Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home


Up close and personal with Shahidul Alam

Bangladeshi photographer, writer and activist Shahidul Alam is one of the most prominent photographic icons in the country and even worldwide. A former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Shahidul Alam set up the award winning Drik Picture Library, the Bangladesh Photographic Institute and Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography. He is the director of Chobi Mela, the festival of photography in Asia. His work is shown in several museums worldwide and he chaired the World Press Photo international jury, and is an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a board member of the National Geographic Society and the Eugene Smith Foundation. So naturally, Shahidul Alam would be the person to go to when it comes to taking on photography as a career.
(This is a shortened version of the long and detailed interview we had. Head over to http://www.shorttext.com/ttswlh for the full interview.)

RS: How did you start photography?

S.A: First, I always had interest in the subject but as a person from a middle-class family it was a huge challenge to break away from the conventional professions that people take on. While I was doing my PhD in London, I visited US. I was hitchhiking around Canada when 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. <*laughs*> However, a political justification is my concerns about social issues. I always wanted to have an impact on our present in terms of a social change and media is the most effective mechanism I could take on. Photography became an obvious choice, particularly in 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.

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

S.A: I would like to clarify my definition of success because most people see it as being able to make a living and being known as a criterion of success. I think success should be judged on if I have achieved what I had started out to achieve. Sadly, the attributes you're referring to are the more common ones. If you are intelligent and prepared to work hard, 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 and a whole lot of skills, which again apply to all professions such as, sense of negotiation, communication, and 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. 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.

RS: What is it like to be a photographer in Bangladesh?

S.A: It's tough, and hugely exciting. 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. Photos don't even sell, while mediocre paintings get sold out. The audience isn't matured enough to appreciate photography at this point.

RS: It is difficult to convince most parents about photography as a profession. What are your views on that?

S.A: It's difficult because parents don't understand the profession sufficiently to invest in their children's education. We have a school of photography, which is subsidized by Drik, but students still find it difficult for their parents to pay for them to go to the school. But our school is well known, so 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, London has about 45000 registered professional photographers. If we were to work in London, we'd have a lot of competitors. In Bangladesh, if a young photographer staring today can put his work in and does well, getting to the top is easy! That's part of the danger! You'll have to hold the reigns and convince people, “Hey there's a lot more to be done!”

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: Photography is very glamorous. People like the idea of being a photographer, going out, doing all these sort of things. But, people forget that it's also rough. Actually, that's true for pretty much anything. People need to recognize that. 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.

RS: What is it about Bangladeshi photographers that really stand out?

S.A: A lot of the issues the Bangladeshi photographers deal with today are issues that have become jaded in the west. There, it's no longer fashionable to stay committed to photography. Western photographers start to see that career as lot more mechanical because it's a job - get the photos, deliver them, get them published. Here, the photographers still dream. That dream I think has faded in the West to some extent. Bangladeshi photographers are receptive, committed and passionate and also happen to be very talented,

RS: How does anyone interested start off with such a profession here?

S.A: There are certain organizations that offer courses on photography, and its worthwhile doing that. But learning 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! I went to every library I could and read hundred books on photography, all borrowed. I went to every library in London. You don't have that here in Bangladesh. BUT, you have the Internet, which has a lot of teaching material, things to look up, discussions, and debates. Many aspiring photographers in the US, become assistants to other photographers, which is also very good learning experience. The most exciting tool for Bangladeshi photographers is a website called majorityworld.com. It's a website to promote the work of majority world photographers.

RS: 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 such. In fact, the possibilities are much wider. 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. There are no picture researches. There are no photography-marketing people. There are no photography buyers. 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 or studio stuff, but look at all the other possibilities, and be multi-skilled within this profession. They'll be in a position where no one has been before. They'll be pioneers.

RS: You've said Bangladesh is a great place to start with photography. Why is that so?

