Institutt for sosialantropologi

Challenging the Gaze - The study of a Socially Conscious Photographic Initiative based in Dhaka, Bangladesh


By Maria Sørlie Berntsen

Supervisor: Associate Professor Kathinka Frøystad

This thesis is based on fieldwork among Dhaka based photographers affiliated to the photographic agency Drik.

The agency was founded in 1989, with the principal aim to challenge stereotypical representations of Bangladesh in Western mainstream media through photographs, and at the same time make Western image markets available for local photographers. From a country whose portrayals are most commonly driven by a negative news agenda and the need to raise aid, Drik attempts to create an alternative envisioning. At the same time, the agency and affiliated photographers are reliant upon the same image markets as other agents in the photographic field.
The thesis explores the real life interplay between ambitions and restrictions, and Drik affiliated photographers’ experiences with the photographic medium and image markets. I shed light on the contradictory forces that influence local photographers in their daily practices, with Drik’s ideology and the potential to use photographs as an act of resistance on the one hand, and simultaneously, market forces pushing and pulling photographers in the opposite direction. The tension between financial concerns and idealistic considerations, and Drik’s ideological underpinning leaning towards the latter, lead to a compound pressure that cause daily tensions and moral ambivalence to Drik and individual photographers alike. A central question here is to what extent it is possible to rebel against stigmatizing categories and gain control of one’s own image through photographic means.

I will argue that while the study of Drik shows that there is a potential for self-representation in the photograph, it can seem like there are limitations to the photographs’ 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. Further, I will argue that there  are certain limitations also to the photographic medium itself.