BY NAEEM MOHAIEMEN | March 23, 2021

Eighteen years is a long time, measured by tectonic changes in what is expected, accepted, or challenged in photography.

2000- Chobi Mela I Nepal by Nepalis - World Press Photo (p 44)

Steve McCurry's "Afghan girl" (1984) might still be taken today, but the audience would immediately raise questions of exotification and instrumentalisation. The subject of the western gaze is no longer "willing," and is shooting back, with camera and pedagogy. Chobi Mela (CM) played a role in all this, creating a robust Global South photography context over two decades. One of Asia's early photography bienniales, it had a regional ripple effect, inspiring affinity groups in China, Nepal, India, and elsewhere.

2000- Chobi Mela I Md Zakir Hossain, Zahirul Sheikh Falan, Sopna Akhtar, Abul Kashem- Out of Focus (p 62)
2000- Chobi Mela I Bal Krishnan, Kishore Parekh, Aftab Ahmed- 1971-The War We Forgot (p 17)
2000- Chobi Mela I Herald Henden, Peter Manzel, Bruno Fablet, John Stanmeyer- World Press Photo 2000 (p 48)

While Western photographers were challenged on ethics and methods, CM also faced evolution and rupture. Comparing images from CM I (2000) and CM IX (2017) is a perception shock. The early years carry a fever of fighting inequality through camera. By the second decade, works had also turned toward autobiography, abstraction, and surrealism.

Installation shot of Chobi Mela X, Abdur Razzak Biddyapith
Installation shot of Chobi Mela X, Abdur Razzak Biddyapith
Installation shot of Chobi Mela X, Abdur Razzak Biddyapith

In the year of CM III (2006), Pedro Meyer wrote, "Everyone is a photographer these days." Four years later, he asked "Are too many people taking photographs?" (2010) A decade later, both statement and question are settled fact- we live in a world shaped by technologies that made everyone a photographer. Looking at 9 editionsof CM together is like viewing a high-speed slide show that goes from artisanal darkroom processes to ubiquitous high-definition phones.

Although there are many stories from Chobi Mela, this project chose the biennial catalogue as object of research. Re-photographing these pages produces frames within frame. The patient viewer can glean back-story, evolution and rupture- and always, a commitment to camera eye.

A project by Naeem Mohaiemen; coordinated by Sayed Asif Mahmud; research by Habiba Nowrose based on interviews with Shahidul Alam & ASM Rezaur Rahman; photography by Pranabesh Das & Debashish Chakrabarty; timeline design by King Kortobbyo.