On Life in Prison

https://www.channel4.com/news/photographer-shahidul-alam-on-life-in-bangladeshi-prison

Channel 4:

An acclaimed photographer who spent more than a hundred days in prison in Bangladesh claims he was tortured by security forces. Shahidul Alam was jailed after giving an interview in which he accused the Bangladeshi government of corruption and intimidation.

While behind bars, Mr Alam says he was blindfolded, shackled and threatened with waterboarding. Our Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson has been speaking to him.

I didn’t eat the bananas!

I ALWAYS take a window seat on day flights. The ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign is my cue to peer into the watery landscape that the plane flies over before it lands in Dhaka. Few things give me more pleasure than the sound of the wheels touching land. This Antaeus-like effect only works on home soil. It’s knowing I’m back in Bangladesh which gives that warm inner feeling. Grounded in Dhaka for nearly a year due to COVID-19, I miss those landings.

As I sift through stories on international media, stories about Bangladesh are the ones I home in on. Sadly, they are often stories of natural disasters or the impending damage due to climate change. Stories about corruption, or our migrant workers being mistreated are sad, but as a journalist, these are stories I cannot avoid reading or reporting on. One hopes that by shedding light on such injustice, one can help shape a better future for my countryfolk. Some stories, like a cricket win, or a Pathshala student winning a major photography award bring a smile. A one-hour documentary on Bangladesh on Al Jazeera was a big deal. The trailer suggested it was a dark story, but still I waited eagerly.

It is a well-made documentary, and the content is explosive, though the smoking gun is in some cases missing, but the affirmation of one’s suspicions in such a blatant manner, leaves me sad. It is my country after all. Bangladesh is not unique in having corruption or nepotism or abuse of power, but to be publicly confronted by detailed accounts of such blatant abuse by people in the highest echelons of power would sadden any self-respecting Bangladeshi.

Yet this is the government that constantly reminds us of upholding the bhab murti (image) of our nation. Indeed, our jails are packed with people who’ve been arrested for having slighted the nation or its leaders by their words or their cartoons. Laws and constitutional provisions have been put in place preventing citizens from not only critiquing leaders, but even neighbouring countries. Abrar Fahad, a bright young student, was brutally tortured and killed in his university dorm two years ago by fellow students of the ruling party for having had the audacity to question a deal made with our ‘friendly’ neighbour.

So who do we as citizens turn to when my nation has been vilified, when our leaders bring us shame where do we hide our face?

Al Jazeera states that it wrote to all key characters asking for a response. The prime minister, the inspector general of police, the home minister and the army chief and his brothers. If this not be true, a simple response from the government would have sufficed. If true, the government should have responded before the programme aired, ensuring their version be included. To resort to innuendo and slander after airing, rather than providing a considered well-articulated and timely response, hardly befits a government that has led a war of liberation, been in power for over a decade, and has an entire retinue of seasoned politicians on its roster. The advisers, spin doctors and pet intellectuals at the government’s behest, appear to be sleeping at the wheel. It leaves us citizens, no leg to stand on.

The programme talks of a crime syndicate that allows the prime minister ‘to pursue absolute power’. A man who was once her personal bodyguard is implicated. Surely one doesn’t become the personal bodyguard by submitting a curriculum vitae. Detailed background checks would have taken place. Was a known killer the one that she could trust? The chief of our army is meant to have met up with his brothers, killers on the run, on foreign soil. He is said to have helped one of them obtain a false identity. They are escorted by officials of our diplomatic corps and meet in a Bangladeshi high commission building. What do we make of the Bangladeshi officials identified in the programme who assisted the killer in obtaining a false identity? How trusted will my Bangladeshi passport be, by immigration officials world-wide who view the programme? How safe is an army which purchases weapons through such dubious means? If private telephone conversations of the army chief can fall on the hands of a foreign TV channel, how secure is my nation?

I don’t want my privacy to be invaded by the state, whatever the source of the technology may be. But to be spied upon by technology sold by Israel, an apartheid state guilty of oppressing my Palestinian sisters and brothers, is something I cannot accept. When my government reportedly trades with a nation it has banned trading with, using my money, to spy on me, it is particularly galling.

