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Shahidul Alam’s claim to frame

The photographer has built a compelling portrait of Bangladesh by giving agency to the voiceless

Rohingya refugees in a cyclone shelter, taken in 2017. Photo: Shahidul Alam
Rohingya refugees in a cyclone shelter, taken in 2017. Photo: Shahidul Alam

Photographers are witnesses. Their lens is their eye, recording the world around them, capturing life in its rawest form.

Shahidul Alam is such a witness.

On 29 July, two students were mowed down by a bus. Angry students joined impromptu mass protests in Dhaka, demanding accountability from the government and stopped traffic, insisting that all drivers show their licences and vehicle registration papers. On 3 August, Bangladesh Chhatra League and Jubo League, the students’ and youth wings respectively of the Awami League, took to the streets to disrupt the demonstrations, beat up students, and wrecked the equipment of anyone recording their thuggery. On 5 August, Alam, who had gone out to witness the mayhem, gave an interview to Al Jazeera in which he criticized the government.

Within hours, he was arrested for making “provocative comments", beaten up in custody, presented to the court, and charged with a range of offences, including inciting violence under section 57 of the 2013 Information and Communication Technology Act.

At the time of writing, he remains in jail, even as three UN human rights experts, known as special rapporteurs—on the situation of human rights defenders, on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and chair of the working group on arbitrary detention—have called for his release.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other Nobel Laureates, photographers Raghu Rai and Dayanita Singh, actor Sharon Stone, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, besides human rights groups, have demanded his freedom. International support for Alam is not unusual as he has been his nation’s chronicler, narrating the inspiring story of Bangladesh and enabling others to become witnesses.

Shahidul Alam. Photo: Rahnuma Ahmed

Trained with a doctorate in organic chemistry from London University, Alam returned to Bangladesh in 1984. The country was still in the midst of political turmoil. Hundreds of thousands had died in its war of liberation from Pakistan in 1971, which he had witnessed as a teenager, and as many as a quarter million incidents of rape may have taken place during the conflict. Some 10 million refugees moved to India, and after a nine-month guerrilla war that Bangladeshi youth, known as the Mukti Bahini, fought with the active support of India, Pakistan attacked India in December. India made short work of Pakistan and helped Bangladesh achieve independence.

Disappointment followed euphoria. Bangladesh suffered mass starvation in 1974 and lawlessness increased. Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman turned authoritarian, outlawing opposition parties, declaring a virtual one-party state and closing newspapers. On 15 August, 1975, he was assassinated, along with most of his family. A period of instability followed, after which General Ziaur Rahman took over. But he, too, was assassinated in 1981, and Bangladesh lurched towards uncertainty with a new general in charge, H.M. Ershad. Islamic parties that had opposed Bangladesh’s independence grew influential. Ershad became extremely unpopular as corruption rose. One of Mujibur’s surviving daughters (and current prime minister) Sheikh Hasina Wazed had returned from exile, and she joined hands with the woman who is now her arch-rival, Ziaur’s widow Khaleda Zia, to campaign for democracy.

That’s the context in which Alam returned to Bangladesh and began to record people’s movements for civil rights. He photographed the plight of Chakmas and other indigenous communities fighting for their land rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, focusing, in particular, on the disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, a human rights defender who has not been found since her abduction in 1996. He set up Drik, a photography library and art gallery, in Dhaka. He hosts an international festival of photography, called Chhobi Mela. Through his school, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, he has trained hundreds of photographers in South Asia (some of whose work can be seen in the retrospective volume Under The Banyan Tree). And he has launched a series of books on Bangladesh seen from within by Bangladeshi photographers, the first of which is called Ways Of Life.

Alam also maintains an astonishingly rich archive of Bangladesh’s liberation war, with photographs of India’s Raghu Rai and Kishor Parekh, US’ Marilyn Silverstone and Mark Godfrey, and France’s Marc Riboud, Bruno Barbey, and Michel Laurent (who was later killed covering the Vietnam war), among others. More importantly, the archive has works of Bangladeshi photographers, who often took great risks and were closer to the story, such as Rashid Talukder, Aftab Ahmed, Sayeeda Khanom, Mahabub Alam Khan, and Abdul Hamid Raihan. My essay appears in the photography book edited by Alam, The Birth Pangs Of A Nation, which features their work and was released in Bangladesh’s 40th year of independence.

Those photographs made the war vivid: a child with palpable anger on his face leading a group of non-violent demonstrators; billowing smoke from a van; the pitiless resignation with which a man drags the carcass of another man killed in a paddy field; a group of protestors carrying a banner that says “Shadhinota", or independence; Mukti Bahini’s women’s brigade, marching in white, carrying the still-forbidden flag of the new nation.

Alam’s photograph of Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp. Photo: Shahidul Alam

Grimmer images too—of bodies cast at a roundabout, another body, now bloating, rising up from the swamp. And that trail of refugees. Some are carrying their worldly possessions in tin trunks, balanced precariously on their heads; some leaving with even less—tiny bundles containing the sole pot they were able to take away. The bundles become their umbrellas, as it begins to pour. Many climb atop buses, some in open trucks, all headed for the Indian border.

While researching my book on Bangladesh, I spent many hours at the archives. Alam introduced me to many people with stories to tell, but who hadn’t been asked, and who I would not have met otherwise.

Alam’s photography book, My Journey As A Witness, has introductions by Raghu Rai and Sebastião Salgado. There, he celebrates his land and its people: a gorgeous, orange sailboat under a blue sky; a shaft of sunlight through a window in an unlit room; a wicker basket in a tree in an abandoned home. Alam comes across a man who asks him for a beedi. “Can’t you see the misery? Do you want a beedi?" Alam asks. “I’ve just buried 11 people. Now give me a beedi," the man says. Life and death at their most harrowing.

Alam has been at borders, recording lives of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. The photographs of overcrowded camps made of tarpaulin and bamboo show the grace of refugees: a young girl tenderly looking after her elder brother; moonrise over the vast camp; a woman figuring out what to cook while two infants and a child wait patiently; and huddled women and children sitting impassively.

This is the man the Bangladesh government has jailed. Awami League leaders have made preposterous claims attempting to link him with fundamentalists and those accused of war crimes, conveniently ignoring that the same government honoured him with the nation’s highest awards. The arrest has compromised Bangladesh’s reputation.

“I don’t want to be your icon of poverty or a sponge for your guilt, my identity is for me to build in my own image. You are welcome to walk besides me, but don’t stand in front of me, to give me a helping hand. You are blocking the sun," Alam said in his book, My Journey As A Witness.

On the week of its 29th anniversary, Drik gallery in Dhaka, is hosting an exhibition of Alam’s work, A Struggle For Democracy, running till 10 September.

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