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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Shahidul Alam’s Majority World showing in Dubai

From the depths of the Ecuadorean rainforest to the streets of Soweto, encompassing the slums of Dhaka and capturing the assault of colour in Colombo, Majority World, named after a photography archive founded in 2007, is an exhibition that takes viewers on multiple journeys.

The powerful images were all captured by photographers from what is dubbed the “minority world”, but which actually makes up the majority of the world’s geography.

Images by the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian, of household items and figures draped in sheets, a comment on the link between women and domesticity, are the first artworks you see upon entering Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue. Also on the walls are large, fabulous landscapes by Pablo Corral Vega that depict Ecuador’s natural beauty. Portraits by Neo Ntsoma, a photographer who was born and raised during apartheid South Africa, focus on fashion and music and are a tribute to the youth who have shaped the future of her nation.

All of the photographers are part of Majority World, an agency founded by Shahidul Alam, a Bangladeshi photographer, writer and human-rights activist, to uphold “the premise of social justice and to give a voice to the unheard majority”. Tired of having his nation and his compatriots pigeonholed into a life of poverty by the western media’s use of clichéd images to present “the third world” to viewers in “the first world”, Alam decided to do something about it.

“[It began when] I was staying with friends in Belfast in 1989 and their 5-year-old daughter saw me pulling coins out of my pocket. She couldn’t understand that I could be from Bangladesh but yet have money – she thought all Bangladeshis are poor. It got me thinking about the socio-political environment – where a child grows up incapable of seeing a Bangladeshi or African or anyone from the majority world as anything other than an icon of poverty, and I looked at ways in which this might change.”

That same year, he founded Drik Picture Library as a platform for photographers to show their work. A decade later it grew into Pathshala, a well-respected institute of photography, and Chobi Mela, the first photography festival in Asia. This began to draw photographers from beyond his own shores in Bangladesh and planted the roots for what would eventually become Majority World.

“Meeting Shahidul was a turning point in my life,” says Ntsoma. “His concept had been brewing in my head since I was a child, but I never found a way to do it before I met him.”

Ntsoma describes her childhood as “vibrant, beautiful and full of love” but the images projected on television of black South Africans were only of violence and “us killing each other”. To combat this polarity she pursued a career in photography and in 2004, became the first woman recipient of the CNN African journalist award for photography.

With Majority World, Ntsoma has now exhibited on five continents. This is the first time her work has been shown in Dubai. “I’m excited to see how people will respond,” she says.

Also in the show are photographs by Khaled Hasan, from Bangladesh, who layers black and white images to create poetic scenes.

In a series called Dhaka ... My Dream, we see an old man sleeping on concrete but floating in a river; a construction site dwarfed by a forest; and a man on a cycle-rickshaw trundling across the side of a building in a kind of billboard for the city.

The images tell the real story of the Bangladeshi capital from the eyes of one of its inhabitants, which, says Alam, is the key to the entire show.

“They are not just powerful, they are intimate and sensitive, because the storytellers are from the community, they have a greater sense of ownership and responsibility to their subjects,” says Alam. “Previous perceptions were created by images that were predominately created by white photographers who come over on parachuting assignments and also by agencies and fundraisers who show these as the only face of our cultures. It is so important for someone from within the community to tell the story because they know what stories need to be told, they feel the pulse of their community and they tell the stories the best.”

The fifth photographer is the Sri Lankan Dominic Sansoni, who shows his neighbourhood in a collection of images called Colombo 14. The municipal district of Sri Lanka’s capital city is a multicultural, multi-religious community where Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims coexist and are reflected with dignity and grace in Sansoni’s images.

Alam concludes by saying that while he did not purposefully choose images relevant or pertinent to Dubai, he does think that UAE audiences have a role to play in his greater objective.

“Firstly, it is important for people to recognise that they have a role to play in terms of transforming people’s opinions,” he says. “I also think that this is a chance for the UAE, as it is in a position of power with access to technology, to begin to address global inequalities.”

• Majority World runs until October 25 at Gulf Photo Plus, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai. Visit gulfphotoplus.com for more details

aseaman@thenational.ae