Saturday, December 24, 2011

Joi Bangla!! + Forty Years....

Blobbing is one of those exercises which is remarkably like exercising. That is, you take what you think might be an alloted time, set it aside, and say to your left-side brain “write! you simpering bastard, write!” But it never really ends up like that. In much the same way that I regard the spinning bike and dumb bell weights as friends in the long road to longevity, a keyboard brings with it an implied obligation which is at times difficult to endure. There are days when my fingers fairly fly across the keys. Others when they seem like a set of over-burdened mountain donkeys, whose lives of impressed labor for small Mexican mining firms, has given them just enough energy to do absolutely nothing when lined up in the Churchill Downs starting gates. (Think Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and then “Seabiscuit”... how unalike those situations really are.) Now, finally, a week after my return from Bangladesh, I hope to share a few points about what has turned into a marvelous avocation (and a surprise at that!) – working with fellow photographers in a workshop with the collective known as “Photographers for Hope.” ( P4H) This little group got together a year ago for the first time, the brain-child of Anna Wang and – marginally – myself. Though really, I just helped to sharpen a few of Anna’s ideas. She is someone who spends her days doing the “vision thing” (GHW Bush, 1992 if only HE had understood what it was really about) but doing it with aplomb and great insight.
Shahidul, Anna, and I
For starters, she was a student at American University twenty years ago, and had the joy of taking more than one of Professor Burnett’s classes in the Communications School (Iris, not me.) After a long period where they lost touch, Iris and Anna ran into each other last year somewhere in DC, and decided to stay in touch. She lives in Geneva, married to a Danish UN diplo, and has two wonderful and talented daughters. Much of her professional life has been in the area of producing documentary films. But her real love, as we jointly discovered, was photography. She had taken a couple of workshops with some seriously good photographers (Gary Knight and Marcus Bleasdale), and when we spoke early last year, prodded me into thinking about doing a workshop – more accurately doing “our workshop.” We thought it would be fun to do something in the realm of sport (the UN has a whole Dept. of Sport & Development) and we ended up spending two weeks in Rio de Janeiro in Sept 2010, chasing several sporting events (including the Homeless World Cup of Soccer – an event so amazingly named that you cannot NOT want to know more about it) and working with some local NGO’s whose mission is to use sport as a tool to try and keep kids in the favelas more interested in boxing and soccer than in running drugs for the local bosses. It all sounded big and far fetched, but when 9 photographers gathered in Rio, we opened a wonderful box of surprises which continues to amaze to this day. Through the NGOs we were all given a bit of access to Brasilian society which would have taken us individually much longer, and as we left the country, our pictures were not only in an exhibit sponsored at the NIKE store, but in use by those NGO’s to try and promote their agendas for helping kids out. It was, in that deplorably overused vernacular phrase, a win-win.
A rickshaw (and yes, he has a mobile phone)

Midnight Edits

night market workers...

Photographers for Hope was thus born, and the strength of the idea is simple. The group, which varies in membership but which has drawn several members half way round the world two or three times, continues to try and find projects which will benefit not only those of us who are coming from the ‘outside’ to make better pictures, but the people and groups we team up with locally. It gives us a chance to see things we might not, otherwise. And to share our joint visions when it’s over. We did another small project over the summer in Glasgow, giving small point/shoot cameras to homeless news vendors, coaching them in their photo technique, and letting them tell their own photographic stories about their lives. That, too, was a wonderful coming together of intention, inspiration, and creativity. (You can see all the work on the website.)

