Shahidul Alam: Giving Voice to the Lions

He was taking curious – but evocative – photographs: a pair of eyeglasses of a pashmina weaver; calloused feet working the pedals of a loom; dozens of tillis wrapped in wool of every hue lining the looms. Children surrounded him wherever we went, tugging at his bright magenta kurta and clamoring for their pictures to be taken. He would take their photograph, and show them their images captured in pixels for the first time. Sometimes he’d disappear, turning up a few minutes later amidst a herd of goats or on a nearby treetop, always finding the right vantage point for the story he wanted to tell.

We were in Srinagar, Kashmir in the spring of 2008, as part of a gathering of artists and intellectuals invited to inaugurate a center for Kashmiriyat studies. For me, this was also an opportunity to pursue my lifelong passion with pashmina shawls. Nervous about wandering outside the hotel given the tense security situation in the city, I decided to ask a fellow participant to join me. It was the fancy camera around his neck that swayed me – perhaps he wouldn’t mind taking photographs for my story, I thought. He graciously agreed and we set off with the pashmina wala, meandering through barbedwire- lined streets and sheep-filled alleyways with Kalashnikovarmed soldiers at every turn. Little did I know then that in the seat next to me was one of the world’s most renowned photographers.

Shahidul Alam has won photography’s most prestigious awards. His work has been exhibited in major museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Tehran. He is the first Asian to win the prestigious Mother Jones Award for documentary photography and the first non-Caucasian to chair World Press Photo’s international jury. He has turned his hometown of Dhaka, Bangladesh into a photography capital, drawing many of the most celebrated international photographers to teach and mentor, and turning out some of the finest emerging photographers in the world. His new book, My Journey as a Witness, has been hailed by legendary photo editor John Morris as “one of the most important books ever created by a photographer, and it goes far beyond photography.”

But Alam’s achievements and recognitions tell only a small part of his story. It is his passion and mission that make him truly revolutionary. With photography as one tool in his tool box, which also includes writing, activism, teaching and social entrepreneurship, Alam is on a mission: to change the way we see each other, the way we interact and engage with one another, as human beings, societies and nations.

Alam, in his bright cotton kurtas, brown leather chappals, cream pocket-lined vest, and ubiquitous camera pouch around his waist, crisscrosses the globe from exhibit openings to curatorial assignments to speaking engagements, sharing his message, as he did when I heard him speak at the PDN/PhotoPlus Expo in New York City in 2008. “When you think of a country like Bangladesh, the first images that come to mind are of floods or disaster,” he said at the keynote. “We need to question that.

”Stories of our part of the world, by and large, are told by people who have been sent out to discover that world. Largely, white, Western photographers are sent to countries like mine, and people like myself find ourselves represented by them. I find that problematic.”

Alam challenges the terminology used to describe the region – “third world” or “developing world” – which, he says, helps perpetuate the stereotype of these countries as hopeless and poor. “I personally don’t intend to be third of anything,” he often quips. In the early 1990s, Alam coined a new phrase – “majority world” – to redefine what others call the “developing world” in more positive terms that recognize not only the fact of numbers, but also the vast intellectual, social and cultural assets that reside in the majority of the world’s population. He doesn’t deny the reality of poverty, but his photographs offer us another perspective: a farmer replanting his fields after a flood destroys his livelihood; a fisherman heading back to the sea that swallowed his family; a migrant worker whispering a tender goodbye at the airport, unsure when, if, he will return. “An image of poverty should not reduce people to being icons of poverty,” Alam says.

Alam reveals the beauty of his country and the resilience and dignity of her people. His photographs, a hundred of which are included in his book, capture how people live, work and carry on, despite seemingly insurmountable odds. A photograph of a patient at Bangladesh’s only psychiatric hospital reveals an intimacy rarely seen in images of those whom society has written off. Another of a woman cooking on her rooftop after floods inundated her home shows her getting on with life and tending to her family. “One needs to recognize that here is a people who will, come what may, persevere. Their endurance, their tenacity, their ability to overcome whatever there might be, I think is what needs to be celebrated,” Alam said in an interview with National Public Radio.

What bothers Alam is the lack of plurality in who gets to take the pictures, and the unidirectional way in which stories are told. Even if a different type of photograph is taken, that’s only the first step in a complex process of how images are seen. The photograph needs to be contextualized, reach international media markets, and pass the scrutiny of editorial gatekeepers who decide what reality they want to reveal, Alam explains. He sees his role as not just a photographer, but as someone who manages how a story engages with an audience. He often quotes an African proverb to encapsulate this message: Until the lions have their own storytellers, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter. Alam is giving voice to the lions.

In 1989, Alam set up a picture agency called Drik (“vision” in Sanskrit) in Dhaka to make it easier for majority-world photographers to make their work available to broader markets. Step by step, he set up photo labs to make quality prints; established gallery spaces to display work; printed and sold calendars and postcards door-to-door to raise funds; set up Bangladesh’s first email service, as international phone calls and faxes were expensive; and started training women and poor children in photography to promote diversity in the field. Drik later established Banglarights, a human rights network, and DrikNews, an independent news outlet that relies on citizen journalists.

As Drik gathered momentum, the next step was to set up a school of photography, and Pathshala South Asian Media Academy was established in 1998. Alam attracted high profile international photographers to come to Dhaka to teach, including Reza Deghati, Pedro Meyer, Robert Pledge and Raghu Rai. Soon Pathshala students were winning prestigious awards such as Mother Jones, World Press and National Geographic All Roads. Today, many regard Pathshala as one of the best photography schools in the world.

