Land of a thousand cameras

© Mohaiemen

Naeem Mohaiemen

I am slightly wary of overarching, temporal pronouncements. So I approached a semester-end student show at Pathshala (South Asian Media Academy) with some trepidation, mainly owing to the title: "Generation in Transition." For the last few years, there had been discussions in Dhaka about the need to expand the definition of what constitutes photography. I was looking forward to seeing new experiments. But of all the influences on a changing zeitgeist, age seemed the least relevant, most fluid factor. Also, worryingly, this is the element most vulnerable to market instrumentalization and commercial fetish (like a certain type of "activist" photography had been in the past).

The photographs on view that day were an eclectic, electrifying mix. Alongside the formalist view of a dying river or the portrayal of a wealthy family (the 1%), there were suicide meditations, a song of faithlessness, mysterious objects, and a lone figure engaged in self-pleasuring.

The room was packed and audience comments revealed frisson and a jittery nervousness. There was the expected microanalysis: in the suicide sequence why did you use that color for blood? Down, down, deep into the rabbit hole. Then a photographer voiced a different, palpable discomfort. Looking at the dominance of more abstract, non-documentary work, he wondered if this was an imitation of something else.

Imitation of what, he was asked.

"Something foreign."

An anxiety that a shift away from documentary reporting was somehow not quite "indigenous" or "authentic."

What are our responses to these authenticity questions about photography, now? We have, after all, traveled down a complicated path of an internationally rewarded focus on "reality." What are the external influences for that stark portrait of sweat down a laborer's back? Those majestic images of manual labor? The dodge-burn intensified cloudscape? Our paradigmatic mode of exquisite black and white photography? Everything came from somewhere.

In the essay, "Are too many people taking photographs?" Pedro Meyer describes technology that has now automated exposure and framing to the point of rewarding a simple click. Last year, a photographer asked me to bring back a Holga when I went abroad. The year before, another photographer had asked for a Lomo. After two years of experimentation (with real, expensive film; the way it used to be), he joyfully showed us the fantastic results. Meanwhile, we found Facebook invaded by similarly stylized, off-kilter images. A new iPhone app had come out, and it allowed facile imitation of lomography. Of the Holga. Of everything.

This is a certain kind of slow-burn challenge for professional photography. Or, photography as a profession. Certain skills take a long period to acquire. I am humbled when I meet with photographers who have practiced their craft to a bright, shining edge. Then along comes some new software that duplicates that same, hard-earned, meticulous work into a click-and-click effect. It renders it into an unfortunate parlor trick.

Technology and economics made camera and techniques ubiquitous. Where will all these cameras go? There is now growing competition inside Bangladesh for scarce photography jobs and international awards that create an unhealthy star system. All of it is an intense pressure cooker. I worry that playfulness and true experiments will get lost in this new race. Are people forgetting to have fun? Will photography become the new MBA?

In Brian Palmer's documentary on Pathshala (, the specter of the parachuting, ham-fisted western photographer is in the background as antithesis. However, that battle is actually over; even talking about it is a bit performative. When a Dhaka photographer recently told a foreign reporter he could not accompany him on a politically problematic story, no other photographer was willing to cover that same story. The reporter had to borrow a camera and take the photos himself.

© Mohaiemen

A movement that started with the necessary idea of "southern eye" must now confront the aftermath of victory-- where the southern eye is now its' own power center. That means there are other groups and practices that are the new margin.

One question that intrigues now is why photographers, raised in urban centers like Dhaka, are sometimes drawn to capturing images of rural life. Donor funded priorities, such as the focus on "climate change", are one possible explanation. Something else is at work here. Rural photo essays grant bucolic vistas that the city photographer hungers for. A momentary relief. Escape.

In C.S. Lewis' fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the escape hatch is a piece of everyday furniture. Beyond that are magical talking creatures and many adventures. It is no accident that Lewis set his book during the 1940s. The children wanted desperately to escape the gouging shards of a world at war. In other tales, it is a trapdoor, a sliding wall, or a mystical portal. Here, in contemporary Dhaka, it is a photograph. Stare at it long enough and you might forget about the insistent, omnipresent reality bite.

As per semiotic theory, we make sense of visual phenomena in several ways: resemblance (it looks like what it is), logic (cause and effect), convention (objects that have symbolic value), and signification (the visible signifying something else altogether, although often related). What was intriguing about that "Transition" student photo portfolio was the shift away from the first element: resemblance. Very few images were what they looked like, the meaning was not immediately clear. Even the familiar city had become unmoored from landmarks. It was everywhere and nowhere. This could be the start of something different. Perhaps all this needs to be married to the fever dream embedded within those earlier, bucolic images.

The challenge for the coming years should be to carve out spaces for these new practices. Reclaim a space where photography is not just "practical," or a "career track." Expand available options for imagining worlds, instead of guarding the citadel.

We need a generous context for experiments, things that do not fit. But we also need to be welcoming to those who wish to color inside the lines.

Cacophony. Patience. Surprise. Courtesy. Rebellion. Humility.

Photography, in and out of focus.

Naeem Mohaiemen (naeem.mohaiemen works in essay, photography, and film. His photography was included in Drik's 'Chobi Mela V' at Shilpakala Academy. Images accompanying this essay are taken from his project "Live true life or die trying," currently on view at Marginal Utility, Philadelphia.