Learning from Chobi Mela
Dhaka, Bangladesh and we return to Chobi Mela, the biannual international photography festival now in its seventh edition. Dhaka’s noise and pollution slams into us as we emerge from the airport. It is an overwhelming chaos. It takes over three hours to get out of the airport and into our humble hotel.
Then we quickly enter the Chobi Mela world, a world of photographic poetics and a deep conviction that this is the visual age and these are the visions.
The photograph has become a universal language of storytelling. It has not been diminished in the digital age it has been elevated. It has left the confines of commercial publications and Kodak moments to be the communication tool of choice for millions of people around the world. As with the written word it is rapidly becoming both a tool for common expression and a tool for powerful ideas. In a seminar on the future of picture editing, host and founder Shahidul Alam, stated: “I am not in love with photography, I am in love with what photography can do”. At Chobi Mela you realize that the photograph can do a lot.
We live in an age within which visual literacy may very well transcend literacy of the word. There is no need to translate a photograph. Photographs contain both an inherent narrative and the ability to interpret. This makes the medium a medium of dialog, unlike film and television with their tightly controlled narrative forms. I watch a documentary and there is no room for me. I study a series of photographs and my head spins with questions and thinking. We have seen images from African, Chinese, Nepalese and Bangladeshi photographers, each telling a story that opens the photographic dialog. Shahidul Alam fuels the dialog constantly with questions, provocations and a quietly incessant voice that encourages us to do the same. As the festival continues into day three the city erupts into riots over a war crimes trial. It brings home the need for dialog in a visceral and important way.
In the televisual age we were glued to the screen, in the digital age we are sharing photographic stories. Listening to Patrick Witty, the brilliant photo editor of Time magazine, you can sense the tension between mass commercial publication and stories freed from the constraints of commercial media. His coverage of Syria is extraordinary yet it sits within the context of social media and the multiple other stories that emanate from Syria currently. This is the new reality: plurality of narrative. The competition between mass commercial media and the swarm of social media could be destructive or brilliant and probably both. What is very clear at Chobi Mela VII is that the business of photography may be in transition and photographers may be economically vulnerable but the art of photography is entering its most powerful phase. A picture is worth far more than a thousand words and as the digital age reveals the complexity of the world we can no longer hide behind television’s simplification. No matter who we are and what work we do we need to understand other people, places and ideas deeper and more profoundly than ever before. The photographers at Chobi Mela are fully signed up for that work.