Chobi Mela: Curating Social Justice

A mobile exhibition mounted on rickshaws during Chobi Mela VIII, 2015 [photo © Wahid Adnan]

A photograph can transform a person from a number into an individual.


Festivals are temporal events. Unlike museums or galleries, they occur in concentrated period of time with extended duration between each manifestation. Festivals can act as an injection of cultural energy, a testing ground for new ideas and a playground for the imagination. But there is also a danger they can be like a circus; a flash of excitement soon forgotten, with little lasting legacy.

Over the past year [2016], I have interviewed eleven festival founders and directors from many parts of the world: from New Zealand to Lithuania and Argentina to Thailand. Each has been keenly aware of the dangers of parachuting in an event that does not have a lasting relationship with the local community and each has developed their own approach as to how such a situation might be avoided. Two strategies have come up repeatedly: the integration of the festival with other cultural initiatives and institutions in the community and, perhaps most importantly, a clear ethical objective. This latter quality is essential if the festival is to be truly transformative, bringing valuable new insights and outcomes for those it touches.

In this interview, I discuss these issues in some depth with the remarkable founder of the Chobi Mela festival in Bangladesh: Shahidul Alam. Perhaps surprisingly, given the burgeoning tiger economies and the association of countries such as Japan with the manufacture of photographic equipment, it is here in Bangladesh that Asia’s longest running festival of photography was initiated and is sustained.

As our conversation reveals, the remarkable dynamism and tenacity of this festival, arising as it does in one of the poorer Asian economies, is founded on a powerful vision of social justice and a carefully evolved tripartite structure of organisations: a media news agency, a school and a festival.

Alasdair Foster

Exhibition of work by Rotimi Fani-Kayode presented at Shilpakala Academy, Chobi Mela VIII 2015 [photo © Habibul Haque]


Alasdair: How did festival begin?

Shahidul: Its roots go back to 1994. I was presenting my work in Arles and managed to raise enough money to take two young photographers with me. When we got there Abbas, who was then the President of Magnum, generously agreed to show the young photographers around the Magnum offices. They were on cloud nine. Arles was a tremendous experience for them, really quite transformative.

This made me think: if this is what a festival can do for two young people then surely it should be shared with many more. So I decided to turn the thing around and bring a festival to Bangladesh. But I did not want simply to import a European festival into Dhaka, that was not what interested us.

In 1995, we set up a small festival, but the very week the event was due to open we had the first ever one-week strike that was to close everything down. Our festival was completely wiped out even before it began. We lost a lot of money and it set us back in many ways. But the idea remained. It took us about five years to recover from that and have enough money saved up to try again.

People crowd into the Zainul Gallery in Charukala Institute during the exhibition ‘Struggle for Democracy’ [photo © Shahidul Alam]

How did you begin the second time?

We decided to work from our strengths and so, as the central exhibit, we prepared a photographic exhibition about the War of Liberation of 1971 [in which Bangladesh broke from Pakistan to become an independent nation]. As I researched, I discovered that, while much important Bangladeshi photography had been made in 1971, there was no substantive record of it. Major international names – David Burnett, Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh, Marc Riboud, Don McCullen, Mary Ellen Mark, Abbas – they’d all been in Bangladesh in 1971. And yet, really, I had not seen any significant public body of work about that war.

The exhibition was planned for the National Museum and, working with Robert Pledge from Contact Press in New York, we designed a sophisticated structure and layout for the exhibition. However, at 10.30pm on the evening before the show was due to open, we were told to remove a set of images from the exhibition. The 1971 war is something Bangladeshis are very passionate about, and it is a story in which we are the victims. This particular series of photographs, however, showed atrocities committed by Bangalees. Such things happen in all wars, but this was not something that was spoken about.

We decided that, rather than remove this series, we would take the complete exhibition out of the museum. That was not easy, of course! But Drik and Pathshala have many volunteers who support us and, with their help, we installed the show in the Drik Gallery just in time for the 3.00pm opening the following day. The gallery was packed and there was a very positive response to the exhibition.

And that is the way Chobi Mela has been. We have been provocative and we have found our own solutions. When it began, the festival was not very big, it had very little budget and produced a tiny catalogue. But it was a huge thing for everyone concerned; we’d never had anything of that sort before in our part of the world.

Why do you think that the longest running photo festival in Asia is in Bangladesh?

