Photojournalist Shahidul Alam on his new book and notorious 101-day incarceration
Over a year since he was taken from his home and arrested, we speak to the Bangladeshi photojournalist about his ongoing fight for social justice and his new book, The Tide Will Turn.
On the evening of 5 August 2018, Shahidul Alam’s doorbell rang. Deceived into thinking it might be someone from his activist community, it turned out to be the moment when he was taken from his home in Dhaka by a group of plain-clothed police officers who had rushed in, handcuffed and arrested him. This was also the moment when one of Bangladesh’s most respected photojournalists and social activists proceeded to endure a 101-day incarceration in Dhaka Central Jail, Keraniganj. But what was his crime?
Just hours before, Shahidul had given a television interview with Al Jazeera where he expressed his criticism of the government’s mishandling of the student protests during that year. In a country where around 20 people are killed on the roads every day, the students were calling for safer roads in the capital of Dkaha – a protest that was fuelled by the deaths of two students who were run over by a bus, and one that resulted in the protestors being repeatedly assaulted by armed men who were supported by the police. “On the 4th of August, I was taking pictures,” Shahidul tells It’s Nice That, noting how he witnessed the violence held against the students first-hand. “I got attacked and my camera got smashed, but I continued to work.” What followed was unjust and, now looking back, was probably one of the country’s most notorious arrests. Shahidul has compiled his experiences into a new 184-page publication, titled The Tide Will Turn, published by Steidl.
Shahidul’s first venture into photography was sparked by his impetuous desire for activism. Born in Dhaka, east Pakistan (now modern-day Bangladesh) in 1955, he was raised into a middle-class family as one of three siblings. After boarding school at Jhenidah Cadet College, he went on to pursue his BSc in biochemistry and genetics at the University of Liverpool. Part of the Socialist Workers Party, Shahidul was involved in the rights movement, “race, rights, classifieds, gay rights – all of that,” he recalls. Finding himself in the streets and at the rallies, he soon realised that he could find more value in taking photographs. “I could see how powerful photography was,” he continues. “It was fairly obvious that I could do more for social justice through this medium than I could a research chemist.” So that’s where his initial love affair with photography began.
As for when he first picked up a camera, however, this was a little bit more accidental, or better yet, inevitable. Travelling to the United States as a student, Shahidul had bought a Nikon FM camera, a few lenses, a flash and a “rickety” tripod upon request of his friend in London. “I hitched around with my sleeping bag and tent, hiking with very little money; I took pictures,” he says. “When I came back to London, my friend didn’t have the money to pay for the camera. I was stuck with it and I decided to continue photographing.” This led to many wonderful works published in more or less every national newspaper from the West, his first published work – a series filled with “pretty pictures” of swans, people boating and a young kid on his motorbike– appearing in a local paper from Finsbury, London. It’s a stark contrast to the work that he produces now, but everyone starts from somewhere.
Relocating to London for his Doctor of Philosophy studies at Bedford College, University of London, Shahidul came across an advert in a newspaper for a photographer role – he took it, and began his first job taking pictures of children. “It still wasn’t the type of work that I wanted to do; that happened when I went back to Bangladesh and started dealing with issues of social injustice in my environment,” he tells us. Utilising the medium of photography as a tool for approaching societal issues in his home country, his style soon evolved into one that was more reactive. “The way I always work is by responding to people,” he says, “I think recognising other people, their dignity and finding ways to engage the photography is something that follows.”
“If someone claims that he or she has been tortured, then it’s the legal requirement that it be investigated. None of that happened.”Shahidul Alam
Shahidul’s choice in career meant that he found himself in many difficult situations, particularly when it came to photographing people in power – “conflicted situations,” he calls it. “I mean, when you’re photographing the police beating people up, obviously the police aren’t happy about this.”
The stories that he’s dealt with over time have, of course, been highly conflicted, with his more recent work focusing more on “absence” and “people disappearing”, as well as those who have been killed. But because of the subject matter, many of his exhibitions have been shut down. “That has been pretty much part of what we’ve had to deal with – our shows being closed, regulators and the police coming down heavily on us.”
