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”
How do you persuade a government to release a prisoner, however wrongfully incarcerated, if it doesn’t want to cooperate?
Thousands of signatures, tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts. Dozens of articles. Then there are the rallies: from Kathmandu to New York, from Rome to New Delhi, London to Mumbai. Week by week, hundreds of people are gathering in public spaces to protest against the incarceration in Dhaka, Bangladesh, of photographer, journalist, teacher and activist Shahidul Alam.
Among the most headline-grabbing initiatives is Wasfia Nazreen’s sky-high stunt. The mountaineer and social activist — the first Bangladeshi to climb the Seven Summits — flew over Manhattan in an airplane trailing a banner that read “Free Shahidul Alam. Free our teachers.” Another high-profile intervention was made by artist Tania Bruguera, who was herself locked up in her native Cuba after she offended the state censors, and recently devoted her Tate Modern exhibition in London to a display of Alam’s photographs. “What keeps you going when you’re in prison,” Bruguera told me, “are your principles. And the support of others around you.” Continue reading “Shahidul Alam: Caught in the Crossfire of Bangladesh’s Fledgling Democracy”
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…
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
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.
Iconic shot of Bangladeshi photojournalist and rights activist Shahidul Alam, shared by the #FreeShahidul 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’”
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?
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”
I’d pretty much perfected the art. I’d go down to the newest library I could find. Become a member as quickly as I could, and armed with my new membership card head straight to section 770, the magical number for photography at UK public libraries. I would take out the full complement of 8 books that I was allowed at any one time. When the lending period was over, they would be replaced by another eight.
I devoured the books, which were mostly monographs, or ones on technique, composition or even special effects. I knew too little about photography, to know how limited my knowledge was. It was many years later, when my partner Rahnuma, gave me a copy of “The Seventh Man” by John Berger, that a new way of looking at photographs opened up. Unknowingly, it was the book “Ways of Seeing” that later opened another window. One that helped me see the world of storytelling. That was when I realised that image making was only a part of the process. Once youtube arrived on the scene, and the television series with the same name entered our consciousness in such a powerful way, his TV series “Ways of Seeing” became my new staple diet. Here was a leftie who could still speak in a language the average person could understand, and that too on a topic such as art. His fascination was neither about the artist nor the artwork itself, but how we responded to it and how it gained new meaning through our interaction. While it was art he was dissecting, it was popular culture he was framing it within.
That there was so much to read in a photograph, beyond the technicalities of shutter speed, aperture and resolution, is something my years of reading section 770 had never revealed. The photographs of Jean Mohr (The Seventh Man), were unlikely to win awards in contests, or fetch high prices in auctions, but Berger’s insights into the situations and the relationships that the photographs embodied, gave them a value way beyond the mechanics of image formation. Berger never undermined the technical or aesthetic merits of a photograph. He simply found far more interesting things to unearth.