I think the reason we, as a group, took on photography was because we recognised that in it we have a tool for transformation to deal with social inequality. This is partly because we had very low levels of textual literacy in Bangladesh. While I have a lot of respect for textual literacy, I am very conscious that when literacy is seen only in terms of written text, we dismiss the many other forms of literacy that exist. We dismiss the fact that my grandmother told me stories; we dismiss the fact of theatre and dance and music … and photography … visual literacy is a very rich subject.

© Shahidul Alam ‘Blind Boy in Gafargaon’ 1988

Do ordinary people think photography is important?

In 1988, we had the worst floods for a century. I was in the village of Gaforgaon taking photographs when I realised that one of the kids who had pushed himself into the middle of the frame was blind. I was intrigued to know why a blind boy would find it so important to be in the photograph. My rationale for it is the fact that the rural population is not a stakeholder as far as mainstream community is concerned – the corporates, elite, advertisers and subscribers… Rural people are treated as statistics. It is only when a photograph of them appears in the media that they see themselves as themselves. A photograph can transform a person from a number into an individual. I still find when I am walking in a village that people have an interest in me because they believe that I can tell their story. They see someone with a camera as their potential spokesperson.

How do Drik and Pathshala fit with Chobi Mela?

Our fundamental concerns are about social inequality and the disenfranchisement of the poor. But we felt that our space was not the Political space with a capital ‘P’, we were not going to be parliamentarians; nonetheless we were going to have an impact on the political space. We decided to work in three areas that we considered had an impact in terms of people’s mindsets and these were education, media and culture.

A meeting at Drik Media Agency [photo © Drik Archive]

Drik was the media component. It is a private limited company and this allows it to remain independent. We created a platform for local media practitioners, but we soon realised that we needed more photographers to make this work, so we started training programs within Drik. However, it was not long before we required something more substantial and, using the World Press Photo workshops as a starting point, we set up a two-year program which, after pressure from the participants, we extended to become a three-year degree course. That course became the foundation for the Pathshala school.

[Left] Students, tutors and well-wishers rally on the streets of Dhaka to celebrate the twelfth anniversary of Pathshala South Asian Media Institute 2011 [photo © K. M. Asad]; [Right] Larry Towell from Magnum Photos, celebrating with the students and tutors at the Pathshala dinner night, Chobi Mela VIII 2015 [photo © Tapash Paul]

So, Drik made it possible for Pathshala to be formed. It also allowed students to have, in Drik, a media organisation that was both a learning environment and a source of internships. Today, Chobi Mela is run by an equal partnership between Drik and Pathshala. In fact, Pathshala now plays the bigger role in the curatorial side of the festival.

Does that mean that the students actually help shape the festival?

Yes, they work at the festival in two ways: as assistant curators and as personal ‘fixers’ for the international photographers coming in to exhibit.

Do you think curation is an important part of photography?   

An exhibition needs to be designed to get its message across to a specific audience in a particular way. But curation is not something that has been part of the museum mindset in Bangladesh. Often the people putting up an exhibition are not even curators; they are framers or hangers who just happen to work at the gallery.

We wanted to introduce the idea that an exhibition is a composition requiring a set of interrelated practical skills. As assistant curators, the students not only work with the curators in terms of how a show is hung, but become directly involved in decisions about money, fundraising, structuring and planning, working with artists, looking at site specificity and how different exhibitions together provide a collective whole so that the festival has a coherent identity.

One of the vivid images I have in my mind is an image you showed me of exhibitions being taken to a rural marketplace using rickshaws pulling little canvas houses on the outside of which were images.

That was prompted by my first show in Bangladesh in 1991. I had been struck by the fact that although they were invited, I never saw the working people I had invited to the exhibition. When I asked why this was, they told me that they found galleries and museums threatening – they felt they did not belong and even that they would not be allowed in.

So, if the people were not going to the gallery, the gallery had to go to the people. The rickshaws are a very natural thing in Bangladesh and were also relatively low cost. Each house-like structure had a separate exhibit making each rickshaw a mini-exhibition, with the rickshaw wallahs themselves becoming docents helping the audience engage with the work.

It went very well and, since then, we have adapted this approach to suit different situations and countries. We have presented exhibitions on boats, donkeys, camels and, in Sri Lanka, we used tuk-tuks. These travelling shows have been very popular. They reach many more people and the artists find it very rewarding that their work gets to a new and different audience. Ultimately this all comes back to our central concern with social justice and challenging inequality.

Are there other strategies that you have used for outreach?

