Photojournalist Dr Shahidul Alam speaks to the Asia Media Forum about how photojournalism has grown in the 'Majority World countries' the term he prefers over 'Third World countries' and efforts underway to professionalise photojournalism there.
Dr Alam established the Drik Picture Library (www.drik.net) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and founded the Bangladesh Photographic Institute and Pathshala (www.pathshala.net), the South Asian Institute of Photography. He is also director of Chobi Mela (www.chobimela.com), the first festival of photography in Asia scheduled for November 2006. He is an honourary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of London, a board member of the National Geographic Society, and a recipient of the Mother Jones, Howard Chapnick and Andrea Frank awards. His blog is at http://shahidul.wordpress.com.
AMF: How has photojournalism as a profession changed over the years in the Asia-Pacific?
A: Within Bangladesh, there have been tremendous leaps in the entire generation of young photojournalists. Instead of merely perceiving themselves merely as illustrators, photojournalists have now become 'thinking journalists'. If in the past they were just recording events, now they have embraced their roles as analysts and interpreters of issues. What is significant is that this is not only happening in Bangladesh but we are also seeing this development throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
AMF: Are photojournalists properly treated - and compensated - for their contributions in the industry? What can you say about complaints of unfair treatment of photojournalists by media institutions, such as what some photojournalists in the Philippines are said to experience?
A: While practitioners have come a long way, not enough has happened at the policy level. In most cases, newspapers have no photo editors. Ironically, it is the editors - the gatekeepers within the media industry - who are among the least educated in terms of photography. To a certain extent, they are actually threatened by this medium. Photojournalists are not given opportunities to make key decisions and are not well-represented. There is a general assumption that when you talk of journalism, you are only referring to the written word. Photography is often left out in the equation.
When we talk of media development or literacy, it is important to acknowledge the important role of a photojournalist. Images play a very powerful role in countries where literacy is low. On the global level, mindsets are being shaped through images. Look at how images are being used by advertising companies or in political propaganda. If policy makers recognise that images are the most potent tools in terms of circulation and readership/viewership, they would see the economic benefits of these images.
AMF: Apart from this misperception about the profession, what are other problems besetting photojournalists in the region?
A: There are so many things that need to be changed. The lack of proper equipment, for one, needs to be addressed. Also, photojournalists are always in the most vulnerable position because they have to be at the point of conflict. They can get injured, attacked or even killed. There are not enough insurance mechanisms in place and nothing much is being done to preserve their work in archives.
AMF: What steps could be done to professionalise photojournalism?
A: One of the things I have done is put up a school of photojournalism, Pathshala, where we teach our students, many of whom work in the mainstream media, everything they need to know about the subject. One of our strategies to reach more people is to collaborate with colleagues from various countries such as the Philippines, Africa, Latin America and put up a broad platform of photojournalism with the World Press Photo Foundation from 2008 to 2010. Editors tend to think of themselves as being above workshops. Our goal is to train editors in photojournalism and will involve top media professionals from around the world. Attitude is the issue. We need to change the editors' perception, or lack of it, about photojournalism and only then will we be able to see improvement.
AMF: You always talk about 'Majority World photographers', or those coming from what the western world often refer to as Third World countries. Tell us your thoughts about Majority World photographers and how they can affect world views.
A: Third World countries have always been subjected to stereotypes by the western media. It is media apartheid. At Drik Picture Library, we are concerned that photographs taken about our countries are almost taken exclusively, over 90 percent, by white, western photographers. More often than not, these images are only about poverty, death and disaster. But we have begun to reclaim some space for ourselves and things are slowly beginning to change. Up to a certain point, that space was a territory reserved for whites alone. Majority World photographers are now producing works that are certainly at par with the best throughout the world. I would like them to be recognised for the quality of their work and not because they come from poor countries. Two years ago, I chaired the World Press Photo, the first time that a non-white in nearly 50 years was asked to head its international jury.
AMF: Are you concerned that you might be accused of harbouring the same biases against the 'white, western photographer'? How do you, as a photographer, face up to such challenges like changing public perception?
A: Difficulties are not simply biases. It is a war that we are facing and we have to recognise the big hurdles that photojournalists in the region are facing. It is a question of survival. The way to hurdle these challenges is to create alternative spaces for publication, by challenging statements made by the western media and by questioning the validity of their reports. We have the opportunity to explore the richness of our cultures, to look at the success stories that have to be told despite the poverty, disaster, war and death that the western media always focus on.
Photographers are constantly faced with a variety of challenges such as lack of financial resources. But perhaps through networking, collective bargaining, having a wider platform of solidarity, we can win this war. Instead of looking up or down, maybe we should look sideways to our 'next-door' neighbours for a change. We should be writing our own books, in our own language. We did that and published local textbooks in Bangla to use in our photojournalism school. We are training people. We have students coming from as far as Europe and we are providing them with interesting models and viewpoints.
AMF: Can a photojournalist ever be an objective observer of events?
A: There is no such thing as objectivism. It is a myth. We all have baggages. The implications of objectivity is always problematic. Being objective just does not make sense in the face of huge exploitation of human beings. As a photojournalist, I will have to ensure that I do not distort the story, that I am fair in my reporting. I will insist that, as I tell the story, the other side is also heard. But if ever lines are drawn, I will clearly be on the side of the victim or the impoverished.
AMF: Where do you draw the line between being a photojournalist who needs to do his or her job and being simply a human being?
A: Being a friend is something that never goes away. The reason we are in this profession is because we have a strong sense of social commitment. But we cannot forget, we cannot stop being a human being too. Everyday, we are presented with difficult choices and questions especially when we need to perform a job as a professional for the greater public good. There are no easy answers and everything boils down to making the proper decision in the end. There are deep ethical questions that we have to answer every time and there is no formula for this.
AMF: Some quarters like to call themselves purists and say that manual cameras are better than digital cameras in terms of quality of output. What can you say about this debate among photographers?
A: Technology is never an issue. One has to do the best way one can. I do not think digital cameras are better or worse. In some cases, it is more practical and convenient. I do not think technology needs to be worshipped. Personally, I think the mind is the most important 'camera' that we can ever own.
AMF: Is there such a thing as a perfect shot? What, for you, is a great photograph?
A: The perfect picture stimulates us intellectually and excites us visually. This is a photo that raises questions, that has a lasting impact, and one that will push and provoke. It is surprising, fresh, new and offers an insight. It is one that stays with me and one I will remember years from now.
AMF: What is the most important skill that a photojournalist can have?
A: In photojournalism, the most important skill is not the technical know-how but one's people skills. To be a good photojournalist, one must always keep in mind that none of us are experts. It is knowing how to build relationships and establishing trust. It is being grateful about the gift or privilege of being allowed into someone else's life.
AMF: How should journalists look at words and images if they want to get rid of their own personal and professional biases?
A: Words and images form a very powerful combination. I give a lot of importance to words. Photos need to be contextualised and interpreted using words. There are many situations where, on the one hand, you might need a thousand pictures to describe a certain word. I do not think it is a race to determine which medium is superior. It has nothing to do with muscle-flexing either. To be effective storytellers, we just tell it the best way we can.