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Shahidul Alam

Bangladeshi Contemporary Artist
Born 1955, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Lives and works in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Photojournalist Shahidul Alam debunks his multiple other designations of photojournalist, academician and activist writer and prefers being called a storyteller, a socially conscious activist who earnestly feels the need for his country’s stories be told from a newer perspective. Working within the territories of his homeland, Alam recaptures and discovers Bangladesh’s myriad styles via his works.

Education

1983

Ph.D. Organic Chemistry, University of London

1976

Bachelor of Science, Biochemistry and Genetics, University of Liverpool, UK

VIEW     Selected exhibitions     Text      Videos      Selected images      View all

LIFE AND WORK

UNDERSTANDING Shahidul Alam

The question of projecting a certain kind of self-identity is central to Alam's works

Shahidul Alam refuses to be known to the world by the multiplicity of professions which viewers, readers and critics would usually like to associate him with; writer, photographer, activist with a special interest in education and new media , curator, film maker and so on. In several interviews and columns, he has acknowledged the fact that he prefers being called a storyteller, of non-fiction of course. The various series of his stills which are well documented in his website with thought-provoking and sometimes very emotionally evocative titles like When the Waters Came, Dancing Amidst the Baobabs, Brahmaputra Diary, when viewed one after the other will seem to unravel a story without a written text (sometimes a written prologue is provided before the story begins).

Shahidul Alam, Wading down a street near Kamlapur railway station. “Dreamland Photographers”, the local studio, was still open for business. Dhaka Bangladesh, 1988

Shahidul alam believes in meaningful journalism, photography with a social purpose

It irks the activist in Shahidul Alam that although his nation has been introduced to the world largely by photographs, it was always done in a skewed fashion by visiting photographers and written about by western intellectuals by creating highly blinkered notions and perpetuating stereotypes about Bangladesh being a poor country ravaged annually by natural disasters and perpetually suffering from economic crisis. According to Alam, the outsider is ill-equipped to sensitise the true conditions of grass-root Bangladesh. So, he takes it on himself to narrate the untold stories of Bangladesh via visuals. In an interview, Alam suggests that in a country where textual literacy is low, photographs can play a highly constructive role because visuals can be appreciated even by the rickshaw puller who paints his vehicle in bright colours . At the same time Alam is also aware of the potential of photography to be appropriated and misused by the privileged few, the large corporations for their propaganda efforts.

It is interesting to note that Shahidul Alam’s own gallery which allows him space to display his subversive works is deliberately named Drik (meaning far sighted in Sanskrit) and his non-profit photo agency, Majority World, a jibe from the third world to the large corporations.

Shahidul Alam, F M Hall Rickshaw, from “Crossfire”

Documenting disaster and Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam has repeatedly engaged in disaster photography, those of the Kashmir earthquake, 2005, the Tsunami of 2005, the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, the 1988 flood in Bangladesh and has tried to bring forth the positive strides of the survivors towards a new life, even amidst terrible ruins. Women cooking on a rooftop of a devastated hut, a woman kissing her child, a wicker basket hanging between trees submerged in water, a barber busy shaving off a customer’s beard with rubble around him and people helping others onto boats in the overflowing, bank breaking river. The meticulous attention that he pays to documenting every little details to the people of the grassroots makes him a true activist.

Shahidul alam, Surrounded by her worldly belongings, a woman cooks the family meal. The next day, the water had risen another three feet, Jinjira, Bangladesh, 1988

Politics of displaying the unseen

In his two experimental and also highly controversial series named Crossfire, 2010 and My Journey as a Witness, 2011, Shahidul Alam toys with the idea of the unseen; the power of the unseen to evoke fear and empathy in the minds of the viewers. In Crossfire, 2010, he exhibits no photos of gunshots, bullets, blood, dead bodies, which he says is the obvious, instead displaying banal shots of the gamcha (cotton towel), paddy fields, a painted rickshaw at a recognizable juncture and a wall graffiti by night—all highly suggestive of the process of violence that goes on the country at the dead of the night in the name of mitigating crimes. In Journey as a Witness, 2011, he delves deep into the “story” of Nurjahan’s death which was reported as a mere case of suicide. Nurjahan exists no more, but Alam’s photograph of Nurjahan’s father holding the clothes that she wore before dying recalls the horror of the violence collectively perpetrated on the woman by the clerics and the community.

 

Shahidul Alam, Justice for Nurjahan , Nurjahan's father holding the clothes she had been wearing when she died

Attempts to showcase a positive, hitherto unknown image of Bangladesh to the rest of the world

Some of the series Senior Citizens, Positive Lives, 2006, and Portraits of Commitment, 2007, present to the viewer an image of Bangladesh which is often eroded out of one’s mind when looking at the grainy regular photographs of a third world nation. Female friendships, joys of old age, portraits of HIV positive third sex members, form a locus of these exhibitions, making the world confront a developing nation which although suffering the ravages of war, corruption, misrule, poverty and natural disaster is socially inclusive and still manages to be happy.

Shahidul Alam, Girl in wheat field, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1997.

Shahidul Alam, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Portraits of Commitment, 2007.

Bibliography