One of his most recent – and most prominent – controversies, as mentioned, developed into his arrest. What’s interesting is that at the same time, he and his wife had been curious as to what actually happens when people disappear. In Bangladesh, it’s not uncommon for journalists to be taken from their homes without a warrant, and there have been countless occasions – one being the arrest and persecution of Abul Asad who, on 19 September 2011, was arrested from his home because of his role as editor of The Daily Sangram, an outlet that’s critical of government policies. Another case saw Hedayet Hossain Mollah, who works for the Dhaka Tribute newspaper, arrested and accused of publishing “false information” about voting in an election won by prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
As for Shahidul’s case, like the others, he was simply doing his job. “I know how things work in Bangladesh,” he adds, “and at that time, my most urgent need was to ensure that I did not go unnoticed.” Shahidul resisted, fought back, screamed and bought himself time for his neighbours to hear his calls. “I’m sure that it contributed to the resistance taking place as quickly as it did – while they handcuffed me, took control of me and took me away, people knew what was happening.” As such, his partner and colleagues went into action and “pressed the buttons,” which was a lucky moment because soon he was to be completely cut off from the external world. That’s when he was tortured and asked to remain silent, but he refused to accept and made sure to stick to his guns. “They were very angry about it and they threatened me with consequences of what might happen if I did refuse,” he says. “I got taken to court and I spoke about it – if someone claims that he or she has been tortured, then it’s the legal requirement that it be investigated. None of that happened.”
Eventually, after his bail was rejected five times, he was released on 20 November. It’s now been over a year and, “this is the crazy thing,” there are no charges yet to be made. “The charges in the bail rulings stipulated the prosecution had been unable to provide evidence of any of the charges made against me,” says Shahidul. “There is nothing that I’ve done which is illegal as a citizen, as a reporter; I was well within my rights to be reporting on what I had been seeing in front of me, so they really have no grounds to suddenly arrest me or harass me in any way.” Yet this harassment prevails to this present day and, as a visiting university professor at the University of Sunderland, the founder of the Drik Picture Library and the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, this makes his life difficult. What’s kept him utterly afloat is the support and the resistance felt throughout the entire process.
These experiences form the crux of his new publication, The Tide Will Turn. Although focusing primarily on his experiences throughout his arrest, it’s also an important documentation of the people who had risked their own lives for his freedom. “In a sense, [the book is] what I feel that I owed to the people – they stood by me during difficult times as well as my fellow prisoners who took very good care of me. I dedicate this book to them,” he says on his reasons for publishing his story.
A further dedication goes to Abrar Fahad, a second-year student who was brutally assassinated in the university by the same group of students who were attacking others at the protests. The crime was spurred on by his last Facebook post, where Abrar criticised Bangladesh’s agreement with India to allow the country to withdraw water from the Feni river. “These assassins took time off to watch a game of football and to have a meal, and they came back to finish him off. How this can happen in a hall of residence in my country is incredible – the book is dedicated to this young man and my fellow prisoners.”
Inside the book, expect to find a carefully considered record of honest and impactful essays written by Shahidul, which sit alongside an introductory editor’s letter from Vijay Prashad, as well as photographic contributions from Amanul Haque and collaborations from artists including Sofia Karim plus his fellow inmates. It’s split into four parts, which includes an entry from Shahidul’s time in jail; a chapter on art and a chapter on politics; plus the published letters exchanged between him and writer Arundhati Roy, a close friend whose works inspired the title of the publication, while imprisoned. “I think this book is meant to give hope, inspire confidence and resistance, [and the title is] borrowed from Arundhati because I wrote to her, she’s very generous – I read her letter while I was in jail and it was seriously motivating for me,” Shahidul explains. And the thing is, the oppression taking place in Bangladesh is, in fact, ubiquitous across the globe – “I hope that the tide will turn for all of us and this needs to be verbalised.”
“[The book is] what I feel that I owed to the people – they stood by me during difficult times as well as my fellow prisoners who took very good care of me.”Shahidul Alam
Since publishing, the book has been unsurprisingly well-received – not only by those whose lives have been touched by what has happened and still happens in Bangladesh, but also from people outside of the country. “It gives an insight that one does not usually get,” says Shahidul. Alongside this publication, Shahidul is currently exhibiting works in a comprehensive survey at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, running until 4 May 2020.
As for additional projects, he’s currently working on a book will give a deeper insight into his experiences of being in jail. “But activism itself continues,” he adds, further noting that it’s proven more difficult to work because of security reasons. “I used to go about on a bicycle and go out in the street to talk to people – that was the nature of my work. For me to do that today, I don’t carry a mobile phone because I get tracked, I have to constantly let people know where I am and I don’t travel alone. Those are the things that were very alien in the past but I’ve had to adapt to.”
Shahidul will never stop his fight for social justice. When we come close to the end of our conversation, he politely stops me and adds: “there’s been a lot of attention on me.” Instead, he prefers to give the spotlight to the people who have suffered far more – the people outside who dealt with the legal, financial and security pressures, as well as the uncertainty. Pointing to the people who helped him as the true heroes in this story, these further details mark him as the strong, compassionate and selfless man that he’s proven to be.
GalleryShahidul Alam: The Tide Will Turn, published by Steidl
GalleryShahidul Alam: The Tide Will Turn, published by Steidl
The Tide Will Turn, published by Steidl; Smriti Azad at a rally at Central Shahid Minar in Dhaka, 1994