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Pathshala from B. Palmer on Vimeo.

Letter from Dhaka
By Brian Palmer

Here at the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, the Internet is up sometimes, down at others. But having a connection in my room is an enormous luxury in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I count my blessings, hold my breath and double click: the system is on.

I first came to Dhaka in 2002 to report on the Chobi Mela Photography Festival, held by Drik, the pioneering Bangladeshi photo agency. The second edition of Asia’s first international photo festival, it was an ambitious, improvised, and ultimately thrilling event. The organizers didn’t surmount all the challenges inherent in mounting a four-week-long photo festival in one of the world’s poorest countries; they rolled with them.

For example, when customs officials inexplicably impounded a set of exhibition prints at the airport, the maestro of Chobi Mela, Shahidul Alam, borrowed photographs - Drik photos - from a sympathetic international aid organization and hung them until the captive pictures were released. Alam routinely pressed guests like myself into service as exhibition installers, lecturers, and proofreaders, to take up the slack. And we all pitched in willingly. I came back this time to do a video news story on Pathshala, the educational arm of Drik.

The school, which opened in 1998, grew out of a three-year collaboration between Drik and World Press Photo. Ten years later, under the direction of Alam and long-serving staffers like Joseph Rosario, Azizur Rahim Peu, and Munira Morshed Munni, the school runs a range of programs, including a 3-year B.A. in photography.

“Pathshala is a very old Sanskrit word,” Alam, explains. “’Path’ is to study, to learn. ‘Shala’ is the generic word for place.”

“Photography is very much linked to social movements here,” Alam continues. “Because the state had forgotten the majority of the people, Bangladeshis now look upon the photographer as the person who tells their stories. We have a very important role, a great responsibility.” Photography is vital in Bangladesh, a country where fewer than 50% of people 15 and older are literate, but which is saturated with all manner of images through movies and photos.

But “vital” doesn’t mean easy: Bangladeshi journalists are routinely harassed for reporting on government malfeasance and corruption, which have been persistent problems since the nation was founded in 1971. As of this writing, March 2008, Bangladesh is under a caretaker government chosen and backed by the armed forces.

Still, the school and the photo agency behind it, Drik, are committed to turning out thinking imagemakers who can tackle topics vital to Bangladeshis.

Photographer, Pathshala instructor (and graduate) Munem Wasif, 25, was just named one of Photo District News’ 30 emerging photographers. “Nobody will cover the aftermath of Cyclone Sidr,” which devastated parts of Bangladesh last year, says Wasif. Big-time Western photographers come for the initial – and dramatic – images of devastation. And then they leave.

“When a cyclone hits, most will go for two days, and after that, the news is finished. Nobody’s interested.” But that’s when the real story begins for him, he says. “It’s the fight of our people after this flood, after this storm” that he focuses on, the essential human story behind the immediate and obvious tragedy.

Instructor Din Muhammad Shibly, another Pathshala graduate, says that judging from articles and news report in the Western media over the years, “all the world knows is that Bangladesh is a poor country.” But it’s much more than that, Shibly asserts. Outsiders tend to photograph the symptoms of the nation’s poverty – the trash pickers and rail-thin rickshaw drivers of Dhaka - he says, without understanding, much less exploring, the context. The nation’s poverty and privation are real, he says, but they do not define Bangladesh.

Naeem Mohaiemen, an interdisciplinary artist who has collaborated with Drik through Pathshala to tie words and pictures together in order to encourage greater textual literacy, places less emphasis on the East/West divide. “I think even the question of the ‘Western lens’ can be debated,” Mohaiemen says. “The Western lens on Bangladesh is also changing as a result of Drik, so it’s actually in some ways impossible for outsiders to shoot those kind of photos today.”

Instead, Mohaiemen focuses on what is happening now: Bangladeshi photographers like Wasif, Abir Abdullah, Andrew Biraj, GMB Akash, and Shahidul Alam himself regularly work for international publications. And in recent years increasing numbers of Westerners have come to Asia and stayed. “I see this mass migration of Westerners to Asia, not to take stories back, but to be in Asia,” he says. “I don’t just mean Bangladesh, but this entire Asian area, because there’s a lot more action going on here.”