Seldom do we find people leaving comfortable jobs in a foreign country and returning to their homeland to fight against a dictatorial regime and start an entirely new career, this time, one which is closer to heart. Dr Shahidul Alam is one of the very few people who did exactly this in 1984, when he returned to Bangladesh from London and was directly involved in the overthrow of General Ershad. Born in 1955, Dr Alam is now a world renowned photographer fighting for humanitarian causes in his country and trying to change things through his photography. But that is not his only identity. He is, at the same time a writer, an activist, curator and a teacher. A former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Dr Alam also set up the Drik agency and Pathshala, the South Asian Institute for Photography, considered to be one of the finest schools of photography in the world.
From the 1987 struggle for democracy to charting the expanse of the Brahmaputra River through his camera, Dr Alam has been working for the last thirty odd years to highlight his country’s problems and its oft ignored successes. For him, the camera is a weapon which challenges oppression and imperialism in all its forms. In his recent work titled ‘Kalpana’s Warriors’, he follows the enforced disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, a young leader of the Bangladeshi Hill Women’s Federation. Aware of Bangladesh’s current socio-political situation and the role of photography in it, Dr Alam has, without any fear, continued to highlight the various problems his country is facing over the years. A crusader for human rights, global inequality and environmental issues, Dr Alam’s approach towards his subjects are both confrontational and fair. In this interview with BongRong, he talks about his childhood and the role of photography today and how it can serve humanity better.
BongRong: Dr Alam, please tell us about your childhood and your surroundings when you were growing up.
Dr Alam: Well I was born in Dhaka and grew up in Dhaka as well. My father was a doctor. I wasn’t a subservient student and I also did not like what they taught in some schools, due to which I was either expelled or I myself left different schools. But the most important thing while I was growing up and which had a deep impact on me was the liberation war in 1971 in Bangladesh. I was 15 back then, and it was a testing time with the liberation war, the Bengali language movement (also known as Bhasa Andolan). All this helped me develop my political sensibilities.By 1972, Bangladesh was pretty devastated and there was an intellectual vacuum, because of the Bengali intellectual killings by Pakistan and everything that happened around it. The education system was in shambles. My sister at that time was a doctor in Liverpool, and my parents thought sending me there was a way out, but, my parents did not have the money then to fund my studies there. So I worked as a labourer, cleaned toilets and even worked as a bouncer at a disco, just so I could pay my way through university.
While I was studying, I got involved with Left politics…and…I was thinking what my future would be…what I would do…I was from a middle class family, so our perceptions were also a bit narrow…doctors, engineers…that’s all people could think of. I was doing a PhD in chemistry then. I started photography rather coincidentally…and while I was doing that, I thought – now I have something in my hands which can be used like a weapon. I am not formally trained in photography; whatever I have learnt is from reading books and participating in discussions about photography. I started professionally in London itself…not photojournalism though. I used to shoot pictures of kids, going to their homes…kids laughing…and used to sell these to the parents. That was going rather well…and it was clear to me that I could in fact earn my living by means of photography, at least in London…did not know how much of it would be possible back in Bangladesh.
So I thought, why not take the risk, go back to Bangladesh and try to do something. I saved up some money while I was abroad. I came back to Bangladesh, was just about to start my work, when all the money I saved up went into the repayment of house loans taken by my father. So I had to start from zero again. But there was nobody in Bangladesh at that time who would hire me as a photojournalist, because I did not have any track record, experience and neither did I know anyone. So, I launched a company which did corporate, advertising and fashion photography with some businessmen. Even that helped me, because I learnt the skills and techniques which are related to that kind of photography. But, I always felt that this was not the reason I wanted to be a photographer, even though the money that was coming in was quite good. But I wasn’t satisfied. My heart always wanted to do something else. At that time I got heavily involved in the movement against General Ershad, and my genre of photography today and the way I work, started from that time, while I was photographing that movement.
Rejoicing at Ershad’s fall
BongRong: So Dr Alam, back there in London…you were a teacher as well?
