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Curated by Rosa Maria Falvo

Water is the lifeblood of all living things, of humanity itself, and the very lifeblood of our planet. Satellite images reveal its tireless circulation and intricate connectivity, unifying the earth’s surface and sustaining its populations. Bangladesh is home to the largest delta in the world, and the single most important resource in the Subcontinent. Majestic rivers intersect across the entire country, at the confluence of the Ganges (Padma), Brahmaputra (Jamuna) and Meghna rivers, and their countless tributaries. Travelling through this region you quickly become aware of the fluidity of nature and the comparatively contorted predicaments of human urbanisation. Dhaka’s overpopulation, relentless traffic, open air burning, and industrial wastes are just some of the many, growing reminders of what it means to impose ourselves on our environments. And yet Mother Nature eventually self-corrects, like the homeostatic processes found in all living organisms. Across the Bay of Bengal, the wet season systematically washes away debris, and sometimes its people, powered by rain bearing winds from the Indian Ocean. Major flooding is a recurring reality. At the same time agriculture is heavily dependent on such rains and delays severely affect the surrounding economies, as evidenced in the numerous droughts over the ages. Bangladeshis have a unique relationship with water. Their urban and rural sensibilities to its bounty and destruction are a tangible part of the national psyche, which is inevitably reflected in its artistic expressions. The Bangla axiom •(‘water is another name for life’) aptly demonstrates the unique and determinative influences of the more than fifty transboundary rivers it shares between India and Myanmar, with all their hydrologic, cultural, social, economic, and political ramifications. This new century has ushered in the kind of development that is literally choking waterways and wreaking havoc on Bangladesh’s cultural patrimony and its people. Focusing on water as the ultimate protagonist, Bangladesh’s native photographers are also its vital and most compelling storytellers. They too are the lifeblood of national and international perceptions about this country, its beauty, potential, and problems. Through their insiders’ perspectives we can access more intimate sensations and insights than previously clichéd and foreign representations of local realities. These photographers speak the language of their subjects, share their culture and concerns, and even some of their experiences; frequently they are welcomed into homes and individual lives. The photographic movement in Bangladesh began in the mid-1970s, largely as a camera club where professionals and amateurs shared ideas. Early pioneers such as Golam Kasem Daddy, Manzoor Alam Beg, and Anwar Hossain played an essential role in shaping a strong humanistic style of image-making. Documentary photography practice was later pioneered by Shahidul Alam, who went on to set up the Drik Picture Library, the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, the Chobi Mela Photography Festival, and the Majority World Agency. The scene has since blossomed into some of the best photographic and multimedia practice found and taught in the world today. This exhibition aims to present various angles on this nation’s sensibilities to water, and the palpable and often precarious existence of living in and around the water’s edge. It explores how that same water, in very specific and profound ways, determines our landscapes – physical, social, economic, political – and sculpts the very psychospiritual architecture of a people and a region. As if on a river boat through life, we are metaphorically subject to its rhythms and struggles, constantly at the central source of destruction and renewal. Offering a floating record of Bangladesh, these brave artists challenge our awareness of and empathy with the world around us.

Abir Abdullah

Abir Abdullah is a Dhaka-based photographer and a well-known figure in Bangladeshi photography. He is one of the most acclaimed graduates of the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, where he now teaches. He is a photojournalist for the European Press Photo Agency (EPA) and its sole Bangladeshi correspondent. Abdullah’s work has appeared in numerous publications worldwide, including The New York Times, Asia Week, Der Spiegel, The Los Angeles and a book entitled New Stories, published by World Press Photo. Among his many achievements are winning the 2001 Phaidon 55 photography competition, and the first prizes in the South Asian Journalists’ Association Photo Award and the Asian Press Photo Contest. Hinduism is the second largest religious affiliation in Bangladesh, with more than 8% of the population, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. Ritual bathing, vows, and pilgrimages to sacred rivers, mountains, and shrines are annual practice. In this series of images Abdullah looks at the Hindu festivals developed around the rivers of Bangladesh, such as Punnyosnan (holy bath) and Bishorjwan (‘immersion’), as well as the vibrant cultures along the water’s edge.

