Published in The Independent in May 2010

As the award winning German photographer Norbert Enker smoked his last cigarette in Chittagong before returning to Dhaka, he suddenly found tears welling up in his eyes.  “I don’t know what happened to me… I was crying like a child,” he said from the stage of the Goethe Institute last Thursday.  Perhaps it was appropriate then, that Norbert returned to Chittagong a year later to conduct a workshop with 18 local photographers called “Chittagong, My Love.”

Norbert presented a digital photography exhibition before a discussion about Chittagong’s past, present and future was held.  During the slideshow, Norbert explained that he and the photographers first brainstormed around 20 topics, later refining them, and then the photographers spent one day at the ship-breaking yards and three around the city.  He said, “It was very difficult to create a ‘portrait’ of Chittagong – this is just an attempt.  But we felt that the presence of water in the photographs was important, because Chittagong is the main port and many people earn their livelihoods from the sea.”  Norbert also said that the group initially encountered some resistance from the owners of the ship-breaking yards, who feared they had arrived to close down the operations.  Of the industry that employs around 10,000 people, Norbert said, “In Germany we throw so many things away. But here, everything is repaired and re-coloured. If it’s working, why throw it away?”

Norbert and the group also photographed a wedding in Chittagong, so the exhibition included striking black and white portraits of a young bride.  Norbert said, “It was very interesting for me to go to a wedding.  There were so many guests and the kitchen was set up like a small factory.”  Other photographs portrayed life in the slums and bazars, fishermen and dump yards, as well as the sprawling green trees that once grew in abundance in Chittagong.  Local photographer Farzana Hossen Mipu also attended the programme and spoke of how much she enjoyed the workshop.  She said, “I never thought that I would become a photographer.  Now I take it very seriously and inshallah I will become a good one.” In response, Norbert said, “Being a photographer means lots of work and it’s quite exhausting.  But Farzana is on her way – she took good pictures and she’s very talented.”

Chittagong resident Neo Mendes, the chairman and managing director of Enem-Omni Group, reminisced about spending his youth in a city that he is still deeply attached to.  He spoke about passing Sunday afternoon with his friends watching English films at the cinema and afterwards sharing a plate of chowmein at the local Chinese restaurant for 80 paisas.  He described the excitement of Buddhist full moon festivals and the fire balloons that accompanied them, and attending dances at the Chittagong Club and Catholic Club.  Neo was also a founding member of Bangladesh’s first ever rock band, The Lightenings.  Neo was trained as a pianist but became a drummer, and the band played Beatles songs at school concerts and won a competition.  Neo said, “Today, many prominent Bangladeshi bands are from Chittagong and I am happy to have been a part of that.”  Neo described the thrill of seeing special visitors arrive in Chittagong, such as famous test cricketers, wrestling champions from Pakistan, the US and Europe and the Queen of England.  Neo also described the peacefulness of his street, which was located at the bottom of the hill that led to the Commissioner’s residence.  “It was the best place in town,” he grinned, “The wide asphalt streets were lined by large green trees.”

What became evident over the course of the evening is the speed at which Chittagong has changed over the decades.  Such anecdotal evidence supports confirmed statistics – Chittagong is currently ranked the tenth fastest growing city in the world.  Its main port is the primary route for almost all of Bangladesh’s import and exports, which generates a major portion of the country’s annual revenue, but there are some obvious drawbacks alongside the commercial success.  Neo said, “Over the years, the entire radius of the city has expanded.  But I do have great hopes for Chittagong’s future – it’s not like Dhaka, which is a behemoth, large and unwieldy.  Perhaps it will retain its character.”  Farzana expressed some anxiety about the direction her city is taking.  She said, “My Chittagong is very peaceful and I love it.  But the traffic is becoming harsh.

The government must help it. I would like to see it become beautiful and green again.”

After the discussion, members of the panel answered questions from the audience.  A young raised his hand and asked Norbert whether he cried upon leaving Chittagong a second time.  “I am sure I will come back, so there were no tears this time,” he said with a smile.

Chittagong, My Love, was organised in cooperation with Pathshala.