Win a copy of “My Journey as a Witness”

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Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam’s first UK retrospective – picture feast

Posted on December 7, 2011

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.

Click here to read more about the artist and the exhibition, called “Shahidul Alam: My Journey as a Witness”, on Wilmotte Gallery’s website.

'Nurjahan's father', Chatokchora, Sylhet, Bangladesh, 1994. © Shahidul Alam.‘Nurjahan’s father’ (portrait), Chatokchora, Sylhet, Bangladesh, 1994. © Shahidul Alam.

It was reported in the papers as suicide. On 10 January 1993 Nurjahan, a woman in her twenties from a struggling peasant household from the Maulvi Bazar district of north-east Bangladesh, was found dead from poisoning at her parents’ house in the village of Chatokchora.

Nurjahan Begum, 7th among 9 daughters, had been married five years before the incident. However, her husband abandoned her and she returned home to live with her parents. Later, her parents arranged another marriage for her, but since polyandry is forbidden by Muslim law, it was necessary to discover whether her first marriage had been properly dissolved. Nurjahan’s father consulted the village imam (religious leader), who declared that she was free to marry. However, he revoked this later and claimed that the marriage was illegal because the first still stood. A shalish (village council for settling disputes and trying offending villagers) met to judge whether Nurjahan and any of her family members had broken the law. The shalish found Nurjahan guilty of fornication, on the grounds that she was still married to her first husband; after debating the punishment, it decided that 101 pebbles should be thrown at Nurjahan and her second husband.

Pebbles were preferred to stones since the intention, reportedly, was to shame the couple rather than hurt or kill them. Nurjahan’s parents were also to be punished; the shalish decreed that they should be beaten with a broom. Nurjahan was made to stand in a hole that was then filled, half burying her, to receive her punishment. As she did so a member of the shalish approached her and castigated her for the shame she had brought on her family. She was not fit to live and should kill herself. Nurjahan was found dead the next day.

Rahnuma Ahmed, public anthropologist and writer

'Ali Zaman' (portrait), Chakkar Bazaar, Kashmir, Pakistan, 2005. © Shahidul Alam.‘Ali Zaman’ (portrait), Chakkar Bazaar, Kashmir, Pakistan, 2005. © Shahidul Alam.

In 2006 I returned to the Siran Valley in Kashmir eight months after I had first been there photographing the advent of winter. The land was full of new crops, but many of the homes were still to be rebuilt. Ali Zaman and his friends had gathered in a tea stall. Old friends chatted over a cup of tea. Zaman was one of many who had thought he was witnessing ‘Keyamat’ (doomsday). The phone booth outside, was a telephone under the open sky. A barber had set up shop amidst the rubble. School children sat around a blackboard propped up in a field. People got on with their lives.

Shahidul Alam

'Horipodo’ (portrait), Shondeep, Bangladesh, 1991. © Shahidul Alam.‘Horipodo’ (portrait), Shondeep, Bangladesh, 1991. © Shahidul Alam.

The cyclone shelter was packed with people, mostly women and children, some crying, others screaming. Amid the chaos, came a loud knock. We struggled to open the door against the wind. The night sky was bearing down on the small gap we had made. A man pushed his way in as we struggled to lock the door again. He was a strong burly type, but he was shaking. “Give me a biri” he said. I got angry. “Can’t you see what’s happening here? The state people are in? And you want a smoke?” He wasn’t cruel, but his stare was cold. “agaro jon re puita aisi. biri de.” (I’ve buried eleven. Just hand me a biri).

Shahidul Alam

'Ship breaking worker' (portrait), Rahman Yard, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2008. © Shahidul Alam.‘Ship breaking worker’ (portrait), Rahman Yard, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2008. © Shahidul Alam.

Development isn’t simply about money. What about developing mutual respect? Enabling equitable partnerships? Providing enabling environments for intellectual exchange? What about creating awareness of the underlying causes of poverty? These are all integral parts of the development process. When all things are added up, cheap images providing clichéd messages do more harm than good. They don’t address the crucial issue: poverty is almost always a product of exploitation, at local, regional and international levels. If poverty is simply addressed in terms of what people lack in monetary terms, then the more important issues of addressing exploitation are sidelined.

Lacking the advantages of our Western counterparts, image-makers in the Global South have had to rely on ingenuity and making-do in order to move from being fixers, to authors in their own right. We have had to be pioneers. The Sanskrit word ‘Drik’ means vision, inner vision, and philosophy of vision. This vision of a more egalitarian world, where materially poor nations have a say in how they’re represented, remains our driving force.

Shahidul Alam

'Hemayetpur peep hole', Hemayetpur, Pabna, Bangladesh, 1994. © Shahidul Alam.‘Hemayetpur peep hole’ (portrait), Hemayetpur, Pabna, Bangladesh, 1994. © Shahidul Alam.

In 1994 Dr A.K.M. Abdus Samad, director of the Hemayetpur mental hospital in Pabna, Bangladesh, was pragmatic – “An average of 2 percent of all populations is schizophrenic and of course there are many other mental ailments. In this country of 130 million, we have one hospital with 400 beds. What do you expect? The government’s allocation for food is 18 taka per day (about 45 US cents at the time). Many mental patients are hyperactive and require more food. A good portion of that 18 taka goes to the contractor. The remainder has to provide three meals a day. So what can I do? I make sure they get plenty of rice. That way at least their stomachs are full. We have little money for drugs and virtually no staff for counselling, so we keep them doped. Then they don’t suffer as much.”

Shahidul Alam

'Champa: Naxalite series' (portrait), Jessore, Bangladesh, 1994. © Shahidul Alam.‘Champa: Naxalite series’ (portrait), Jessore, Bangladesh, 1994. © Shahidul Alam.

The Naxalite movement was going to liberate them. It was a fight against oppression. Champa would dress up as a boy to sneak into the party meetings and listen to the speeches. She was one of many who left home to join the party. This movement was different. Women could be leaders, and take part in battle. Weddings were simple affairs. With a hand shake and a salute. Champa had been a leader, but when the party disbanded, they had nowhere to turn to. They had burnt their bridges.

Shahidul Alam

'Girl in wheat field' (portrait), Bangladesh, 1997. © 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.

Shahidul Alam

'Blind boy' (portrait), Gaforgaon, Mymensingh, Bangladesh, 1988. © Shahidul Alam.‘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?

Shahidul Alam

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 called Shahidul 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.

Trailer of “My Journey as a Witness”

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