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Morning Edition [7 min 19 sec]
November 14, 2011
Steve Inskeep talks to Shahidul Alam, a former chemist who became a photographer because he was tired of seeing images of the developing world through the lens of Western photographers. He now runs an art gallery, a photo agency and a school of photojournalism in Bangladesh. He recently published a book of stunning photographs called My Journey as a Witness.
STEVE INSKEEP, host: Twenty years ago, a cyclone devastated Bangladesh, and the photographer Shahidul Alam says he received a request for news photos from The New York Times. Mr. Alam says he argued successfully for different kinds of images to make the paper.
SHAHIDUL ALAM: They wanted bodies. They wanted destruction. They wanted to show the horror of the cyclone which was important, of course. But what is also important was the fact that people were rallying around to support each other; that farmers were replanting their seeds; that fishermen were going out into the sea; that human beings were trying to rebuild their lives.
INSKEEP: Alam says he wants to give the world a fuller image of poor countries like his. His new book of photos, called “My Journey as a Witness,” does not flinch from Bangladesh’s many problems. But his photos also seek to show the rich colors, the expressive faces, the very human lives of crowded places like the mega-city of Dhaka.
ALAM: Dhaka has a lot of people but it’s also a vibrant city. There’s a lot of energy there. There’s entrepreneurial ship. Almost every person that you know or see is there doing 10 different jobs, managing in very difficult situations, and coming out with some sort of a formula for survival, which really is to be admired.
INSKEEP: Let’s try to describe for people this photograph that I’ve opened here in your book. We’re looking down on Dhaka. We’re looking down on both banks of a river. Where were you when you took this photograph. I guess you must have been in an aircraft or something.
ALAM: Yeah, it was a helicopter. And that’s a story in itself because getting on a helicopter is a problem. But getting permission to photograph from a helicopter is another problem in a country like Bangladesh. A lot of the work that I do makes me unpopular with my government.
But this is one situation where the Prime Minister had actually commissioned me to produce a multimedia presentation, because he wanted to woo foreign investor into Bangladesh. So, we have this love-hate relationship.
INSKEEP: Is their photograph in this book that you got in trouble for taking or that you had to go through some trouble to get?
ALAM: Well, there’s a series of photographs where we were not allowed to show. That’s right at the end, a series called “Crossfire.”
Yeah, you’ve just opened that. That’s a paddy field. That’s part of a series on extra-judicial killings. And, as you will see, it’s just a paddy field. There’s nothing…
INSKEEP: A rice paddy.
ALAM: A rice paddy.
INSKEEP: But we’re looking at green plants. This lights up, close up.
INSKEEP: It’s beautiful. What’s wrong with this photograph?
ALAM: The very question I asked the riot police who was guarding my gallery when we were trying to show this. When we tried to show this, the gallery was closed down. It led to a whole lot of things. But perhaps I need to give you the context.
INSKEEP: There must be a story, yes.
ALAM: In 2004, the government introduced a group called the Rapid Action Battalion. And this was a group of elite paramilitary forces who were brought in supposedly to curb corruption. They had impunity and, as in any situation where you give absolute power to people…
INSKEEP: With guns.
ALAM: Yes. It got out of hand and they essentially will people license to kill. And in this particular paddy field, a person’s body had been found and the villagers talked about how the situation was incongruent with the description of the government. Because the official version was that there had been an ambush and these people had died. And they talked about how the paddy field was undisturbed except for where the body was. How…
INSKEEP: In other words, there clearly had not been a big fight, an attack and counterattack. There was nothing.
ALAM: The man’s body had four bullet holes, the shirt he was wearing had none. So there were other things that didn’t fit. Now, what was very interesting is we produced an entire exhibition of which this was one.
The police closed the exhibition down. I did an interview after the policemen closing it down. And I asked this man, what’s the problem? What’s so sinister about this paddy field? And he says, yes, it’s a paddy field but you see that word crossfire – and there was crossfire written in bold red on the banner – didn’t you realize what that paddy field must have been? You realize what must have happened. You realize why this show must be closed down?
So here was this policeman giving me wonderful conceptual analysis of my own work, which was wonderful.
INSKEEP: Well, that’s suggests that they were right to be suspicious of you.
ALAM: Precisely. Because photographs have that ability to engage with people at a powerful level.
INSKEEP: I want to flip to one more photograph. This is – the caption says Woman Cooking on Rooftop in Dhaka, Bangladesh back in 1988. What we looking at here and what did you do?
ALAM: This was taken during what was probably the worst flood in a century. I was actually on a boat and, as you can see, the boat is at the level of the rooftops. So the water had come up. This woman’s home was obviously inundated. The only place she had was the rooftop. She has to carry on. Her family has to eat, so she’s cooking on this rooftop.
Quite apart from the fact that this was such a situation but she was getting on with life. She was tending to her family. One needs to recognize that here is a people who will, come what may, persevere. Their endurance, their tenacity, their ability to overcome whatever there might be, I think is what needs to be celebrated.
And you’ve just turned the page to another photograph. This photograph was taken immediately after that other photograph – the photograph that you’re looking at, which is a wedding.
INSKEEP: We’re looking at a wedding, yeah.
ALAM: It’s a wedding. There are lots of people. It happened to be a hugely opulent wedding, the wedding of the daughter of a minister – a powerful minister, taking place at a time when the country was really under this enormous flood.
INSKEEP: Beautiful women’s clothes. Men in suits and ties. Everybody’s hair looks perfect.
ALAM: Yeah. I mean, of course, we’re talking about Bangladesh. There is this divide between the haves and the have-nots. The people you’re looking at in this picture are the creme de la creme. They’re the ones with a wealth. They’re the ones who have the good life. They don’t actually contribute very much to Bangladesh’s economy.
Bangladesh’s economy is built on garment workers, on migrant workers, on the farmers in the field. They’re the ones we should be celebrating. They’re the true heroes of my country.
INSKEEP: You ever worry that the Rapid Action Battalion that you referred to before might come after you?
ALAM: I think if I’m doing my job right they should be coming after me. And if they were not coming after me, I would probably question my own position.
INSKEEP: Shahidul Alam, he is the author of a book called “My Journey as a Witness,” a book of his photographs.
Thanks very much.
ALAM: Thank you.
INSKEEP: It’s MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE: And I’m Renee Montagne.