Dr Alam: Well that was for a very small duration. At the University level I had to take some classes because I was a research assistant… and also to gather some experience and earn some more money…I took classes in the technical schools…but not in photography…it was in chemistry.
BongRong: That’s what I wanted to ask you…teaching or starting photography abroad…no matter what, it was a ‘safe’ career. But you still took the leap and left all of that and went back to Bangladesh to start something of your own. So, was the concern for your country – that you want to do something in your country, for your country – also feature in that decision?
Dr Alam: The important thing is that I always knew I would return to Bangladesh, there was no doubt about it. There was a doubt as to what I would do there. It was not clear to me whether I would earn my living as a photographer back in Bangladesh. Because I was earning some money in London as a photographer, I thought why not go back and try to do the same. Even I thought – like you said ‘safe’ – that if I can’t do anything with photography, at least I had a PhD, which can get me somewhere…but I wanted to try. There was absolutely no doubt that I would return to Bangladesh…there was a doubt whether I can earn money through photography. I could have earned my living doing something else…but…I think I have passed that test.
From the series ‘Struggle for Democracy’
BongRong: Like you said, you started documentary photography during the movement against General Ershad, because you were heavily involved then. Did you have any role model or reference at that point of time?
Dr Alam: Not that much…all that I learnt was from reading books. As I said before, I had no formal training. I read a lot of books. But there were of course some photographers whose works I really liked, who really struck me, namely, Don Mccullin, Josef Koudelka…they seemed really powerful to me…also Bill Brandt…whose work on mine labourers I think is brilliant. So, those influences were there…but not that I knew very much. I saw what other photographers were doing. Primarily it was my political sensibility which taught me…also the streets of Bangladesh…that’s where I learnt the most.
BongRong: How did you see the country personally when you came back…I mean during the movement against General Ershad. There was a great upheaval throughout the country. How did you see the change yourself?
Dr Alam: First of all, it was the independence movement of 1970 in which I was completely immersed, and that was the first time I saw with my eyes that it is possible to liberate my country by revolting…so that was a huge thing for me. But what was equally worrying was the fact that there was a chance of the country falling into autocratic hands again…the country for which we all fought and sacrificed. That’s when we understood that only by revolting things won’t work…we have to be aware as well…so that this does not happen again. When Ershad stepped down, we all dreamt that we would go back to those times again…but we saw that even a democratic struggle can create a dictator and dictatorial regime…and it did happen. But there was a space created for discourse and thinking at that time…and that is nonexistent today.
Woman with fist at Shahid Minar 1994
BongRong: So you have been doing documentary photography from that time onwards. Did Bangladesh’s social justice and the condition of people at that time motivate you to tell their story through photography?
Dr Alam: Of course I had a weakness towards Bangladesh…and for anyone who has been involved in Muktijuddho (liberation struggle), there was no reason to not have that weakness towards the country. But it was in the west that my sensibilities about politics, about life got sharpened, as I was attached to left politics. I directly encountered discrimination on all levels, whether it is race, colour or sex. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt it if I was in Bangladesh. We were tortured a lot by the dictatorial regime during Pakistan’s occupation, but we also realised that we can be the ones who act like dictators…Bengalis torturing their own people in an independent Bangladesh…this became a reality too, and it wouldn’t have been clear to me if I wouldn’t have experienced the same thing abroad. That is why, when I returned to my country, I think this was clearer in front of me and it grabbed my attention the most.
Khaleda Zia at pre election rally, 1991
BongRong: You have been working for a long time, in Bangladesh, as a photographer and a social activist. Your diverse body of work shows that you have travelled the length and breadth of the country. So, after all these years, do you think there has been some real change in society and the condition of the people?