Within Bangladesh we have many outdoor exhibitions. This is a question of looking at space differently. A gallery isn’t necessarily the only place to show photographs. In the last festival we had one show under a large mango tree, another used open-air billboards displaying work about the garment industry. In this latter case, we were appropriating the very space used for fashion advertising to present images showing the destruction by fire of the Tazreen garment factory… the work was embedded in the location as part of the overall curatorial strategy. [In 2012, a fire in the Tazreen factory killed at least 117 people and injured over 200 more, making it the deadliest factory fire in Bangladeshi history. This and other similar events have since led to reforms in safety laws and workers’ rights in Bangladesh.]

Another example of curatorial strategy, though not one directly associated with Chobi Mela, is an exhibition of my own about the disappearance of an indigenous activist by the military. The last altercation she had with her abductors was about the fact that the military had been burning their villages. So we decided to use fire to produce the imagery. The straw mats onto which the each portrait is burned are like those used in Kalpana’s home as the only form of furniture. The ideas are deeply embedded in the medium itself. The laser device we used to burn the images into the straw mats is one employed by the garment industry to rip jeans [to look fashionable], but, of course, we had to do a lot of complex engineering and tests to make it work as a way of creating the portraits.

Now, as we are planning for the next Chobi Mela [in 2017], we are identifying spaces in Dhaka that will be appropriate for the work we have selected. Only one of these is a conventional (albeit large) gallery. All the others will be site-specific installations designed to suit the work that is being shown.

Is it cheaper to show outside of the museum or gallery?

Quit the opposite! Exterior sites are more complicated and time-consuming – the logistics, security requirements and ‘red tape’ are horrendous and expensive – but luckily we have a lot more trained people than we did before.

The President of Bangladesh, Abdul Hamid, speaking at the opening of Chobi Mela VIII 2015 [photo © Habibul Haque]

While Drik has been a staunch critic of the establishment, the President of Bangladesh opened Chobi Mela VIII. Does this represent a retreat from Drik’s critical position?

Chobi Mela has become the country’s most important media event. We felt that it was time that it was given appropriate recognition. We felt the timing was right for the President to open the festival.

Of course, all the speeches, including ours, had to be vetted by the President’s office. In my speech I made it very clear that we consider it our job to be critical, but we appreciated that, despite our critical position, the President had come to stand there beside us and to recognise what we do. And both the President and the Minister of Culture took that on board in their speeches, recognising the role we play.

Presented during Chobi Mela VIII: [Left] © Luis Gonzalez Palma ‘Hierarchies of Intimacy – Variation 3’ 2007; [Right] © Max Pinckers ‘Zindagi’ from the series ‘Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty?’ 2014

How has the festival changed over the years?

Because Drik is a media agency, when the festival began the work was almost exclusively documentary and photojournalism. However, we had always felt that this would become a much more inclusive project, allowing a far greater plurality of work to be shown. Over the years, we have made it clear that we are open to all sorts of artistic practice. Meanwhile, there are many documentary practitioners who produce very different work today than they used to. The vocabulary is shifting, broadening out. I am very happy that Chobi Mela now encompasses such a wonderfully diverse body of works not only geographically but spanning fine art and conceptual work, video installation… the whole range.

Biographical Notes

Born in 1955 in Dhaka, Shahidul Alam studied and taught chemistry in London where he obtained a PhD from London University. He started taking photographs in 1980 while hitchhiking through the USA and Canada. In 1984 he moved to Dhaka to work as a commercial and advertising photographer and became the president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society in 1989. Shahidul started documenting the popular resistance against autocratic president General Ershad in 1987, work which won him a Mother Jones Award in 1992. He went on to win the Andrea Frank Foundation Award and the Howard Chapnick Award in 1998. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and was the first non-Western Chair of World Press Photo. In 1989, he founded Drik, “a socially-conscious photo resource centre” supplying news images from South Asia to the world press. Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography was founded in 1998, later becoming the South Asian Media Institute. Finally, the Chobi Mela festival was launched in the year 2000.

photo © Rahnuma Ahmed

Biographical Update

Shahidul Alam was arrested on 5 August 2018, shortly after giving an interview to Al Jazeera and posting live videos on social media in which he criticised the government’s violent response to the 2018 Bangladesh road safety protests. There was an international outcry, with many humanitarian and news media organisations demanding his release without charge. After more than one hundred days in jail, he was released on bail, though the charges still stand. Nonetheless, he has continued to speak out for the rights of the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. Time magazine named him one of the Persons of the Year 2018.

Established in 2000, Chobi Mela is a biennial event centred in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The next edition will be in 2021.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the December 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.