Ace Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam has made an immeasurable contribution to photography in the country. He is the founder of Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, as well as Drik Picture Library, which is exhibiting at Dhaka Art Summit. He is also a director of Chhobi Mela, Asia’s largest photography festival.
Shahidul’s work has been shown at leading museums and galleries worldwide, such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, The Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts in Iran, the National Art Gallery in Malaysia, and the Tate Modern in Britain.
How does the international fraternity see Bangladesh?
It is surprising that Bangladesh, not known for excellence in many things, is now known as having one of the finest schools of photography in the world today. Photographers from all over feel that at some point of their life, they need to come to Bangladesh.
An intense photographic movement is going on here. We started Chhobi Mela in 2000, which was the first photography festival in Asia. Later China, Singapore, India and other nations followed us. Photographers from all around the world are looking at the photographers of Bangladesh on a regular basis.
But ironically they are not recognised in their own land.
Is there is still a distinction between art and photography?
Whether something is an artform or not is a pretty meaningless question. The mode of production does not constitute art. The question is: What is being produced. An artist is a person who can elevate his work to a certain aesthetic level.
The question of “Is photography art?” did come up at a particular stage because photography includes photomechanical reproduction, and therefore … is not a unique product. But in most of the parts of the world, people moved far from that debate.
Is that also true in Bangladesh?
The question still prevails in Bangladesh because we don’t have an audience who is sufficiently aware of visual art, or are knowledgeable about photography. There are no photography critics. People who have written about the arts were almost illiterate about photography. The aesthetic background to develop photography as an artform was absent for long time.
We have a ridiculous situation here in Bangladesh. In the last Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh in 2012, photography was not allowed to participate.
When did that change in other parts of the world?
The transformation is not very old. In Europe, about 30 years ago photography began to be included in mainstream art. In North America, it was much earlier. The history varies from region to region.
What is causing us to lag behind?
We are stuck with some common modes of art. There is also a lack of social understanding about visual literacy.
At the Faculty of Fine Art (Charukala), photography has not yet been included as a subject. That a 21st century art institute is not practicing photography is simply unbelievable. No public university or institute is teaching photography. In Shilpakala Academy, a bill was passed in 1985 to create a department of photography at the academy. That has not yet happened.
I want to add another perspective: There are a few people who are protective about their territory or comfort zone. They don’t understand one of the most thriving modes of art in today’s world, and they feel threatened to include it.
What changes do we need to bring in order to make photography a part of the mainstream art?
From the gatekeepers, to media, to writers, to audience – it needs a revolution and it is taking place.
Dhaka Art Summit is a very good example as it could do something that Shilpakala Academy has not been able to do in so many years. In the previous DAS, the grand award was won by a photographer.
Tell us about your work that is participating in the Dhaka Art Summit 2014
It is [a series] on the river Brahmaputra. Following the river from its source to where it meets in the Bay of Bengal took three and a half years. I started near Kailash and followed it all the way through China, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Bangladesh.
Why did you choose the Brahmaputra?
The Brahmaputra in monsoon becomes 18km wide. It is unimaginable for a river. Bangladesh is about rivers. That’s what impacts Bangaldeshi life the most. Getting to know the river is, in a way, getting to know the country.
Note: Shahidul Alam will also be speaking on February 8, 2-3:30pm at Pioneer Panel: Firsthand Perspectives on Developing Infrastructure for Contemporary Art in South Asia and its Challenges and Breakthroughs