Challenging the Gaze. The study of a Socially Conscious Photographic Initiative based in Dhaka, Bangladesh
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The aim of this thesis is to consider the real life interplay between ambitions and restrictions to a Dhaka based photographic initiative, with the core objective to contest stereotypical representations of Bangladesh in Western mainstream media. To what extent it is possible to rebel against stigmatizing categories and gain control of one’s own image through photographic means? In which ways do financial restrictions within the photographic field influence the ambition to break with stereotypical representations, and what are the constraints attached to the photographic medium itself? I carried out six months of fieldwork in the photographic community in Dhaka where I, with a combination of observational and conversational methods, investigated these questions. In contrast to much of the existing material on photography and politics of representation, this study shows how stereotypical representations and dominant discourses are negotiated and re-appropriated by ‘Others’, in the past depicted principally by Western photographers. As such it contributes to the understanding of representation, visual culture, resistance and development. The material presented shed light on the contradictory forces that influence Bangladeshi photographers affiliated to the agency in their daily practices. On the one hand, local photographers are inspired to create a new envisioning of Bangladesh, by emphasizing different topics and storylines than the well-known portrayals of a materially poor, catastrophe-hit and aiddependant country. In this sense photographs are used as an act of resistance and a vehicle for change. At the same time photographers in Dhaka are reliant upon the same image markets as photographers worldwide, and non-governmental organisations and other ‘development’ agents form a substantial part of the available image market. Driven by a negative news agenda and the need to raise aid, market forces have a tendency to push photographers in the opposite direction. Thus, a number of tensions arise whereby the photographic agency and individual photographers are pulled between idealistic considerations and financial concerns, resistance and resignation. The material explored indicates that while there is a potential for self-representation in the photograph, there are limitations to the photograph’s ability to free itself entirely from existing representations. There is a risk, as Larsen (1999) has termed it, of being captured by the language of ones’ opponent when attempting to ‘resist’ the dominant order. I argue that the photographic community in Dhaka needs to accept a certain amount of stereotypical, or ‘Orientalist’ depictions in order to create a space for alternative visions. This is not only due to the restrictions caused by market demands and the limited freedom photographers face, but also because of the boundaries of the photograph itself. This paper examines how photographers question and reflect upon, and try to find the cracks within, the practical constraints that they encounter. I further argue that the extent to which a photographer succeeds in his or her endeavour to contest stereotypical representations depends on a number of factors, including their social and economic backgrounds. While the initiative contest global hierarchies, I argue that continuity can be traced between the global disparities in the international media field and those that characterise the contemporary Bangladeshi photography-scene.