It was on the 5th August 2018 that I was picked up from my flat. It led to torture, remand, over 100 days in jail and eventually bail on the 6th attempt.
What do I remember of my incarceration? One of my endearing memories is during a power cut (which happens regularly in this high security (KPI) location), when I would hear one of the prisoners sing a song both Rahnuma and I are very fond of. A Baul song composed by Ukil Munshi on the death of his beloved. The song “Shona Chand Pakhi” was made famous by the bard Bari Siddique. Songs are always difficult to translate, but here is a crude attempt:
My tender moon my tender bird Do you slumber as I call, You and I, entwined we were Forevermore and all
Why must you, so quiet stay Open your eyes, my gentle one So quiet you are as I call today Its my call, don’t slumber on
Bulbul, Parakeet, Mynah So many names to you I call You broke the chains and left me Where do I stay where do I fall?
This love of ours, as I call and you sleep Sun and moon witness in the sky Suddenly you leave me all alone I am left with the question why?
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”
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’”
Ms. Sheikh Hasina, Honorable Prime Minister
Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Prime Minister’s Office. Old Sangsad Bhaban
Tejgaon, Dhaka-1215, Bangladesh
My name is Raghu Rai. I have been honored by you in 2012 as friends of Bangladesh Liberation War who photographed the Bangladesh war for freedom by Mukti Bahini supported by your neighbors and friends to transform east Pakistan into an independent nation today known as Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a country of poets, writers, musicians and some of them migrated to India during the partition. Our bond is deep not only culturally but spiritually as well.
Madam Prime minister, you are the daughter of great revolutionary Sheikh Mujibur Rehman who rose against the repressive and torturous regime of Pakistani generals—and in return the generals decided to teach Bangladeshis a lesson. Thus the nation rose against Pakistan under the leadership of Sheikh Sahib and this is how Bangladesh came into being. So let’s not teach our boys a lesson.
Hon’ble Madam, Shahidul Alam founder of DRIK and Pathshala has been a great admirer of Sheikh Sahib, and I have had the privilege of knowing him as a close friend for the last 3 decades. I have no doubt in my mind that Shahidul is one of those rare breeds committed to truth and honesty, and can die for his country. It seems last night Shahidul was picked up by 20-30 men from detective branch of police, and was tortured and couldn’t walk on his feet. My heart bleeds for that. Continue reading “Raghu Rai’s Open Letter to Sheikh Hasina”
PEN International welcomes the news that Shahidul Alam was granted bail today. PEN continues to call for the case against Alam to be dropped.
“While it is a relief to see the court in Dhaka granting bail to Shahidul Alam, it is by no means certain that he is free. The government is still determined to appeal in its ill-conceived pursuit of Shahidul on ridiculous charges under Bangladesh’s draconian laws. Those charges must be dropped immediately and Shahidul should be released unconditionally and his freedoms restored – freedoms which should never have been taken away,” said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.
15th November 2018
PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer
It’s been more than a hundred days now since they took you away. Times aren’t easy in your country or in mine, so when we first heard that unknown men had abducted you from your home, of course we feared the worst. Were you going to be “encountered” (our word in India for extra-judicial murder by security forces) or killed by “non-state actors”? Would your body be found in an alley, or floating in some shallow pond on the outskirts of Dhaka? When your arrest was announced and you surfaced alive in a police station, our first reaction was one of sheer joy.