Shahidul Alam 

An internationally renowned photographer, teacher, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry at London University before switching to photography and returning to his hometown of Dhaka in 1984, where he made his base. He set up the Drik Picture Library (1989) and the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography (1998), and is also the founding director of Chobi Mela, the biggest photography festival in Asia. His work has been exhibited at various galleries and museums, including MoMA (New York), Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), and Royal Albert Hall (London). Alam is also an acclaimed public speaker, with frequent appointments throughout the world. This series of images began as a creative longing to transcend boundaries, reaching beyond issues of time, political space, race, culture, and religion; to return to nature and retrace the ancient origins of the great Brahmaputra River (son of Brahma), the ‘main artery’ of the Bangladeshi way of life. Over a period of four years (2000-2004), Alam travelled to the source of this great river, from a small glacial trickle at Mt Kailash to Lhasa, through Assam, and down into the Bay of Bengal, and the warming seas of the Indian Ocean. He followed this mighty river through some of the most inhospitable regions in the world, witnessing its many incarnations and the myriad cultures and landscapes of Tibet, China, India, and Bangladesh.

Rasel Chowdhury  

Rasel Chowdhury is a young documentary photographer represented by MoST Artists Agency in Bangkok, currently based in Dhaka. A graduate of the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, he has gained important professional recognition, including the finalist for the Magnum Expression Photography Award (2010), nominations for the Joop Swart Masterclass (2011 and 2012), the Ian Parry Scholarship Award (2011), nominations for the Prix Pictet Award (2012 and 2013), and the Getty Image Emerging Talent Award (2012). Chowdhury is dedicated to representing changing landscapes and the chronic environmental issues affecting his generation. He has documented the dying city of Sonargaon and newly transformed spaces around the Bangladesh railway, exposing the increasing degradation of nature and human culture. Chowdhury’s work has been published in a book entitled Under the banyan Tree, and in The Sunday Times Magazine, Courier International, 6Movies, Punctum Magazine, Business Times and Daily Star. He has shown in Chobi Mela VII (Bangladesh, 2013), CACP Villa-Porochon (France, 2013), Photoquai Festival (France, 2013), Mother Gallery (UK, 2012), Dhaka Art Summit (Bangladesh, 2012), Photo Phnom Penh Festival (Cambodia, 2012 and 2013), Getty Image Gallery (UK , 2011), Noorderlicht Photo Festival (Netherlands, 2011), and Longitude Latitude (Bangladesh, 2011). This series on the Buriganga River (‘Old Ganges’) in the southwest outskirts of Dhaka reveals a dying river; with his characteristically pallid and atmospheric imagery. The impact of tanneries, sewerage waste, industrial chemicals, dockyards, and brickfields portend the death of the natural world and the ultimate unraveling of communities.

Khaled Hasan 

Khaled Hasan is a documentary photographer based in Dhaka. He received his Masters in Accounting from the National University of Bangladesh, and then graduated from the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography in 2009. He has worked as a freelancer for several daily newspapers in Bangladesh and international magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Sunday Times Magazine, American Photo, National Geographic Society, Al Jazeera, Better Photography, Saudi Aramco World Magazine, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, The New internationalist, Himal Southern and the Women’s e-News. Hasan won the National Geographic Society All Roads Photography Award for this ‘Living Stone’ documentary project. He aims to cultivate a deep communication and trust with his subjects, and believes in the educational power of images to penetrate “the lives and experiences of others” in order to effect social change. Hasan is now also working as a filmmaker and artist in the residency programme of the Samdani Art Foundation in Bangladesh. This series of poignant images documents the ravaging effects of the stone-crushing industry in Jaflong, north eastern Bangladesh, endangering the health of workers, causing sound and air pollution, and shrinking the biodiversity of the region. Hasan’s direct relationship with his subjects and portrait style is a strong indictment of failing government interventions. 

