Interview with Shahidul Alam by Daniel Boetker-Smith
Photojournalist and activist Shahidul Alam speaks out about the effects of his detainment on Dhaka’s Chobi Mela Festival, and how the event still plans to persevere for years to come.
SHAHIDUL ALAM Photo: Tom Hatlestad
The year 2018 is one that Shahidul Alam, and the wider international photographic community, will not forget so easily. In August last year, just hours after an interview on Al Jazeera where he openly criticized the Bangladesh government’s violent response to student protests, Alam was forcibly taken from his home by the Dhaka Metropolitan Police and arrested.
While remanded, Alam was interrogated and beaten. Following a significant outpouring of support and pressure from Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and other Bangladeshi and international organizations and notable figures, Alam was released after spending 107 days in prison.
As a widely respected activist, photojournalist and academic, Alam is most prominently known as founder of the Drik Picture Library, the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and the biannual Chobi Mela Photography Festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which returns on February 28th of this year for its tenth edition.
In one of his first major interviews since the events of late last year, Alam talks to Daniel Boetker-Smith about the upcoming festival, the political power of photography, and the state of the medium in Bangladesh, South Asia and beyond.
DBS: Given recent events that we have all followed closely, how has planning for this Festival been different to previous years?
SA: The last few months have meant that this year’s festival is coming back to its roots. Chobi Mela began as a very small event, and over the past 20 years it grew significantly in stature. But this year, we are activating a diverse range of less formal exhibition venues around Dhaka. This shift is one of necessity, because Chobi Mela is not an organization that everyone in Bangladesh wants to work with at the moment—we are seen as dangerous. A lot of previous supporters and sponsors of the festival are businesses in Dhaka, and right now they are being tested. They know that their decisions are being monitored and that there is high level of government surveillance surrounding the event. Because of this, we have had to be more inventive, finding new ways to show work, utilizing different types of exhibition and event spaces for photographers and audiences. Some public venues and government-owned buildings are no longer available to us, and we are choosing to see this as an opportunity to move away from the traditional ‘white cube’ mode of presentation, to a much more raw and community-oriented festival. Continue reading “There’s Power in Photography: The Undying Resilience of Dhaka’s Chobi Mela Festival”
This is the moment that art lovers have been waiting for. The most prestigious photography festival in Asia, Chobi Mela is about to begin. An exciting mix of exhibitions, workshops, artist talks and discussions involving participants from all the continents awaits you.
Given recent events, the staging of Chobi Mela itself was an act of defiance. The limitations forced us to be more creative, and in many ways, this edition promises to be the most exciting ever. You’ll regret missing it.
Whether you are an active supporter or just a casual visitor, this is the time when it all comes together. Welcome to all of you who have traveled across the globe to be here. Welcome too, to those who call Dhaka your home.
Key information about the events follow. As in all major festivals, there are last minute changes. Flights are missed, visas fail to come through, people get sick. So please look up the website for the latest updates at http://www.chobimela.org/schedule/
Make friends, see great art, soak in Bangladesh, but above all, enjoy yourselves.
No heaven, no hell, no everafter, do I care for when I’m gone Peace here I seek, in this sand and soil, this place where I was born As oceans deep, as deserts wide, as forests and fences loom As children die, as lovers sigh, no cross, no epitaph, no tomb…
It was the early hours of the morning when we heard the knock on the door. It had been just over a month since I’d come out on bail. But this was not a scary knock, and it wasn’t a locked door. In the tense days preceding the elections, violence, vote rigging and the plight of my fellow prisoners, were our major concerns, so we were completely unprepared for Mahtab’s words. “Saydia’s mother has just died”, was what he simply said. The weight of that short sentence would have pinned us down, but then we heard the sobbing. Saydia’s uncontrollable, unmeasurable, unrestrainable weeping, muffled as it was through her partly open door, brought home the reality of what we had just heard. Holding her, hugging her tight was all I could do. Words have little meaning at such times.
I am unable to individually thank all the people who stood by me in those dark days, but I hope you will accept the heartfelt appreciation by me and the many others who were at the forefront of the fight to get me released. The case still stands and I face a potential maximum sentence of fourteen years. So the fight to drop the case must continue.
Shahidul Alam says he was not allowed to have a lawyer, despite his demands. And that he was beaten by his captors who wanted to coerce him into giving a statement. Video via Arfun A. #freeshahidulpic.twitter.com/Y57PatOVAY
They say photography liberated painting from the need to be representational, freeing it of the task to show things as they are. Less than two centuries from the birth of photography, we need to consider whether photography needs to be liberated from itself. What photography excels at, its phenomenal ability to record the visible, is perhaps its Achilles heel. Not for doing it badly, as many practitioners do it phenomenally well, but because of the weight that bears down upon its shoulders. The burden of trust, rather than the erosion of it, lies at the centre of the drama, for drama is what it is. If the world is a stage then the photographer is the scribe, the choreographer, and sometimes the script writer, but rarely the one directing the play.
Ironically, it is the entity that is blamed for the demise of truthful photography, the digital sleight of hand, which is perhaps the true liberator. What photography did for painting, the computer has done for photography. Not by replacing it, but by removing the mask. Photography, like any other medium, is what its proponent makes it to be. Its fidelity makes it neither more honest nor more ethical. Those attributes continue to reside with the author, both the one with the camera and the other author, the one who sits at the editorial table. The photographer selects the frame, the editor selects the frame within which this inner frame exists. The selection of the image, the cropping, the juxtaposition with text or graphic or advert or headline, the sequencing, the timing and the hierarchy within the news pyramid, makes the photographic image the putty with which the truth is massaged. Its unintended veracity, the very tool, which others in the news-chain exploit with abandon. Continue reading “Liberating the Liberator”