An Exodus of Pain

An old piece, but worth reminding us that the problem remains.

While Bangladesh, rightly prides itself in sheltering refugees from Myanmar, its human record towards its own citizens remains deeply troubling.

Photographs by Shahidul Alam, text by Lyndall Stein

An Exodus of Pain

‘The Shahidul Alam I Know Is Gentle’

Urvashi Butalia writes about the times she met and worked with the Bangladeshi photojournalist, who was granted bail by the High Court in Dhaka after 102 days of detention.

I cannot now remember when I first met Shahidul Alam, but I think it was some twenty or more years ago when both of us served on the board of an organisation called Panos South Asia. My first impression of him was of a somewhat large, bearded man who spoke with an accent I could not place. It did not take long – perhaps a few hours – for this to change and for the warm, affectionate and caring human being to emerge.

Poppy McPherson

@poppymcp

Iconic shot of Bangladeshi photojournalist and rights activist Shahidul Alam, shared by the campaign. He finally got bail today after more than 100 days in prison, accused of spreading propaganda. He was arrested after posting on Facebook about protests in Dhaka.

To me, Shahidul came across that time as the best kind of nationalist. He loved – he still does – his country Bangladesh. His stint abroad – I never actually knew where he has studied or spent any time – had actually left this feeling much stronger in him. He told all of us about Drik, the photo agency that showcased photographers from the global South and that fiercely protected their rights and their work, refusing to accept that simply because they belonged to the South, their value was any the less. Drik charged for their photos as did international agencies, and why not, was Shahidul’s question. Continue reading “‘The Shahidul Alam I Know Is Gentle’”

Reply to Arundhati: Yes, We Will Rise

Dearest Arundhati,

It was a letter I read and reread long before it appeared before my eyes. It was through layers of metal bars that I strained to listen to Rahnuma’s words. At over 130 decibels, the noise made by us screaming prisoners, straining to hear and be heard, was akin to a crowded stadium or a fire siren. As she repeated her words over and over again, I faintly heard, Arundhati. Letter. It was just over a hundred days that I had been incarcerated. A hundred days since I’d slept on my own bed, fed my fish, cycled down the streets of Dhaka. A hundred days since I’d pressed my shutter as I searched for that elusive light.

Arundhati Roy with Maati Ke Laal in her flat in Delhi. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Those words, screamed out but barely heard was the nourishment I needed. Did you write it by hand? What was the paper like? In this digital age, you probably used a keyboard. What font had you used? What point size? And the words. Words that you so gracefully string together. I relished the imagined words. Your words. I missed words as I missed my bed, my fish and Rahnuma’s touch. When they asked me what I needed in jail, books were on top of my list. The first lot of books came in. Mujib’s prison diaries, Schendel’s History of Bangladesh, and the book you’d given me when we last met, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I’d been meaning to read it ever since we said goodbye in Delhi, but our lives had been taken over by the immediacy of our struggles. Now I had the time. Continue reading “Reply to Arundhati: Yes, We Will Rise”

Crossing the Threshold

The Drik Calendar 2019

We were behind schedule. Every August, I find myself writing the introduction to the Drik calendar. Over the last few years, we’ve developed a practice of featuring Chobi Mela on odd years and finding a topic of common interest on even ones. With my arrest on 5th August-for reporting on ongoing events-the equation changed. Drik, Pathshala, family and friends had all run ragged trying to arrange my release. The calendar was simply not a priority.
Cover of Drik calendar 2019 featuring work by Pathshala alumni

As things settled, we decided we would continue doing the things we did. That would become part of our resistance. However, the Bangladeshi Jail Code has restrictions on what a prisoner can send out. In my case, it meant a complete firewall.

Resourceful as ever, Rahnuma and Saydia, managed to get a short list of suggested photographs through to me, and I was able to do an edit. Abir Abdullah and Tanzim Wahab were to co-write the introduction. But we had underestimated the power of our brilliant legal team and the sheer doggedness of the local and global campaigners and I was finally granted bail on 15th November. Even that didn’t lead to my release, and after a lot of drama in and out of court, and tension constantly rising outside the jail gate, the political dam burst, leading to my release on the night of the 20th. As we sang our way out of prison, Rahnuma whispered in my ear “you have an intro to write.” No rest for the wicked. Continue reading “Crossing the Threshold”

Raghu Rai’s Open Letter to Sheikh Hasina

An Open Letter to Our Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Ms. Sheikh Hasina, Honorable Prime Minister
Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Prime Minister’s Office. Old Sangsad Bhaban
Tejgaon, Dhaka-1215, Bangladesh

My name is Raghu Rai. I have been honored by you in 2012 as friends of Bangladesh Liberation War who photographed the Bangladesh war for freedom by Mukti Bahini supported by your neighbors and friends to transform east Pakistan into an independent nation today known as Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a country of poets, writers, musicians and some of them migrated to India during the partition. Our bond is deep not only culturally but spiritually as well.

