Drik – challenging social inequalities through photo activism

My journey to the head office of Drik in Dhaka at times felt like a secular pilgrimage. In part this was due to the convoluted and protracted overland route I opted to take from Kathmandu using train, bus and ferry lasting three days. At one point resembling a rite of passage when as the sun set through the smog of the rural brick kilns a puncture brought us to a stand still an hour from our final destination. I should note however, that on reaching Dhaka my journey paled significantly in comparison to the photographer who drove overland from Norway to attend the recent Chobi Mela photographic festival, clocking up 54 days travel – and that was only on the way there. Yet it was not the journey but the reverence and admiration with which people talk about the Bangladeshi photo agency that really set the mood. Before I had even left the UK in January it became a ‘must see’ for my project.

Despite remaining a relatively small organization in the increasingly monopolistic world of mega photo agencies, in its twenty years of existence Drik has grown, diversified and made significant gains towards its core objectives. It has identified problems and developed innovative and workable solutions, often breaking new ground, and never biting off more than it can chew. However, it is their reason for being rather than their size or location that is significant in placing them a part from other agencies. And the way they go about their business that distinguishes them from NGOs with similar mandates.

Framing your landscape
The ‘central driving force’ of Drik – as outlined in their corporate brochure – is ‘challenging social inequality’ and prejudice, a mission statement seemingly far more at home with an NGO addressing human rights or development issues than a photo agency. But then Drik is no ordinary photo agency, and I was struck on visiting both their Dhaka and Kolkata offices by how much they had the feel of both a small media design enterprise and an NGO.

Before looking at the nuts and bolts of Drik’s work it is worth giving some space to examining the fundamental issues that have shaped it – particularly those of representation and ownership – in short, who takes the photos and decides which stories are told. Not only because this informs much of Drik’s initiatives, but is a wider question that those using images for social campaigning need to consider. In one sense Drik is not just about photos (or video, internet etc.), but the dynamics of economic development, aid, trade and addressing the existing inequalities that retard the eradication of poverty in so many countries. Not losing sight of its fundamental reason for being is undoubtedly one of the major strengths of Drik. And in a rapidly realigning and changing world it is important that Drik is able to continue to revisit these reasons and revise them where necessary.

Twenty years ago when Shahidul Alam, the director of Drik, was establishing the organisation, photographers from the most economically wealthy countries monopolised the production of images depicting the less economically wealthy countries. And these images were predominantly commissioned and published by large corporate media houses. The playing field was more than uneven, it was effectively rigged, making it near impossible for photographers from less economically wealthy countries to get their photos published in the international media. This resulted in a far from diverse range of photographers, images and editorial approaches, allowing for a particular media agenda to control the representation of many countries unchallenged. This has helped shape perceptions and attitudes on these countries – often presenting people as disempowered and helpless – linked to the political economy of trade and aid, portraying the economically wealthy nations as benevolent rather than stacking trade relations in their favour.

However, two decades later, thanks in part to organizations like Drik, the landscape has begun to change. Although global trade negotiations are still some way from a fair deal for the majority, the issue is firmly on the agenda and receives increasing coverage. Now, with polar shifts in economic and political power taking place internationally the critique needs to be further nuanced beyond ‘the West’ and ‘corporations’ in order to prepare for the future where there is a pluralisation of political power internationally, economic elites in all countries increasingly capture a disproportionate share of resources, and powerful social, cultural and religious forces promote intolerance and prejudice. The growing awareness of the need for better trade relations and changes in communications brought about by the internet have resulted in a young generation that no longer focuses on geographic and economic divisions but principles of discrimination and inequality where ever they manifest themselves. The economic growth of Brazil, China and India, and re-emergence of Russia, is already having an impact on rights not only in these countries but others across the globe – highlighting that discrimination and social inequality have multiple and interconnected drivers is now the order of the day.

Although Drik’s corporate brochure does not focus on these nuances their staff are very much aware of them. There is an understanding that it is not just perceptions and attitudes in the economically wealthy nations – particularly in government and media – that need to change, but also at a local level in the so-called ‘Global South’ or ‘Majority World.’ The root causes of inequalities – such as unfair trade relations – rest substantially with the economically wealthier nations. But social inequalities within economically developing countries are also home grown problems, with links to social divisions and identities such as class, caste, gender, health and sexuality.

