“Chobi Mela continues the way it began,” writes Shahidul Alam. “Unyielding to power.” He’s referencing the very first Chobi Mela festival, which opened in Dhaka, Bangladesh back in 2000. Alam and Robert Pledge had painstakingly put together an exhibition on Bangladesh’s 1971 war, which a government minister – phoning at midnight – wanted to censor; rather than comply and remove the offending prints, Alam and Pledge moved the entire exhibition to a new venue, which opened at 3pm the next day.
“That is how we’ve always done it,” writes Alam, the founder of Chobi Mela. “Against the odds, facing the storm, with the wind against our face.”
Though he doesn’t mention it outright, it’s difficult to read his comments now without also thinking of Alam’s own recent experience, in which he spent 107 days in Dhaka Central Jail last year. The 63-year old photographer and Drik Gallery director was arrested on 05 August after stating in an interview with Al Jazeera that the wave of student protests in Bangladesh last year was a reaction to government corruption. He was charged with violating Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT) – which has been used in more than 20 recent cases involving journalists, most of them related to news-reporting – and was held for more than 100 days.
It’s disconcerting to think how years of work and effort, of countless hours spent practising and honing a skill, can be wrenched away from any of us in just a few minutes of misfortune. It’s also, for any of us used to good health, troubling to consider how reliant we are on the basic functionality of our bodies. A photographer, for example, needs to be able to hold a camera, to have the strength to frame a shot and time the click of the shutter in the heat of the moment. Shorn of that basic ability, what are we left with? Early one morning in May 2015, Sim had to face that exact question.
She was on assignment for a French newspaper, travelling to the Tumen Economic Development Zone, a government-owned complex of Chinese factories on the edge of the border with North Korea. Tumen employed North Korean labourers who, with state sanctioning, would be sent to live and work in the economic zone. The brief was to capture how North Korea and China trade. This place seemed like the perfect microcosm for that complex relationship – the makings of great pictures.
Entering Tumen with her driver and colleagues from Le Monde, she failed to spot a sign that read: “No smoking, photography, or practising driving”. As they approached the factories, the car passed a small group of women in black jumpsuits, knelt by the roadside picking weeds from the ground. Sitting in the driver’s seat with the window wound down, Sim instinctively raised her camera and fired off a couple of shots. “Almost immediately, the women turned around, ran towards the cab, and reached into the car,” she wrote in an article for ChinaFile, recounting events.
The 18-year-old Hamburg Triennial will be directed for the second time by Polish curator Krzysztof Candrowicz, who moved to Hamburg four years ago and set about transforming the it, bringing people and institutions together, and determined to make it more relevant to the viewing public. The 2015 edition was, he says, “The first holistic attempt to create the collaborative framework of the festival. Before, the museums were basically highlighting their own exhibitions, but there was no actual curatorial collective structure.” The determinedly political and environmentally-conscious theme this year was inspired by an amalgamation of many factors, he says, including spending a year “away from structured, mechanised and commercial reality”, travelling around Latin America, Nepal and India. “Breaking Point became, for me, a metaphor for rapid and sometimes unexpected transformation on a personal and global level.”
“This isn’t something new or something connected to a particular part of the country,” says Sarker Protick, speaking about his recent work, Of River and Lost Lands, which deals with the contemporary relationship between people and nature in Bangladesh, in the context of the devastating damage and loss of land caused each year during monsoon season. “The seasonal rising and falling of the many rivers in our country is part of our culture. It’s the first thing we learn at school; we are a country of rivers. Music, poetry, philosophy, folklore, religion – all have key elements connected to the river.” Protick’s photographs, on show at Hamburg Triennial of Photography as part of Enter, curated by Emma Bowkett and Krzysztof Candrowicz, were all made along the powerful Padma River. “When the famous Ganges flows over the border from India into Bangladesh, it becomes the Padma; a river that many along its banks depend on for their livelihood, but paradoxically the river is also the main cause of destruction.”
In a first for BJP we have partnered with the Hamburg Triennial of Photography this issue, catching up with the festival’s artistic director Krzysztof Candrowicz and examining the festival’s theme Breaking Point: Searching for Change. “For Krzysztof, photography provides a pertinent tool for examining these big subjects,” writes BJP’s editor Simon Bainbridge, “not just as a visual document of environmental emergency or hi-tech Armageddon, but as a tangible, thought-provoking exploration of transition.” From the 320 artists included in the festival’s open submissions, we bring you our favourites – including Salvatore Vitale and his project on Switzerland’s obsession with security, which scrutinises the ways in which it shapes not only the environment, but also the Swiss mentality. Sarker Protick draws our focus towards Bangladesh’s Padma River, offering a stark warning of rising water levels, while Gábor Arion Kudász’s Human is a study of mankind via the metaphor of a humble brick. We highlight more of the thought-provoking work on show in Hamburg in our Projects section, including Carlo Lombardi’s series on an endangered loggerhead sea turtle. Gretje Treiber’s …
We were among the first to recognise the work of Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick, including him in our annual Ones to Watch selection in 2014, the same year he was selected for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass. The next year was just as eventful – in 2015 he won a World Press Photo award, was listed in PDN’s 30 emerging photographers and was invited to join VII Photo Agency. Currently, he’s lecturing at the famed Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, featured in the latest BJP, which focuses on photography learning. “Storytelling has always been one of the strengths of Pathshala and that’s what the students want to learn,” he tells Ahmed Shawki and Simon Bainbridge in the Education issue. We asked him to take over our Instagram this month – here’s a glimpse inside his process: Photo @sarkerprotick Grandma’s hair turned gray, the walls started peeling off. Objects, letters, old photographs were all that remained. This is Sarker Protick @sarkerprotick, your host this week at BJP Instagram @bjp1854. Based out of Bangladesh I am a …