Chobi Mela VIII: little diary from Dhaka

I knew already that Chobi Mela, the international photography festival of Dhaka, Bangladesh, was naming itself as one of the biggest photo documentary festival to visit in Asia. When Munem Wasif, photographer and among the curators of the festival, invited me to Chobi Mela VIII for a slideshow presentation and a portfolio review session, I saw that the programme was more than promising. It was really promising, beyond the documentary mission too. I arrived in crazy and troubled Dhaka the same day of the opening and just after visiting the main location, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, I’ve realised that Chobi Mela VIII is more than the biggest Southeast Asia festival, it is very good.

Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy is a 20th Century rationalist building and the exhibitions engage three floors. Immediately, you realise that any photographer invited to exhibit one series has the opportunity to show it as a proper solo exhibition, and not as just a part of a group exhibition in a festival. That’s the great job done by curators, architects and designers involved to make unique all the shows. At the Shilpakala Academy you have the first approach to the festival’s theme – Intimacy – visiting fantastic works of international and local photographers and visual artists as Shirin Neshat, Larry Towell, Antoine Bruy, Dinesh Abiram, Kevin Bubriski, Laura El-Tantawy, Malcolm Hutchenson, Michel Le Belhomme, Paolo Patrizi, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Arthur Bondar, Jannatul Mawa, Maria Kapajeva, Tushikur Rahman and a selection of local students projects from the “Sculpting with Light” workshop. Special personal mentions are for a 31-years-old Bangladesh photographer, Hadi Uddin, for his disturbing and from-the-Hell photos of Boirakhali, outside Dhaka, and for the impressive presentation designed by Salauddin Ahmed for “Waiting” by Jana Romanova where sleeping pregnant couples are peeked from on high.

The festival involves many other locations in chaotic Dhaka, and there is not any problem to reach all of them, indeed it’s easy to find, everywhere, somebody helpful to give directions and good fare advices. In my short three visiting days, I had time to take a visit to the dark side “Of Mortals and Remembrance” by Philip Blenkinsop, the confrontation between past and present in Afghanistan in the idealistic collaborative project between John Burke (1843-1900), the first ever to have capture photos of Afghanistan, and Simon Norfolk with his images from the recent wars in the country. The last exhibitions that I have visited are the self-portrait experience by Cristina Nunez and the Bollywood-ation of dailylife in India for Max Pinckers, one of his iconic photo has been choiced for the promotion of the festival, included the cover of beautiful catalogue designed by Khaled Mahmud.

My regret was to not have had time to visit Old Dhaka. An incredible place by itself, where it is possible to visit the exhibitions of Abdollah Heidari, Alexandra Serrano, Luis Gonzalez Palma, Denis Dailleux and the archives of Nepal Picture Library. All the lucky people that spend half-day in Old Dhaka shared with me the powerful of the exhibitions and their set-up.

I have noticed (and this was not the first time) how important is the role of Shahidul Alam, director of Chobi Mela and Pathshala South Asia Media Institute, and also of his young curators and teachers colleagues, when I talked to Pathshala students or freshly graduates and when I swa the works of many of them. I am not the first and the only one to say that in Bangladesh, nowadays, there is an interesting and live scene in documentary photography and it deserves to come to light and to emerge from its borders.

International Festival of Photography Bangladesh 2015
23 January – 5 February 2015