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”
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
Official versions conflict about why Romel Chakma – a 20-year old HSC examinee and student leader of the Pahari Chatra Parishad – was picked up by the army, whether he was transferred from army to police custody while in Naniachar, whether his admission to, and 2-weeklong treatment at, the Chittagong Medical College and Hospital (CMCH), occurred under police custody, and lastly, whether the Naniachar police station’s officer-in-charge (OC) was physically present when Romel’s body was burnt (not cremated, for his body was not handed over to his family), a few hundred yards away from his home in Purba Hatimara village, Naniachar.
Romel was not ill, nor was he suffering from any kind of injury when he was picked up. I have not come across any such media reports, nor does Romel’s father Kanti Chakma, in his letter to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC, dated April 6, 2017), make any such mention. One can therefore assume that he was reasonably fit and healthy (beside the stresses and strains of appearing for his exams), when he was picked up. Continue reading “ROMEL CHAKMA II: Is custodial killing heroic?”
The selfie sessions have now become a part of my life. Ever since coming out of Keraniganj, and possibly more, after becoming Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2018, I’m stopped in the streets, in shopping malls, bookstores, roadside cafes, at restaurants and weddings. The most recent spree was at the National Press Club on the 11th, where there was a public hearing of parliamentary candidates who were victims of election fraud. I have no idea who this guy is, but Blitz has again come up with a howler.
They’re getting somewhat desperate in their smear campaign. Not having been able to come up with anything vaguely credible, they are now getting quite ridiculous. First I was a Mossad Agent. Then ISI. Then they tried the Hizbut Tahrir poster. Now I’m a Jamaati! I’d better be careful. I’ve been photographed with the President, and several cabinet ministers. They’ll accuse me of being an Awami Leaguer next. Now that would ruin anybody’s reputation!
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’”
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.
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”