Shahidul Alam

 
Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam

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 is Khaleda Zia at a pre-election rally, Manik Mia Avenue, Dhaka, in 1991. This was before Zia was elected as the Prime Minister. She was also the first female PM of the country. Photographs/Shahidul Alam

This is Khaleda Zia at a pre-election rally, Manik Mia Avenue, Dhaka, in 1991. This was before Zia was elected as the Prime Minister. She was also the first female PM of the country. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

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.

woman wades through flooded streets near Kamlapur Railway station, Dhaka, Bangladesh. This was in 1988, during one of the worst floods of the last century.

A woman wades through flooded streets near Kamlapur Railway station, Dhaka, Bangladesh. This was in 1988, during one of the worst floods of the last century. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

The Changebringer
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,
political changes.”

“In a country where most people can neither read nor write, images remain a powerful tool of communication.”

Made in Gaforgoan, Bangladesh, 1988, this image shows flood victims who have not eaten for three days. They are waiting in the rain for relief wheat, wondering if it will run out. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

Made in Gaforgoan, Bangladesh, 1988, this image shows flood victims who have not eaten for three days. They are waiting in the rain for relief wheat, wondering if it will run out. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

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.”

A woman raises her fist at a rally at Shahid Minar (Martyrs’ Tomb), Dhaka, in 1994. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

A woman raises her fist at a rally at Shahid Minar (Martyrs’ Tomb), Dhaka, in 1994. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

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.”

A girl looks on from an earthquake-stricken area of Pakistanoccupied, Kashmir, in 2005. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

A girl looks on from an earthquake-stricken area of Pakistanoccupied, Kashmir, in 2005. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

“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.”

Political repression is accompanied by fanaticism, says Alam. This is at the Bishsho Istema, at Tongi, Gazipur, Bangladesh in 1989. It is now the world’s second largest religious gathering of Muslims. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

Political repression is accompanied by fanaticism, says Alam. This is at the Bishsho Istema, at Tongi, Gazipur, Bangladesh in 1989. It is now the world’s second largest religious gathering of Muslims. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

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.”

This was on 10 November 1987, Dhaka Siege Day. Motijheel, the commercial centre, was empty as opposition parties united to oust a dictator. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

This was on 10 November 1987, Dhaka Siege Day. Motijheel, the commercial centre, was empty as opposition parties united to oust a dictator. Photograph/Shahidul Alam

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
to listen.

Tags: Ambarin Afsar, Bangladesh, Chobi Mela, Drik, Great Masters, january 2013, Majority World, Pathshala, Shahidul Alam