International Press Freedom Awards

CPJ is honored to present its 2020 International Press Freedom Award to Bangladeshi journalist Shahidul Alam.

Alam is a renowned photojournalist and commenter, and the founder of the Bangladeshi multimedia training organization the Pathshala Media Institute and the Drik Picture Library Ltd. He also co-founded the photo agency Majority World and the Chobi Mela Festival, a pioneering photography festival in Bangladesh. His photographs of life in Bangladesh, as well as of protests and the environment, are well known in his country and around the world.

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Upholding the Moral Compass

First published in The New Age

Barrister Rafiq Ul Haque in his home in Purana Paltan. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The boat was headed North from Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong island. It was 1986, and the big outflow of Bangladeshi migrants hadn’t really begun. The last thing I expected as I headed to Kowloon was Bangla being spoken. Curious, I approached the distinguished looking gentleman and introduced myself. I had been away for twelve years and didn’t even recognise the name Rafique Ul Haque. He didn’t let on that he was a celebrated lawyer, but I had enough wits around me to work out that a Bangladeshi lawyer meeting a client in Hong Kong, had to be rather good. It was much later that I found out that the man I had been speaking to was a class friend of the former president of India Pranab Mukherjee and had stayed at the same Baker Hostel in Kolkata where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been. I was on a judging assignment, and I introduced him to my fellow jury members, the Indian photographer Raghu Rai, the Malaysian photographer Eric Peris and Wee Beng Huat, the photo editor of the Singaporean Newspaper, The Straits Times. Neither of us knew then that he was a close family friend. His wife, Dr Farida Haque worked with my father professor Kazi Abul Monsur who was then director of the Public Health Institute. She was also his former student. Both Rafique Bhai’s family and mine were ‘doctor’ families. We had joked that had we become doctors we would have run out of patients in the family. Rafique Bhai had retained his familial leanings by establishing the Shishu Hospital, the Ad-Din Hospital and a cancer hospital that was close to completion when we last met. Having bequeathed all his property except the family home to these institutions, he had told his lawyer son, ‘I’ve given you a decent education. You earn your keep’.

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Who lives, who dies, who decides?

The Councillor of 26 No Ward of Dhaka South City Corporation, Mr Hasibur Rahman Manik who led a ruling party procession to the venue to disrupt a peaceful performance by Drik Picture Library at Raju Bhaskorjo at the Dhaka University on 4th September 2020, Drik’s 31st Anniversary. © Habibul Haque/Drik

‘PAPA, are you crying?’ were the last words popular Awami League councillor Akramul Haque’s daughter had said to him. The family then heard the gunshots. The groan. Then more shots. The sounds, recorded on their phone, and later released to the media, reverberated across paddy fields, along the undulating Chittagong Hill Tracts, across swampy marshlands, on the waves of the Padma and Jamuna, in fancy apartments of Gulshan and Baridhara, and now in the cantonment. It reaffirmed what we all knew, and what the government has consistently denied. That it was the law enforcing agencies of our country, rather than the courts, who decide whether a citizen should live or die.

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Bicycle Rally Against Rape

Bangladesh is reeling under a spate of attacks against women. This includes rape, murder and sexual harassment. By far the majority of perpetrators are people affiliated with the ruling party. The police is known to actively support and protect the perpetrators. A bicycle rally from Shahbag to Manik Mia Avenue in protest against rape. 15th October 2020.

A World Torn Asunder

Shahidul Alam

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It’s not a good time for huggers. A virus rips through our social fabric. Distraught children distanced from dying parents. Loved ones unseen, untouched, in sterile cabins. Lovers unable to hold hands. Kids separated from school friends. Smiles hidden by masks. Everyday acts of sympathy and endearment buried under the cosh of lockdown. Torn asunder by a tiny microbe it’s a world like no other.

There are many faces to this pandemic. There have been acts of great generosity by individuals of limited means. Acts of grotesque deceit and corruption by individuals with plenty. The lockdown has also led to clearer skies, cleaner air, quieter streets. Moments of repose. Families together again with time for children.

Some have profited from the virus. Repressive regimes have put in place rules that citizens would rebel against in normal times. COVID-19 has become the Trojan horse used to smuggle in unacceptable practices in the guise of public health.

Globally, chest thumping leaders have used the opportunity to put personal gain way above national or global interest. Sickeningly, a billionaire earned in a day almost as much as every man, woman and child in Bangladesh would have collectively earned in a month had they received a minimum basic wage. The poor have been robbed to amass wealth for the rich.

