Wide-eyed open-mouthed residents watched the rally weave its way through Dhaka's chaotic streets from the National Museum. The Bangladeshi capital had been engulfed in flames of political discontent for weeks. Rallies, blockades and strikes were constant reminders of an uncertain future. But this rally stopped people in their tracks, stunned by the fanfare of a brass band playing folk songs without a political slogan in sight. It was the launch of Chobi Mela IV, the international festival of photography.
The first night kicked-off with a midnight boat-trip across the Buriganga river. Festival director Shahidul Alam, still recovering from being bounced into the air by his students at the rally, was then dragged from slumber to strut his stuff on the makeshift dance-floor on the boat deck. By 6 am it returned to Dhaka's shores. Chobi Mela was in full swing.
Literally translated as 'picture festival', it featured more than 1,000 images across 49 exhibitions under a unifying theme of Boundaries. With 23 participating countries, the only continents which hadn't contributed were the north and south poles. It's believed to be the world's only festival running a shortened mobile version, travelling on rickshaw-vans to schools, football pitches and bazaars attracting more than 5,000 viewers. Shahidul explained: "That had to do with our idea that galleries are fairly elitist. The vans go to places and people that have never seen a gallery."
Yet Chobi Mela IV itself stretched the boundaries of the very concepts of art and photography. Through extensive debates in popular evening sessions on topics ranging from copyright to presentations of personal projects, lines between heart, mind and art were blurred as intrigued viewers saw the processes behind photographs were as powerful and significant as the final product. There were new journeys into artists' emotional worlds: the story of the storyteller.
Groundbreaking images in Contact/s 30: The Art of Photojournalism exhibited 30 contact sheets by leading photographers including Annie Leibowitz, Sebastião Salgado and Kenneth Jarecke. Curator, Contact Press Images president Robert Pledge, said: "As the world has now fully entered the digital age, it is doubtful that a show of this type will exist in thirty years. Contact sheets... are fast disappearing, destined to become artifacts of photographic history along with tin plates and glass negatives." If photographs capture a fragment of time, contact sheets give a cinematic narrative of the event. They show what the photographer experienced but chose to exclude. Like a fine artist's sketchbook. And boundaries between forms shifted, as behind-the-scenes frames were displayed as exhibits in their own right, equal in status to the final iconic image.
Young Australian Magnum photojournalist Trent Parke displayed scrapbooks and old family pictures, offering deeply personal glimpses into his life, his two young sons, his wife, Narelle, and their parents. He described how he lives and breathes his craft, from the moment he wakes up until he sleeps at night. Trent told enthralled audiences at the Goethe Institute: "It's important to push the boundaries of what's been done before." And his work in Minutes to Midnight lived up to his word. Photographs were of a quality wavering between the material and other-worldly.
Indian artist Pablo Bartholomew continued to captivate by describing how becoming marginalised at 17 when he dropped out of school and took drugs led him to document the 'outcasts' of Delhi slums: drug-addicts and transvestites, hippies and street performers. It was the birth of a hugely successful career. This inspired leading Norwegian artist Morten Krogvold to reconsider his own position within his field. He told listeners at the Alliance Francaise as he described his work, The Heart of Photography: "When Trent and Pablo gave their wonderful speeches, for the first time in a long time, I was inspired by photography and I sat and wrote about UV lights." And yet, this bold statement came from a man whose own passion and inspirational dedication left the students of Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography, in tears after his workshop ended. As a leaving present, they gave him a lungi (traditional dress worn by Bangladeshi men) and a cake declaring 'We love you Morten'.
InSight Out engaged with the theme of boundaries differently. Not professional photographers, they're a group of 119 children who had lost family, friends and homes in the Asian tsunami. Using point-and-shoot cameras, touching images revealed painstaking efforts to rebuild their young lives, telling stories ignored by the mainstream western press.
Bangladeshi photojournalists Amin, Mohammed Main Uddin and Shehab Uddin, in collaboration with the Dutch agency ANP Photo, set new boundaries for colleagues in World Portraits. Here, 'ordinary beautiful people' shot in Bangladesh receive a cut of profits every time their portrait is sold, rather than just the photographer or agency. In the first initiative of its kind, the photographer and subject can both lay claims to commercial success.
Award-winning South African Neo Ntsoma chose the new identities emerging among her nation's youth to explore boundaries. She produced energetic, defiant pictures of people who refused to be condemned by the political situations of their collective history and instead, reclaimed it.
Some Bangladeshi photographers took geographic boundaries as their starting point. Abir Abdullah's pictures explored rivers, often borders in themselves, as a site where social boundaries cross in providing livelihood, water and a place for pilgrimmage. Rivers and People was a collection which stood out for its sensitivity and originality.
In 'Living Boundaries: The story of tainted tea', Munem Wasif explored workers' worlds within the borders of a Sylheti tea estate. It was an outstanding body of work which marked him out as a leading light of the next generation. But imaginative Mexican photographer Cristobal Trejo was the only artist to see boundaries as a bridge between different worlds. Windows Experience are dreamlike images, straight from the heart, reflecting "the inner and spiritual journey when one is absorbed in our own thoughts through a window." Memorable work also came from artists in the National Geographic's All Roads programme supporting talented indigenous photographers often excluded from the mainstream by hotshot western, white artists. Photographer-storytellers from minority-cultures, Bangladeshi Saiful Huq, indigenous American Larry McNeil, Iranian Newsha Tavakolian and Guatemalan photojournalist Sandra Sebastián Pedro produced striking work which reinforced the supremacy of local knowledge and personal experiences.
The set-up of Chobi Mela crossed boundaries in its approach towards the art of photography by engaging curators, archivists, historians, lawyers and photography teachers in workshops and debates. Shahidul said: "The most important impact of Chobi Mela IV will be an awareness of the tremendous gains of photography in the south, particularly in south Asia. "Whereas photojournalism has become passe in the west, in the majority world it's a lived experience. This could be a wake-up call."
Freelance writer and photographer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and London, UK.
Chobi Mela IV
International Festival of Photography, Bangladesh 2006
9 - 30 November 2006
Organized by Drik Picture Library Ltd. and partners