A conversation around the agency of photographs with Alisha Sett, François X Klein, Mareike Bernien, Nat Brunt, Taslima Akhter, Walid Saddam and Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh.
Persistence is a repetition that necessitates endurance. And persistence often emerges in contexts of structural oppression, chronic injustice, and imbalance. To persist means to have a long breath – and this often when breathing alone is not easy. People continue to persist in the worst situations. In these situations images can become a demonstration of this persistence. They might even take part in the act of persisting itself. So how is persistence transferred into the image space? Can images support our persistence and take over, when we are tired? And how can we oppose their possible exhaustion?
The Archives of Persistence in Chobi Mela X brings together different projects which all emerge from places of conflict and transition, places inwhich people persist to transform their reality. While Bangladesh Garment Sromik Samhati, the Kashmir Photo Collective, the Jag Chobi Collection and the Burj al-Shamali Collection assemble photographs in archives from and with these communities, the images take on a desire, a demand. They might become an element of mourning or a call not to forget and thereby persist on a complex view on history which does not misconceive visibility for recognition.
With these four projects we try to look at archival approaches that consider the archive not just a place of an assemblage, but also a place of production, where questions are generated and conflicts addressed, and where a collaboration between subjects and images can be established and persist. Here collections are gathered collectively forming communities, counter-archives that do not exercise, but challenge power, inhale and exhale deeply, performing a long breath.
Bangladesh Garment Sromik Samhati Memorial Quilts 24th April 2018. Five years since the Rana Plaza collapse which caused more than 1,175 victims. Five kathas (quilts), layering saris, gamchas (towels) and embroided handkerchiefs, hand-stitched in the traditional sewing techniques and patterns of different areas of Bangladesh, commemorate the structural killing of 24th April 2013. A collective work of unknown artists from the Bangladesh Garment Sromik Samhati, each of whom are members of a deceased or missing worker. It is an archive of the dead, stitched together by the grief of their beloved ones. An archive of mourning and anger. After five years, the culprits of Rana Plaza are still not sentenced, while workers’ labour continues to be sold at the lowest rates. The workers are calling for a dignified life with a monthly salary of Tk.16,000 which the recently announced wage of Tk. 8,000 (approximately $ 95 per month), is far from ensuring. This work is not merely a call to remember the lost ones, but also to remember the living and to fight in solidarity with them.
The Kashmir Photo Collective(KPC) is a digital archive of photography preserving and visualising alternative and contested histories of the Kashmir Valley. Since 2014, KPC has archived numerous private collections with the generous commitment of families, photo studios, photographers as well as institutions. Through a programme of exhibitions, educational outreach and collaborative projects with artists and scholars, KPC aims to make its work more accessible to the public each year.
The Jag Chobi Collectioncame out of a working context at Pathshala South Asia Media Institute and contributed to thinking about the necessity of assembling and creating a Rohingya Archive in the long term. Wanting to know more about Rohingya ethnicity, Francois X Klein and Walid Saddam decided to visit Balukhali Camp for several days. During their discussion with camp residents they asked about the belongings they had been able to carry with them. A man brought a couple of pictures and said these were the only images he could keep before escaping from his country. François and Walid learned that the pictures were all taken by NaSaKa, also known as Burma Border Security Forces, to systematically control the Rohingya population since 1991. On the front of the photos, the family members are depicted next to a number and the name of their place, while on the back there is a stamp with the signature of Burmese officials. The population census was randomly carried out by NaSaKa, about twice a year and only for the Rohingya people. For many families, these group portraits are the only images they possess, also representing the only proof of their identity for a hypothetical return to Myanmar.
The Burj al-Shamali Collection, an extensive digital collection of personal and studio photographs, which also includes videos and audio recordings, was assembled in collaboration with camp residents (Palestinian refugee camp near Tyr, Lebanon) mainly between 2006 and 2011. In the collection, photographs are considered as multi-layered substances, stratified objects consisting of different meta-medial layers: memories, personal (her/his)-stories, changing material conditions and projections from different individuals relating to the images. The collection focuses on people’s relation to photographs and photographic practices in the camp. A tension at the core of the collection, created by the gesture of people entrusting photographs or their testimonies, while at the same time holding them back, made the project assume that the images would not necessarily be shown nor made permanently available. The Burj al-Shamali collection is immaterial, and its physical components remained with their owners. The images contributed by individuals, studios or families are physically and digitally absent from the AIF’s cool storage, even though the project evolved in proximity of the Arab Image Foundation.
