Drik Picture Library, Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Conversation with Shahidul Alam
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Drik Picture Library, often just called “Drik,” is the earliest and still foremost platform in Bangladesh for the production, display, circulation, preservation, and publication of photography. Founded in 1989 by Shahidul Alam (b. 1955), Drik is now an umbrella organization with different components centering on the principles of social equality, human rights, and democratic governance to bring about positive change. “Drik” means “vision” in Sanskrit. It started from the observation that most images of the developing world were produced by photographers from outside. Instead, Drik wanted to provide high-quality images of the developing world made by photographers from within. The name of the international component of its photo agency — Majority World — nods to the fact that people from the developing world, often called “minorities,” are in reality a global majority. In this and other ways, Drik’s effort toward reframing and flipping assumptions is about using visual images to challenge abuse of power and promote social justice. In this interview, Deepali Dewan speaks to the founder of Drik, Shahidul Alam, about the organization.
Alam was raised in the Dhanmodi area of Dhaka. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Liverpool and his DPhil, in organic chemistry, from the University of London. He was introduced to activism and photography during his college days and has published in most major media outlets, from the New York Times to National Geographic. He was incarcerated between August 5 and November 20, 2018, for criticizing the Bangladesh government’s violent response to road-safety protests, prompting an international outcry for his release. He was named a 2018 Time magazine Person of the Year. With an excellent team, he continues to run and grow Drik, which in mid-2020 will move into a new, nine-story building in which Drik’s various branches will be under one roof for the first time.
DD: When did you start Drik and why? How was it unique for its time?
SA: We had designed our logo and began operating as Drik in early 1989, but were officially registered on 4 September 1989. The concept of a photo agency didn’t exist at that time in Bangladesh. Nor were photographers aware of copyright. The few sales that took place involved photographers selling images outright, which included giving away slides or negatives for tiny amounts. It wasn’t very different from selling apples. I remember photographers selling original slides for 500 taka (USD 25 in those days). Photographers being credited was unheard of. So Drik introduced the idea that photographers retained the copyright and people bought limited rights for image usage in Bangladesh. Drik helped to exercise those moral rights and to recognize authors. This was a far more significant shift than the changes in commercial terms. It also led to greater respect for photographers and photography, which perhaps was the most significant outcome.
DD: Where did Bangladeshi photographers learn photography and what kinds of work were they getting? What role has Drik played for photographers in Bangladesh and how have things changed today?
SA: The Bangladesh Photographic Society (BPS) was the most important organization of its time. It was essentially a camera club with photographers who followed compositional rules, submitted pretty pictures, and won awards. Photojournalists were not seen as authors and saw their roles as providing images to fill boxes alongside text. They didn’t even provide their own captions. The news editor decided what and how pictures were used, and the photographer was at the bottom of the food chain in the newsroom. There was no concept of freelance photojournalism and no practice of long-form documentary photography. The BPS, however, played an important organizational role. Most photographers in Bangladesh were self-trained and the BPS provided a forum of exchange and mentorship. It held internal contests and senior photographers helped newcomers. They welcomed me and I was made the secretary general of the BPS and later was president for three terms. While in that role, I set up the first gallery, darkroom, and library for photography at the BPS between 1987 and 1990. Its monthly newsletter was printed in letterpress and did not have images. I took on Anwar Hossain, one of the most-respected photographers, as editor, and changed to offset printing, printing photographs in the newsletter for the first time. I also began teaching documentary photography. This was the first formal photography class in Bangladesh. Eventually, however, I felt the BPS could not serve professional photographers sufficiently and I set up Drik. Drik and the BPS worked together for some time through joint photo contests on social issues. But pretty picture was still what the BPS was primarily interested in, so Drik began working on its own.
Drik began publishing postcards and bookmarks with photographs, and brought out a calendar on social issues. We organized workshops on copyright and the ethics of photography. Later, we invited international professional photographers to conduct workshops on documentary photography. We even took over the picture desk of a local newspaper and conducted a regional workshop on picture editing. While we were trying to challenge Western stereotypes of the “developing world” (we hadn’t introduced the term “Majority World” then), we also saw the inequalities we ourselves perpetuated. So we trained women and working-class children. Our major intervention, however, was in developing social campaigns involving photography. We organized exhibitions and publications on child rights, specifically rights of the girl child, which toured internationally. We invited leading thinkers to contribute to our publications and involved people outside of the world of photography into our projects. We also started a regular program on national television bringing photography to the general public.