The role of large corporate media organisations in the ‘West’ in perpetuating a negative news agenda on the less economically wealthy countries is an issue that still needs addressing. However, changes are taking place. Censorship, both explicit and implicit remain in the ‘West’ – Shahidul gave two examples where agencies of both the UK and US governments had attempted political censor, but two ‘Gulf Wars’ have educated a generation not to trust corporate media any more than they can trust their governments to tell them the ‘truth’ about why they are going to war. The response, increasingly linked to the emergence of Web 2.0 – and the use of these technical innovations to create social and democratic space – is the rise of citizen / Indy media, making a significant contribution to challenging monopolies and democratisation.
A good example in Asia is the role Malaysiakini played in the recent general election in Malaysia in countering a traditionally pro-UMNO media monopoly, sited as contributing to the unprecedented gains made by the opposition coalition. Corporate monopolies exist in every country, and journalists and editors produce unethical and discriminatory articles everywhere. Although this is not a reason to continue to highlight the way large news corporations in the US, Europe, Australia and Japan shape the news agenda, to leave out the fast growing satellite news channels in countries such as India and China (where overt state censorship plays such a prominent role) leaves out a significant part of the equation and future trends. It is interesting to note the generational difference in how these dynamics are expressed by staff at both Drik offices, with the younger generation much less inclined to focus on ‘North’ and ‘South’, likely a reflection of the times they grew up in than any differences of opinion of where we are now.

So what is the entry point for a relatively small organisation like Drik into this dynamic? From my time talking with staff it became clear that the heart of Drik is not the photos and other media that document social inequalities but their projects that look to address these. And it is the model of being commercially viable, and thus independent from donor funding, that allow it to run these projects on their own terms and say what others may be reluctant to. Essentially, they looked at how the world was ordered and found ways to free themselves of the barriers.

Although Drik has now expanded and gained international recognition for its work it is evident from talking to those who have worked there since its conception that they initially struggled. Some of this was due to the situation in Bangladesh, where only a small market existed for images, their value was not appreciated and photographers exploited.

Thus Drik set about creating a market – by establishing a stock agency, training photographers at Drik’s acclaimed school of photography, and working for photographers rights, including fair pay and establishing respect for copyright/royalties.

Drik’s success is based on a clear strategic mandate – identifying the problem, the solution, and never biting off more than they can chew. This is reflected in all their work, including commercial commissions. Equally, recognising that their image bank cannot go head to head with the likes of Corbis and Getty, their business model resembles other Fair Trade type initiatives in that it trades on what distinguishes them from these giant corporate structures i.e. good percentage of image profits going directly to the photographers, locally sourced images, and a distinct approach to representation. Their ability to innovate, especially with technology, has so far kept them ahead of the game.

Fighting for the right to photograph
In order to diversify the way countries in the ‘Global South’ and social issues are represented in the media Drik set out to support local photographers in Bangladesh, though now extends this assistance to photographers in many less economically wealthy countries. This has primarily been through the now world renown school of photography – Pathshala –pathshalaand the Majority World photo library.

Fighting for better working rights for photographers, including pay, working conditions and royalties, training to make them more competitive in the global market, and making their photographs more accessible to buyers. The result is that now photographers associated with Drik have won prestigious awards and work on a more equal basis with their contemporaries in economically wealthier countries. It is now much harder for those with prejudiced views to say that there are not enough good photographers from the ‘South’ especially when documenting the issues in their own countries. As Shahidul says, “What better way to refute prejudice and discrimination than by demonstrating what you are capable off?”

Drik has gone on to work with many talented photographers in other countries in the ‘South’ doing good work that is not getting exposure and outside the reach of large photo agencies.
The Majority World on-line stock site provides a way for these people to sell their work – featuring photographers from Asia, Africa and Central and South America. They currently have 60,000 images on-line and approximately five times that number waiting to be uploaded. One photographer who contributes work to Majority World did tell me that they wished there was a clearer break down of costing for each photo to understand the pricing and photographers share better. Equally, the Chobi Mela festival that takes place every two years looks to showcase work by relatively unknown photographers, with up to 80% at the recent festival contributed by ‘unknowns’.

