Learning from Chobi Mela VIII: Intimacy, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Intimacy is an evocative theme, especially when set against a backdrop of surveillance and the problematic context of deciding what is public and what is private. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, this year’s biannual Chobi Mela VIII International Festival of Photography took on its subject in the midst of political instability and global insecurity. Charlie Hebdo felt close, Snowden overshadowed, and photographers documenting the human act presented work from the horror of East Timor to the horror of internal demons.
Public and private worlds no longer occupy distinct spaces. The severed heads of East Timor guerrillas would have remained hidden it its jungles were it not for the photographic journalism of Philip Blenkinsop, here showing a lifetime’s worth of work that smeared photography into hand crafted artworks, complete with blood, offered as dark beauty. But, and maybe this is the real horror, not fictions but intimate truths. Blenkinsop slept with his subjects, marched with his subjects and felt joy and love for all of them. The intimacy of his work reveals exactly how close to barbarism we are, as the audience is drawn by the beauty of each image into the pain and suffering it depicts. This pain is our pain and one cannot help wonder if we are all capable of acts that our media describe as inhuman. Maybe the truth is that the beheading of a man in an orange jump suit on YouTube is actually profoundly human. This is Chobi Mela VIII, two weeks of exploration into the human journey. As we question whether the private should be public, when we ask– nervously–about the impact of mass surveillance, or use photography to examine our own dark souls, as with the work of Christina Nuñez, we are examining our own humanity.
Social media is in the room and revelation is in the air. What is revealed is not what the mass media culture of the past would accept. It is a truth, a truth that reveals our humanity not to be the glossy beauty of self-actualized consumers, but a complex murkiness that contains pain as well as joy.
In work by French photographer Denis Dailleux, observing the lives of people he has become intimate with in Cairo, Egypt, we witness the clarity of the outsider seeing what the insider misses, the beauty that is everyday even though the context is fraught with the same tensions and disorders now seen the world over. The day we viewed the show, deep in the heart of Old Dhaka, Egyptian police fatally shot a protestor, who died from a head wound in full view of the internet. Public and private: throughout the festival the theme continue to emerge, a constant dialog that reframed humanity as full on Wabi-Sabi: beauty comes not from the surface but from the depths, it is made more real by its ugliness and more powerful by its weaknesses.
Convening in Dhaka is part of the power of Chobi Mela and its creator, curator, executive director and fearless leader Shahidul Alam. Dr Alam speeds between venues on a red foldable bicycle amid the chaotic traffic congestion of a city with an infrastructure designed for half a million but with a population of 11 million. The city is part of the show as we descend into the chaos of human experience and emerge as a group of people who hug, dance and laugh. For this could be the real essence of Shahidul Alam’s plan; we may share in the intimate hoping for happiness, discovering darkness and then, when we emerge blinking into the light of the real day we are intimates. The people who come here–the students, the international visitors, the Bangladeshi dignitaries, the misfits, the curious and the creative community–join in a spirit of human storytelling that is simply intoxicating.
The lesson of Chobi Mela comes from the work that is shown, often dark, sometimes menacing, occasionally disturbing but always beautiful and always offering an enriching view into the human soul. It comes from the people who gather in conversation, with the artists and among themselves. It comes from Dhaka, a city convulsed by growth. And it is this: there is a chance, a real chance, that the private, when made more public, diminishes fear. As Dr Alam himself claimed: “I am relatively safe. Everything I do is in public”.