An explosive report involving key government officials on a leading international channel should have been splashed across the front page of every newspaper with bold headlines. To report on the rebuttal without having reported on the news itself, is journalistically untenable, but situationally understandable. The government boasts of a free and unfettered media, but the unwritten taboos in the media include critiquing the prime minister or the military, as many in jail will testify. This journalistic ‘lapse’ gives the game away, but is further substantiated by the candid admission by the editor of the Daily Star that ‘If one looks at the flood of totally groundless and unsubstantiated defamatory cases under the DSA against journalists and newspapers, and the promptness with which such cases were accepted and the accused sent to jail and refused bail for weeks if not months, the answer will be obvious — and we are not even mentioning the intimidation, threats and restrictions of advertisements and other tactics that are used. But even then, we must struggle on and, that’s what we do.’

Ironically, it is the further gaffe by the government of publishing a rebuttal that has created the window for the media. In the course of reporting the government’s press release, the New Age has pretty much described the entire Al Jazeera documentary. It followed up later with an excellent editorial describing not only the contents of the programme but shredding to bits the government’s desperate attempt at damage control. A timely and nuanced op-ed in the Prothom Alo, neatly weaves in references to the fear factor that journalists operate within. Perhaps that’s the pride I can salvage from this episode. While we have repression and denial and sheer incompetence from our government, at least there are still media houses that have not gone with the flow. They’ve found innovative ways around the government’s flat footed censorship mechanisms. These are brave and intelligent ripostes. That at least we can celebrate. The regime might have money and muscle on their side, we have creativity on ours.

The knee-jerk response by the Inter-Services Public Relation Directorate to pass off the procurement of surveillance equipment from Israel as a UN-related purchase, and the equally sad attempt by a minister to claim that the proxy country Hungary had ‘asked’ for COVID-19 vaccines from Bangladesh (intended as an olive branch to the maligned country), only resulted in stern denials from both Hungary and the United Nations. The olive branch lays shrivelled in the diplomatic pathway. While the pet intellectuals and other apologists marvel at the beauty of the emperor’s new clothes, it’s not just the clear-eyed kid, but an entire nation that giggles at the spectacle on view.

As for the government’s rebuttal, I am reminded of the Bangla proverb ‘Thakur ghare ke re?’ ‘Ami kala khaini.’

‘Who’s there in the temple?’ asks the guardian. ‘I didn’t eat the bananas!’ comes the sheepish reply.

I hope they don’t slip on the peel on the way out.

Originally published in The New Age: http://www.newagebd.net/article/129498/i-didnt-eat-the-bananas

The Tide Will Turn amongst “Best Art Books of 2020” list by New York Times.

THE TIDE WILL TURN’ By Shahidul Alam; edited by Vijay Prashad (Steidl). The eminent Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for more than three months in 2018 for denouncing the repression of protesters. Released after a mobilization of local and foreign support, he reflects here on his prison experience and a life of fighting for justice (for laborers, survivors of gender violence, Indigenous groups, and others) through image and deed. Some of his finest pictures illustrate the text, as do his selections of noteworthy images by other Bangladeshi photographers. Solidarity and integrity reign, along with tenacious optimism, expressed in a heartfelt exchange of letters with the writer-activist Arundhati Roy. (Read about his current exhibition.)

The full list

As Mujib Watches Helplessly

I entered the giant graveyard. It was quiet except for my own footsteps but, in my head, I could hear the screams. Rows of blackened sewing machines, still in orderly lines, reinforced the sense that I was looking at tombstones. There were no flowers here. No epitaphs. No mourners.