Those who live hand to mouth, can hardly choose not to work. Death by starvation is no better a choice to death by disease. But it’s a complicated story. The rate of infection in Bangladesh is undeniably lower than might have been expected given the living conditions of the poor and the lack of access to decent medical care. The mystery of lower death rates in Bangladesh cannot be explained easily, limited tests notwithstanding. The woefully poor infrastructure, the rampant corruption in the health sector and the impossibility of the poor to physically distance themselves from each other, would suggest a much higher rate of infection than appears to be present. Many more would have had to be infected for herd immunity to kick in. Has a wave of asymptomatic infection surreptitiously flooded our nation to leave us relatively immune? After all, mild symptoms would hardly be something the poor would fuss over. Their day to day existence requires them to take illness in their stride. A day off work, is a day without pay. Perhaps a day without food.

Modelling, R0, flattening the curve and herd immunity, are now everyday chatter. We’ve tried to move away from the jargon, to the lived experiences of people. The ravages of cyclone Amphan on a population already reeling from the pandemic, buffeted against the searing wind, carrying a corpse through flood waters, the pain etched on a face shattered by grief stare through images that straddle less brutal ones. A father finds time to play with his children. A little girl in wonderland, peers from her make belief world. An infant, cries out, not from pain, but the intrusion of strangers for a probe that scares. Like an alien from outer space, a buyer in full protective gear walks his cow home. If sacrifice was ever to have meaning, this would be the moment. A congregation of five, the maximum allowed by the new rules, prays for deliverance. A relief pack balanced on her head, a woman at dusk, perfectly poised, walks an empty street, the loneliness of the street reflected in her eyes. The street devoid of the bustle of trade. The forlorn wait for testing. The anguished return to the homeland. The burial. The pain of a nation overrun by traders who, in connivance with regulators are ready to sacrifice lives for profit. Protesting garment workers, huddled against the rain, punished for the temerity of demanding wages due.

But resistance continues. While established artists have long sold out, the youth of the land still yearn for freedom. Through songs, poetry and art, they rally against the wrongful arrests, the torture, the disappearances and the ‘crossfire’, which the virus has failed to stem.

Shahidul Alam

Politics Cannot Be Separated from My Art

B&H Photography Podcast

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With an exhibition of his 40-year photographic career opening at the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York,  photojournalist and social justice activist Shahidul Alam was kind enough to join us on the B&H Photography Podcast to discuss the current exhibit, his career, and the state of photojournalism around the world. Also joining us is scholar, archivist, and the author of Conversations on Conflict Photography, Dr. Lauren Walsh.

Truth to Power is the name of the Alam’s exhibition and it is “a tribute to the numerous acts of resistance all across the globe and gives hope to those who continue to believe that a better world is possible.” As the name indicates, Alam’s work confronts the injustices in his native Bangladesh, where he has spent a career photographing natural disasters, social inequalities, street protests, migrant workers, and investigating those murdered or kidnapped. He also founded the Chobi Mela Photography Festival and the Drik and Majority World photo agencies, which has enabled countless photographers a better chance to have their stories seen by a larger audience.    Continue reading “Politics Cannot Be Separated from My Art”

My Grandfather’s Diary

Making us pay with our lives

‘Could you get a small size pizza and some French fries for Zafrullah and send to GK? He is not eating and maybe a change in menu will help.’  It was our very own freedom fighter Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury that Shireen Huq, his wife, was talking about, and I wasted no time in my search for the pizza.

Rahnuma Ahmed being tested for Covid-19 in our flat in Dhanmondi. ─ Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

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The Humble Bishop

It was an unusual mix. Two priests, a nun, two devout Catholics, and me, a heathen. We cooked and cleaned and shared small tasks, and important for me, I paid a rent of only eight pounds a week. I was never sure on what criteria I had been accepted into the ‘community’ but as I was working my way through university, I was happy to accept. We lived in the Catholic chaplaincy of Liverpool University, just opposite the Students Union Building. Living smack in the middle of campus also meant I had no transport costs.

There was no way my schoolteacher mum and government servant dad, could pay for their son’s overseas education, so I was on my own and money was always tight. I worked weekends, holidays, and evenings to pay for my student fees and my keep.

Vincent Malone (11 September 1931 – 18 May 2020) the Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Liverpool. We used to know him as Vin. He was the chaplain at the catholic chaplaincy of Liverpool University when I was studying there.

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