BANGLADESH PHOTOGRAPHY LONDON GALLERY SHOW
The first UK retrospective of works by internationally renowned Bangladeshi photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam is on at London’s Wilmotte Gallery until December 2011. Art Radar brings you a selection of portraits and accompanying wall texts from the exhibition.
‘Nurjahan’s father’ (portrait), Chatokchora, Sylhet, Bangladesh, 1994. © Shahidul Alam.
‘Ali Zaman’ (portrait), Chakkar Bazaar, Kashmir, Pakistan, 2005. © Shahidul Alam.
‘Horipodo’ (portrait), Shondeep, Bangladesh, 1991. © Shahidul Alam.
‘Ship breaking worker’ (portrait), Rahman Yard, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2008. © Shahidul Alam.
‘Hemayetpur peep hole’ (portrait), Hemayetpur, Pabna, Bangladesh, 1994. © Shahidul Alam.
‘Champa: Naxalite series’ (portrait), Jessore, Bangladesh, 1994. © Shahidul Alam.
‘Girl in wheat field’ (portrait), Bangladesh, 1997. © Shahidul Alam.
My first break came when an Irish NGO, CONCERN, wanted me to cover their activities in northwest Bangladesh. I went to Pabna on the back of a motorbike and crossed the paddy fields. There were no studios, large formats, or Polaroids. I was taking pictures of people being themselves. We talked, we laughed, and we made friends. It was close to dusk when I saw a girl looking at me. She wanted to be photographed and when I raised my lens a broad smile eclipsed her face. Light had fallen and the shallow depth of field had more to do with the conditions than any pre-planned, unfocused background. Again I knew what the print would look like. My predictions worked. This simple photograph is still one of my favourites.
‘Blind boy’ (portrait), Gaforgaon, Mymensingh, Bangladesh, 1988. © Shahidul Alam.
After years of playing Pied Piper with a camera, I am still taken aback by children insisting on being photographed. It was September 1988 and the floods were merciless. I met some children in Gaforgaon, Mymensingh. They had not eaten for three days. A torn sari, strung across the beams of an abandoned warehouse, was the only semblance of shelter. Their homes were washed away and family members had died. And yet the children surrounding me wanted a picture.
The place was dark, but the walls yielded to the monsoon light and a little group jostled into position. Just as I was pressing the shutter I realised the boy in the middle was blind. He had edged his way into the centre and though he was not tall he stood with a beaming smile.
I have never seen that boy again and today I question the fact that I didn’t ask his name. But he has never left my thoughts and often I wonder why it was so important for him to be photographed. It has happened elsewhere; in boat crossings, paddy fields laden with grain, and chaotic marketplaces. In these and so many other situations a shangbadik (literally a journalist, but effectively anyone with a half decent camera) is hugely in demand. They refuse to take my fare at the ferry ghats. They open their hearts, spill out their secrets, and pass on their dreams. Why did a photo mean so much to a blind child?
The exhibition, called “Shahidul Alam: My Journey as a Witness”, will continue on its international tour in 2012 and follows on from the publication of a book of Alam’s work released in September 2011. The book, also calledShahidul Alam: My Journey as a Witness, was put together by the photographer in collaboration with art writer and curator Rosa Maria Falvo, who is also the international commissions editor for the book’s publisher, Skira.
Skira has kindly supplied Art Radar with a copy of Shahidul Alam: My Journey as a Witness to give away to one lucky reader. Stop back here next week to read an excerpt from Falvo’s introduction to the book and to find out more about how you can win a copy.