‘I’VE NEVER BEEN THAT INTERESTED IN ART FOR ART’S SAKE
Last year, Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed and tortured for denouncing his country’s regime. Now his work, which reveals people’s suffering without compromising their dignity, has been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet 2019. Interview by Rachel Spence. Portrait by Sarker Protick.
The three photographs on these pages are from Shahidul Alam’s series ‘Still She Smiles’, shortlisted for the Prix Pictet This page, top: ‘The Orphanage’ (2014) – Hajera Begum, a former sex worker, founded it in Dhaka in 2008 with her own savings Left: ‘Kiss’ (2014) – Begum rescued Rahat, an abandoned child, in 2013 when he was only a few hours old Opposite page: ‘Hajera at Crescent Lake’ (1996) – Begum (sitting) and fellow sex workers share a joke; they were distributing condoms in the name of HIV/Aids prevention outside the Bangladeshi parliament in Dhaka
The women by the water look like old friends. From their spontaneous grins to the intimacy with which they turn to each other, it is a moment of uncomplicated joy. But behind their smiles lies a less ordinary story. The women are sex workers waiting outside the House of Parliament building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to hand out condoms for protection against HIV/Aids to fellow workers.
The photograph, taken in 1996, is one of the earliest of a body of images by Shahidul Alam, entitled “Still She Smiles”. The series has seen the Bangladeshi photographer, alongside 11 others, shortlisted for the Prix Pictet 2019. This year the subject of the prize is Hope.
That sentiment shines through “Still She Smiles”. Its star is Hajera Begum, the woman pictured sitting on the wall in the parliament photograph. In other images, she is seen with children, bathing them, kissing them, picking lice from their hair. A smile dances on her face, witness to her achievement in escaping a life where she was raped, sold and beaten.
Today, Begum presides over an orphanage in Dhaka, which she founded in 2008 with her own savings. Already some of her former charges have graduated from university; others are in school. When I ask why he chose Begum’s story for his Pictet calling card, Alam replies: “We tend to associate people with certain characteristics […] sex workers are seen as a certain type of person. The fact that there was this incredible, beautiful woman – beautiful in all senses – who was stigmatised because she was a sex worker. Yet, despite the life she had led, and what she had faced, she still took it upon herself to give hope to others.”
Similar words could be applied to Alam too. A slight, immaculate figure in white trousers and elegant grey punjabi – a traditional south Asian shirt – the 64-year-old is sitting in the living-room of his sister Najma Karim’s house in Ealing, west London. On his knee sits his six-year-old great-niece, Lylah, who is keen to co-opt his help for her drawings on his iPad.
A year ago, however, the situation was very different. Alam was in prison in Dhaka and his sister’s home was the London HQ of a global campaign to release him. His incarceration was triggered by criticism he levelled at Bangladesh’s Awami League government during student protests in the summer of 2018. Initially fuelled by anger at Dhaka’s poor traffic laws, after two teenagers were killed by a bus, the scale of the protest and brutal police response was rooted in more widespread rage at state corruption, violence and inequality.
On August 5, after live streaming the protests on Facebook, Alam gave an interview on Al Jazeera, in which he laid out the accusations against the government and the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. That night he was arrested at his home and subsequently imprisoned and tortured in an effort to force him to cease speaking out against Hasina’s regime. His capture triggered a campaign for his release that included Nobel laureates, movie stars, artists and writers, as well as hundreds of ordinary citizens who admired him for the integrity with which he approaches his work.
Alam was imprisoned for 107 days. His case was filed under Bangladesh’s Information, Communication and Technology Act (since replaced with the equally harsh Digital Security Act), which can silence dissident voices on a charge of “hurting the image of the nation”. On November 20, he was finally released on bail. It was the most harrowing chapter of a life devoted to exposing injustice. Over the years, he has been arrested several times, knifed in the street and fought to keep exhibitions open when the police attempted to close them.
The son of a scientist and a child psychologist, Alam was studying for a doctorate in chemistry at the University of London in the 1980s when he acquired his first camera from a friend. His earliest professional images were portraits of children but he always saw his camera as a tool in the struggle for civil rights. “I’ve never been that interested in art for art’s sake,” he has said. A London Arts Council award encouraged him to pursue photography as a career.
Long before this, however, Alam had noticed that visual media could be a source of crucial information and inspiration. He was just 16 when Bangladesh fought for independence from Pakistan in 1971’s “war of liberation”, but recalls, “We were so hungry for images. Someone would smuggle in Time or Newsweek and those images – of jubilant freedom fighters challenging the regime, for example – gave us so much hope.”
Alam’s love for his country is a defining characteristic. He returned to Bangladesh in 1984 and, despite ongoing legal challenges, it is still his home, although he is entitled to remain in the UK. His pictures bear witness to the country in all its complexity. “Our Struggle for Democracy” chronicles the popular resistance to the regime of General Ershad, president from 1983-1990, and is described by Bangladeshi photography curator Tanzim Wahab as a “frank and fearless piece of storytelling” that investigates each layer of the new democracy, including “indigenous right struggles, voting rights, environmental catastrophe, Islamic movements, hostile political leadership and class struggles”.
