Nii Obodai Photo by Chris Riley0
In a visual age, visionaries
by Chris Riley
From portraits of the men and women who made Bangladesh, to a poem to The Buriganga. From an intimate examination of the bond between two sisters and a rare skin disorder to the documentation of Chinese pollution. From Mexican magical realism to Iranian reality and the brutality of war. From students to mentors and beyond. The picture editors from Time, Geo and The Guardian meet the Majority World as it finds both voice and vision. In among the teeming Dhaka Chobi Mela’s white background posters seem to be beacons of a new world: less depressed, less angry and newly empowered to write not only Bangladesh’s future but our own.
Last time I was here I loved the student show and this year was no different. Tutored, mentored and cajoled by Morten Krogvold a group of 25 students documented Dhaka’s human side and created a show in four days, including the shoots and the printed catalogue. Rather than descend into the depression of all of Dhaka’s problems the students plundered its substructures to elevate the fine and the fun. Idiosyncratic, profound and often simply cool, the show was a triumph of story-telling with a twist: stories told by young men and women about the goodness of the human spirit and its capacity to prevail. This work was not full of parental anger, it was full of a child’s delight. I loved it.
It had to be seen in the context of a photography community questioning the fundamentals and economics of their trade even as the art form itself is emerging as a massively influential universal language of the digital age. Dhaka felt like the perfect backdrop to the conversations, a city with broken infrastructure trying to sort out a way to manage its prolific growth. It was noisy, dangerous and occasionally violent. Yet Dhaka provided the Dhaka Art Center and the Asiatic Gallery of Fine Arts among others as sanctuaries for art and thoughtful conversation. Images from Australia, Africa, Mexico and many more made sure Chobi Mela was as comprehensive a survey of world photography as it was a deep study into photography’s development in the digital age.
Chobi Mela starts with a rally and ends with a celebration. It is both radical and inspirational. From an activist past it is now becoming a focus of modern activism: an activism of rebuilding and reclaiming after the activism of tearing down the social structures that have created havoc. I come to the end of my second Chobi Mela, the seventh in its history, once again reminded that change comes not from the top or the centre but from the bottom and the edge.
The theme this seventh season was “Fragility”, I wish the idea had been more thoroughly investigated because it seems perfect as a way of thinking about the photographic world itself. Massive changes are sweeping away reliable best practice and opening up photography to an instant and massive version of itself that causes concern among many practitioners. But what Chobi Mela demonstrates in the work shown is that there is no fragility or uncertainty in the fact that photographers are a powerful force in art. This is the visual age and, yes, these are the visionaries.
That is why I will be back in two years.
Visit Chris Riley’s website: http://www.studioriley.com/