Wresting the Narrative From the West

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By JAMES ESTRIN New York Times

As far as Shahidul Alam is concerned, he does not live in the third world or the developing world. While the photographer’s home is in Bangladesh, a decidedly poor country, he thinks of himself as residing in “the majority world.”

Boy playing with home made ball, in shelter built for earthquake victims in Pakistan. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Boy playing with home made ball, in shelter built for earthquake victims in Pakistan. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Most people today do not live in Europe or North America, or have white skin. Yet the world’s economy and media are dominated by a handful of Western countries, and the reporting on developing nations is not always done by people who know their subjects well.

People who haven't eaten for three days wait for relief wheat in Goforgaon, Mymensingh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
People who haven’t eaten for three days wait for relief wheat in Goforgaon, Mymensingh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Woman cooking on the rooftop of her house during floods. 1st September 1988. The water went up another three feet. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Woman cooking on the rooftop of her house during floods. 1st September 1988. The water went up another three feet. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

“There is an African saying which I relate to, which goes, ‘Until the lions find their storytellers, stories about hunting will always glorify the hunter,’ ” he said. “We have to be our own storytellers. We also have to ensure that we are sensitive and respectful of our subjects, and that people have dignity in the way that they’re portrayed.”For Mr. Alam, 58, this is another form of colonialism and imperialism. It matters who tells the stories, he says.

Fishermen in Swondeep rebuilding their boat after the devastating cyclone of 1991.© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Fishermen in Swondeep rebuilding their boat after the devastating cyclone of 1991.© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

During his three decades photographing in Bangladesh, Mr. Alam has covered numerous major news events, including natural disasters, governmental upheavals, the deaths of thousands of garment factory workers and the struggle against human rights abuses. He has used his photography to directly challenge the Bangladeshi government and military on their violent repression and the “disappearances” of political opponents.

A mural on the walls of Jahangirnagar University Campus pays homage to "Noor Hossain" a young worker who had painted on this back "Let Democracy be Freed" He was killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
A mural on the walls of Jahangirnagar University Campus pays homage to “Noor Hossain” a young worker who had painted on this back “Let Democracy be Freed” He was killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Family members of migrant workers sleep outside the airport. They pray for the safety of their loved one. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Family members of migrant workers sleep outside the airport. They pray for the safety of their loved one. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Migrant worker separated from his woman at the airport, bids goodbye. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Migrant worker separated from his woman at the airport, bids goodbye. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

But, just as importantly, he has helped to create an infrastructure for Bangladeshis to tell their own stories and distribute their images worldwide, breaking what he sees as a monopoly on storytelling by Western media.

Champa was a leader in the Naxalite movement. A far left movement dedicated to the liberation of peasants. She used to dress up as a boy to sneak into party meetings as a child. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Champa was a leader in the Naxalite movement. A far left movement dedicated to the liberation of peasants. She used to dress up as a boy to sneak into party meetings as a child. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Lokman Hossain works as a cleaner, in Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore. "There are Bangladeshi girls from well to do families who study here. We hear them talk to each other in Bangla, but when we try to talk to them, they pretend they don't know the language". Part of Migrant soul project, an attempt to understand the dreams and the realities of Bangladeshi migrant people. www.migrantsoul.net © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Lokman Hossain works as a cleaner, in Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore. “There are Bangladeshi girls from well to do families who study here. We hear them talk to each other in Bangla, but when we try to talk to them, they pretend they don’t know the language”. Part of Migrant soul project, an attempt to understand the dreams and the realities of Bangladeshi migrant people. www.migrantsoul.net © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

An old man reading a wall newspaper in Guangzhou, China. 1986. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
An old man reading a wall newspaper in Guangzhou, China. 1986. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

His Pathshala school has produced dozens of world-class photographers and given Bangladesh a reputation for exceptional photography. The Chobi Mela photo festival, which Mr. Alam started in 1999, brings photographers from around the world to the capital, Dhaka, and promotes local image-makers and documentarians. His photo agency, Drik, which he started in 1989, sells stories made by Bangladeshi photographers to media outlets worldwide and encourages its photographers to cover stories the way they want to, and not to try to fit a script imposed by outsiders.

The family of a rickshawalla Ramzan, break stones in what the owner calls "The Factory". They used to get 13 cents for breaking 50 kilos of stones. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The family of a rickshawalla Ramzan, break stones in what the owner calls “The Factory”. They used to get 13 cents for breaking 50 kilos of stones. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The little girl in Anwara was an orphan her family and her home had all gone. But she didn't stay an orphan for long. I soon found her adopted by another poor family who took her into their fold. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The little girl in Anwara was an orphan her family and her home had all gone. But she didn’t stay an orphan for long. I soon found her adopted by another poor family who took her into their fold. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

A woman in a makeshift voting booth in Lalmatia, Dhaka, casts her vote after the removal of autocratic General Hussain Mohammad Ershad after a sustained people's movement for democracy. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
A woman in a makeshift voting booth in Lalmatia, Dhaka, casts her vote after the removal of autocratic General Hussain Mohammad Ershad after a sustained people’s movement for democracy. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

This is the opposite of the expectations he encountered years ago, when he covered stories for Western media outlets and was asked to illustrate predetermined storylines.

“Patronizing storytelling has been damaging to the psyche of Bangladeshis and to the economy,” he said. “Photos of Bangladesh have been used to propagate a colonial view of the world, and as a result, Bangladesh is only known for poverty and disaster.”

Fishermen in Sri Lanka who had lost their nets during the Tsunami return to their craft with the help of nets provided by aid agencies. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Fishermen in Sri Lanka who had lost their nets during the Tsunami return to their craft with the help of nets provided by aid agencies. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Mr. Alam acknowledges that poverty is part of the story of his country, but when reportage focuses only on poverty, he says, it presents a narrow view. Rarely is the country’s rich culture and art portrayed by the Western media or the foreign photographers working with them.

He has taken his efforts to promote insiders’ telling their own stories to dozens of countries, including Afghanistan, Nigeria, China and Japan. In 2007, with Colin Hastings and Rowan Watts, he created a photo agency called Majority World to represent and promote photographers outside the United States and Europe.

Last year, he published an autobiographical book, “My Journey as a Witness” (Skira and the Bengal Foundation), in which he recounts his experiences as a photographer, a human rights activist and an architect of a shift in the visual representation of developing countries. In the prologue, he writes:

We have no problems with others telling the story. Our own perceptions need to be challenged. It is the monopoly that the West has had on our storytelling that we question. It’s not sufficient for photographers to simply take the picture. They need to control the rest of the process, including dissemination of those images. We need to ensure we have a say in how that story is told.

"The Floating Forest" was taken in b/w infra red film. An early experiment in previsualisation © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
“The Floating Forest” was taken in b/w infra red film. An early experiment in previsualisation © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World


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This entry was posted in Arts, Bangladesh, Chobi Mela VII, Colonialism, culture, Democracy, development, disasters, Drik and its initiatives, Education, Garments, Human rights, Major Features on Bangladesh, Majority World, My Photo Essays, Pathshala, Photography, Photojournalism, Photojournalism issues, RAB, Shahidul Alam, South Asia, Sri Lanka and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Wresting the Narrative From the West

  1. Issa Ataur says:

    Immortal pictures

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