Justice for Shahidul Alam

By Mahfuz Anam: The Daily Star

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?

Shahidul Alam. Photo Courtesy: Rahnuma Ahmed

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.

In the national sphere, Shahidul Alam has done far more than anyone else in advancing professionalism in our photojournalism. He had trained hundreds of press photographers and brought thousands into this profession as students of photography through his personal example and inspiration. It is, perhaps, only because of him that many Bangladeshi photographers today aspire to get published in global publications and win international awards that would have been only in the realm of idle dreams but for him.

He set up the award-winning photo agency called Drik that has brought Bangladesh in the map of global photography. His school, Pathshala, is now the most renowned photography school in South Asia and considered one of the finest in the world, bringing foreign students and guest teachers from many parts to our country. He has set up the Bangladesh Photographic Institute and the South Asian Institute of Photography to promote photojournalism. Both Drik and Pathshala he set up in his parental property sacrificing his personal affluence for his social commitment.

One of his most successful creations was Chobi Mela, a regular international photographic exhibition that brought submissions from all over the world and many of the world’s best photographers to Dhaka, making the Bangladeshi capital a global hub of international photographers, with a special effort to highlight World Press photos. Started in 2000, the theme of the first Chobi Mela was “The War we forgot” staging one of the most successful photo exhibitions of our Liberation War and the genocide.

For his extraordinary talent as a photographer, he received the Harvey Harris Trophy in 1983, Mother Jones Awards for documentary in 1993, Andrea Frank Foundation and Howard Chapnick Awards in ’98, Shilpakala Padak in 2014, Lifetime Achievement Award in 7th Dali International Photo Exhibition in China in 2017, and Lucie Foundation Humanitarian Award this year.

In addition to being a photographer, he is a writer, curator and activist for social justice. In 2007 he published two books called “Nature’s Fury” on earthquake in Kashmir and “Portrait of Commitment” a book on HIV/AIDS in South Asia. His book “My Journey as a Witness” was described by John Morris, former picture editor of Life Magazine, as “the most important book ever written by a photographer”.

He has a PhD in Organic Chemistry from London University. He is a Visiting Professor at the Sunderland University UK and UCLA, USA. He is also is a Guest Lecturer at Harvard University, Stanford University, and Oxford University.

A man of very simple lifestyle, always attired in his trademark rubber slippers, kurta-pyjama, a pouch tied around his waist with personal papers and a backpack with laptop, always biking to work through Dhaka’s chaotic and dangerous-for-bikers traffic.

His love and pride for Bangladesh is as much, if not more, than his love and pride for photography. Through his art, he depicted Bangladesh, in all its facets of her beauty and challenge, poverty and resilience, joy and tragedy, especially her indomitable capacity to overcome all vicissitudes.

He did, and will continue to do, far more to bring Bangladesh’s achievements to global attention than many state funded efforts put together.

And this Shahidul Alam was dragged from his home at night, not given a chance to meet any member of his family, bundled into a microbus, blindfolded – as if they had captured a terrorist -, tortured according to his statement in court, and produced before court after 21 hours of his internment denying all his fundamental rights till his court appearance. For a person of values and ethics, humiliation is by far the “unkindest cut of all”. Those who forced him to walk barefoot did not know that a pair of rubber slippers was all he needed.

He is a man driven by values of social justice and fundamental rights for the common people. It is his professional interest that naturally drew him to the unique event that was being staged by the students and it is the students’ call “We Want Justice” that probably made him go live on Facebook to tell the world what he saw.

A person spends his whole life building a professional reputation — in this case global — and does everything through his craft to serve the country and then one day his few comments appear to be “against”. Then all hell breaks loose, resulting in the worst treatment in practice. His excellence in profession, his patriotism, his sincerity, his honesty, his integrity, his commitment to uplifting members of his profession, his lifelong love for his country — all amount to very little.

Within a few hours, a world renowned professional is in the dust. But definitely not in the eyes of those who know him, have seen his work, have been touched by the generosity of his character and remotely know of his love and pride for Bangladesh.

We hope he will be spared further nightmare of remand and get the justice that he and every law-abiding citizen deserves.

Author: Shahidul

A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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