Photographer-activist Shahidul Alam appeals to a shared identity and experience

As the World Photography Day approaches, STIR looks at the diversity of Shahidul Alam’s works that forge a human relation built upon individual self-realisation and collective action.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Aug 15, 2020

The personal choices and political aesthetic of Shahidul Alam define his extensive body of work. Here ‘work’ embodies three-decades dedicated to reflecting on life as a photographer, publisher, writer, mentor, but most of all, an activist. As the founder of Drik Picture Library, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Chobi Mela in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Alam has put the debate around the importance of art interventions to a good rest. In response to Alam’s critical take on the Bangladesh government’s treatment to road-safety protests, the state authority incarcerated him for 107 days from August 5-November 20, 2018.

For many, the normalcy around the rippling effect of disproportionate distribution of power prompts apathy, yet for a selected few, it is a cause not to be turned blind to. Alam reckons with the latter, who does not wish to equate the progress of human society with social inequality, economic disparity and cultural intolerance. Instilling a need to rise against the atrocities of totalitarian rule, Alam seeks social collectivism over alienation around us.

As a child, Naxalite leader Champa would dress up as a boy to attend party meetings | Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
As a child, Naxalite leader Champa would dress up as a boy to attend party meetings Image: Shahidul Alam

“I made a conscious decision to become an artist and a media practitioner because I recognised the power of the medium. Politics is the reason I make art, and the aesthetics contribute to the effectiveness of its engagement. A politically significant body of work, which people do not respond to, has clearly failed in its objective, regardless of the reasons for its ineffectiveness.”

Bangladeshi migrant workers employed in the Maldives as boatmen. Better paid jobs in resorts go to those who can speak good English| Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Bangladeshi migrant workers employed in the Maldives as boatmen. Better paid jobs in resorts go to those who can speak good English Image: Shahidul Alam
Earthquake victim in Pakistani part of Kashmir | Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Earthquake victim in Pakistani part of Kashmir Image: Shahidul Alam
Mother and child in Bandorban. The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) are effectively under military occupation, despite a peace treaty | Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Mother and child in Bandorban. The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) are effectively under military occupation, despite a peace treaty Image: Shahidul Alam

“Style and aesthetics are merely part of (a) toolkit. I am a storyteller, and the vocabulary I use is based on the audience I am speaking to, and the context in which the story is being told.”

Shofiqul Islam was conned by traffickers and stranded in Libya without a job. Shofiq's mother playing with her granddaughter | Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Shofiqul Islam was conned by traffickers and stranded in Libya without a job. Shofiq's mother playing with her granddaughter Image: Shahidul Alam
Climate refugees from the char areas in river Brahmaputra look for safer shelter | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Climate refugees from the char areas in river Brahmaputra look for safer shelter Image: Shahidul Alam
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who arrived in Bangladesh the previous night, crossing over by boat to Teknaf | Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who arrived in Bangladesh the previous night, crossing over by boat to Teknaf Image: Shahidul Alam

“Drik Picture Library was set up as a platform, which would allow local storytellers to tell their own stories. Until that point, stories about countries like Bangladesh, which we prefer to call Majority World countries, were told largely by white western photographers. Our initial challenge was to establish our own identity. To move away from the stereotypes that had characterised us, such as disasters and starving children. However, we also recognised the issues of inequality in our own community that had to be addressed.”

Workers carrying metal sheet at Rahman Shipbreaking Yard | Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Workers carrying metal sheet at Rahman Shipbreaking Yard Image: Shahidul Alam

“Unless people resist, the powerful will always have their way. Our lack of resistance has little to do with lack of awareness. Having worked all across the globe, I find Bangladeshis far more aware than many. The average farmer in the field of a remote village in Bangladesh, for instance, is far more aware of his rights and realities, and has a more mature worldview, than the average farmer in the fields of the US.”

Artists and writers protest in Shahbag against the Digital Security Act| | Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Artists and writers protest in Shahbag against the Digital Security Act Image: Shahidul Alam
Sohan Mahmud, Humaira Fehrooz and Khuddho Ganguly protest against Digital Security Act| | Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Sohan Mahmud, Humaira Fehrooz and Khuddho Ganguly protest against Digital Security Act Image: Shahidul Alam

“The rights of minorities and the disenfranchised, freedom of expression, jail reform, and more recently, resistance to the draconian Digital Security Act, are stories we are working on. We work with other artists, activists, writers, and defenders of freedom, collectively using words, song, dance and humour, the entire gamut of artistic and journalistic expression, to combat inequality and injustice.”

Students passing through Dhaka University campus demand the hanging of war criminals | Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Students passing through Dhaka University campus demand the hanging of war criminals Image: Shahidul Alam
A student who had been picked up in a massive police raid, reaches out for help from the prison van | Shahidul Alam | World Photography Day | STIRworld
A student who had been picked up in a massive police raid, reaches out for help from the prison van Image: Shahidul Alam

“We have integrity and creativity, and we will triumph. But sacrifices will have to be made. We will need to move away from our zones of comfort and take to the streets, the camera today is far more powerful than it has ever been, and with smartphones being freely available, combined with the internet – governments are left with no room to hide away from its digital citizens. The Black Lives Matter Movement may never have taken off had it not been for that fateful video.”

Click here to read more on the celebration of World Photography Day.

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