Dr Alam: I think there has been degradation in our politics. Even after a unified attempt by us to improve things, we have not succeeded. If the situation was not like this, we can guess what would have happened. But it is true that the spirit with which Bangladesh was created…that spirit is non-existent now. There is no Left presence in Bangladesh anymore. Socialism…democracy…secularism…nothing is there now. But I don’t want to be disappointed over it…because there are many forces at play which make this possible. There is an international force, of course, in which we all are trapped somewhat. We should not think that the British have gone, Pakistan has gone…so colonialism has also gone. It is still very much there. The people who are ruling our country…they don’t think for the country beyond their own self-interest. How we have allowed them to rule our country is of course debatable, but I think it is more important that they don’t get away with it, and more people like them do not come…that is where the real fight now lies. What really gives me hope is the fact that the general population of Bangladesh is highly aware of what is happening around them. It is true that there is a lot of illiteracy in our country, but if you come here and talk to a rickshaw puller, a garment factory worker or a farmer, you will know that their political sensibilities are very clear; they know who is doing what, what is happening. Their thinking is very clear. Even after all this, they cannot do something…which is unfortunate.
Girl at fireplace, 1988
Man carrying child with cholera, 1991
BongRong: So what role does photography play in times like these? Is there really any importance for it when there is a collective failure from the state as well?
Dr Alam: I think that is why it is more important. When I started practising photography in Bangladesh, there were mainly two genres. One was press photography and the other was salon photography. Now the ones who practised salon photography, they did not think outside the objective of making the image look beautiful…compositional rules, rule of thirds, where the horizon would be…solarisation, special effects…these were their concerns mainly. All they cared about was winning prizes in competitions. And the ones doing press photography had a bigger problem. They did not think of themselves as reporters, rather, they thought themselves to be just visual clerks who would supply the image as per the writing. So they used to think of themselves as illustrators, not analysts. I think both these areas were really weak, and they did not explore the huge possibility that photography had.
So my first job was to bring documentary photography in the photography clubs and societies, and to start that practice and build a discourse around it. Then of course, the way a story should be told through photographs, photo story… all these things began. Then there was Pathshala, which has changed things now. It’s like an independent space. I don’t see Pathshala only as a photography school, it’s also a space where one learns to become a responsible citizen…one who can create a discourse…one who can express through art. So, in terms of that, there has been a change of course. But it’s a small institution. How many people have come out of it? It is more important to stress on how what they are creating is used. I would say, here we are falling behind. We are creating good photographers who are doing some really good work…but for a real change, it is not enough only to be a photographer, there are other things in which one needs to be proficient as well. The ones who are holding the keys to everything, none of them are photographers and they don’t really consider photography to be important. So to fight against them on an equal level, we need to be there…which I think we are not being able to do. Even now, we are not the ones who are present where all the decisions are taking place or we are not allowed to be there. So we need to think of how to present what we are doing, and what political role it plays, which I think we are still a long way from doing.
Earthquake barbershop, 2005
Boat repair, 1991
BongRong: I want to ask you something on very similar lines. We are witnessing a very unstable world right now. With the Middle East situation, the refugee crisis, even in Bangladesh there are frequent Blogger killings and there is of course a threat of American corporate imperialism. How do you think photography can make a strong impact in this situation?
Dr Alam: Now it would be very stupid to talk of the whole world, I will just talk about Bangladesh. You mentioned the killing of the bloggers, which is of course very worrying I would say, but, that is not the real story.The real story is that there are many people who are getting killed and kidnapped all over Bangladesh. They are not famous people at all. So there is no protest for them, their names don’t come in the papers. Mind you, I am not belittling the death of the bloggers, but what is happening to the ordinary people of the country is what I find more concerning, and it is happening daily. Here, I would say we have not been able to do enough. I am not saying that photography, the kind that we are practising, will solve all the problems, because that is for informing the people…but they already possess that information.
Now is the time to wake people up, to make them angry, and to make them participate in the fight against any sort of injustice…and that won’t happen by giving them only information. For that we have to organise ourselves better so that we can reach more people and also see that photography touches more lives. For that we have to practise a different kind of photography, but more importantly, alongside photography we have to focus on writing, discussion, presentation, all of which can emphasize the importance of the image. Here I think we are lagging behind. Photography no doubt is doing rather well, but there are no worthwhile critics of photography, no curators, no good writers and no good story tellers. We are still working on these areas.
