A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF PHOTOGRAPHY
It was in primary school that I remember the task I faced. Until that point, I had been given questions which were supplied with answers. Then came a teacher who wanted me to provide them.
It was later, in my first day at a new school, that I had been asked to write a ‘description of a rainy day’. I was proud of my language skills and on that monsoon day, I had felt poetically inspired and wrote what I thought was a lyrical piece that described my mood. Upon examining the paper however, the professor stated, “I don’t want philosophers in my class.”
And while philosophers are the ones I long for in my classroom, I knew what he meant. Education systems that are designed around exams, and grades are what we are assessed by. That they are a poor substitute for evaluating merit and creativity, is something that rarely comes up in discussions on education. In another incident, while being confronted by difficult questions during an A level Maths exam, I remember a teacher who had advised me to simplify the problem and look for the principles that they were bound by. I was required to use a differential equation that would describe the phenomenon of a bucket being filled with water, the rope taking up the slack and the bucket falling down, and eventually sinking into the water below. A formula to describe such complex motion? How on earth? Then I remembered my grey haired, soft spoken teacher, who always had time for me. Principles of thermodynamics. Conservation of energy. I remembered the basic tenets that all physical systems are abided by. I was floating in the exam hall, when I found the answer. I didn’t need to wait for the results. My teacher had shown me how to see. That was all I needed.
I was self-taught as a photographer. While I loathed the racism of Britain (we are racist too, as any ‘Fair and Lovely’ advert will testify), I did love their libraries. I Knew I had to complete a PhD in chemistry, but I’d already made up my mind. I would be a photographer. In the Dewey system of classification boo was for Technology and Applied Science, 700 was for Arts & Recreation. Most photography books came under 77o to 779. Section 778 was my favourite. I always left with eight books, the maximum I was allowed.
I later joined the Ealing and Hampshire House Photographic Society (EHHPS) in Ealing. The weekly meetings were on Thursday nights at the Town Hall on Uxbridge Road. I had taken portfolio with me on my first visit. Looking at the beautiful display of prints on the wall, I decided to keep my portfolio to myself. They spotted the crudely-made package under my arm and insisted I show them what I had. I now know how poor my work was, but they were kind, praising my work, but advising me to work on my presentation. I turned up every Thursday and eventually gained enough courage to submit a print for their monthly contest. It was a portrait of my friend, Mayur. He was a handsome young man with rugged features. I was into darkroom techniques in those days, and had learned how to make high contrast prints using Panatomic X film developed in line developer. I had photographed him from below against a clear sky and bleached the few branches that I thought were distracting. He was framed in a corner with a large section of the frame completely white. Mayur’s ‘Omar Sharif looks made, what I felt was a stunning portrait. I was waiting for compliments from the judge. He was an elderly man, brought in from a nearby town for the judging. “Male portraits should never have white backgrounds,” was the fatwa he pronounced as he walked on, never giving my print a second glance. My friends at EHHPS were more concerned than I was. They saw me as a rising young talent and didn’t want me to be derailed by the judge’s verdict. Their reassurance helped, but I knew where I was heading and wasn’t going to let some judge get in the way.
It was much later, when I was running a workshop at the MIT Media Lab in Boston, that my co-tutor opened my eyes to what teaching should entail. Seymour Papert was Professor of Creative Learning at MIT. He reminded me about how children learn. By watching and doing, he pointed out that the most valuable aspect a teacher could teach was not information-sharing, but on the process of learning. “Teach them how to learn” was his motto. As Google and the Internet now provide so much information, I remember Seymour’s visionary approach. It is the craft of learning that can be a lifelong tool. To teach is to open windows, to give fhght, to instill curiosity, to create wonderment, to remove fear. We see ourselves merely as the repository of Knowledge, forgetting that Knowledge is `experience specific’. Each person has to find her own Knowledge that applies to her own sphere. A teacher can only open the window, or perhaps help pick the lock.
Having been self-taught, I was acutely aware of what I had to go through. Books were great to have, but the absence of a mentor who could guide me, encourage me, nurture me, was something I was determined others shouldn’t have to go through. I had joined the Bangladesh Photographic Society (BPS) when I returned to Bangladesh and became the General Secretary and later the president for three terms. It was like any other camera club. Awards were worshipped and contests were all about rules of thirds, horizons being level and special effects. Technically brilliant photos with very little content. My initial intervention was through introducing the concept of portfohos, elements of storytelling and documentary photography. Of going beyond the single image. I worked with organisers like the British Council to bring in photography books. Reference books went to the library we had recently set up at the BPS and more general books on photography went to the Council Library at Fuller Road. We also set up a darkroom and a gallery. We started printing photographs in our monthly newsletter and began photo critique sessions. The next step involved setting up the photo agency, Drik. We brought over Stephen Mayes from Tony Stone Images to help guide us on how photographers worked with agencies. British photographers, Peter Fryer and Steve ConIan came over to help Kick start documentary photography. When Daniel Meadows, the pioneering British practitioner came over, we thought, we should invest in a bed. We didn’t have one in the flat, and felt we couldn’t really be asking these guests, generous though they were, to be sleeping on the floor!
