Shahidul Alam’s ‘My Journey as a Witness’: book excerpt and giveaway
A retrospective publication dedicated to the work of renowned Bangladeshi photojournalist and social activist Shahidul Alam has been published by Skira. We have a copy of the book to give away to one lucky reader.
Head on down past the fascinating opening essay from the book excerpted below, put together by curator and writer Rosa Maria Falvo, to find out how to win!
Shahidul Alam, ‘Ilish fishing’. Image from book. © Shahidul Alam.
Impossible is nothing
Few Westerners have any understanding of Bangladesh’s complicated history or even know exactly where it is on a map. And fewer still have experienced what this country has to offer. I first went there in 2008, travelling to Dhaka from Kolkata by bus across the Indian-Bangladeshi border at Benapole, and after our first ‘luxury’ bus ripped a hole in its undercarriage as the driver forced the ferry ramp prematurely, we jumped onto another making its way into the belly of a night ferry, crossing the Padma (‘lotus’) River, the main channel of the great Ganges (Ganga) River originating in the Himalayas. Immediately surrounded by a smiling and curious crowd, it felt exhilarating to be suddenly thrust into the enduring dynamism that is daily life in Bangladesh. Washing over my vague but cemented notions of disaster and poverty, the reality for me was inspiring, within the chaos and calm combined. I have since travelled southwards to Chittagong’s great seaport, and then north into Bogra, through Dinajpur, visiting temples and monasteries, onto Rangpur, stopping for tea with indigo farmers, heading west to Thakurgaon, giving way to elephants on the village roads, and across India on our way to Biratnagar, Nepal. Increasingly, I am struck by the pervading ‘impossible is nothing’ approach to life here, and by the magnanimity of the people of Bangladesh.
We met a cheeky bearded man on a bicycle, busily navigating his schedule in a city that relentlessly thwarts any plans one might have to move promptly from A to B. To describe Dhaka’s serious traffic problems is to begin with sheer understatement, and yet the locals carry on undeterred. We walked into his photo agency full of energetic youth, with an obvious respect for their teacher, in positions of responsibility that showed they belong.
Working alongside Shahidul Alam is an extraordinary experience. There is no self-righteous arrogance, impatient hustling, or delusions of grandeur. Here is a true humanitarian; honest, hard-working, and committed to the cause; a talented man who is loved by many in a social, political and environmental system that is bursting at the seams; one that needs overhauling; and one he has been intimately engaged with for over thirty years. In the most unlikely conditions, with the odds (and sometimes the guns) pointed squarely against him, he manages to get the job done with a centeredness that inspires others to do the same. And what exactly is that job? Born from a simple premise and pitted against a seemingly impossible challenge, he dares to turn perceptions around and broaden our thinking, to rebalance the dynamics of communicative power, to redistribute imagery that impacts contemporary culture, and to respect geographic diversification. Not one to shy from the harshest realities in his country, which are best understood by those living them, Alam is educating for a new vision, which enlightened photography aspires to convey. If we consider the classic vehicles of social control, what happens when multinationals and politicians representing eight countries monopolise a world whose ‘majority’ often stands like an elephant tied to a rope? This majority will inevitably find its strength and something practical and peaceful can be done to help recognise it.
Shahidul Alam, ‘Buriganga aerial’. Image from book. © Shahidul Alam.
This time as we sailed along three rivers towards Chandpur for a Chobi Mela 2011 night-long party and the next day marched in the streets of Dhaka, alongside spirited trumpeters and dancing students, firing on a second wind of excitement, it was obvious that this is not just another photography biennial. An entire community enjoys a natural reciprocity, which the West, despite its organising powers and privileges, often labours to simulate. And while it boasts hybrid cultures and ancient histories, Bangladesh has virtually no tourism. Surrounded by giants India and China, not a geopolitical ‘hotspot’ for the moment – only some of its natural resources are coveted – ‘minority’ perceptions rest on persistently negative press – tragedy, famine, corruption – and only the well-informed have adopted some of the ingenious ideas, like fair trade and microcredit, which have come from this particular ‘majority’. Surely discussions about ‘emerging markets’ can accompany debates on emerging ‘imaginaries’, given that photography plays a critical role in shaping ‘globalised thinking’. We know that little can match the persuasive power of an image, accessible to all. For Shahidul Alam this is much more than a vehicle for documentation. His camera manifests his mission: to allow the storytellers to do their own talking. His message is not simply to challenge systems, but to work with them, restructuring a shared set of principles. His art is certainly political. Over many cups of tea and precarious rides through Dhaka, even sitting on the rooftop of the Duomo in Milan, he has explained to me in many ways that if he were not doing this work he would find it difficult to live with himself.