In later series such as “Crossfire” (2010), Alam focuses on extrajudicial killings by Bangladeshi state security forces, and in “Kalpana’s Warriors” (2016dbl check), he explores the 1996 “disappearance” of activist Kalpana Chakma as she campaigned for the rights of indigenous people in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Alam has a gift for revealing people’s suffering without compromising individual dignity. Asked how he achieves the balance, he replies quietly: “A photograph is as much a portrait of you as of the person you are photographing.”
He does not regard himself primarily as a photojournalist. “I’ve produced far less work than others,” he observes. “I wanted my work to make a difference. [And] I could do it through my photography. But I could also do it through building warriors” – a reference to the band of photographers he has inspired. His first step was to found the Drik Picture Library in 1989, to represent photographers as they chronicled resistance to Ershad. In 1998, he founded an academy, the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. Two years later, he inaugurated Chobi Mela, south Asia’s first international
◀ In 2007, Alam set up another agency specifically to represent photographers from Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Entitled Majority World, the agency’s name reflects his awareness that to describe this vast region as “developing” is patronising. “We wanted to question the western rhetoric of democracy and freedom because here is the majority of humankind whose voices are not being heard,” he says.
Alam describes how, when Ershad fell in 1990, no western agency would take his pictures. “This was way before Tahrir Square,” he says, referring to the 2011 protests in Egypt that brought down Hosni Mubarak, “but no one was interested in seeing Bangladesh like that.” Like what, exactly? “A freedom-loving people prepared to make sacrifices for that freedom.”
This changed when Nancy Lee, then deputy picture editor of The New York Times, asked Drik for images of devastation from the deadly cyclone that had hit Bangladesh in 1991 but subsequently agreed to instead publish its photographs of “farmers planting seeds and fishermen rebuilding their boats, which showed the resilience of the people”. Alam takes a breath. “As far as I can remember it was the only photo story of the cyclone that didn’t dwell on bodies.”
Thanks in large part to Alam, Bangladesh now boasts a professional infrastructure that makes it a hub for visual media in south Asia and beyond. When he was arrested, Kolkata-based film director and photographer Ronny Sen produced a poster describing Alam as “the sky in which we learned to fly”. It soon went viral. When I wrote to Sen about Alam, he replied: “There is not a single documentary photographer in the [Indian] subcontinent who is untouched by Shahidul.”
Despite the outpouring of support he received, jail has left its mark. Alam’s natural buoyancy means he’s quick to highlight positive moments: the “overwhelming love and support from other prisoners”; the photography classes he initiated; the mural of his photograph of a fishing boat that fellow inmates painted on the wall of the prison hospital. But when he murmurs, “I miss my sparrows” – speaking of the birds he fed daily on his prison windowsill – you hear the echo of unspoken losses. In prison he was beaten, blindfolded and heavy weights were placed on his head; he was threatened with waterboarding and told that his wife, the writer Rahnuma Ahmed, would suffer if he refused to make a deal.
Asked how he withstood the pressure, he talks about the civil terror that simmers beneath Bangladesh’s ostensible democracy. “In our flat, we have a row of pictures of friends of ours who have been disappeared or murdered,” he says. “That list just gets bigger.” His sense of duty to those lost friends soldered his resolve. “There are threats that [the treatment] will get worse; that others will be picked up,” he pauses. “But then they say, ‘We’ll take you back home. Nothing will go on the record as long as you stay quiet.’ That’s the deal. When I turned that down, they became very, very angry.”
His family also stood firm, defying government expectations that they would “beg forgiveness from the PM” to gain his freedom. “We did nothing of that sort. I came out and I’ve continued
‘In our flat, we have a row of pictures of friends who have been disappeared or murdered. That list just gets bigger ‘
To do and say all things I did before.” Within days of his release, he was campaigning for free and fair elections, though when the country went to the polls on December 30 last year, Sheikh Hasina retained her mandate amid reports of ballotrigging and intimidation.
That same month, Alam was among the journalists named by Time magazine as their collective Person of the Year. Lacking government or corporate support – “it is risky for people to be associated with us,” he says – the Chobi Mela festival nevertheless went ahead as scheduled in February to packed venues and critical acclaim. Next month, the Rubin Museum in New York will mount Truth to Power, the first US retrospective of his work. A new book, The Tide Will Turn, includes an exchange between Alam and Arundhati Roy, who published a moving open letter to him while he was in prison.
Legally, Alam is still in limbo. In August, the supreme court upheld a stay on the investigation; nevertheless, his file remains open. He would like to see more of his peers challenge Hasina’s regime. “Except for a few notable exceptions, both the media and the major cultural players have chosen to remain silent, or become mouthpieces for the government,” he notes. Yet he takes hope from the courage of “the youth of Bangladesh, who continue to resist”.
Meanwhile, he is reaping creative benefits from standing up to his oppressors. After months in jail without a camera, he wants to discover “new methods” of telling stories. “How do you photograph when the camera is missing?” he muses. The light in his eyes suggests he’ll find a way.
The Prix Pictet exhibition “Hope” is at the V&A Museum, London, November 14-December 8; vam. ac.uk. “Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power”, is at the Rubin Museum, New York, November 8-May 4 2020; rubinmuseum.org