For at least ten years, I have been invited to join the biennial photographic festival which takes place in Bangladesh known as Chobi Mela. Started by Shahidul Alam, the multi-talented Bangladeshi photographer and photo maven (of agency fame, as well as the Pathshalla photographic school, both in Dhaka) Chobi Mela has become a goto stopover on the world Photo festival tour, every other January. As one of the few photographers still working (there are several – Kennerly, Abbas, Raghu Rai...) who covered both the enormous influx of refugees across the East Pakistan border into India in the summer of 1971, and the subsequent Indian-Pakistan War that December, I have had a standing invitation to come to Chobi Mela. I just never made it. It requires a bit of determination... its an ankle-numbing 24 hour flight to Dhaka from New York. But this December – last week to be exact – was the 40th Anniversary of the end of the War, and founding of what would become Bangladesh. It’s a big anniversary: how many people are actually around for the 50th or 60th anniversary of anything they remember? Not so much, not so many. So, 40 is a good one for getting things in order, and above remembering what the hell you were doing there. I was a young Time Life photographer living in Saigon (yes, I had a deal with both TIME and Life) and it was only a couple of hours flight from there to Calcutta, which was the jumping off point of both the Refugee crisis in July ’71 (which yielded my first ever TIME cover) and later that fall, the war.
a small P4H contingent
After partition in 1948, the part of eastern India which was heavily Moslem was left aligned with Pakistan, even though the two countries were separated by India, and 1000+ miles in between. It was definately one of those geo-political decisions which was done by men wearing funny fluffed pants stuffed into riding boots, and whose predeliction for gin with no ice was a constant source of amusement. Over time (the 50s and 60s) as the self-governing movement grew in East Pakistan, the authorities responded with iron fists to put it down. By 1971, it was a cauldron of unrest, and the authorities had begun (check your history books, Dr. Kissinger again finds himself on the wrong side history) a ruthless and deadly program to try and rid the country once and for all of this notion of independence. The result was, quite predictably I suppose, millions of refugees leaving East Bengal, and heading into West Bengal (India) for safety. In the end some 6 or 7 million people walked the walk that summer, leaving virtually everything behind, in a bid for safety. For me, a 24 year old kid from Salt Lake with a Nikon in his hand, it was something quite amazing to behold. By the thousands, the people kept walking towards me (I was working out of Calcutta, and spent time near the border as the refugees just kept coming.) I had never seen anything like this, and was mesmerized by both the visual power of those moments, and the strength of the people who had given all up in favor of some unclear sense of security.

Later, in December, when the Indian Army began moving into East Bengal, liberating town by town en route to the capital of Dhaka, I accompanied those troops, though the final couple of days, when I ought to have arrived in Dhaka with victorious Indian Army units, I fell ill to nausea and world-class headaches (I didn’t know at the time, but it was malaria... I had neglected to take my pills in Vietnam) and had to leave those historic moments to others. In the early battles, near the Indian border, I was shelled numerous times by artillery made in Massachusetts. It was a weird feeling being bombed by stuff your tax dollars paid for. (The US supported Pakistan for some vague real-politik reasons, rather than those who fought for their own freedom.. yet again!)

A few of my pictures were published, no so many, but at the very least I had helped contribute to the visual history of what would become Bangladesh. So it was kind of a big deal to finally return there this year, and help lead a photographic workshop. The older I get, the more I seem to be trying to close some of the open loops of my career. And this one was another moment when I was happy to be able to finally get to Dhaka, albeit some forty years after the fact, that I should have.

a few Dhaka images: Cricket kid, fish monger, a "dude", and the everpresent water

Bangladesh today remains a country in development, one which relies still greatly on the manual labor of its workers, and yet at the same time, possesses an energy and sense of purpose which is remarkable. It would be easy enough to dismiss the lack of automation as a “third world” thing, but in fact, there is something quite exciting and notable about the way in which people throw themselves into their lives. As several of our group noted, “you don’t see a lot of people sitting around here... everyone is doing SOMETHING.” Whether its whacking at the side of a small freighter in dry dock with a hammer to clean the hull, excavating heavy clay in the middle of a street dig to redo sewage pipes, or making bricks by the thousands by hand – there is something quite magnetic and admirable about the energy and commitment of the workforce. In the city there is an amazingly self-governing sense to the often horribly overcrowded traffic. Rickshaw drivers, whose thin brawny bodies power their two-seat charges across town in the midst of hundreds of honking cars, remain quite a physical presence. There are a few cabs, but its mostly rickshaw, small buses, and private cars. The brownian motion of their crisscrossing is a dizzying site, yet virtually no accidents were seen by any of us the ten days we were there. Every intersection is a close call, something out of a Spielberg movie, worthy of Indiana Jones. Traffic lights? Yes, they exist, but they are, to put it politely, just a suggestion or perhaps an option. Red means “look twice but don’t bother to stop if you think you can make it...”

