Photographer, curator, writer, activist—Shahidul Alam is a man who dons many garbs. Ambarin Afsar interviews one of the world’s most influential photographers in an attempt to discover what drives him.
This story was originally published in January 2013.
What is the difference between a good photographer and a great photographer? A good photographer is someone who can speak clearly and crisply through his images. A great photographer,on the other hand, is someone who not only makes himself heard, but also influences some sort of change in the functioning of the world around him.
I made a trip to the tumultous, vibrant city of Dhaka, Bangladesh with the intention of meeting one such personality. Shahidul Alam, 57, is the founder of a photo agency, Drik, a photo school, Pathshala, a photo collective, Majority World, and a photo festival, Chobi Mela. “I see my role more as a catalyst in various spaces, as opposed to being someone who makes the change himself. What I am looking for is being able to strategically intervene in places where I can perhaps change the course—be it of the photographic mindset, legal reforms, structural changes within the system and certainly,
“In a country where most people can neither read nor write, images remain a powerful tool of communication.”
A Relentless Drive
Amongst various roles and initiatives that change with time, there needs to be one constant in his life. “A relentless drive for social justice… I think that is what holds everything together for me. Photography is not something I worship. I am very fond of the medium, but if tomorrow, it ceases to be effective, I would have no qualms giving it up and picking up any other tool, be it picking up a gun. I am a pacifist, but if resistance of a physical nature is required, I will resist by a physical nature.”
The Resistance of the Majority World
The reason why Drik, Pathshala and Majority World came about is because Alam felt he was waging a war on mindsets, against biases. “I needed soldiers, and I needed a battleground.”
Alam comes from a country that was classified as a part of the ‘Third World’, a world that he has long since christened the Majority World. “While we may not use the term ‘Third World’ any more, all the replacement terms reflected the same Western bias that classified a country based on what it lacked, rather than on the basis of what it possesed. My term highlights that we are, indeed, the majority of humankind.”
“I look back and merely feel the ineffectuality of my images.”
A Bias Influenced by the West
In terms of the aesthetic, there is also an inherent bias in the way in which photographers in Asia and the majority world countries approach a certain issue.
“There is a very interesting statement by Stuart Hall that goes, ‘A black man with a black camera will not necessarily make black pictures.’ So it is not the colour of my skin that determines what I do, it is my politics.”
A Market that Demands Certain Imagery
There is another reason for the building of stereotypes. “The photographer is still driven by market forces. When a Bangladeshi is photographing a villager in Bangladesh about farming issues, the most knowledgeable person in this case is the farmer. The next, perhaps, is the photographer and the least knowledgeable is the photo editor from, say, New York Times. The person who is the most powerful in the entire chain! So these power dynamics needs to change for imagery to change.”
I realised that in a world where the dialogue is constantly changing, Alam and everyone with him are on the brink of a very crucial movement. We have divided ourselves, our issues, our ethos, our pathos, and even our ways of seeing the world. Now is the time to erase distinctions of ‘third’ and ‘other’. Now is the time for us to speak, and for us