Chobi Mela, the first festival of photography in Asia, was inaugurated in 2000. Held biannually, with bold themes such as freedom, exclusion and resistance, it brings together Bangladeshi photographers with their international counterparts to showcase photography, exchange ideas and, most importantly, challenge viewpoints. An innovative feature of the festival takes artwork out of the galleries and into the streets, to the people whose stories are being told. Mobile exhibits on riksha vans travel to football fields, school playgrounds and markets, allowing thousands of people to engage with the images. Chobi Mela VII on “Fragility” will take place in Dhaka in January 2013.

More recently, Alam co-founded Majority World, a photo library and agency with offices in London and Sri Lanka that connects majority-world photographers with image buyers in developed countries, again to more widely promote local stories as told by local storytellers.

When I first sat down to interview Alam at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York, it quickly became clear that this is a man known and loved by many. One after another, friends, colleagues, students and family members who had gathered from all over the world, found him and wanted to be with him. With his genial charm and irrepressible laugh, he bear-hugged each one.

”I never thought of becoming a photographer when I was small,” Alam tells me. “I’m from a middle-class home, and the expectation is to aspire to a respected profession such as doctor or engineer.” Alam, born in Dhaka in 1955, went to the United Kingdom in 1972 for higher education. He pursued a PhD in chemistry at the University of London, and got into photography partly by accident. When he had an opportunity to travel to the United States, a friend asked if Alam would buy him a camera. When he returned, his friend couldn’t pay for it, so Alam was stuck with the camera. He started teaching himself photography, reading every book he could find – 800 or so over two years. His background in chemistry helped him experiment with different processes and techniques. Alam worked as a research assistant to finance his PhD, and started printing photographs to pay for his growing passion for photography. In 1983, a photo Alam took at London’s Kew Gardens, called “Floating Forest,” was selected best photograph of the year by the London Arts Council. It gave him the confidence to pursue his interest as a profession. Alam started taking portraits of children, but felt he was getting too comfortable in his role as a photographer so he returned to Dhaka in 1984. There he set up his own studio and started taking photos for company brochures and film stars. But he soon realized that his passion lay in photographs of a different kind.

In the late-1980s, a democratic movement was simmering in Bangladesh, and Alam, always having been political, wanted to document it. He took to the streets, taking photographs of police attacks, students breaking curfew and ordinary people showing courage, himself being beaten and arrested in the process. He knew then that the camera would be his tool to advance social equality in his country and globally.

When Lt. Gen. H. M. Ershad fell in 1990, Alam organized an impromptu exhibition of photographs of the democratic struggle at the art college. Lines to see the show were more than a mile long, and nearly 400,000 people saw the images in almost four days. Pictures have power, Alam says, and it’s because of that power that he became involved in photography.

The image that has had the greatest effect on Alam is that of an 11-year-old orphan boy named Mizan, who worked in Alam’s parents’ home. Mizan would watch television from outside the living room, through an open door. Alam captured that image and shared it with his mother and Mizan. After that, Mizan watched TV from inside the living room. “It was a small but important victory for me,” writes Alam in My Journey as a Witness. “It may not have changed the world, but it changed my mother and it certainly changed me.”

Alam has been using the power of images ever since, to challenge people’s assumptions, stir their complacency and rouse them into action – perhaps no more profoundly than in his recent exhibit called “Crossfire.”

Crossfire refers to the extrajudicial killings by Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an anticrime group set up eight years ago. In a series of evocative photographs, Alam depicts the places where victims of crossfire were last seen, based on extensive research of cases. There are no people in these photos, no bodies or signs of violence. The intention is to reach much deeper, to agitate at an emotional level.

The government shut down the exhibit on opening day in Dhaka, causing nationwide protests. Alam and his colleagues held an impromptu launch outside the gallery; later the closure was denounced as illegal. Crossfire was recently exhibited at the Queens Museum of Art in New York City and is traveling to the Powerhouse Museum in Australia in November 2012. About 500 posters of the exhibit are being distributed to human rights organizations inside and outside Bangladesh. Even the Supreme Court of Bangladesh has asked that the work be shown in the court.

While immediately after the show, crossfire deaths went down, they began to increase again, Alam says, and RAB changed its tactics and began to ‘disappear’ people. Alam is currently working on a story about a woman activist named Kalpana Chakma, who disappeared 16 years ago. Collaborating with a theater artist, Alam is planning a photographic performance to address disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the region, scheduled for June 2013. Alam’s drive is relentless, his energy boundless, and his travel schedule peripatetic – he recently racked up half a million frequent flyer miles, before using them to reunite family members across continents. On a recent stopover in Washington, D.C. – en route to Albuquerque, New Mexico; London; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Malé, Maldives; and Bangalore, India – Alam tells me about his next project: to set up a world class media university in Bangladesh, with high level professors and a residential campus. “I’m convinced that education, media and culture are the three most powerful change agents today and I think what we’re trying to do, done well, would undoubtedly make it difficult for autocratic governments or democratic governments that behave autocratically to get away with exploiting its people.” Alam’s journey, as a witness, but more so as a catalyst for social and political change, continues unabated.

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    Salma Hasan Ali

    Salma Hasan Ali is a writer, storyteller and non-profit leader. She is also the Contributing Editor of The Islamic Monthly.

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