In his resolve and intensity of presence, with his furrowed brow and wide eyes, Shahidul Alam resembles a lot of his photography subjects, making it sometimes difficult to distinguish between photos of the artist and the photos he has taken. Alam graduated from the University of London with a Ph.D in Chemistry, but soon after, he bought a Nikon FM for a friend but ended up keeping it, launching a long and decorated career in photojournalism.
This work led Alam to a life of activism. In 1984, he traveled to Bangladesh to campaign for the removal of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad from presidential office. As a part of this process, he founded the South Asian Media Institute, the Chobi Mela international photography festival and the Drik Picture Library, which is a multimedia organization and regional center for free speech and press freedom advocacy.
He photographed protests against Ershad, who was charged with vote rigging, embezzlement of public funds and gold trafficking, among other offences (La Presse, 12.13.1990). Often, dissidents were brutally repressed by the military cadre.
Alam has received numerous awards, including the Shilpakala Padak, the highest artistic award in Bangladesh. For his activism, he was one of several journalists who were named Time’s Person of the Year in 2018 (Time, “‘Journalism Is Under Threat.’ Inside a Bangladeshi Journalist’s Dangerous Journey From Photographer to Prisoner,” 12.11.2018).
On Thursday, April 4, Alam arrived in New York City to receive an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography and address the attendees of the New York Portfolio Review. Just a few months prior, he had been released from jail.
Last year, on an Al-Jazeera segment, he decried the Bangladeshi government for “looting of the banks, the gagging of the media, the extrajudicial killings, the disappearances, the need to give protection money at all levels, bribery at all levels, corruption in education” (Nepali Times, “The death of democracy,” 08.29.2018). Alam also talked about demonstrations in Dhaka, which flared up in response to the traffic-related deaths of two teenagers. Students protested road conditions worsened by the traffic mafia and a state that seized power by “brute force.” Demonstrators did not solely seethe over poor road conditions, but also over the government-sanctioned corruption.
Hours after the segment aired, 20 Bangladeshi officials broke into Alam’s home and abducted him. For 102 days, he was held in custody by the government for posting “imaginary propaganda against the government” that “triggered panic among public and caused deterioration of law and order” (Hyperallergic, “Bangladeshi Photojournalist, Shahidul Alam, Granted Bail After 102 Days in Detention,” 11.15.2018).
This caused an uproar: 400 Indian artists signed a petition demanding his release, and leaders in the art world like Anish Kapoor and Hans Ulrich Obrist offered their support. Alam was granted bail by the High Court in November; the abduction was in August. Alam proclaimed in court, “I was hit [in custody]. I bled” (Hyperallergic, “Shahidul Alam, Granted Bail”).
Alam told the New York Times Lens Co-Editor David Gonzalez, “There are many people who gave likes on my Facebook post and shared my Facebook post who are still in jail” (The New York Times, “Despite Prison and Torture, Shahidul Alam Refuses to Stay Quiet,” 04.09.2019). Like him, these innocent people were accused of violating a Bangladeshi law that bans negative coverage of the government online. He explained, “Essentially, [the provision] means that if someone in electronic media, digital platform, says something which goes against the government or offends their sensibility—it’s a very sweeping thing—the government can arrest people without warrant” (The New York Times, “Despite Prison”).
Activism has landed him in trouble, but it has also made him one of the best photojournalists of our time. He manages to capture the personal in the political, and some sweetness or humanity in tragedy. Outside of the photographs, through his social criticism and outspokenness on platforms from Twitter to TV, he draws attention to the circumstances surrounding Bangladesh’s current political climate.
An example of Alam’s photojournalistic activism occurred when, in 1991, Bangladesh had its first free and fair election after Ershad’s removal. Alam captured a photo of a woman casting her vote behind a threadbare screen. Her face is indistinguishable, but there is determination in the curve of her spine. Neck crooked, she bends over a little table.
Alam’s activism also extends beyond the struggles of the Bangladeshi people. Later, in 2005, an earthquake ravaged Pakistan. Alam documented two men in Kashmir: In the midst of piles of rubble, a barber combs a man’s beard. The man wears a barber cape and his eyes are closed, head tilted back. The two seem oblivious to the destruction around them, possibly reflecting how dedicated they are to the operation.
In 2010, Alam created a series about extrajudicial killings by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) of Bangladesh. It was called “Crossfire” because thousands of deaths were attributed to gunfights between the RAB and criminals; people in RAB custody were caught in crossfire (Shahidul News, “Crossfire: An Installation by Shahidul Alam on Extra Judicial Killings”). Hauntingly, most of the photos do not show people, but places and objects connected to the killings: a grave, a hospital corridor, bundles of cash.
In 2017, Alam captured an image of Muslims fleeing from attempted ethnic cleansing during the Rohingya refugee crisis. A photo shows a recumbent man on the floor of Sadar Hospital in Bangladesh, his daughter crouched next to him, touching his hair. Since then, the Bangladeshi government has said it will not accept any more refugees.
At the core of good photojournalism is both the sweetness of these images—how, to a degree, they feel removed from the crises they document—and their corresponding sociopolitical commentaries. In “Crossfire,” for example, Alam sought to evoke the physical experience of terror rather than offer documentary evidence. But he spoke vehemently about the police and judiciary corruption responsible for inaction towards the killings. Alam asserted, “It’s worthwhile remembering that you are not merely a photographer. But you are the authenticator of the story. You are the primary witness. In that sense you have something to offer beyond your photographs” (The New York Times, “Shahidul Alam: Fiercely Devoted to the Truth,” 11.13.2018).