Madam Prime minister, you are the daughter of great revolutionary Sheikh Mujibur Rehman who rose against the repressive and torturous regime of Pakistani generals—and in return the generals decided to teach Bangladeshis a lesson. Thus the nation rose against Pakistan under the leadership of Sheikh Sahib and this is how Bangladesh came into being. So let’s not teach our boys a lesson.

Hon’ble Madam, Shahidul Alam founder of DRIK and Pathshala has been a great admirer of Sheikh Sahib, and I have had the privilege of knowing him as a close friend for the last 3 decades. I have no doubt in my mind that Shahidul is one of those rare breeds committed to truth and honesty, and can die for his country. It seems last night Shahidul was picked up by 20-30 men from detective branch of police, and was tortured and couldn’t walk on his feet. My heart bleeds for that. Continue reading “Raghu Rai’s Open Letter to Sheikh Hasina”

Free Shahidul!

On the night of 5 August renowned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam – an old friend of and contributor to New Internationalist – was seized from his home in Dhanmondi, Dhaka, by men claiming to be plainclothes police officers. He appeared in court late in the afternoon of the following day, when the Detective Branch of the police requested and was given seven days’ detention during which they would interview him about his comments on the recent student demonstrations in Dhaka. Photographs and videos of his arrival at the Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrates’ Court show him to be barefoot and having to be half-dragged, half-supported along. He managed to say to a reporter present: ‘I was hit (in custody). (They) washed my blood-stained punjabi and then made me wear it again.’ Continue reading “Free Shahidul!”

Justice for Shahidul Alam

By Mahfuz Anam: The Daily Star

Who is this man whose arrest has sparked outrage and condemnation from global bodies and media, including Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), PEN International, SAMDEN (South Asia Media Defenders Network) and publications such as the Guardian, The Washington Post and many South Asian media?

Shahidul Alam. Photo Courtesy: Rahnuma Ahmed

He is one of the most respected photographers in the world. Very few Bangladeshi of his profession has reached his present global stature. His pictures have been published in almost all the global newspapers and magazines in the world. He is among that elite corps of global photographers who is regularly hired by the most renowned global publications to do assignments in various parts of the world. The Guardian (London) while carrying news of his arrest (Aug 6) wrote “his photographs have been published in every major western media outlet, including The New York Times, Time Magazine and National Geographic in a career that has spanned four decades.” Only those in the world of professional photography can really appreciate the honour and prestige of getting published in the media of such renown. Continue reading “Justice for Shahidul Alam”

Shifting the Lens

06 December 2018 The Caravan

The Drik gallery was host to South Asia’s first World Press Photo exhibition in 1993. The exhibition was opened jointly by the deputy leader of BNP Dr. Badruddoza Chowdhury (later president of Bangladesh) and Mr Abdus Samad Chowdhury (later foreign minister). It was the only time these top leaders opened an event together/DRIK

On the night of 5 August, a couple of dozen men turned up at the photographer Shahidul Alam’s house in Dhaka. They dragged him from his apartment, bound and screaming, smashing surveillance cameras on the way out. Alam’s partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, was with a neighbour, so she could not react in time. By the time anyone fully realised what was going on, Alam had been thrown into a white van and driven off into the night’s darkness.

The following is an excerpt from “The Man Who Saw Too Much: Why the Bangladesh government fears Shahidul Alam,” by Kaamil Ahmed, published in The Caravan’s latest issue, alongside Alam’s visual account of Bangladesh’s extrajudicial killings. Subscribe now to read in full. Continue reading “Shifting the Lens”

Fending with Fulcrums

Shahidul Alam, Guadalajara, Mexico
November 2017

There is no government I know that does not champion democracy and human rights in its rhetoric but also actively suppress both in its practice. It’s best to recognise that reality and work within it rather than fantasise on some ideal solution that has no relevance to everyday art practice. So we use the tactics of judo wrestlers, using the opponent’s weight and turning it to our advantage. We use fulcrums and gravity and capitalise on the inherent inertia of the establishment. We are nimble and fleeting. As Ali might have done, we flit like the butterfly and sting like the bee.

A student who had been picked up in a massive police raid, reaches out for help from the prison van. photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Continue reading “Fending with Fulcrums”

Apolitical Intellectuals

 
One day the apolitical intellectuals of my country will be interrogated by the simplest of our people.
They will be asked what they did when their nation died out slowly, like a sweet fire small and alone.
No one will ask them about their dress, their long siestas after lunch, no one will want to know about their sterile combats with “the idea of the nothing” no one will care about their higher financial learning.
They won’t be questioned on Greek mythology, or regarding their self-disgust when someone within them begins to die the coward’s death.
They’ll be asked nothing about their absurd justifications, born in the shadow of the total lie.
On that day the simple men will come.
Those who had no place in the books and poems of the apolitical intellectuals, but daily delivered their bread and milk, their tortillas and eggs, those who drove their cars, who cared for their dogs and gardens and worked for them, and they’ll ask:
“What did you do when the poor suffered, when tenderness and life burned out of them?”
Apolitical intellectuals of my sweet country, you will not be able to answer.
A vulture of silence will eat your gut.
Your own misery will pick at your soul.
And you will be mute in your shame.
–Otto Rene Castillo