Saiful Huq Omi

Saiful Huq Omi is a documentary photographer and activist based in Dhaka. He first studied telecoms engineering, before taking up photography in 2005 at the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography. His images have been published internationally, including The Arab, News, Asian Photography, FotoFile USA, The Guardian, New Internationalist, Newsweek, and Time. Omi’s first book, Heroes Never Die: Tales of Political Violence in Bangladesh, 1989-2005, was published in 2006. Among others he has exhibited in Bangladesh, Germany, India, Nepal, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, the USA, China, Norway and Japan, and received the National Geographic All Roads Photography Award (2006), the China International Press Photography Contest silver medal (2009), and the DAYS JAPAN International Photojournalism Award special jury prize (2010). Omi was selected for the World Press Photo’s Joop Swart Masterclass (2010) and was a finalist for the Aftermath Project (2009) and the Alexia Grant (2009 and 2010). The Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, European Union, Equal Rights Trust, Open Society Institute, and the Royal Dutch Embassy all support Omi’s ongoing and much acclaimed work on Rohingya refugees. He set up an international photography school named Counter Foto in Bangladesh in 2013, which aspires to be a global platform for photographers and activists. This series of evocative images documents life in a ship-breaking yard in Bangladesh, where whole stretches of beach turn into a hellish vision of human exploitation. Caught up in a veritable parable of the worst consequences of globalised industry, hundreds of young men brave extremely dangerous conditions, clambering off the hulk of a ship to cut and tear away at its carcass with their bare hands and oxyacetylene torches, feeding a world market for everything that can be retrieved.

Manir Mrittik 

Manir Mrittik – from the ‘Soul Flow’ series, image courtesy of the artist Manir Mrittik is a Dhaka-based artist, who graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts (painting) from the University of Chittagong in 1996. He is a member of the Britto Arts Trust in Dhaka and has participated in various initiatives involving the representation of ethnic groups from Bangladesh. His uses photography to explore notions of hyper reality and utopian issues, and aims to dissolve the usual distinctions between art forms. This series of images explores the theme of natural beauty through a dream-like state. The central focus is on the relationship between the human body and soul, and vis-à-vis with water bodies. Mrittik’s fascination with ‘unnatural’ light photography (ultraviolet, infrared, and full spectrum) calls our attention to a myriad of details and Mother Nature’s mutable contours, which together offer a more holistic and fluid representation of the physical world. His work aims to project and promote the beauty and symmetry both within and beyond ourselves.

Munem Wasif 

Munem Wasif – from the ‘Salt Water Tears’ series, image courtesy of the artist Munem Wasif grew up in the small town of Comilla, but later moved to study photography in Dhaka where he has since been based. An acclaimed graduate of the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, his work has been nothing short of life changing for him. Dedicated to telling stories as they evolve ‘on the ground’, he photographs his own culture and people with an intensely intimate and humanistic eye. Wasif won the ‘City of Perpignan Young Reporter’s Award’ (2008) at Visa pour l’image, the Prix Pictet commission (2009), the F25 award for Concerned Photography from Fabrica (2008), and participated in the Joop Swart Masterclass (2007). His images have appeared in various publications, including Le Monde, The Sunday Times Magazine, Geo, The Guardian, Politiken, Mare, Du, Days Japan, L’espresso, Liberation, and The Wall Street Journal . His work has been shown at the Musee de Elysee and FotWinterthur (Switzerland), Kunsthal Museum and Noordelicht Festival (Netherlands), Angkor Photo Festival and Photo Phonm Phen (Cambodia), Whitechapel Gallery (England), Palais de Tokyo and Visa Pour l’Image (France), and Chobi Mela (Bangladesh). He is represented by Agence Vu in Paris and recently published his book Belonging, (Galerie Clémentine De La Féronnière, Paris, 2013). This series explores Bangladesh’s tragic paradox of abundance and scarcity: water is everywhere, but in several subdistricts in the southwest of the country there is not a drop to drink, with entire families having to walk miles for their daily supply of fresh water, as a result of the voracious shrimp farming industry. Having lived among these communities for substantial periods, Wasif’s poetic images narrate their daily struggle and impossible environmental predicament.

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