We bought a second hand cane bed from Therese Blanchet, a French anthropologist friend who was leaving Bangladesh. It was great to have Daniel, and over dinner, I mentioned that the next visiting teacher would be Martin Parr. Daniel burst out laughing. I didn’t quite get the joke until he asked if I had met Martin. I hadn’t. My only connection with mainstream photography was through reading and research. I didn’t Know any of them. I certainly didn’t know how tall Martin was! He slept on our cane bed for a fortnight with his feet sticking out!
All these teachers and the many other fine photographers who since followed, were very generous and opened themselves up completely to the students. I had a different concern however. Knowing how schools can become set in their ways, I was worried that being the principal teacher, I would have too strong an influence on the students. I had been inspired by the early Magnum photographers and my own work was very much in the traditional black and white reportage mode that I so admired. Predictably, the early batches of students all produced similar work and we developed a ‘Pathshala’ style, not because that was the intention, but because that was the style of the teacher they spent most time with. I was the problem. Abir Abdullah, Khaled Hasan, Saiful Huq Omi, all produced fine black and white documentary work, which began to characterise the ‘Pathshala Look’. Munem Wasif took on a more poetic approach, but stayed within that frame. So I set about bringing in photographers whose approach to photography was very different from mine. It was not so much to unsettle, as to provide other points of view and ensure they approached photography with a more open mind. Later, when some of them began to teach, they too embraced that plurality in their teaching, provoking, challenging, but always giving space.
Students played a much more active role in designing the course and even recommending potential tutors. High flying western photographers, who didn’t expect to be grilled by young students, sometimes lost their cool, but usually settled into the idea that this classroom was different, where ideas flowed in both directions.
I was having a show in Arles and took two young photographers, Shehzad and Mahmud, with me. My friend Abbas, who was then the President of Magnum, walked them through the agency, showing them the archives. The effect Arles had on these two photographers convinced me that we had to have our own festival, which local photographers could attend, but the festival was not an isolated event. Drik and its commitment to social justice was the base on which Pathshala was built. Drik and Pathshala were the foundation for our festival Chobi Mela and the festival has become an essential part of our teaching programme. Students and alumni are involved as artists, curators, managers, at every stage of the festival and their active participation is built into the Pathshala curriculum. International artists are paired with students who act as local guides and many have gone on to work with their international counterparts as mentors. Even here, there has been an evolution, where the early leaning towards documentary practice has shifted with equal emphasis being given to fine art and conceptual work, though social justice remains an important influence.
My own practice has had similar trajectories. The Crossfire exhibition had until recently been my most successful exhibition. Not only did it make its way onto the front pages of New York Times and reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and get shown at Tate Modern, but more significantly, it had a massive impact in Bangladesh itself and has been used by activists in South Asia. The Kalpana Trilogy, a set of three bodies of work focusing on the disappearance, by the Bangladesh military, of the indigenous leader of the Hill Women’s Federation, Kalpana Chakma, relied on a more conceptual approach. The garment billboards and the most recent work, where photographs of a mosque was set up in a mosque itself, relied on the staging and the venue of the work being part of the intervention. Each of these works have included students as part of the production team, and my classes took place at the exhibition sites themselves. So my classroom has been organic, with practice and activism being an integral part of the process.
More recently we’ve taken on a different challenge. The Pathshala graduation and post graduate course on film and television have been accredited by Dhaka University. This has also meant significant changes to our structure. Teachers are now required to have formal degrees. Practices such as internship are not recognised as being ‘credit’ worthy. The courses are situated in the social sciences department so elements such as economics, gender studies, media and culture theory, which had earlier been incorporated into our photography curriculum, are now becoming stand alone courses. While we recognise the value of formal accreditation, we need to ensure that the sterile educational environment and rote learning, that we have worked so hard to pull ourselves away from, doesn’t creep back into our back yard. Getting university academic structures to accept that practice-based photography work has scholarly merit is not going to be easy. Accepting that the fine young photographers we have groomed into being equally fine teachers, are the right persons to teach, despite not having formal degrees is another hurdle we’ll need to deal with. The plan is to inject vibrancy into a sterile system, rather than lumbering ourselves with the weight of bureaucracy. Only time will tell whether we can pull it off. While it is true that there are students who enroll because they think they don’t have to study in a photography school (an idea quickly dispelled at Pathshala), it is not academic rigour that we reject, but lethargic modes of assessment which value cloning and memory over creativity and intelligence. Our intellectual outcome and the future of the school will rely on our creativity and our guile to craft a less-tread but acceptable route.
The Pathshala campus is also an experimental gallery.
Opening of Kalpana’s Warriors exhibition by Shahidul Alam at Drik Gallery with students Sadia Rahman (left) and Aungmakhai Chak (right) reciting poems of resistance.
Work by former student Debashish Chakrabarty on the July 2016 cover of British Journal of Photography.