Shoot the Wog !
A polemic against Chobi Mela
Chobi Mela is a biennial international festival of photography held in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It is the largest festival of photography held in Asia. Chobi Mela VI will be held from the 21st January to 3rd February, 2011. The theme is 'Dreams'. The key organisers are Drik Picture Library Ltd. and Pathshala (The South Asian Institute of Photography). Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam is the director of Chobi Mela. Chobi Mela is considered to have the most diverse participation of any such exhibition in the world. While most major festivals are situated in the West or are organised by European organisations, Chobi Mela is unique in having been developed and launched in South Asia and has now gained respectability through the variety and quality of the work exhibited. Chobi Mela V featured 63 exhibitions from 33 participating countries, spanning all continents of the globe. – Wikipedia
Festival is a place articulated and linked with a multiplicity of local voices of synthetic authorship. But you have to explore the emotional contours situated in the experience of the people, people fashion festival so, too, do they fashion themselves with the same ingredients. – Edward C Casey
Our dream is that the power of arts and the strength of our conviction will triumph. That the power of the gun will crumble before the power of reason and conscience. That through our photography and our storytelling we will right the wrongs of oppression and tyranny. – Dr Shahidul Alam, Festival Director
The contemporary art of storytelling reveals, more often than not, a rupture in the representation (such as fragmentation, interruptive montage, inexplicable intervals) that emphasizes the non-closure of tales. – T J Demos
It's now evident that curatorial work in the field of photography, across the board, in Bangladesh, especially in the last 10 years or so, has added nothing to the Western invention/interpretations of Bengal or the understanding of what constitutes 'good' photography of the underdevelopment and subjects of a failed state. Marketed as the only photography biennial in the region, Chobi Mela, while never been innovative or even exhaustive in range, in terms of creating a cult of awards and staging 'Bangladesh' to the donors/aid agencies and stakeholders have proved to be historically important and present the gamut of contemporary Bangladeshi 'industry-ready' photography.
Chobi Mela has done good work in allowing its audiences to discover the scene-star-photographers who flaunt a deep-seated conservative and commercially successful approach to contextualizing, presenting, and exploiting the complex nature of vernacular reality. An obvious and recent example of an inherently commercial approach to working with poor-nographic images, in the recent The Chobi Mela VI, was by Munem Wasif; his 'Salt Water Tears' not only restages his celebrated photos but also recreates his violence of orientalist capture, display, and invention of the 'underdeveloped' subject.
Interestingly, some of the other ill-conceived Bangladeshi works, at Chobi Mela, menacingly echo the Fairs, a violent form of cultural ridicule that took place at the industrial exhibitions held in Paris and Chicago at the turn of the nineteenth century, where the colonized natives were put on display for legitimizing the civilizing mission of the Europeans or Americans.
While documenting us and our culture, not unlike the white Masters, Drik-photographers display no critical awareness of the impact that this historically and culturally biased encounters could have on our journey of understanding ourselves. It seems, if the developed world, the NGOs, agencies, grant-giving organizations – the proverbial 'industry' – insists on inventing a Bangladesh for popular Eurocentric consumption then those who are now working with images formed here are not intellectually equipped to interrogate for what cultural purpose might these images be intended for; they seem to have no idea that the very idea of indigenous photography is a deeply problematic conception that needs unpacking and rethinking.
There is no doubt that a rich photographic tradition had existed across the subcontinent since the invention of photography. We have to recognize discursively the local foci and slant of the history of photography in the subcontinent and fully refurbish and recreate this (his) story while we continue to integrate and present it as an adjunct to the medium's growth.
The continued invention, indexing, and commodification of Bengali poverty/disaster/trauma by the local agents of Empire is a recurring cultural catastrophe that constitutes a violation that perpetuates an overt and controlled gaze that forces us not to read/represent/rec-ode/stage our reality from a non-consumer's vantage point. The danger of continued commodification of our wounds brought on by objectifying the Bengali subject, in turns, afflicts us with the disease of only engaging with ourselves by Other-ing our body and the body politic.
Noting how, over the last ten/fifteen years, photography has been pulled from the margins towards the main stream of culture is an interesting exercise to give visibility to a process of internal colonial engagement that goes to bed with a brand of cultural imperialism that needs content to legitimize it's aid/consultancy business, in Bangladesh, and to aesthetically manage the Other.
The tension of representational politics, even if one desires not to be caught within these frames of references, simply won't go away, as long as photographic works produced in this region are judged based on the 'industry-ready' standards, ethnocentric criteria, and trans-national-institutional concerns.
The reception of Bengali photography is fraught with discursive debates over Bengali 'reality', which is contrasted and contesting with a great number of current paradigmatic shifts and binary oppositions.
Beware, image-makers, it is through the prism of these debates that the Bangladeshi photographs have to perform their epistemological task.