it considered such an important city for photography?

A whole lot of reasons. It’s not something’s that’s happened over night. It happened over a period of time, the groundwork laid by people from very long ago by people like Monzoor Alam Beg for example. I think one thing that helped is that here; we became aware of the politics of photography and decided to take it on at a very very early stage. So when Drik was set up in 1989, it was the only photographic agency outside of the west. And we started with not simply being a shop that sells pictures, but a place with ideology and politics and a certain mission, and that still has not been replicated, 17 years later, there isn’t another agency that plays that sort of a role. What the agency did was to set up a school, which no other agency in the world did. What it then did, it began a festival, which again no other agency in the world has done. And it really set a lot of building blocks.

And if you look at it, say, the international jury of world press, which is considered as the UDN of photography… when I became the chair, a few years back, I was the first non-white person in 48 years to chair world press. I still happen to be the only non-white person in the history of world press in 52 years. And in 52 years the only non-white person to chair World Press, so obviously that makes quite an impact! I was invited to inaugurate a festival in Amsterdam. On Dec 7th, I’ll be at Delhi inaugurating the launch of a photography magazine. In this festival, one of my friends Came over from Mexico to participate, so I mean, that is what’s happening! Yet our own people haven’t got a clue!

Let me give you a concrete example. The exhibition that was in the museum, it has a hire fee of approximately 40000 dollars. Now, because of our connections, we were able to get that exhibition without any hire. We paid for the printing, we paid for the frames, we got the curator over, we built the installation, we spent another 7 lacks to put up the show… any museum in the world would have been paying that money to get a show like that. Our museum got it for free.. we cleaned the walls of the museum, we set up the place ourselves, the day before the event, because they were not going to give us their time to set it up, I slept on the museum floor, to make sure they actually finished it. Because if we went out, they probably won’t let us back in! We put the show, we hired the museum, we hired the auditorium, because we worked that extra night, they charged us 52000 extra taka for cleaning up their museum walls. But that is the attitude of our own bureaucracy. It is unchallenged! So you have to play that role, you have to become that challenger for this profession,

And I think it’s about time the Bangladeshis’ began to take pride. I think it’s fantastic that Dr. Yunus won the Nobel Prize. There are a whole lot of good things happening here! You know, we’re bitching all the time! We’re complaining about all these sort of things, there are these fabulous things that are happening! You know, we should be 10 feet tall!

If you’re thinking of people thinking about taking photography on as a career, I think, certainly at this moment there is very little facility for doing that, at a primary level or a secondary level. But there are certain organizations, that offer courses on photography, and it’s worthwhile doing that. But really that “learn about photography” involves a lot of reading, a lot of looking at pictures, going to exhibitions, the internet is a fabulous resource! We didn’t have that when we started! You know, I went to every library I could, read either hundred books on photography, all borrowed form libraries. I went to every library in London. You don’t have that here in Bangladesh, BUT you have the Internet, which again, is a fabulous resource! There is a lot of teaching material, there are things to look up, there are discussions, and debates and people should go through basic course. It doesn’t have to be at our place, there ate several other organizations too. Certainly, many aspiring photographers in the US, become assistants to other photographers, and that is also a b very good learning experience. Internships. And I think what students need to do is wake up there academians to what’s happening in the world. People who make the decisions are fossils. They themselves have not been through this. It’s too new, too exciting and for them, perhaps too. Dangerous! And it’s the younger people who need to turn the key… to change the way they do it… IF YOU let them, they’ll keep teaching the same way they taught in their same comfortable territory, they need to take risks! They need to break out now. And people, like you now, people of your age are really the ones who needs to break that in.. AND climb out and say this is not a decent education.

…we got the media coverage, within Bangladesh it was very good, and even internationally. just today, the BBC world service broadcasted a piece on Chobi Mela, and then there were the several publications and websites and Universities bringing out features on Chobi Mela, so that the acceptance from the known circle has taken place. but to me what’s very exciting, is that, Chobi Mela took place at a very tumultuous time, here in Bangladesh. there were these blockades and all these other things happening, yet we had people filling out our galleries everyday! And we’ve done that through this period!

RS: And it would have been so much better if there weren’t these problems…

S. A.: yes. I mean, sure, there were a lot of pressure on us. People were saying, “push it back”, ”it’s not going to happen”… they didn’t for once realise the fact that something this big can’t just be pushed back like that. It has taken us 18 months to set this up; we can’t change the dates whenever we want!

RS: It took 18 months!?

S. A.: Oh yeah!

RS: So THAT’s why Chobi Mela happens every other year?