It took a while for the culture to change, but now both clients and photographers are aware of copyright issues (though infringement continues). Even young photographers today are aware of their rights. Photographers have contracts and publications allocate budgets for photography, which they never did before. More significant, there is a respect for the medium. Although it has not yet been implemented, a decision has been made to set up a department of photography in Shilpakala Academy (a state organization for the promotion of fine and performing arts). Drik went on to set up Pathshala — a school of photography — and later Chobi Mela, a festival of photography. The flagship photography course of Pathshala has now been certified by the leading public university and is a full-fledged BA in photography. The president of Bangladesh, Abdul Hamid, opened Chobi Mela VIII in 2015. In these ways Drik has played an important role in the state of photographic practice in Bangladesh today.
DD: Drik is a place that has not only made Bangladeshi photography accessible in the world, but it has also shaped it. Would you agree? Are there aspects of photography in Bangladesh that differentiate it from photo practice elsewhere?
SA: The core difference between photography in Bangladesh and elsewhere is that here it is embedded within a social movement. The idea of social justice underpins all that Drik, Pathshala, and Chobi Mela do, and our photographic practice is closely linked with our struggle for democracy and the broader struggle for the rights of the disenfranchised. Our practice does embrace conceptual- and fine-art spheres as well as the documentary sphere, but that relates to the vocabulary we use; the content is still tuned toward social justice. We’ve also played a strong regional role and helped build institutions in neighboring countries that are now part of the broader photography community. In these ways, I think I can say that Drik has shaped the way photography in Bangladesh emphasizes the documentary image and social justice.
DD: Drik is today an umbrella organization that has led to other projects — a photo agency (Majority World), a photography school (Pathshala), a gallery, a photo service, a photo festival (Chobi Mela), and a network of rural photojournalists (RVJN). How did these elements come about and what needs did they address?
SA: While we are very politically engaged, in a country where political participation involves money and muscle, we had to come up with a different mode of engagement. So we deliberately took on a three-pronged approach of intervention through media (Drik and Majority World), education (Pathshala), and culture (Chobi Mela). The idea is to build an ecosystem of resistance through these areas of intervention so politicians cannot get away with their indiscretions with such impunity. As such, our movement includes many people outside the world of art and media who see us as their champions and see themselves as part of the community of resistance. When the different arms of Drik began, they all had more-limited goals, of providing the platforms that were missing for local storytellers. As they grew and became interlinked, a stronger mesh developed. However, there was a logical progression that was organic. It was because Drik was there that Pathshala could be formed and the synergy between Drik and Pathshala allowed the development of Chobi Mela. We now serve a much broader community than we ever individually could, and never thought we would.
DD: Some of the important work Drik does is excavating and preserving a history of photography in Bangladesh. Can you speak about some of the archival material collected and its significance?
SA: The history of photography in Bangladesh is also the history of Bangladesh. Over the years, different regimes have tried to rewrite the nation’s history through their lenses. Textbooks have been rewritten; significant segments of history have been obliterated. In some cases, documentary evidence has been destroyed. Many of the people who could have told the story as it was have passed away. Others live in fear. Through the photographs we’ve been able to preserve in our archive and some of the supporting stories we’ve been able to record, we hope to build a visual basis for understanding our nation as has never before been attempted. The photographs and the photographers in our archive document an untold story not only of the major events that have taken place, but also the stories of small towns and individual families. These provide insight into the culture and social structure of a nation, which has never before been analyzed in this manner.
DD: Drik seems to continue to evolve and change. You have just built a nine-story building in Dhaka where Drik, the school, the archive, photo and film production, and the gallery can finally be under one roof. Can you talk about this new space and your hopes and plans for it?
SA: Our resistance has also meant that we are in the crosshairs of the establishment. As such, they have tried to trip us up at every level. Drik and Pathshala moving into their own building will provide a degree of insulation and independence that will strengthen us. The synergy between Drik and Pathshala will also increase due to the physical sharing. There are resources both organizations will be able to use, such as the gallery and the seminar hall. The joint cafeteria should lead to greater bonding and more sharing of ideas. A more robust IT infrastructure should create a safer and more efficient online space for us to operate within. The building itself, designed to look like a film strip emerging from the ground, will give a unique visual identity and separate us from others. The main differences will, however, manifest through the greater collaboration we will have. We hope to conduct more research and produce more scholarly publications than before. We will have a nursery/daycare in the building for the first time. We will have residential facilities for visiting artists, scholars, students, and researchers, so that local, regional, and international individuals can interact. In the end, we hope we will become more of a family and the building will be a bustling center of activity and our home.
Deepali Dewan is the Dan Mishra Curator of South Asian Art & Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum and Associate Professor in the Department of Art at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Embellished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs (2012) and co-author (with Deborah Hutton) of Raja Deen Dayal: Artist-Photographer in 19th-century India (2013). She was guest editor of Issue 9.1 of the TAP Review, entitled Family Photographs (Fall 2018). Her research spans issues of vernacular photography, colonial visual culture and knowledge production, and global modernism.