S.A: Well, outside of London, Paris and New York, Dhaka that is seen as the most important city for 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. 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. Yet local photographers have that kind of an opportunity right next door. The workshops in Chobi Mela are free for Pathshala students. Anywhere else in the world, you'd have to pay thousands of dollars just to attend them. Also, we're 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! If a photographer from United States, can pay his 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!

By Ahmed Ashiful Haque and Sabhanaz Rashid Diya

Art Excel: A panacea for children

It's stressful to be a child these days. A heavy burden of books, parental pressure to perform well academically and a punishing school curriculum have taken away the joy of childhood. Other sensitive young ones may feel that they don't fit in. They may be shy, self-conscious or victims of bullying. Such children need to lighten up and rediscover the fun in life. Still others suffer an identity crisis and are in search of a purpose. Such children need to connect better with their peers and develop simple human values such as kindness, compassion and acceptance.

Here's where Art Excel programme (All Round Training in Excellence) comes in. A blend of meditation, yoga, specific breathing techniques and awareness games, the five-day course seeks to help children and teenagers to manage stress and negative emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety, low self-esteem and frustration. Says an Art Excel brochure, “ The programme promotes human values through a variety of techniques that teach such important skills such as the art of making friends, the secret of popularity, personal responsibility, the value of service and nurtures children's creativityall in a supportive, yet challenging and fun atmosphere.”

The Daily Star had the opportunity to witness a workshop in progress in Gulshan. Aged between eight-15 years, a group of 17 young boys and girls were in the midst of yoga postures. Later they went in for meditation. In their midst was Art Excel instructor Dhwani Sajeev Menon, who guided them ably. In her words, “Children are friendly by nature. If they are not it could be due to stress. Our course incorporates memory games among others that enable the children to have fun even as they benefit from the workshop.”

Talking to the children , one realises the benefits of the course. Says Sanyogita Chauhan, a student of Class VIII at Bangladesh International Tutorial (BIT): “ The programme has inculcated respect for elders, and has enhanced my concentration. In addition, I have improved in my studies since I am better able to focus on academics.” Likewise youngster Riasat Salekin, in Class I of Green Herald School, asserts, “Art Excel has developed my mind, build concentrationall in a friendly atmosphere. I am also keen on yoga to enhance physical growth and build energy levels.”

The Art Excel programme has been initiated by the renowned Art of Living Foundation. Developed by the renowned Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the core component of the Art of Living course is the Sudarshan Kriya. This breathing technique uses specific rhythms of breath to harmonise the natural rhythms of the body. In 1998 and 1999 the Kriya gained greater recognition when medical studies and research demonstrated its positive effect on high stress levels, depression and anxiety, its impact on restoring sleep patterns and increasing health, well being and tranquility. In addition, Sudarshan Kriya helped reduce cholesterol and enhanced brain function (increased mental focus and recovery from stressful stimuli).

Children who enroll for the Art Excel programme do an adaptation of the Sudarshan Kriya. This entails a combination of yoga, breathing exercises and meditation. Says Sajeev Menon, instructor and coordinator of the Art of Living course, “Art Excel helps build energy levels and has a positive impact on hyperactive as well as less active children. The technique helps channelise energies in the right way and replaces restlessness with creativity.”

For teenagers and older ones (15-18 and 18-24 years) there's the Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES) and YES Plus respectively. This group learns to handle stress and negative emotions, the art of making friends, taking personal responsibility, the value of service and other useful tools in a supportive, challenging and yet fun environment. The YES technique helps in building communication, management and organisational and leadership skills. By redirecting energy in the right direction, YES helps to draw out children and slightly older age groups from the clutches of bad habits such as drug abuse, alcohol and tobacco addiction.

The last word is that of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, quoted in The New York Times in 2001: “Life is sacred. Celebrate life. Care for others and share whatever you have with those less fortunate than you. Broaden your vision, for the whole world belongs to you.”

For more details on Art Excel and Youth Empowerment Seminar, contact Sajeev Menon at 01713083639 and Fazlul Khader at 01711839441.

By Kavita Charanji


home | Issues | The Daily Star Home

2007 The Daily Star