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Human civilisation has moved through the centuries unwilling to yield in the face of odds and this crusade of endurance continues. Photographers unite at Chobi Mela to salute this human spirit which is delicate but never defeated…Mahfuz Sadique looks into the images of resilience…
The endurance of the human frame is not a monumental feat, but a miraculous one. From the carnival on the streets of Trenabade, Brazil of faceless slum dwellers in Meyer’s digital storytelling to the omnipresent reality of AIDS in Kuruganti’s black and white frames, survival against odds is the underlying history of the world. And the magic potion of life amidst all this is the inbuilt resistance that can be found in not just the Tuesday protests in front of the parliament building of Thailand through the images of Manit Sriqanichproom, or the brick-bat-armed coming Arafats of the eternal ‘Intifada’ of Palestine in Omit’s digital posters, but even more so in the struggle for survival of the redundant mill workers of the once ‘Manchester of India’ famed Ahmedabad leaping out of Parthiv Shah’s ghosts of the forgotten past or maybe in the new hope of rejuvenation sipping through Kay Chin’s coloured veil of resilience in human existence through the birth of a healthy baby boy amidst the devastation of nature’s disaster in the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan.

And this infallibility of the soul – resistance – is showcased at the ongoing Chobi Mela III, the third installation of the now globally recognised biennial photography event organised by Drik Picture Library, with the patronage, partnership and support from both national and international components. Staring from December 6, the Mela is going on till December 23, at seven venues and numerous mobile exhibitions all over Dhaka, showing the works of a total of 91 photographers from 17 countries through 38 exhibitions.

“To know that pity or mercy is the last thing these people [the subjects] need. Rather, their story, as told through our images at Chobi Mela, is the true story of life. It is the story of resistance,” analyses Tay Kay Chin from Singapore whose work on hope amidst the life of various underprivileged communities throughout Asia, entitled ‘Glimpses of Mercy’ is one of the colours on the canvas of this Chobi Mela. His work is being shown at the unusual setting – the outdoors of Abahani Playground in Dhanmondi; probably one of the more poignant places to show images of resistance.

Another story from a different, yet thematic perspective is the one by Michel Szulc-Krzyzanowski. His photographs at the “World of little heroes” being exhibited at the Alliance Française Gallery in Dhanmondi shows the daily lives of two physically impaired children living at two corners of the world – one in Canada and another in Bangladesh. “I spent weeks and weeks with two 9 year old physically challenged girls – Samantha in Canada and Hasina in Bangladesh. The most impressive thing was that both girls and their families resisted negative feelings completely. They were happy, optimistic, positive and enjoying life deeply. They demonstrated that when you are in a position in life which seems to your disadvantage, it is up to yourself to resist it, liberate yourself and create a life which is the best,” examines the Dutch photographer.

As you browse through the exhibitions at the Chobi Mela, you are bound to discover that women are the binding thread in this story of survival. Shadi Ghardirian’s almost chrome celluloid impressions of life in the monotony of the everyday, in the veiled submissions of Iranian women, shows the story of a revolution within the four white washed walls of Tehran. “Western impression of oppression of women in Islamic communities, like that in Iran, is quite stereotyped. It is more ‘under the skin’ than it looks. Through the daily rituals of inevitabilities they stumble and falter within. The hijab-clad women with modern equipments show the confluence of the past and the present,” explains Shadi. While her black and white images at the Alliance Française hallway show the amalgamation of the new and the forgotten demons, the colour photographs show household appliances covering their faces creating the infinite loop of chores and nuances.

Maybe the same can be said of Mortein Krogvold’s hidden realities. The most intimate of realities – the one of form, of space – come out in the Norwegian’s work. If faces are the landscape of human emotions, then Krogvold knows that the rugged terrain of wrinkles, the unbroken texture of skin is the home of hope, love, despair and all those inevitabilities of existence. In the adipose, yet singular solitude of an old Peruvian woman’s frame, in the grand indifference of a widow in the urban jungle of Srebrenica, the form of life is revealed – in death and in life.

The alluvial giggles emanating from the strong frame of women on the plateau of a hill, digging the rugged land for sand and soil, gives off a different kind of sensuality; the kind quite similar to the bathing women by the banks of the Amazon, who ‘with fists like Mike Tyson’s’, and skin like sunlight, were just what their images show – alive.

Not just the timid trappings of living, but the revolutions of men have come forward also at the images at the Mela. The Iranian Reza Deghati and his upfront photographs of the Afgan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud is one such example. A friendship that started with a challenge to a game of chess that had lasted more than 15 years, and today the walls of Drik Gallery hold the frames of their story. “They were shadows, they were men, they were mountain warriors against an iron invader,” came the own words of Deghati as he depicts his mural-like images of the warlord resting with his fellow soldiers or while, he reads from the Quran.

The land of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance and the Naxalite’s – the Indian subcontinent – has its own tale to tell. The ‘Nowhere people’ in Swapan Nayek’s pictures, at the ‘Little Asia’ exhibition at Abahani Playground in Dhanmondi, shows isplaced human mass drifting through the turns of nature. It comes out in the simple words from one his subjects. “We are at the mercy of the river. Sometimes it spares us the agony of shifting out, sometimes it doesn’t, but almost always, it haunts us,” says Zoinuddin, a grizzled seventy-year, an inhabitant of a char on the river Brahmaputra in Assam.

The tale of Bangladesh and her children of mercy are told by the visual shades of Abir Abdullah, Nayemuzzaman Prince and Bangladesh’s very own doyen of photography, Shahidul Alam. Be it the strength of existence in the lives of the people of Old Dhaka, or through the rubbles of the city shadowed by the glitter of glass domes, Abir’s work is truly a work of centuries of survival.

Shahidul Alam’s work on the untold tale of women of the Naxal movement, the class struggle spanning a generation of peasants and students, has timeless faces. In Shahidul’s own words, “These recollections help flesh out the actual lives and concerns of Bangladeshi Naxal women, women who are largely absent in party literature and in male-centred traditions of history-writing.” Arifa Begum’s portrait, as she sits on the porch of her mud hut, is as emblematic as the failed struggle for class emancipation.

And then there is Pedro, that mystery from Mexico, with his stories ‘written with light.’ The subliminal impressions on life and the pervasive reality within his photographs depict the every days of our lives with generous dashes of melancholy and ecstasy. From the empathy in the work on his dying parents entitled “I Photograph to Remember”, which was the first CD-ROM containing photographs and sound, to the critical look in his work of the representation of life that is a remake of the ‘fake of the fake’, Pedro Meyer has his own look on life. “I take pictures all the time. It’s my vehicle of memory. And that is also my work,” explains Meyer, considered to be the father of digital photography.

In his almost super-human expressions of a woman digitally clamped down to the size of the porcelain idols of drunken Mariachis on her porch is truly how Pedro sees the world around him – into frames of equality.

Ambrose Bierce describes photograph as ‘a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art.’ To celebrate the art of light and shade, to capture what Salgado describes as the ‘potent magic in the pain of living and the tragedy of dying’, and eventually to celebrate this enduring human experience is what photographers do everyday.

Some of these quiet historians come together in Dhaka, every two years, to celebrate their unique human adventure. And they call it – Chobi Mela.

Published: The New Age/ December, 2004

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