Baring the Soul of Bangladesh: the Photographs and Activism of Shahidul Alam

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‘Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power’ Exhibition, The Rubin Museum, New York

It’s not often that I visit photography exhibitions any more.  There was a time when I was a student in London when I was quite into it.  But then I decided that actually, most photographers were more interested in themselves than in their subjects and that was reflected in their superficial work.

The Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam is an exception.

I have never actually seen Alam’s photographs before this exhibition and I wasn’t actually sure how interested I was.  The powerful images showing the everyday problems faced by Bangladeshis since the 1980s is distinguished by its attractive compositions, which don’t detract from the misery of the story behind the image.  It made me realise how clever it was to be able to balance that aesthetic appeal, which draws you in to engage with a picture, without being so attractive that it trivialises its subject.

Alam was born in Dhaka in 1955, and studied Biochemistry and Genetics at the University of Liverpool in England.  While he was pursuing his D.Phil in Organic Chemistry in London, he became interested in photography and won his first prize in 1983.  Since then he as been a judge for the World Press Photo competition many times, has earned awards and had his photographs published in major publications, like National Geographic and Time magazine.

As well as becoming a photographer, Alam has taken his responsibilities as a successful role-model seriously.  In 1989 he set up the Drik Picture Library and in 1998 the Pathshala South Asia Media Institute in Dhaka, which has already trained successful photographers.  But his main work has been to use his photographs to raise issues in South East Asia, from political protests and natural disasters to ‘disappearances’ of campaigners.

One such project was his series ‘Searching for Kalpana Chakma’.  Alam photographed natural and material elements from Chakma’s environment.  Kalpana Chakma was an indigenous young leader of the Hill Women’s Federation, who was abducted at gunpoint from her home in the Chittagong Hill Tracts by military personnel and civilian law enforcers on June 12th, 1996. She has been missing ever since. She championed the rights of indigenous people to govern their own land. Alam never met Kalpana, but used her disappearance to create three bodies of work that show her courage as an activist and question the conditions of her kidnapping.  The photographs are basically of Chakma’s meagre belongings, and there are images of four figures printed on straw –  ‘Kalpana’s Warriors’, who are key figures who have advocated for Kalpana.

He was arrested in Bangladesh in 2018 following his support of student protests for road safety.  He was tortured and spent 107 days in jail.  The international community rallied behind him, and hundreds petitioned for his release.  By the time he was released, Alam had even managed to do good in the prison: he collaborated with fellow prisoners to implement significant improvements in the jail.

At the end of the exhibition, there was a screen where you could look at a whole bunch of photographs that Alam has taken with his iPhone in Dhaka and around the world.  A good reminder of the fact that phones have made documenting the world so much easier – even though most of us don’t use it beyond documenting our own (largely inane) experiences.

So In Summary

‘Truth to Power’ presents the first comprehensive museum survey of Alam and his work, and on the basis of this, surely other museums world-wide will follow suit and introduce these important images – and their stories – to the general public.  Social commentary may be what most modern photographers aim for, but it’s rare that their points are communicated with such sensitivity and clarity.  You can’t help but stop in front of his pictures and wonder what’s happening behind the aesthetically pleasing surface.  On finding out the often sad story, you understand what caused Alam to want to document that moment, or that life, and to preserve its suffering and injustices, as a respectful testimony of destroyed lives.

Yet despite the heavy sadness behind many of the photographs, it wasn’t a negative exhibition.  There was a sense that the images in a way were bringing about a justice for the otherwise forgotten and vulnerable.  It doesn’t feel voyeuristic to look at the suffering, possibly because Alam’s sense of anger and injustice is so evident.  It’s justified anger and not idle – Alam has managed to bring about change in his own country, especially in the lives of those who enrol at his institute.  Not only is this extremely positive and inspirational for the people of Bangladesh, but it’s positive and valuable for people everywhere.

Further Information

The exhibition is running until 4th May 2020.  Information is on The Rubin’s website:

I didn’t do this, but you can also download The Rubin’s audio guide and listen to the curator and artist speaking about the exhibition.  You can download it from Apple App Store and Google Play.

If you want to read the article about Alam from when he was TIME magazine’s Person of the Year, you’ll find it here, and here’s another from the Financial Times.

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