New Internationalist

A true Pathshala

Issue 403

The story of an extraordinary school, told by Sameera Huque and Shahidul Alam.

Photo by Abir Abdullah
Reza Deghati and Chris Boot conduct the first World Press Photo seminar in Pathshala. Limited space and frequent electricity failure required many of the classes to be taken under an open sky. Photo by Abir Abdullah

Photo: Drik
Kirsten Claire, a British grandmother, came over to Bangladesh to teach at Pathshala. Staying with a friend, and surviving on a minimum salary, she was the first regular teacher at Pathshala. She became a mother-figure to many of the students, especially the women. Photo: Drik

Shahidul Alam describes the birth of an unusual school.

The word Pathshala, a traditional Sanskrit word for a seat of learning, was generally associated with the shade of mango trees in open fields. There were no walls, no classrooms, no formal structures, but children gathered to listen to wise folk. It was wisdom being shared.

Having decided that the language of images was the tool to use to challenge Western hegemony and to address social inequality within the country, Drik had begun to put in place the building blocks to make it happen.

The agency was serving people already in the trade, but opportunities for learning had to be created. There wasn’t a single credible organization for higher education in photography in the region. One had to be built.

Taking advantage of a World Press Photo seminar in December 1998, the school was set up. A single classroom was all that was available. The visiting tutors Chris Boot (formerly with Magnum, then with Phaidon) and Reza Deghati (National Geographic) conducted the workshops.

‘I do not know of a single institute of higher education anywhere in the world which provides the quality of education being provided here in Bangladesh today.’

Rob Mountfort, Picture Editor of AsiaWeek, 1999

I continued as a lone tutor. Kirsten Claire, an English photographer whom a friend had recommended, came over soon afterwards and stayed for a year. We paid her a local salary, the best we could afford. The two of us formed the faculty.

A stream of tutors, all friends willing to be arm-twisted, came at regular intervals. For some we provided the air fare and modest accommodation. Some came at their own cost. Some slept on our floor. Some, like Ian Berry, who had come over on an assignment, were simply roped in. The students, most new to the craft, didn’t know they were rubbing shoulders with the greatest names in photography. And it was an impressive list. Abbas, John Vink, Ian Berry, Martin Parr, Morten Krogvold, Pablo Bartholomew, Pedro Meyer, Raghu Rai, Reza Deghati, Robert Pledge, Trent Parke. Some became repeat visitors.

Few demanded payment, none flaunted their superstar status, one even made an anonymous donation. They all wanted to be part of an exciting journey.

Lazy at first, and unaware of how special the environment was, the students soon became infected by the passion of their marvellous tutors. They studied photography, economics, statistics, environmental studies, visual anthropology. They were in a true Pathshala, studying life. And it showed.

They got selected for the prestigious Joop Schwart Masterclass. They won a host of prestigious awards from the likes of Mother Jones, World Press, The National Geographic. Every emerging student was gainfully employed. Time Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times and other leading publications began to hire them, and the school’s reputation spread. Soon students and interns from other countries started to come to us.

The number of regular tutors has grown from the original two to eleven. Eight are former students. The tutor to student ratio remains high. DrikNews, a news agency which gives emphasis to rural reporting, hires former Pathshala students for its core staff. The staff photographers and picture editors of most of the country’s major newspapers are from Pathshala. Some are also working in television stations and other broadcast media.

Pathshala continues to defy gravity. A school of photography in one of the most economically impoverished nations, and with no external support, continues to produce some of the finest emerging photographers.

Photo: Abir Abdullah
Shahidul Alam, the principal of Pathshala, simulates a bird in flight during a class on picture editing, then an unknown profession in Bangladesh. Working with Sri Lankan photographer Dominic Sansoni, and Nicole Robbers, the picture editor of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblaad, Alam set up a mock picture desk in the leading English daily, The Star. Alumni from Pathshala now work as picture editors in several major newspapers. Photo: Abir Abdullah

Photo: Abir Abdullah
National Geographic photographer Reza Deghati was one of the first overseas tutors at Pathshala. He made repeated visits through a seminar programme organized by World Press Photo Foundation, and later used the Drik/Pathshala model to set up a similar organization, AINA, in Afghanistan. Photo: Abir Abdullah

We were going to change the world

Sameera Huque, one of Pathshala’s first students, takes a measured look.

When Pathshala started, I remember, Dhaka’s photography circles reacted by forming two camps. One was thrilled at the prospect of ‘real’ photography education starting in Bangladesh for the very first time; the other remained strongly sceptical about what Shahidul Alam was getting up to next.

The school’s first students came from the former camp, and I was one of them. Our group had two women, Munira Morshed Munni and myself. As students, we wanted to revolutionize the face of photography as we knew it in Bangladesh, South Asia, and the world. Drik and its philosophy was our inspirational starting point.

‘Because of my time at Pathshala, I learnt to see and think differently.’

Abir Abdullah, ex-student, Mother Jones Award winner

Our initial excitement dried up somewhat as we discovered that our school was not perfect. It was going to grow with us, and that meant many things would not go as smoothly as we would have liked. But as the first students, we enjoyed a tremendous amount of autonomy in deciding how our study would progress. Specific topics were introduced because we asked for them. Tutors were refused because we didn’t like them. We freely argued with tutors on media, politics, morality, the environment, feminism, religion, and issues of representation. This level of interaction was truly unheard of in Bangladesh. Coming from an education system where students rarely question their teachers, we were spoiled with attention. As it turned out, at least in my view, the students who were the most vocal and rebellious also produced the best work. This was Pathshala, and we didn’t believe in encouraging the herd mentality.

The informal environment at Pathshala made sure many friendships were formed and tested. Sometimes our egos would get the better of us, but there were critical discussions on each other’s work, plans for what to do next, disappointment over projects not working out, chatter about the next big camera, impromptu singalongs, and many, many cups of tea under the campus mango tree.

As a student, then a tutor, and now a well-wisher of Pathshala, my view of whether the school has been successful had its own ups and downs. We former students often end up discussing this among ourselves. Were we successful as professional photographers? Many of us have won international accolades, and publish our work around the world. Did we change photography as it was practised? Did our photography change the world? It certainly helped the world to see Bangladesh differently. With time that will force its own changes.

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