Stitched photo of burnt remains of Tazreen Fashions. Photo Shahidul Alam

A fire had raged through the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Ashulia on 24 November 2012. Workers stationed on the building’s third and fourth floors had rushed to the exits, only to find them locked, a regular practice in many Bangladeshi garment factories. Fires and worker deaths were, sadly, all-too-common. The owners justified the locking of the doors as a ‘security measure’ but workers were effectively prisoners during working hours. As the heat and smoke built up, the panic-stricken labourers, who were unable to break down the iron gates, rushed to the windows and somehow managed to remove the metal grills. It was a long way down, but one by one they jumped. Some screamed with pain as they fell; others were silent. Each landed with a dull thud, their bodies crumpled on the uneven ground below. Possible death was still a better choice than certain death. And some did survive.

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International Press Freedom Awards

CPJ is honored to present its 2020 International Press Freedom Award to Bangladeshi journalist Shahidul Alam.

Alam is a renowned photojournalist and commenter, and the founder of the Bangladeshi multimedia training organization the Pathshala Media Institute and the Drik Picture Library Ltd. He also co-founded the photo agency Majority World and the Chobi Mela Festival, a pioneering photography festival in Bangladesh. His photographs of life in Bangladesh, as well as of protests and the environment, are well known in his country and around the world.

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Upholding the Moral Compass

First published in The New Age

Barrister Rafiq Ul Haque in his home in Purana Paltan. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The boat was headed North from Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong island. It was 1986, and the big outflow of Bangladeshi migrants hadn’t really begun. The last thing I expected as I headed to Kowloon was Bangla being spoken. Curious, I approached the distinguished looking gentleman and introduced myself. I had been away for twelve years and didn’t even recognise the name Rafique Ul Haque. He didn’t let on that he was a celebrated lawyer, but I had enough wits around me to work out that a Bangladeshi lawyer meeting a client in Hong Kong, had to be rather good. It was much later that I found out that the man I had been speaking to was a class friend of the former president of India Pranab Mukherjee and had stayed at the same Baker Hostel in Kolkata where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been. I was on a judging assignment, and I introduced him to my fellow jury members, the Indian photographer Raghu Rai, the Malaysian photographer Eric Peris and Wee Beng Huat, the photo editor of the Singaporean Newspaper, The Straits Times. Neither of us knew then that he was a close family friend. His wife, Dr Farida Haque worked with my father professor Kazi Abul Monsur who was then director of the Public Health Institute. She was also his former student. Both Rafique Bhai’s family and mine were ‘doctor’ families. We had joked that had we become doctors we would have run out of patients in the family. Rafique Bhai had retained his familial leanings by establishing the Shishu Hospital, the Ad-Din Hospital and a cancer hospital that was close to completion when we last met. Having bequeathed all his property except the family home to these institutions, he had told his lawyer son, ‘I’ve given you a decent education. You earn your keep’.

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Who lives, who dies, who decides?

The Councillor of 26 No Ward of Dhaka South City Corporation, Mr Hasibur Rahman Manik who led a ruling party procession to the venue to disrupt a peaceful performance by Drik Picture Library at Raju Bhaskorjo at the Dhaka University on 4th September 2020, Drik’s 31st Anniversary. © Habibul Haque/Drik

‘PAPA, are you crying?’ were the last words popular Awami League councillor Akramul Haque’s daughter had said to him. The family then heard the gunshots. The groan. Then more shots. The sounds, recorded on their phone, and later released to the media, reverberated across paddy fields, along the undulating Chittagong Hill Tracts, across swampy marshlands, on the waves of the Padma and Jamuna, in fancy apartments of Gulshan and Baridhara, and now in the cantonment. It reaffirmed what we all knew, and what the government has consistently denied. That it was the law enforcing agencies of our country, rather than the courts, who decide whether a citizen should live or die.

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Bicycle Rally Against Rape

Bangladesh is reeling under a spate of attacks against women. This includes rape, murder and sexual harassment. By far the majority of perpetrators are people affiliated with the ruling party. The police is known to actively support and protect the perpetrators. A bicycle rally from Shahbag to Manik Mia Avenue in protest against rape. 15th October 2020.

A World Torn Asunder

Shahidul Alam

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It’s not a good time for huggers. A virus rips through our social fabric. Distraught children distanced from dying parents. Loved ones unseen, untouched, in sterile cabins. Lovers unable to hold hands. Kids separated from school friends. Smiles hidden by masks. Everyday acts of sympathy and endearment buried under the cosh of lockdown. Torn asunder by a tiny microbe it’s a world like no other.

