National Geographic Explorer at Large

January 26, 2022

Today, the National Geographic Society has appointed American artist Maya Lin and Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam as National Geographic Explorers at Large.

The title, which comes with opportunities as ambassadors for the National Geographic Society and support for continuing their impactful work, is bestowed on a select few global changemakers and thought leaders––including other National Geographic legends like Bob Ballard, Rodrigo Medellín, Sylvia Earle, and the late Thomas Lovejoy.

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Walking the walk

It was daunting to be a keynote speaker amidst so many big names at the Oslo North-South Forum, held at Oslo Town Hall on August 28, 2004. Dr Kenneth Kaunda, the crown prince of Norway, the mayor of Oslo, Hilde F Johnson, the Norwegian minister of international development, and other dignitaries graced the occasion. No one meant more to me than Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  It was not because he was a Nobel Laureate, or a celebrated archbishop, not even because of his role in the anti-apartheid movement, though that was very important to me. It was because he was such a wonderful human being.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Shahidul Alam. August 28, 2004, Oslo.  Photo: Kenneth David Kaunda.

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Whither World Press Photo?

World Press Photo (WPP) has long been criticised for the colonial demographics of its power structure. After years of foot-dragging, someone somewhere seems to have woken up. There is not a single white male on the new WPP international advisory committee. A tectonic shift considering how the boards of the past were stacked with them.

2003 Jury © Peter Dejong
International Jury of World Press Photo contest 2003. Left to right Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Mexico; Mitsuaki Iwago, Japan; Eva Fischer, Germany; Herbert Mabuza, South Africa; Andrew Wong, People’s Republic of China; Alexander Zemlianichenko, Russia; Brechtje Rood, the Netherlands; Adriaan Monshouwer, the Netherlands (secretary of jury); Shahidul Alam, Bangladesh (chair); Maggie Steber, USA; Sarah Harbutt, USA; Paolo Pellegrin, Italy; Margot Klingsporn, Germany; Pierre Fernandez, France. © Peter Dejong

I remember my 1993 letter to the managing director Marloes Krijnen, that the name European Press Photo would be a more appropriate name for the organisation. While there have been some changes, it seems to have taken nearly thirty years for penny to drop that the word ‘World’, does have a specific meaning.

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Scorched Lives at Hashem Foods

Anwara and Roksana break down at the morgue where they found the charred body of their 16 year old nephew Munna. Photo: Suman Kanti Pal/DrikNews

Long after the water from the fire engines had extinguished the raging flames that surged through the Hashem Foods factory in Rupganj, the flames still burned in the charred homes of the 54 who died in the fire. Their lives ravaged. Their dreams shattered. Their belief in a just society, torn to shreds.

Four year old Rafin holds up her mother’s photo as she waits outside the morgue for her mother’s DNA test results. Suman Kanti Paul/DrikNews

There have been many fires before. Many times we have said ‘never again’. A few headlines, a few statements by those in authority that ‘there will be a full investigation and no one will be spared’ and then it’s forgotten.

Predictably, the owners, invariably wealthy people with connections, escape the selectively porous dragnet of our justice system. Their well calculated donations and their constant patronage of the power elite ensure they do not suffer the same fate as the dissenters and critics of the system. They re- emerge as patrons and are feted in social events. Unlike the tombstones of the hapless victims, their’s bear the inscription ‘philanthropists’.

There was no firefighting equipment in the factory, and no fire escapes. Inflammable raw materials rapidly caught fire, resulting in 54 deaths. Photo: Istiak Karim/DrikNews

And the victims? What comfort can we give to Nazma Begum mother of the 12-year-old Mohammad Hasnain as she waits outside Dhaka Medical College Morgue to get news of her son. What lies will make her forget the excruciating pain her son would have felt as his skin burned, the fat feeding the flames?

Scratch marks on charred walls made by a labourer who desperately wanted to live. Hashem Foods Limited, Rupganj, Narayaganj; July 10, 2021. Photo: Suman Kanti Pal
The burnt carcass of a floor of Hashem Food Factory Ltd. Photo: Parvez Ahmed/DrikNews

How do we redeem ourselves as a society, knowing we let it happen? If after so many deaths. So much pain. So much loss, we still turn away, surely the lock on the gate that prevented their escape will have our fingerprints.

