Images of Change

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Shahidul Alam: Images of Change

By Peggy Roalf   Monday July 9, 2012


Journalism in this age of conflict continues to be biased towards a western and white point of view when, in fact, most of the current conflicts and unrest occur in regions that are non-western and non-white. Even the terminology for these places has evolved along lines that have little to do with realities.

For example, Mao Zedong’s term “the Third World,” coined when he proclaimed the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949, but later viewed by journalists and policy makers as somewhat restrictive, became “Less Developed Countries,” or LDCs. It was subsequently modified to the more exclusive “Less Economically Developed Countries,” or LEDCs, to signify the most impoverished. When it comes to the people who live in these countries, however, the terms are irrelevant except to organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank, whose work requires monetizing the circumstances of poverty.

It seems that the imbalance, at least in terminology, has a chance to be reset with the emergence of the Majority World Photo Agency in London. It was founded in 2010 by the Bangladeshi photographer, journalist, and writer Shahidul Alam, who long ago began advocating for the term “majority world” to replace LDC; in his words, “it defines the community in terms of what it is, rather than what it lacks.”

Alam and his co-organizers at Majority World Photo say that it is not so much a new agency but instead a social enterprise that works with photographers from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. They bring a local vision forward, in the process bridging the gap between photographers from emerging countries and image buyers from developed countries. Because they are not enmeshed by cultural clichés or image saturation, they say, Majority World photographers allow the majority world to speak visually for itself. Their local knowledge and access are hinged to the ideal that their stories will not be misread; and that their stories will be about people, not numbers.

During the early 1990s, the Western educated Alam returned to Dhaka to do the work that has become his life: creating “Images for Change.” He founded the Drik Photo Agency, Library, and Gallery, where he hosted the 1993 World Press Photo exhibition. Drawing upon the talented local photographers contributing to Drik (which in Sanskrit means “vision” or “philosophy”), he founded the biennial Chobi Mela International Photography Festival in 2000. The seventh installation is scheduled for 2013, with submissions due at the end of July 2012.

Alam is something of a force of nature when it comes to creating outlets for what he has coined “Fair Trade Photography.” He has written, “As a journalist, your only space is at the edge. You have to be constantly feeling the heat. Go back one more step, and you may cease to be effective. There are no safe options, and no prizes for popularity. If you’re not making certain people uncomfortable by your presence, you must be doing something wrong. The struggle for change is a never-ending process that requires you to be constantly alert, and forever swimming against the current. It is a lonely, stressful, tiring and immensely gratifying journey.”

This week, the Guardian Gallery in London will open the exhibition Insider, Outsider? on Thursday, July 12 from 7 to 9 pm. The show features work by 17 photographers from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East; the gallery is located in the Guardian’s headquarters at King’s Place, London N1 9GU. RSVP Steph Osborn. Read an interview with Shahidul Alam by Sarah Phillips in the Guardian. Read a review of his recent book, My Journey As Witness, in La Lettre du Photographie. Read a DART feature on the 2008 Chobi Mela International Photography Festival posted from the ground by Brian PalmerAbove: Shahidul Alam, Ilish fishing on the river Brahmaputra, Bangladesh.

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About Shahidul Alam

A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry at London University before switching to photography. He returned to his hometown Dhaka in 1984, where he photographed the democratic struggle to remove General Ershad. A former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the award winning Drik agency, the Bangladesh Photographic Institute and Pathshala, the South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Director of the Chobi Mela festival and chairman of Majority World agency, Alam’s work has been exhibited in galleries such as MOMA in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern in London and The Museum of Contemporary Arts in Tehran. He has been a guest curator of the Whitechapel Gallery, the Musee de Quai Branly and the Brussels Biennale. Alam’s numerous photographic awards include the Mother Jones and the Howard Chapnick Awards and the Open Society Institute Audience Engagement Grant. A speaker at US universities, Harvard, Stanford and UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities in the UK and the Powerhouse Museum in Brisbane, Alam has been a jury member in prestigious international contests, including World Press Photo which he chaired and Prix Pictet. An Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, Alam is a visiting professor of Sunderland University in the UK. He is on the advisory board of the National Geographic Society and the Eugene Smith Fund. His recent book “My Journey as a witness” was listed in the “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo. Former picture editor of Life Magazine John Morris considers the book “The most important book ever written by a photographer”
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