BIO Alisha Sett
Alisha Sett is a writer, curator and educator from Mumbai. She is the co-founder and director of the Kashmir Photo Collective and Deputy Course Director of Critical Theory, Aesthetics and Practice at Jnanapravaha Mumbai. Her research on histories of South Asian photography has been supported by an Edmond J Safra Fellowship (Harvard University) and Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation scholarship. Sett received her MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art as a part of their special option Documentary Reborn: Photography, Film and Video in Global Contemporary Art; she was a part of the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice at Tufts University where she received her BA in Political Science and English Literature. She is on the Advisory Board of Membrana , a contemporary photography magazine dedicated to promoting a theoretically grounded understanding of photography.
BIO François X Klein
François X Klein, born in Strasbourg, France in 1983, has worked as a photographer, an apprentice train driver, as a worker in a woodmill, in a hospital, a local newspaper and also as a roady for concerts. And in the middle of it all, he enrolled as a student in photojournalism and documentary photography at the Hanover University of Applied Sciences and Arts in 2013. His work has been exhibited in international photo festivals and published in newspapers and magazines including Spiegel, Stern, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and Le Nouvel Obs’. He received an award of excellence from College Photographer of the Year (CPOY) in 2016, and 2018 (plus a bronze medal). François was based in Bangladesh, as an exchange student at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, in 2017. He is currently working on long-term projects related to the political situation in Somaliland and the Horn of Africa.
BIO Mareike Bernien
Mareike Bernien lives in Berlin and works as an artist and lecturer between performative film, sound and text. Her works take a media-archaeological approach to scrutinise the ideological certainties of representation, their historical continuities and the material preconditions of audio-visual and archival techniques. In her PhD, which she received in 2016 from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, she investigated the political dimensions of color in film. Her latest films include: Depth of Field (2017) together with Alex Gerbaulet; Rainbow´s Gravity (2014), Red She Said (2011) both together with Kerstin Schroedinger. Her works have been shown within the international art and film festival context, including: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Whitney Museum of American Art, Forum Expanded Berlinale, Les Complices* Zurich.
BIO Nathaniel Brunt
Nathaniel Brunt is a Canadian interdisciplinary scholar, documentary photographer, and co-founder of the Kashmir Photo Collective. He is currently pursuing doctoral research in the Communication and Culture joint-program at Ryerson and York University and is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and The Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation. His work has also been supported by organisations including Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, The International Visual Sociology Association, and the Alexia Foundation. Recently, Brunt was a visiting scholar at the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
BIO Taslima Akhter
Documentary photography, for Taslima Akhter, is a continuation of her political activism. She was a student leader during her university days who later fought for workers’, and women’s, rights; her activism continues, she is currently the coordinator of Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity, and vice-president of Nari Samhati. Final embrace, a photo of two workers who died in the Rana Plaza collapse, was selected by Time magazine as one of the top ten photos of the year, in 2013. Her work, The life and struggle of garment workers, received the third prize for documentary photography of the Julia Margaret Cameron Award, and enabled her to be selected from South Asia for the Magnum Foundation scholarship (2010). Her works have been exhibited in Bangladesh, USA, Germany, Norway, Cambodia and China, she won the Best Photography Award in the 5th Dali International Photography Exhibition (China) in 2013. She teaches at the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, where she had studied photography as a student.
BIO Walid Saddam
Walid Saddam was born in Kishoreganj, Bangladesh, in 1985. He has worked as a rickshaw puller, teacher, salesman, street hawker, and also as a poet for magazines. Walid is currently pursuing his final year as a student of photography at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Dhaka. Apart from photography, Walid writes political poems and songs in his mother tongue, Bengali, which he then performs in the streets of Bangladesh along with his band, Betal. Walid uses the mediums of poetry, music and photography to express his anxiety about imbalance and discrimination in society. He is currently working on two long-term multimedia projects, one on the Rohingya refugee issue, the other is a more conceptual work about the increase in rape in Bangladesh.
BIO Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh
Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh has a background in photography. She combines research, conversational, image and (meta)archival practices to reflect on the agency of photographs and notions of collectivity and power. One of her long-term projects explores the impossibilities of representation, through a negotiation process around a potential digital archive assembled in collaboration with inhabitants of Burj al-Shamali, a Palestinian refugee camp near Tyr, Lebanon. In 2018, she received her PhD from the Institute of Art Theory and Cultural Studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Eid-Sabbagh has been a member of the Arab Image Foundation (http://www.arabimagefoundation.org) since 2008. For her collaboration with Rozenn Quéré, Vies possibles et imaginaires (Editions Photosynthèses, Arles, France, 2012), she received the 8th Vevey International Photography Award in 2011, and the Arles Discovery Award in 2013. She is a 2018/2019 fellow at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht.
Chobi Mela X
International Festival of Photography, Bangladesh
February 28 – March 9, 2019