BongRong: I was there at an event recently where you said that you changed the way you were photographing and presenting stories. Not a lot of people do that because they don’t want to step out of their comfort zones. Why did you suddenly take this decision?
Dr Alam: Not only do they not do this…I am speaking of 2010 here…then there was no practice like that at all and to tell you the truth…the thing I have been working on, is the answer to this question itself. I think this should be the case with all artists. It is wrong to think that the way one has been working or what one knows is the answer to all problems. It cannot be. We still tend to think that the way we have been practising photography and the way we are exhibiting it is the only answer to all questions and the only method to do things. We need to work according to the time and situation. The artist’s personal sensibilities and limitations can of course be there, but that needs to be worked out. Thinking that one way is the only way to work is wrong I think, in any field.
Another thing which really needs to be thought of is the fact that language is never stable, it is always changing. Language in the literal sense, as well as dance, singing and photography as well. But it seems to me, sometimes, that photographers have already assumed that there is only one way to tell stories. We have to constantly change ourselves with time, with situations…that sensibility I think is still not there. You mentioned comfort zone…there is another problem as well…market. I admit that photographers need to earn a living and they need money to continue…also, our society does not understand photography that well…so they do not want to experiment much after they have established their market with a certain style…because quite frankly that works and sells in the market. So, why go somewhere where there is uncertainty, leaving everything which has been successful till now, which feeds my family as well. There is an economical risk to experimentation as well.
Also, this depends on the people we work for. How much they understand and how they perceive photography is also a big concern. Because there is not much knowledge of photography, it is difficult to gauge how the new experiments would fare with the people. But that is where the challenge and the question lies for the artist. I have personally seen this in an easier way. When I saw that the democratically elected government in my country is involved in crossfire (extra judicial killings), I found a new way to question that crossfire. And how we actually did it, came after a lot of research and experimentation. We also knew beforehand that the government would try to stop us and I wanted to make it more difficult for them to stop me, not giving in so easily. That is a process as well.
From the series ‘Crossfire’
From the series ‘Crossfire’
BongRong: Another thing I am really curious about is that even after regular confrontations with the government, your spirit to continue working stays strong. How do you get that, that encouragement?
Dr Alam: I see the whole thing a bit differently. I always think that if some people are not disturbed and troubled with my work, maybe I am not doing the right thing. If my work is not making them think and if I am letting them sleep peacefully at night, I am failing at my job. My job is not to let them be at peace. So I am only successful if they are questioned, if they start thinking what they are doing is wrong and respond to it.
BongRong: What has been the biggest challenge in your long career? It can be a particular assignment you did, or it can be someone you met?
Dr Alam: My biggest challenge is not any assignment…but what I am doing now. I still haven’t been able to make the people around me understand that our job does not end at being only photographers. Photography is only one of the weapons to fight with…but there are many others…and we need to be equally good with all of them whenever we use them. I think this is my failure and this is my biggest challenge.
BongRong: My last question, what would be your advice to photographers starting out?
Dr Alam: First thing which is really important for photographers…well not only photographers but to anyone pursuing any profession, is that they really need to work very hard. I have been very fortunate in all these years as I got to meet some great, successful people…and they have all worked really hard. Many people are of the opinion that this does not take so much hard work…it’s something one is born with…but it is more harmful when an artist thinks that if they work hard then maybe they are not so talented, which I think is just deplorable. I think it is very important to work hard. One needs to be courageous as well. Mind you, this courage I am speaking about is not how you stand in front of guns, even though that is important as well, but courage to question oneself regularly. To admit one’s mistake and to overcome one’s limitations is what is very important. This is what I think we are not doing. We all have some character traits, we want people to praise us, and we tend to think that people who are praising me are my true friends. We need to move from there. And even if no one else does, it is very important that we question ourselves. If we don’t do that, it can lead to a dangerous situation.
From the series ‘Brahmaputra Diary’
From the series ‘Brahmaputra Diary’
BongRong: It’s an out and out honor to converse with you. Thank you so much Dr. Alam for taking time out from your busy schedule to talk to us.