The lock that prevented workers exiting the factory. Photo: Shahidul Alam/DrikNews

Shahidul Alam

Citizens Protest on Banshkhali Killings

Ganosamhati Andolan chief coordinator Zonayed Saki, speaking at the press conference, held at Gonosasthya Nagar Hospital auditorium at Dhanmondi in Dhaka.

At least seven workers were killed and dozens were shot after police opened fire at SS Power 1 Limited, a Chinese and Bangladeshi owned joint venture company. Workers demonstrating for unpaid wages and other benefits on the coal-fired power plant premises at Baroghona under Gandamara of Banshkhali in Chattogram on April 17.

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Sebastião Salgado in conversation with Shahidul Alam

Keeping in line with the month’s theme ‘Art as Witness’, MAP in association with the Bangalore International Centre (BIC), brought together two exemplary photographers of social action and change, Sebastião Salgado and Shahidul Alam, in a webinar hosted on 27 June. Moderated by Nathaniel Gaskell, the discussion centred on the photographic journeys of the acclaimed Brazilian and Bangladeshi photographers, and elaborated on the power of photography to catalyse social change. Through an unveiling of their personal journeys and experiences, the discussion also highlighted the positive influence of activism and the use of one’s voice against oppression.

‘All that I have left of him’

“I was tasked with looking after him for 54 years. Now God has taken over that role” said writer Mushtaq Ahmed’s mother. A dignified woman, she spoke in a quiet controlled manner. Occasionally her voice would break, but she contained herself. Refusing to give in to grief. Mushtaq’s dad broke down more openly. He sobbed as he spoke of his children. Of Mushtaq’s farm, of his love of photography. Of Mushtaq’s sister who had been a student in the school my mother had founded. “Can I show you his camera?” he asked me. He gingerly brought over the DSLR camera with a 70-300 mm lens and placed it in front of me. Mushtaq’s wife Lipa, brought out the memory cards and the battery. They were placed in front of me on the dining table, almost as an offering. As I held the camera, Lipa quipped, “the camera was my shotin” (the other wife). “He loved it more than he loved me.”

Mushtaq Ahmed’s camera
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On Life in Prison

Channel 4:

An acclaimed photographer who spent more than a hundred days in prison in Bangladesh claims he was tortured by security forces. Shahidul Alam was jailed after giving an interview in which he accused the Bangladeshi government of corruption and intimidation.

While behind bars, Mr Alam says he was blindfolded, shackled and threatened with waterboarding. Our Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson has been speaking to him.

I didn’t eat the bananas!

I ALWAYS take a window seat on day flights. The ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign is my cue to peer into the watery landscape that the plane flies over before it lands in Dhaka. Few things give me more pleasure than the sound of the wheels touching land. This Antaeus-like effect only works on home soil. It’s knowing I’m back in Bangladesh which gives that warm inner feeling. Grounded in Dhaka for nearly a year due to COVID-19, I miss those landings.

As I sift through stories on international media, stories about Bangladesh are the ones I home in on. Sadly, they are often stories of natural disasters or the impending damage due to climate change. Stories about corruption, or our migrant workers being mistreated are sad, but as a journalist, these are stories I cannot avoid reading or reporting on. One hopes that by shedding light on such injustice, one can help shape a better future for my countryfolk. Some stories, like a cricket win, or a Pathshala student winning a major photography award bring a smile. A one-hour documentary on Bangladesh on Al Jazeera was a big deal. The trailer suggested it was a dark story, but still I waited eagerly.

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The Tide Will Turn amongst “Best Art Books of 2020” list by New York Times.

THE TIDE WILL TURN’ By Shahidul Alam; edited by Vijay Prashad (Steidl). The eminent Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for more than three months in 2018 for denouncing the repression of protesters. Released after a mobilization of local and foreign support, he reflects here on his prison experience and a life of fighting for justice (for laborers, survivors of gender violence, Indigenous groups, and others) through image and deed. Some of his finest pictures illustrate the text, as do his selections of noteworthy images by other Bangladeshi photographers. Solidarity and integrity reign, along with tenacious optimism, expressed in a heartfelt exchange of letters with the writer-activist Arundhati Roy. (Read about his current exhibition.)

The full list