DB & Rupert
Our photographers worked in the slums (which in Dhaka are a rather admirable term for a poor neighborhood... lacking the sense of put-down which reigns here), the docks, the waterside markets, and in homes of families. It was a chance to try and capture some of the spark and excitement of this place. The point is, it was life going on, not just something which existed for the sake of a workshop. And when we would huddle in the common room of our guest house (the Ambrosia is a great place to stay if you are headed there) editing in small pools of light cast by Macbook screens, we were able to see what did and didn’t work, and what might be done better next time. This is a surprisingly accomplished group of photographers, and I think we all felt, by week’s end, that it’s really a “human life force” workshop, with a bit of photography thrown in. The best of times are like that. You live a life different than the one you know so well, and in those moments of displacement and discomfort, that is when you really start to understand the balance between looking, seeing, feeling, and eventually, capturing a moment. When that balance is positive and uplifting, as it was in Dhaka, the pictures usually rise to the occasion. It meant that editing our work (“.. never edit your own work!”) was even more difficult. It had been arranged through the good folks at and the good offices of the US Embassy cultural office (that means they sprung for it!) that a show of the work would be put together and put on display on the backs of freight-style rickshaws. (see the pictures... it was too good for words.) We had, on the anniversary of Victory Day, 10 rickshaws wrapped in our photographs, and which spent that day at the University, with teeming thousands of onlookers and celebrants taking in the pictures. The plan was for those photo-exhibit-rickshaws to spend this week driving through the city, taking the show back to the people. It was a smashing idea, perfectly executed, and as far as we know, not a single rickshaw was run off the road.

the Rickshaw based exhibition on Victory Day + 40 Years

One of the other reasons Bangladesh was a perfect candidate for this kind of project was the general level of photographic achievement. Whereas a generation ago, there were a few very good photographers, in the new post internet age when learning is available to those who care to, an amazing scene has developed.
under the gaze of young Pathshalla photographers
The Pathshalla School of photography has helped create dozens of very talented shooters. The pool of talent there now is quite amazing. To the extent that if there were another big, big story to take place, I would have no chance of being assigned (as I was 40 years ago) since there are so many good photographers already living there that it would make no sense. It is exciting to see photography just take off, and become such a powerful tool of communication. In the end that’s what it’s all about. (See the work of a few friends... Abir Abdullah and Munem Wasif, for example.)

I suppose nothing can really describe the joy that comes from common and shared endeavor. Working with this small group of photographers everyday for over a week, forged us, once again, into a kind of family. One in which we care for each other and each other’s work. One where jealousy and suspicion are completely absent. It is anchored in the good humor and positive sense of accomplishment we all share. And in the post-modern age of fewer and less resourced magazines (which were the highlight of my career for over 40 years) it is a powerful demonstration of the true power of photography and humanity, to work together, and share our visual ups and downs, before returning to our own lives, ones that by comparison, feel unusually bounded by obstacle. There probably isn’t going to be a way to include everyone who would like to be a part of P4H, but the one thing we have proven is that you can do this on your own. The new electronic world has given us many gifts amid the tumult: organize yourself, your friends, your colleagues. Reach out to do things you didn’t think were possible, and you will find out just how wrong you were. It’s still f/8 and be there. But if you divide f/8 by 12, you come up with something like f/1.4 and be there. That works for me, too. We’re just sayin’..... David

Team P4H

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