My Best Shot

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Guardian 16th October 2011

Photographer Shahidul Alam’s best shot

‘The fisherman told me the river is a destructive animal. It had destroyed his home many times’

The only fish that matters ? Shahidul Alam's shot of ilish fishing on the river Brahmaputra, Bangladesh. Photograph: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
I was working on a story about?the Brahmaputra river, following it from its source in Tibet, through?Arunachal Pradesh and?Assam in India, right the way to the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. I had been doing it for about three and a half years, and a sail boat was the missing element in the story.
In Bangladesh, there were once over 800 species of riverboats, most of which have now disappeared, largely because of the advent of motorboats and changing lifestyles. But during the monsoon, fishermen still go out to catch a particular fish called?ilish, which is a delicacy in Bangladesh. To the connoisseur, it is the ilish of this particular river that is said to be the only type that matters.
I took a fishing boat along the river from Daulatdia, but at first the light was terrible, so I decided to?wait. I stayed with a fisherman in his home, and we went out for three days. On the third day, as sometimes happens during the monsoon, there was this shaft of light that shone through a small gap in the dark cloud formation. A red sail just?happened to be there, and for several minutes became luminescent. It was absolutely a fortunate moment, but I had been waiting for it to happen.
The fisherman told me that, while the river is very much part of his?life, it is also a very destructive animal. His home, which is very close to its bank, has been destroyed many times. That didn’t deter him, though ? the river is his life. He gave me ilish to?take home, and it was as good as I’ve ever had.
We tend to think of the river as a geographical entity. I think it is much more than that: it is something that connects humanity. My picture captures a fading way of life, unique to the Bangladeshi landscape.
Born: Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1955.
Influences: A man you will never have heard of, who I always see in Dhaka. He and his son are scavengers. I’ve seen him do it for years with a quiet dignity that I admire immensely.
High point: There was the time in my life when I had the choice of making an easy living and I was able to resist it.
Low point: The death of my brother when I was 15.
  1. Shahidul Alam: My Journey as a Witness
  2. Wilmotte Gallery at Lichfield Studios,
  3. London
  1. Until 18 November
  2. Details:020-8968?3333
  3. Venue website

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. 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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