There are many faces to this pandemic. There have been acts of great generosity by individuals of limited means. Acts of grotesque deceit and corruption by individuals with plenty. The lockdown has also led to clearer skies, cleaner air, quieter streets. Moments of repose. Families together again with time for children.

Some have profited from the virus. Repressive regimes have put in place rules that citizens would rebel against in normal times. COVID-19 has become the Trojan horse used to smuggle in unacceptable practices in the guise of public health.

Globally, chest thumping leaders have used the opportunity to put personal gain way above national or global interest. Sickeningly, a billionaire earned in a day almost as much as every man, woman and child in Bangladesh would have collectively earned in a month had they received a minimum basic wage. The poor have been robbed to amass wealth for the rich.

Those who live hand to mouth, can hardly choose not to work. Death by starvation is no better a choice to death by disease. But it’s a complicated story. The rate of infection in Bangladesh is undeniably lower than might have been expected given the living conditions of the poor and the lack of access to decent medical care. The mystery of lower death rates in Bangladesh cannot be explained easily, limited tests notwithstanding. The woefully poor infrastructure, the rampant corruption in the health sector and the impossibility of the poor to physically distance themselves from each other, would suggest a much higher rate of infection than appears to be present. Many more would have had to be infected for herd immunity to kick in. Has a wave of asymptomatic infection surreptitiously flooded our nation to leave us relatively immune? After all, mild symptoms would hardly be something the poor would fuss over. Their day to day existence requires them to take illness in their stride. A day off work, is a day without pay. Perhaps a day without food.

Modelling, R0, flattening the curve and herd immunity, are now everyday chatter. We’ve tried to move away from the jargon, to the lived experiences of people. The ravages of cyclone Amphan on a population already reeling from the pandemic, buffeted against the searing wind, carrying a corpse through flood waters, the pain etched on a face shattered by grief stare through images that straddle less brutal ones. A father finds time to play with his children. A little girl in wonderland, peers from her make belief world. An infant, cries out, not from pain, but the intrusion of strangers for a probe that scares. Like an alien from outer space, a buyer in full protective gear walks his cow home. If sacrifice was ever to have meaning, this would be the moment. A congregation of five, the maximum allowed by the new rules, prays for deliverance. A relief pack balanced on her head, a woman at dusk, perfectly poised, walks an empty street, the loneliness of the street reflected in her eyes. The street devoid of the bustle of trade. The forlorn wait for testing. The anguished return to the homeland. The burial. The pain of a nation overrun by traders who, in connivance with regulators are ready to sacrifice lives for profit. Protesting garment workers, huddled against the rain, punished for the temerity of demanding wages due.

But resistance continues. While established artists have long sold out, the youth of the land still yearn for freedom. Through songs, poetry and art, they rally against the wrongful arrests, the torture, the disappearances and the ‘crossfire’, which the virus has failed to stem.

Shahidul Alam

Politics Cannot Be Separated from My Art

B&H Photography Podcast

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With an exhibition of his 40-year photographic career opening at the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York,  photojournalist and social justice activist Shahidul Alam was kind enough to join us on the B&H Photography Podcast to discuss the current exhibit, his career, and the state of photojournalism around the world. Also joining us is scholar, archivist, and the author of Conversations on Conflict Photography, Dr. Lauren Walsh.

Truth to Power is the name of the Alam’s exhibition and it is “a tribute to the numerous acts of resistance all across the globe and gives hope to those who continue to believe that a better world is possible.” As the name indicates, Alam’s work confronts the injustices in his native Bangladesh, where he has spent a career photographing natural disasters, social inequalities, street protests, migrant workers, and investigating those murdered or kidnapped. He also founded the Chobi Mela Photography Festival and the Drik and Majority World photo agencies, which has enabled countless photographers a better chance to have their stories seen by a larger audience.    Continue reading “Politics Cannot Be Separated from My Art”