It should be pointed out that despite this emphasis on supporting photographers in the ‘Majority World’ Drik also works with photographers from the ‘North’. The problem for Drik was always the exclusivity of the status quo, and the need for diversity to give a more rounded view of countries often stereotyped. Not that photographers from the ‘South’ necessarily take different pictures, or are any more ethical than their ‘Northern’ counter parts Shahidul points out. It just makes more sense to have a local photographer take photos of unfolding news events than jet in a foreigner who will contribute more to global warming, arrive behind the news curve and may not know the nuances of the situation. There is also a big emphasis at Drik on presenting the stories that are not often told – those who are socially marginalised – and to tell their stories fairly, without distortion. Unfortunately, although photographers from the ‘South’ have emerged onto the world stage the issue of editorial control is harder to address. In an attempt to counter this Drik produces ‘whole products’ including text and photos allowing them to better influence the news agenda.

The desire to change how Bangladesh was being represented in images and in the news was an initial driving force, particularly when photographers from outside the country would parachute in on short assignments, often focussing on ‘bad news’ stories such as the coverage of the devastating cyclone in April 1991 rather than, for example, the on-going fight for democracy. This issue of representation runs strongly through Drik’s work – and through the use of images for social activism – with the feeling that Bangladesh, and other countries, are better represented now that locals have started covering the issues. It is difficult to systematically assess whether this is the case, even if you were to go through multiple images spanning decades and see how these were used in the media – though it seems intuitive that ‘local knowledge’ and diversification in photographers should facilitate this. This appears to be a broader challenge in studying the use of images for social change, in finding research that examine how different types of images change perceptions, mobilize people, and raise funds. Anecdotal stories are plentiful but this is no substitute for a more robust analysis. This raises a question not only for Drik but for all photographers, activists and organisations working on social issues – what type of images will best speak to your audience and thus contribute towards your objectives? And how can you evaluate the role they play in your campaign? With out knowing what works it is also difficult to adapt to changes in your audience, and continue to evolve the visual language of dissent. The documentary style of focussing on those impacted by the problem through photo essays, although still able to have impact may in an age of computer manipulation and advertising proliferation no longer make the cut with future generations. Those experiencing poverty, pain, loss and destitution are the subjects of the majority of images used in social activism. Despite the excellent photographs being produced and the continuing need to inform people of the situation of others, is there not a need to turn the lens (and Photoshop) on those that created the situation in the first place? A discussion on this with some of the guys from Drik India came too late in the evening and after too many beers to really explore it adequately here. However, there must be lessons from the ‘creative construction’ of images from art photography – like Gregory Crewdson and Wang Qingsong, and organisations such as Ad Busters that can be better applied to social activism, not only to better critique existing power relations but to ensure you continue to engage your audience. Where it is not possible to represent an unequal power relation in a shot of the real world, why not use available technology to produce the required image? Or for that matter simple tools like pencils and paints – some of the images drawn by children working in brick kilns for a Save the Children project (see below) show a sophisticated eye for comparing and contrasting inequalities. One approach does not need to replace the other, but the hang up with ‘truth’ – photography showing you a split second of ‘how it is’ – cannot get in the way of the aim of communicating with your audience. Many NGOs are increasingly using images in their campaigns developed by advertising agencies on a pro bono basis. Many of these are of a high quality, clever and challenge the viewer in ways that ‘straight’ photography currently is not.

Although the commercial activities of Drik, such as its print production – including advertising and corporate brochures – may appear distant from its social activism, these provide its financial and editorial independence, as well as funding its campaign projects. This is an issue Reza Rahman, Head of Operations and Curatorial Director of Chobi Mela, comes back to several times during our discussion. These carefully chosen projects focus on social issues impacting Bangladesh i.e. corruption, HIV/AIDS, global warming, the right to health etc. In order to be able to implement these projects without resorting to donor funding – and thus having to relinquish some control, particularly editorially – being financially self-sufficient is important. So, although Drik at times appears to do the work traditionally the preserve of NGOs, its model is subtly and significantly different. As mentioned above, in some ways it resembles a Fair Trade initiative – supporting the producers (photographers) and working to address inequalities (that their photographers focus on). The constant need to be competitive and financially viable also produces a different work ethic – knowing that they need to make money rather than receive it from a donor.

