BY MARY O’SHEA | November 20, 2016

When asked why I had come to Dhaka for Chobi Mela VIII, the only answer I could give was that my curiosity had gotten the better of me.

As a human rights specialist, the strong, socially-engaged photography coming out of Bangladesh had captured my attention in recent years. Indeed, at a certain moment, it suddenly seemed that Bangladesh was producing a disproportionate percentage of the world’s finest emerging photographers.  Why was this?

It had been six years since I last visited Dhaka. My enduring memory of the city was of its kaleidoscopic chaos, the velocity of seven million people going about their ways and days. In truth, that Asia’s largest and most prestigious photography festival was taking place in the midst of this assault-on-the-senses city delighted me. International reporting on Bangladesh, if there is any at all, tends towards the negative – a potent mix of political unrest, radicalism, terrorism and catastrophic natural or manmade disasters – reducing any engagement to what academic Lilie Chouliaraki has referred to as the “spectatorship of suffering”.

Chobi Mela however flings all such stereotypes out the window. Rigorously global, fiercely independent and refreshingly unpretentious, Chobi Mela is a true celebration of photography, and all types of photography. The festival is grounded in the need for an alternative, non-Eurocentric photographic vision; striving to be as demographically diverse as possible, representative of an ever-widening gyre.  Chobi Mela VIII’s curatorial team comprised of photographers ASM Rezaur Rahman, Munem Wasif and Tanzim Wahab. And keen to expand the creativity of the curatorial process, Mahbubur Rahman, an artist and Salauddin Ahmed, an architect were also brought on board as guest curators.  The result of this uncompromising creative collaboration - on display in 11 venues scattered across the city – was a true treat. 

A highlight for me was Denis Dailleux’s exhibition “Egypt, My Love”, elegantly installed in the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts in Old Dhaka, depicting in minute detail the daily lives of those whose daily lives are lived relatively invisibly. Dailleux’s work demonstrates a seemingly insatiable longing to get under the skin of the city.  You can almost hear the squeaking of doors, the matriarch’s brayed admonishment for arriving home a little too late, the tea brewing…   His work manages to be deeply personal and oddly anonymous.  And it is beautiful.

I was also struck by Paolo Patrizi’s hard-hitting work on Nigerian migrant sex workers in Italy, rendered all the more powerful due to the wispy white gauze sheets dangling between the exhibitions spaces, leaving viewers hovering uneasily on the line between intimacy and intrusion.  Tushikur Rahman’s powerful work “Fatalistic Tendency”, on his battle with depression displayed on violently black walls, also hit home.  A new discovery was Turkish photographer Yusef Sevincli, whose grainy black & white work - offering fleeting glimpses of life in Istanbul as if through a door left ajar – left a lasting impression.

My previous trip to Bangladesh had been for the Parliamentary Elections of December 2008. At the time, it was seen as a hopeful moment, signaling a return to democratic governance and pulling the country back from the brink of a political crisis.  And yet, the background to Chobi Mela in 2015 was that of rising political tensions, hartals and sporadic arson attacks across the city - a context that took some visiting attendees by surprise.

Larry Towell, in his artist talk at Chobi Mela VIII, observed how “one of the problems in the West is that we don’t what’s going on anymore in the world […] I came here the other day. I had no idea there was turmoil going on. You don’t read about it anywhere”.  And this in fact is the whole point of Chobi Mela. To report the unreported, “to saturate Dhaka for two weeks with stories untold and unseen”.

On my last evening I found myself in the midst of a vibrant, eclectic crowd at a party in Pathshala; the rooftop terrace aglow with fairy lights, a hum of animated chatter and eddied laughter rising up into the night. Downstairs, scores of people were packed into the courtyard, singing loudly, arms in the air, dancing with joyous abandon. Chobi Mela and Dhaka make for a potent mix. I left with my senses suitably shell-shocked.