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”
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”
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.
It is my great pleasure to announce that the Lucie Foundation and its Advisory Board have selected you as the 2018 recipient of the distinguished Humanitarian Award presented at The Lucie Awards. Congratulations on your nomination! Your exceptional contribution to photography and society will be a welcomed addition to an illustrious list that has included the Josephine Herrick Project, Lisa Kristine, Nancy McGirr, Sara Terry, Zana Briski, Sebastião Salgado, and Phil Borges.
Chobi Mela X
International Festival of Photography, 2019
No heaven, no hell, no ever after, 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
As bullets whiz by, as shrapnel shard, as hate pours from above
As blue skies curse, the wounded I nurse, as spite replaces love
It is home I long, as I boundaries cross, a shelter that I seek
A world for us all, white brown short tall, the boisterous and the meek
If my bosom is raised, or my beard is long, or I sleep with the ‘wrong’ kind
If my politics isn’t yours, nor my country of birth, a terrorist you will find
You return my boat to the cruel sea, back to the wars you wrought
Walls you will raise, to keep me at bay, my children in danger fraught
I love the land I was born in, the tree that gave me shade
My broken home, my shattered dreams, slain lover that goodbye bade
My slanted eyes, my dread lock hair, my tongue though strange may be
I bleed red blood, as flows in your vein, Is there a place in your heart for me? -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.
A report on Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, published by the online news portal bdnews24.com, has come to our attention (?Shahidul Alam?s Pathshala operates without affiliation,? bdnews24.com, 6 August 2016). Unsubstantiated allegations, backbiting and innuendo and the absence of cross checking characterise the ?report.? It is a shoddy piece of journalism. Continue reading “PATHSHALA?S RESPONSE TO BDNEWS24.COM?S REPORT”
At a time when our entire education system is in crisis, the quality of education is in question and the values that student?s inculcate is a source of fear.?A student of?Pathshala South Asian Media Institute,?in response to questions about the validity of the very certificate he has obtained, talks passionately about the institution?s pedagogic model and how he has been transformed by it.
A letter to whom it may concern
BEFORE joining Pathshala, I had studied in nine schools and one university (all certified) in this country. But never before had I found an environment similar to the one at Pathshala. South Asian Media Institute, founded by Shahidul Alam. Forget about competing, none of them are even light years close.
From a very early age I had sincere doubts and disagreements with the ?socially accepted? and ?certified? educational systems. For, all I had seen was a bunch of sheep-like people following a curriculum given by a governing body or authority without assessing, questioning or having an opinion on the teaching method or the materials. It seemed that people blindly followed the dictum ?this is how things are?, an attitude which I could never accept. Everywhere, I saw teachers give students instructions or orders to follow a rigid structure, to memorise, to cover the syllabus. Even those studying in a creative field had teachers who would promote and indoctrinate a particular pattern of thinking or school of thought. This basically means that you are thinking other people?s thoughts and are being conditioned in someone else?s mental shadow. Continue reading “On the ?uncertified? Pathshala”
OPINION – 11 MAR 2016?BY DANIEL BAUMANN Frieze.com
How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices
Rasel Chowdhury, winner of the 3rd Samdani Art Award, People on low incomes living in slums beside the railway station at Khilgaon, Kamalapur, Dhaka, 2012, (from the series ?Railway Longings?, 2011?15). Courtesy the artist
I just got back from the third Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) in?the Bangladeshi capital. DAS is the?brainchild of Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, a young collector couple based in the city; it?s not a biennial, nor an art fair or a festival, but an?intense four-day summit. For it?s third edition, the Chief Curator of DAS, Mumbai-based Diana Campbell Betancourt, decided not to focus on a particular theme per se but on the South Asia region as a?whole, which in itself is a contradictory concept. (What exactly is South Asia? Is Australia a part of it? Sri Lanka? Iran?) She engaged several curators, including me; I was invited to organize an exhibition for the Samdani Art Award, which is given to a Bangladeshi artist between the ages of 20 and 40. Back in October 2015, I had spent a week in Dhaka meeting the 20 artists who had been shortlisted for this award by Aaron Cezar, director of the London-based Delfina Foundation. From my very first conversation with the artists, I?sensed that?we?were at the beginning of an extremely interesting week.
I learned a lot about Bangladesh ? the local scene, art education, religion and why, for instance, art?works about love do matter. Some artists I met mentioned that their partner was either Hindu or?Muslim and that they could not tell their respective families. As the?week went on, I became increasingly enthusiastic about the obvious sense?of urgency with which all of the nominated artists work: Bangladesh is rapidly changing on all levels, and?these artists are all embracing the challenge to get involved, to have their voices heard and to find appropriate forms of?expression for that.
This seemed particularly true?for many of the photographers on the shortlist. As it turned out, they all came from a single school: Dhaka?s Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. Set up in 1998?by the Bangladeshi photographer, writer, curator and activist Shahidul Alam, this private school has been dedicated to documentary photography and reportage from the beginning. Located in the central Dhanmondi/Panthapath area of Dhaka, it is a small institute for about 90 students who follow the three-year professional programme, and for about 600 students enrolled in the short, one-semester course. Initially funded by international organisations, Pathshala now is entirely supported through tuition fees. (Though relatively modest at?US$460 per semester for the professional programme, inevitably, as in Europe or the US, students are?likely to come from more affluent backgrounds, while there are scholarships allowing five students?per year to study for free.) Continue reading “New Developments: How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices”
F?ted internationally, the country?s photographers have struggled for status at home. Could that be about to change?
From the series ?Railway Longings? (2011-2015) by Rasel Chowdhury
The eerie moonscape of Munem Wasif?s new photographic series, ?Land of Undefined Territory?, appears empty. On closer inspection, it reveals the scars of industrial activity, from vehicle tracks to stone crushing. The sense of menace and alienation is compounded by a three-channel video with a grating soundtrack.
These digital black-and-white shots were taken along an indefinite border between Bangladesh and India ? disputed land that is now home to unregulated mining but which also soaked up the blood of past upheavals, from the first, temporary partition of Bengal under the viceroy in 1905, to Partition in 1947 and the Liberation war of 1971. Ostensible documentary veers into questioning in Wasif?s deeply unsettling yet distanced probing of history, territory, ownership and exploitation. Continue reading “Photography in Bangladesh: a medium on the move”