Drik’s projects often have ‘working partners’ – this involves developing a project on a particular issue and then approaching those who have the required capacity to implement some elements of it. They do not look for funding for themselves from these partners, but for skills, access and resources that a small media organisation like Drik does not have. They present projects to potential partners, stating clearly Drik’s need to keep editorial control. If the partner is not interested then they look elsewhere. This leaves little room for flexibility which begs the question of how this works in practice given others political and organisational guidelines and policies? Working for Amnesty International I know how difficult this can potentially be – even issuing a joint press release with another human rights organization can be a drawn out negotiation. The principle behind Drik’s position appears to stem from the desire to not have their project changed, watered down, or overtly influenced by others agendas. This raises the issue of expertise – given that Drik is a media organisation with a social mission, how much institutional knowledge and expertise is there on such complex and diverse issues such as climate change, corruption, HIV/AIDs etc.? And if you work with a partner who specialises on such issues is there not something to be gained by their input in devising the project, rather than just contributing resources? Drik does have a research cell, and invites outside experts to induct staff on issues but after spending some time questioning Reza on this issue I felt that the only real way to know the pros and cons of their approach would be to witness one of the projects in the making.

Sight and Sound
It is increasingly the case that social campaigns use an array of audio-visual tools, including images, video, and audio – and these are increasingly made available through the internet. However, more established ways of accessing your audience are not necessarily made redundant by technology even though this may easy production and lower costs.

The ‘One Day from a Hangman’s Life’ documentary film, directed by Joshy Joseph for Drik formed part of a campaign against the use of the death penalty in India. The film follows the state appointed hangman as he prepares over the course of a day for the execution of a rapist. The first execution in India for many years the film does not take an explicit anti-death penalty stance, rather watches the media frenzy that buzzes around the hangman as the clock ticks down. Partners included Amnesty International India (who screened the film at an anti-death penalty film festival). The film was to be screened in Kolkata, however it was ‘banned’ by the Chief Minister (who stopped the screening). The media responded in up roar – demonstrating that controversy can often get you better exposure than the initial product ever would have done on its own, and highlights the importance of a good communications strategy.

Drik is very conscious of making images and their projects accessible to a wider audience than would usually come to a gallery, go on-line or buy an expensive photo book. It produces a diverse array of media products tailored to the audience they want to reach. It has developed mobile exhibitions and exhibitions in public outdoor venues, often reaching those directly impacted by the issue that are being highlighted. Initiatives have included working with rickshaw drivers on a mobile exhibition they take to communities and act as ambassadors in explaining the project – with the idea that the drivers are better able to connect with the communities they serve.

‘Positive Lives’ was the second project by Drik India. The project uses photographs and testimony to show the emotional and social impact of the disease. The primary aim was to address the stigma and prejudice surrounding HIV/AIDS. It became an international touring exhibition – with laminated versions of the images being available for local organisations in many locations worldwide. Venues have included schools, truck stops, prisons, street festivals and garment factories. The project has an every growing archive of images, demonstrating the global impact of the disease. Nearly half a dozen books have been produced using the images, and the project has its own website. The campaign activities – beyond the showing of the images – include engaging the media and talk programmes with people living with HIV/AIDs and those working on the issue. The Chief Minister and Health Minister of West Bengal inaugurated the exhibition in Kolkata, the first HIV/AIDs focussed engagement attended by these ministers.

Another example worth looking at is Drik’s project on corruption that looked to take advantage of high profile investigations by the government anti-corruption agency in Bangladesh. Drik looked to raise awareness with the aim of collecting peoples’ opinions and advice for the government – then delivering it to the relevant people, including at a discussion forum with policy makers. Their partner on this project was UNDP who brought their field presence across Bangladesh in facilitating the collection of opinion, and their access to government to deliver them.

Drik also acts as a consultant to NGOs, advising on which photographers to use on specific issues/in country, and how best to represent an issue, as well as producing exhibitions. This would appear particularly useful for organisations that do not have communication or audio visual staff, as well as those that lack contacts in a particular country.

