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    Volume 9 Issue 15| April 9, 2010|

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Of Ideals and Dreams

In an interview with The Star, acclaimed photographer Shahidul Alam talks about his passion

Fayza Haq

Sitting at Drik, which has just celebrated its 20th birthday, Dhanmandi, despite the March heat, photographer Dr Shahidul Alam spoke with barely a pause and answered each query with patience. Confident, gutsy, incredibly energetic and persevering, Alam has built up a haven for photographers from world over at Drik and at Patshala. Through the decades, he has helped build up the standard of the developing countries, so that they are at par with that of the developed world. Driven to tell the truth of socio economic conditions, he has brought together photographers from the US, Europe, Australia, Africa and the Middle East at "Drik" and "Patshala". His "Chobi Melas", held at different venues of Dhaka, has presented scenes -- dealing with health, poverty alleviation, tradition, culture, and man-made, as well as natural calamities.

Self-effacing and always ready to lend a hand -- where and when needed -- Alam goes about his aims in a positive and decisive manner. He has, fortunately, the support of well-wishers -- both at home and overseas.

What do you consider your greatest achievements: the creation of "Drik", with its galleries for expositions, its decades of training for photographers, the "Chobi Melas", in particular or and later the "Patshala"?
I've a long way to go. The significant achievements involve Bangladeshi photography. It's a significant fact that Bangladesh is considered one of the emerging capitals of the world in photography. The fact that photographers the world over look at this country for inspiration and the fact that photographers in Bangladesh have created a space for themselves is perhaps what's most significant. When that is happening, within Bangladesh itself, I don't feel that photography is sufficiently recognised. However, our own nation has failed to recognise what its young artists have achieved.

Drik Gallery always draws a crowd.

To continue, will you say something in particular about "Drik"?
Sure. When we started twenty years ago, there was a very different situation in Bangladesh, in terms of the way work was being plagiarised; in the way photographers’ rights were being abused; in the way in which there was total disregard for the moral rights of an artist. That has changed to a certain extent because there is now additional support, which provides organisational structures that photographers can operate within. There is also the dissemination mechanisation. What was happening before, in terms of international perception of Bangladesh was that, to a large extent, photographers were coming to this country, and through their eyes Bangladesh was being seen and known.

Since "Drik" came into being, it became an alternative source of images. It is Bangladeshis who talk about their country, and of course it's a very different Bangladesh that they talk about. So, the perception of the nation has changed. "Drik", as an organisation, is much more diverse than the typical picture library that you see in the west. To be able to survive, in difficult conditions, to operate meaningfully, in a place where most photographers do not have the means to work the way western photographers do. We have to adapt to local conditions, to be far more supportive of photographers: We've had had to handhold them in many situations. As a result, the relationship between "Drik" and its contributors is very different from the typical agency photographer.

What was the basic concept that you wanted the photographers of the third and fourth world to come up to the standard of the first world?
I don't like the term "first" and "third" world. I'm making this point, as this is relevant. We have been using the term "majority world". The term "third world", we find derogatory. We see no reason why we should place ourselves as third in anything. Hence it is important to remind the rest of the world that we happen to be the majority of human kind. And that our identity can be an icon of poverty alone; or an icon of poverty at all. The initial intention was to change that perception. I believe that what has happened, in terms of the work, in terms of Bangladesh, is a very different Bangladesh that is presented. This is though the realities of Bangladesh cannot be ignored. I think that Bangladesh can stand tall, at least the quality of the artists.

Dr Shahidul Alam with fellow photographers.

Will you throw some light on "Patshala"?
We were involved in photographic education right from the beginning. We also recognised that we were not being sufficiently effective. While we put in some of the finest practitioners, who gave quality time through workshops, seminars, we discovered that it was time that we started anew. The energy dissipated. The work was not building up. We needed a much more coherent educational programme. What we then decided was to have a much more structured form of education, so there will be continuity. We took advantage of the fact that there was a World Press Seminar that we helped to organise; and we launched "Patshala", about 11 years ago. Since then, 18th December 1998, the change has been fairly dramatic. Now, "Patshala" is pretty much recognised as the finest school of photography in the world.



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