Intimacy and community empowerment are the keys here. Inviting us into his home, across the threshold of personal experience, this book traces the life of an inclusive activist whose path is open to all. Piloting through ignorance of all kinds – from the most educated minds to the most deprived – his compass relies on real social awareness. He is not the protagonist. This imagery is not staged reality. Often the professional camera is used as a transportation device, as if the photographer were everybody’s favourite uncle or aunt, travelling the globe to bring home adventures experienced vicariously. Contrary to traditional journalism, Alam is not wholly objective or detached. Indeed, he enters into the lives of these people and they enter into his. As we have all at some point intuited, despite our collective conditioning, there are multiple, constantly elusive truths, which forced impartiality struggles to reconcile, often steering us far from understanding. Concerned with the lack of pluralism, his photography movement is made possible alongside and despite the absurdities continuing to plague humanity in the 21st century. Alam’s work represents sustained, internal intervention – a pictorial education – that reaches out to his local audience and the rest of the world. How do you touch people and generate ideas? How do you challenge an insentient ‘culture of consent’? How do individuals and groups break hegemonies? If politics, education, and media are the muscular headquarters of external power, it is no coincidence that Shahidul Alam works across all three.
As photojournalism experiences a renaissance, Alam’s school maintains a passionate fidelity to its own subject matter. Its Eastern hospitality and the bridges it has built may appear at odds with the Western dominance it clearly opposes. And there are those on both sides of the establishment who have tried to pigeon-hole its initiatives. But its strategy is free to ask other questions and make different claims. Sometimes reflective, sometimes evidentiary – Crossfire was pivotal in a series of criminal trials – sometimes visual protest and even archaeology of self – it is reorganising cultural archives and making community photography a vernacular aesthetic. Indeed, Alam believes this process has “the power to validate history”. Not only does it bear witness to experiences shared, but also to the values at the core of local realities – re-sensitising an otherwise anesthetised global imagination.
Born in Dhaka in 1955, formally educated in the United Kingdom in 1972, he returned to Dhaka in 1984 to begin a new life in this field. He is quick witted and free thinking. He has met with torture, poverty, and discrimination, as he has been blessed with generosity, support, and recognition. And he refuses to be silenced. It is easy to go into accolades about such an accomplished and charismatic photographer, but it is also important to note that Shahidul is very much a product of and a catalyst within a resourceful and resilient society. The tears that well up in his eyes when he describes the fisherman who went straight back into the arms of the sea that took his family in its fury, or the elderly rickshaw wallah dragging his exhaustion up the daily mound of survival, are not because he is troubled – these people have won against the odds many times over – but come from true empathy that shares in the spirit driving these men and women forward. The laughter that escapes him when he recalls how his English teacher once pulled his ear because he did not want philosophers in his classroom, now recognises the ironies everywhere.
Shahidul’s example and messages are timely and raise an important curtain on Bangladesh; beckoning discovery, with 160 million people, and the seventh most populous nation on earth. A place where politics, art, and journalism naturally converge, and one that cannot remain peripheral to our vision of the planet. Asia itself is at the epicentre of a creative surge to elaborate original and coherent expressions, and its efforts are coming from ‘below’ – percolating in the viscera of artists calling for a reinterpretation of what we might now call ‘image power’, in the face of what they have long known as ‘cultural imperialism’.
Alam’s major photographic series: migration, the Brahmaputra, the struggle for democracy, the Naxalites, and Crossfire, have specific links to his ongoing commitments to human rights, global inequalities, and environmental issues. His style is sometimes confrontational, often celebratory, and insists on an equal footing between photographer and subject, among photographers themselves, photographer and global media, and subject and audience – providing mirrors, raising debates, and chronicling a home-grown social movement in which photography is embedded.
To what extent can art contribute to transformation in two different and even opposing worlds? John Dewey viewed the aesthetic dimension as a direct measure of social wellbeing. Rabindranath Tagore’s legendary vision saw that “… fortunately for man, the easiest path is not his truest one … and when we shall be in the position to bring about a reconciliation of these two great worlds [East and West]… Then will come to an end the one-sided dominance….”
Shahidul Alam is a warrior who has dedicated his life’s work to this battle and it is already nurturing an exciting new generation of talented co-warriors. Having genuinely set the stage for constructive change, they are more than likely to achieve it.
© Rosa Maria Falvo
WIN a copy of ‘My Journey as a Witness’ by Shahidul Alam!
WIN your very own copy of My Journey As a Witness!
We have one copy of Shahidul Alam’s beautiful My Journey as a Witness to giveaway. All you have to do is leave your answer to the question below in the comment section of this post, or leave a message on our Facebook page orTwitter account. We will draw the winning name randomly on Tuesday 27 December 2011 and the winner will be contacted by email shortly after.
The question: Name one of the foundations, organisation or festivals set up by Shahidul Alam since he began his career as a photojournalist.