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.
ON HIS BICYCLE, Shahidul Alam is easy to spot—floating through Dhaka’s congested arteries atop his slight fold-up bicycle, wearing a kurta and with his scarf flapping in the pollution-laden wind. He grew up in the residential area of Dhanmondi, one of three siblings born to middle-class parents. His father was a prominent scientist and his mother, a child psychologist.
In 1972, Alam went to the United Kingdom to pursue a doctorate in chemistry, following his sister, Najma Karim, who was already studying medicine there. He made a habit of walking the streets of Liverpool in his lungi. According to Karim, he considered it a form of national dress. He even taught some of the other students staying with him at the university’s chapel how to wear one. In college, he was introduced to activism through his involvement with the Socialist Workers’ Party.
“There was no end to his inquisitiveness, he used to wonder about everything,” Karim told me at her home in London, where family portraits captured by Alam lean against the walls. She compared him to both their parents; their father, from whom he drew technical knowledge and their mother, who sparked his creativity.
It was in London that he fell in love with photography. And it happened by accident. Alam had brought a camera over from the United States for his friend, who ultimately could not afford to pay for it, so he found himself stuck with it. He started experimenting with it and was soon “completely intoxicated” by images, consuming a wide array of literature on photography and the visual medium. He taught himself how to use the camera and develop photos, eventually taking portraits of children to support his living. Soon, he won a London Arts Council award for a photograph that he took. This boosted his confidence in pursuing a career in photography.
Alam decided to return to Bangladesh in 1984—two years after Ershad gained power by imposing martial law. According to his former student, Alam was part of a generation that was keen to pass on the values they learnt abroad. “It was a very different form of motivation that brought these people back into the country,” the student told me. “They had seen the war, the struggle.” According to him, it was the need to “give back to the community” that propelled Alam’s return. In his own telling, Alam was getting “dangerously comfortable” in London. “It was time for a clean break,” he wrote. “I packed my bags for Dhaka.”
“I think he saw it as a duty,” Karim told me. “Always, always, he had a great affection for Bangladesh,” she said. “He thought that with photography he could represent his country the best. He could really make an impact.”
Bangladesh would also be where Alam would meet the love of his life, his “dearest friend and harshest critic,” Rahnuma. “Her name, a Persian word which means ‘The one who shows you the way,’ could not have been more apt,” he told me. “We collaborate, we argue and we fight. We make a very good team. A very great deal of whatever I’ve been able to achieve is due to her.”
Since he did not have formal qualifications in photography, the only kind of jobs he was being offered upon his return were teaching positions at Dhaka University. He could not land gigs on his own, so he joined the Bangladesh Photographic Society. Throughout the late 1980s, while working on assignments for multinationals to make some money, Alam photographed the political and social ferment on the streets. “I went to secret meetings, saw police attacks, and captured students breaking curfew,” he wrote. “For the first time in my life, I wanted editors not to credit me. I needed to continue my work and had to remain invisible.”
Within three years, in 1987, Alam was elected the president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society and had become a regular contributor for Western newspapers and magazines. The following year, the worst floods in a century hit Bangladesh. Alam took photographs highlighting the mismanagement of relief funds and the struggle of ordinary people.
One incident rankled him. A Western agency was hounding him for photographs of the floods, “the biggest tear jerkers I could find,” for which he set to work. Later, he found out the agency also sent one of its own photographers on commission, without telling him so. “The differential treatment and lack of trust bothered me,” he wrote. “I was clearly a second-class citizen. If a privileged Bangladeshi photographer with good English skills could be marginalised so easily, what hope was there for a lesser known photographer with limited resources?” His home—the same one which formed a lot of his identity, according to his sister—was converted into a gallery. On 4 September 1989, the Drik Picture Library came into existence.
The government had enforced strict censorship during the late 1980s. As things took a turn for the worse, with curfews and brutal clampdowns, most national newspapers stopped publishing material critical of the government. Alam’s images, in which he wanted to show the “raw courage of a people against the cruelty of a tyrant,” would stand in as a historical record of the time. The photos he captured during this period became the defining moments of his career. After Ershad stepped down in 1990, Drik held its first exhibition of the photographs at Dhaka University. “There were queues over a mile long,” Alam later recalled. “Some 400,000 people saw the show in three and a half days!”
Alam continued to document the wider social life of the country, from student and civilian protests to the lives of Adivasi women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts to extrajudicial killings to migrant labour—issues in which the outside world appeared to only be intermittently interested. In the first five years of Drik, there was a large body of requests for photographs from publishers and non-profits all around the world. “Almost invariably, they had to do with floods, cyclones, and slums,” Alam recalled. At “the first hint of disaster,” they “returned with the same piteous imagery, reducing a proud people to icons of poverty.”
In 1993, Alam wrote to the World Press Photo and asked them if they would consider changing their name to “Western Press Photo,” owing to the fact that representation of large masses of people in the world was missing. The director, in the same period, asked Alam if he would be willing to bring the exhibition to Dhaka within a month. In a matter of weeks, the Drik gallery was host to South Asia’s first World Press Photo exhibition.
Alam’s challenge to ways of seeing was not only directed at the Western world, but also internal. A year after the international exhibition came to the country, he began teaching photography to a group of working-class children—calling the group “Out Of Focus.” By 1997, the eighth annual Drik calendar featured the works of some of these children, instead of a selection of more established Bangladeshi artists.
By 1998, he had established Pathshala. This marked a watershed moment, in which the practices he developed over the years were formalised and taught to younger generations of Bangladeshi storytellers. Alam wanted the institute to be much more than one that taught photography. “It’s about using the language of imagery to bring about social change; to nurture minds and encourage critical thinking,” he wrote. “It’s about responsible citizenship, and in a land where textual literacy is low; about reaching out where words have failed.”
Two years later, Alam launched Chobi Mela, the first photography festival in South Asia. Its very first exhibition was entitled “The war we forgot,” centred around 1971, with photos collected from prominent photographers such as Raghu Rai, Rashid Talukder, Don McCullin and Mary Ellen Mark.
When I met Alam in 2014 in a brick-walled cafe below the Drik gallery, he spoke to me about the ethos behind Chobi Mela. “We recognised that Bangladesh had a very negative image and it was very poorly understood,” he said. Alam founded Chobi Mela after attending an event in the French city of Arles in 1994, when he took along two young Bangladeshi photographers, who were floored by the experience. “I could see the transformation it brought. I realised it couldn’t be restricted to these two young men, it was something that needed to be made available,” said Alam. He knew how hard it was for most Bangladeshis to access exclusive events in distant countries.
Over time, the festival grew bigger and now attracts the most prominent names in photography while still being pitched to a local audience. Some exhibitions are displayed in dilapidated corners of old Dhaka. Mobile exhibitions, pulled through the city on rickshaw vans, bring the art to the city’s residents.
“It’s not just a question of informing people. It’s a matter of interfering, forcing power structures to change,” Alam said. In many ways, it is the legacy of Alam’s own activism, his championing of minorities and dissent, which encouraged the creative organising and groundswell of support he received from art communities across the world.
This is an excerpt from “The Man Who Saw Too Much: Why the Bangladesh government fears Shahidul Alam,” by Kaamil Ahmed, published inThe Caravan’s latest issue, alongside Alam’s visual account of Bangladesh’s extrajudicial killings. Subscribe now to read in full.