Drik does not always get it right, but appears willing to experiment in order to remain ahead of the game – as it did in the early 90’s by pioneering the internet in Bangladesh. However, its plan to create ‘information portals’ in rural areas of Bangladesh – giving greater access to the internet, and thus closing the information gap that allows people to better access their rights – failed. The aim was sound, that often progressive laws exist but are not implemented partly due to a lack of awareness by the rights claimants. Drik would not be the first to pick the wrong technological tool for the job – though in this case it appears to be more a technical issue rather than an inappropriate technology per se – and are now focussing on mobile technology in anticipation of 3G rolling out in Bangladesh in the near future. With far greater penetration of mobile hardware and networks this should make their planned ‘Internet TV’ much more widely available and harder for government censors to get their hands on (though the recent blocking of YouTube may signal a future trend in this area).

Middle class guys with cameras?
If you have a problem with middle class white guys with cameras monopolising representation, then it stands to reason that middle class Bangladeshi guys with cameras, although an improvement, runs up against similar issues when photographing a family living on the street in Dhaka i.e. what do they know of their life when their lifestyles and lived experience are so different? Realising the question this raises Drik has run two participatory initiatives, one in Dhaka – ‘Out of Focus’ with children from working class backgrounds – and one in Kolkata with children of sex workers. Rather than just focus on teaching the children to use cameras, the emphasis has also been on them being able to represent their own lives and communities. Suvendu Chatterjee, director of Drik India, who worked with the children of sex workers emphasizes that he was ‘facilitating knowledge of photography not teaching it.’ In both cases some of the participates now work at Drik. In Bangladesh this marks a significant shift where those from a working class background rarely work at such a responsible level in an organisation.

The current work Drik is doing with Save the Children India is potentially an example of participatory best practice. As with many things, it is a simple approach but it is surprising how many organisations get this type of initiative wrong. The problem the campaign wants to address is one of education for children who migrate with their families from Bihar to West Bengal to work in the brick kilns for seven months of the year. When there they do not have access to education, thus need the West Bengal and Bihar state governments to have a joined up approach in providing schooling. Starting with an art workshop facilitated by Drik the children were given materials to draw whatever they liked. Most decided to depict their lives at the brick kilns – though not before telling the ‘middle class guys’ that they knew nothing of their lives, coming from the air conditioned environment of the city.

Despite never having had the opportunity to draw the children produced works of great insight, composition and colour combinations. They were able to effectively juxtapose their lives with those who were the end users of the bricks they made. Save the Children India will now use a selection of the children’s drawings and quotes from the children – including producing posters – in a campaign to lobby decision makers in government. From active participation by those claiming their rights, to producing materials for lobbying, with a strategic objective firmly fixed, the production of the visual materials works on every level.

Reflecting values internally
Staff at Drik emphasize that they need to achieve more in regards to reflecting their organisations values in its staff profile, particularly in regards to gender. Jeevani Fernando is the only woman senior staff member in both offices. Coming from Sri Lanka she immediately felt the existing gender imbalance and attitudes that contribute towards this. Responsible for staff recruitment and development she has faced several challenges herself as a woman in Drik as well as in changing attitudes of staff towards having more women in the organisation. Women continue to be substantially under represented. Positive discrimination in regards to the recruitment of those from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds is in place but with all the will in the world there are wider social issues that place barriers to quickly addressing these imbalances.

This leads us back to where we started, and the issue of representation – how do we best represent the social issues that concern us to engage our audience, but also educate and mobilize them? And who are the people doing the representing and decide what we see? Inevitably, many of the issues that need exposure are challenging and it would be wrong to not show the reality that people have to deal with. However, people are often active agents for change in their own lives and, although may benefit from assistance, to depict people as powerless is mostly inaccurate. One of the greatest challenges, according to Shahidul, is the concept of the ‘Other’ i.e. ‘they are different to me and my concerns do not relate to that’ – a form of dehumanisation, that some matter less. Although there are elements of historical and cultural prejudice involved in this it is also straight forward issues such as language, culture and a lack of information that play a big part in making it difficult for people to bridge that gap. This is where photos and video can be an excellent method of engagement – as Shahidul puts it, ‘Us’ as interlinked, with the same emotions, same human responses. Not just here is a cheque for $5, but to engage as an active player in others lives, making us far more able to engage than just to donate in times of crisis. We live in a world together and are collectively responsible for this planet.” The audience should be treated as intelligent, not have their preconceptions reinforced – simplistic images devoid of modernity and contradictions – but challenged, educated and drawn into a deeper understanding and engagement on the issue. For this to happen we need more organisations like Drik and more of Drik’s attitude in existing organisations looking at social inequalities.

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