S. A.: Yeah. In fact, we’ve started working on Chobi Mela 2008 already.

The other guy: What’s going to be the next Chobi Mela about?

S. A.: What we did on the last workshop is that we opened up the floor to possibilities [about the theme of the next Chobi Mela]. Several suggestions were made, one of them, “freedom,” seemed to be a lot more popular that the others. But this time, we’ve changed the way we do it. We’re actually going to have an online poll, where we’re going to put up the suggestions, and get people worldwide and from Bangladesh to discuss, select and come to a decision [about the next Chobi Mela’s theme]. There’ll be much more interactivity. And online Registration for the nest Chobi Mela will be start from June 2007.

RS: The way photography is in Bangladesh, if there’s someone VERY interested in photography, should they choose it as a career, or as something they ALSO do?

S. A.: It’s interesting that you say that, one of the parts of our organization, Pathshala, is affiliated with Bolton University, UK. The head of photojournalism in Bolton,David Clakre, who was here in Chobi Mela, had a very interesting observation. In Britain, only 10% of the people who study photography end up being professional photographers. So they have to have a very diluted course for it to be relevant to the majority of the people who studies the subject; [most of them will] become a banker, or something else; they’re not going to be photographers. And if all they taught was photography, all these people would be in trouble. They teach you a very broad course, which is leading towards photography. Very dilute.

Here, when we started at Pathshala, our target was 100% employment. We started in 98, and till 2006 we continue to have a 100% employment rate. There isn’t a single photographer, who come out of Patshala and is unemployed, or isn’t making it professionally.

But, the problem lies elsewhere, how you are going to decide what you’re going to do. And I think, I’ll have to say general education is important no matter what you do, so you have to do that. And when it comes to taking on photography, you have to make a hard proposition, because it’s difficult to know what it is about before you enter.

Photography is very glamorous. People like the idea of being a photographer, going out, doing all these sort of things. It’s a very nice idea. People forget, that it’s also a lot rough. But actually, that’s true for pretty much anything. And people needs to recognize that. And whether of not you’ll make it as a photographer really depends on a large extent on whether you are able to deal with that sort of things. But I would turn the thing around. I would ask myself the question, if I was in that position, am I a person who’s a risk taker? Am I a person who’s an innovator? Am I a person who’s prepared to rough things if I need to? Am I really prepared for a very different life? If only those questions are truthfully answered, should you choose photography. Otherwise, I don’t think you should. It’s a great profession, but it’s not for everyone. If you’d like a 9-5 job everyday, you’re better off doing something else.

RS: What did you mean by “roughing it?”

S. A.: Let me tell you about myself: When I work, I don’t know when I’ll eat, what I’ll it, if I’ll get to eat at all, where I’ll sleep, and what situation I’ll find myself in the next day. Once, during a cyclone, I slept under the open sky on wet bricks.

RS: What about your photographic equipment? Weren’t you worried?

S. A.: Yeah. Well, you live with your worries.

RS: And in Bangladesh, are the jobs only photojournalism related, or are there other careers related to photography too?

S. A.: A big misconception that many people have about photography is that they people assume that employment possibilities related to photography are only limited to studio, fashion photography or photojournalism or weddings, birthdays and that sort of things. In fact, the possibilities are much, much wider. And a lot of it that’s haven’t been developed here yet, and that’s also why the opportunities are greater. There are no picture editors. And certainly, at some point, people are going to wake up to the fact that they need picture editors. And where will they come from? There are no picture researches. There are no photo editors. There are no photography marketing people. There are no photography buyers. And there have been galleries but there aren’t any curators… So there is a whole range of photography related professions that’s simply not being tapped into. So if someone’s getting into photography, what they should do if they were smart, is simply not think of the photojournalism pr studio stuff, but look at all the other possibilities, and be multi-skilled within this profession. Then, employment is guaranteed. And they’ll be in a position where no one has been before. They’ll be pioneers.

RS: And when you’re a photographer, other than photojournalism and studio, what other options do the photographers have around here?

RS: Let’s put it this way, there’s also fine art photography, which is a perfectly valid aspect of photography. But the problem is, there aren’t buyers in Bangladesh matured enough to buy them yet. It’s changed in India. India used to be in the same place, but today, photographers in India are selling prints right and left, and at very very good prices. But it hasn’t happened yet in Bangladesh. So fine art photography is there, then there is conceptual work, and there are photographers working for museums and galleries… so in the art field, there are tremendous possibilities which can be tapped into.

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Written by fotozineauthor

May 7, 2008 at 2:47 am

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