In Dhaka last week, Chobi Mela resonated with Alam’s call for collective resistance under authoritarian regimes.
Towards the fag end of January, an image, bathed in black and with a red cross right in the middle, started surfacing on the social media account of Chobi Mela, one of Asia’s biggest biennial international photography festivals that is held in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Just a few weeks before that, Shahidul Alam, an internationally-acclaimed photographer, and director of Chobi Mela had been released after being detained for 107 days, for speaking up against the Bangladeshi government in an Al Jazeera video. His detainment, in the meantime, had sparked global outrage.
Bangladesh is known for its long history of laws and rules that have endangered the lives of journalists, writers, poets, and bloggers for several decades. Alam was booked under Bangladesh’s draconian Section 57 of the Information Communications Technology Act, which has been used to crack down on dissent against the government.
On November 20, 2018, Alam was released on permanent bail and is currently fighting the legality of the case against him. At this juncture, Chobi Mela appears to have stoked the burning embers of what unfolded over the past few months. And its logo of this year’s edition—in its 10th year now—is an apt visual of resistance. “Collective resistance,” Alam tells me over an email interview.
A few days before the festival started on February 28, I had been furiously chasing Alam for this interview. Before the festival, the photographer and activist were traveling extensively—soon after his release, he was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. During the recently-concluded festival, he was putting out fires—a lot of sponsors and venues, who have traditionally supported the festival, had pulled out. On March 4, we were scheduled to have a conversation, but my Skype calls at 11 pm IST went unanswered. Close to midnight, I finally received an email from him: “Friend collapsed. Took her to hospital. New crisis. Police have just canceled permission to use the hall where Arundhati Roy is meant to talk later today! No reason was given. Managing a crisis now. Talk later.”
At 2 am, on March 5, I received the formal news of the cancellation of author Arundhati Roy’s talk, which came after the Dhaka Metropolitan Police withdrew the permission under “unavoidable circumstances”. Roy, an Indian activist and author of Booker Prize-winning The God Of Small Things, is known for being very vocal in her support for Alam. The talk eventually took place later on March 5, despite a delay of 45 minutes and electricity cuts, at another venue. At the beginning of the session, Alam asked Roy, “Why did you come to Chobi Mela?” “Because of you, because of all of you,” she responded.
Two days later, Alam wrote back to me. This is how our conversation went:
VICE: Could you comment on the events that have unfolded over the last few months, how they have played out and how they affected you?
Shahidul Alam: I am very appreciative of the role played by a small but brave group of activists and creative practitioners and the massive group of people from all walks of life who stood by me while I was incarcerated. India was particularly vocal in its support and provided huge moral support while I was inside. It nourished me and gave me strength. It also confirmed my belief in people power. Authoritarian regimes have muscle and money, but can be defeated by collective resistance.
India and Bangladesh don’t differ much in terms of censorship and attacks on the media, activists and creative persons, in addition to the impunity, the culprits often enjoy. In your career of almost 40 years, how have you navigated these waters?
I’ve been doing photography for 39 years, but only working professionally for 36. I’ve been facing repressive regimes for a long time now, and Bangladesh is, by no means, alone in its intolerance of dissent. It is the alarming rise in levels of repression that is scary. I have had a loaded gun pointed to my head and faced extortion by government-supported goons during General Ershad’s military regime. I was attacked in the streets and received eight knife wounds before Bangladesh Nationalist Party staged a rigged election. Now, Awami League puts me in jail before a farcical election. So what’s new?
It is the job of a journalist to stay near the edge. That’s where the heat is and if you go too far, you get burnt. But if you step too far back, you become ineffective. So the trick is in feeling the heat but not getting burned. It is a delicate balancing act and requires one to be agile and creative. My strategy has been to build a strong team that is creative, determined and nimble, both within the country and globally. It is only in the movies that Spiderman wins battles on his own.
It’s clearly a volatile time to host one of Asia’s biggest photography festival, which, by its very nature, is rooted in activism and championing causes of minorities and dissent. Could you talk about this edition?
Chobi Mela X has returned to its roots. The first Chobi Mela was a relatively small event staged mostly in galleries in Dhanmondi. After having shown in major white cube spaces, alternative spaces in Old Dhaka, and in outdoor venues, Chobi Mela has returned to the place of its origin. The under-construction building of Drik and Pathshala provided creative opportunities we’ve never had before. With a skeleton budget and a huge degree of optimism, we decided to attempt our most ambitious installations so far, despite the ridiculous budget. Friends chipped in: some with small sums of money, others with beds for visiting artists, some provided transport.
People like Arundhati Roy went out of the way to be with us and make a powerful statement for the rights of the dispossessed. The art itself has been very diverse with sound art, mixed media and video taking more space than ever before. Much of the work is in the interface between photography and other art practices. It’s more diverse, more experimental, more exciting and more provocative. Archives and education have also been given far more space than before. Despite the uncertainties, we are now thinking long term.
Could you tell me about the sponsors pulling out? Is there a general sense of fear around you about the unforeseen measures that the government/military unit might take against any form of dissent on this platform?
We certainly operate in a culture of fear. But it’s not simply people and companies who are scared; the government to is scared to bits. The clumsy attempt to derail the talk by Arundhati Roy has made the government a laughing stock, with even pro-government media chastising the government for its heavy-handedness.
It is true that apart from one local corporate sponsor, all others had backed out. Most don’t even dare to speak to me on the phone. They trade with the government and feel they cannot be seen to be ‘Shahidul Friendly’. On the other hand, Arundhati wrote, “Well I am proudly Shahidul-friendly. Here I come.” Yes the government has money and muscle, and the culture of intolerance will scare some people off, but it is we who have credibility, and the ones who have chosen to stay with us feel empowered by our show of resistance.
Have there been more instances of such nature, where the festival events have been disrupted for no reason?
The government venue for Arundhati’s talk was canceled at the last minute. Obviously, they felt we could not regroup in time, but we did, hiring a private space. They then lent their weight on this organization, scaring them into submission, but with criticism mounting and people gathering around the venue, they had a problem on their hands. They offered to apologize as a face-saving measure, and eventually just caved in. Other venues where we tried were all scared off. The Midas Centre itself didn’t back off, but it was eventually the government which backed off allowing the event to continue. They are the ones with egg on their face. Sponsors have also been harassed and many have been warned about collaborating with us. Some individuals have provided support, but have chosen to remain anonymous for reasons of safety.
I understand a lot is happening right now, but I’m curious, given what’s been happening: What’s next for you? Do you think this year has changed the tonality of Chobi Mela for the future editions to come?
I believe Chobi Mela X has changed the festival better. If we can pull off a major international event such as this when the government is hounding us, when sponsors are scared, when the media is backing off, and we can still pull off a world-class event in style, we know we are fighting from a position of strength. If they can’t deal with that, it’s their problem.