Mirabelle Morah

Interview with prominent Bangladeshi photojournalist and activist

Shahidul Alam: “I Cannot Separate My Art from Politics”

  • Title: Shahidul Alam: “I Cannot Separate My Art from Politics”
  • Written by: Mirabelle Morah
  • Description: Bangladeshi photographer and social activist shares message on courage while delivering Bailey Morris-Eck Lecture at the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change
  • This interview was originally published on/for Salzburg Global Seminar

“And then what happened this other day was, this woman had a baby, and she came up to me and said ‘Can you bless my child? I want him to grow up as brave as you.’ It moved me,” shares Shahidul Alam, both bashful and proud.

The Bangladeshi photographer, writer and activist, Shahidul Alam, was at Salzburg Global Seminar to deliver the Bailey Morris-Eck keynote address at this year’s Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. He addressed the audience of budding journalists and media entrepreneurs on “Exposed Vulnerabilities: Learning to Trust.” Addressing students and university faculty from around the world, the award-winning photographer shared a powerful message that “giving up” was not a “luxury” anyone could afford, and that courage is contagious. When asked if he had an advice to give to his younger self, or if he had a word of encouragement to give to the younger generation of social activists and journalists, Alam responded by saying that there was no alternative to being “good at what you do.”

“You have to ensure that your presentation is right; it’s your job to ensure that you’re communicating correctly, [and] it’s your job to ensure that they make sure that everything is right for you.”

In 2018, Shahidul Alam was arrested during a protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh, after which he was imprisoned for over 100 days and tortured for his involvement in social activism. He was eventually released on bail in November 2018, after many people around the world – including Nobel Laureates and many Salzburg Global Fellows – demanded for his freedom. During his address at the Academy, Alam said that “the biggest punishment” was to “take away a person’s freedom.”

Speaking to Salzburg Global in an interview after his lecture, the two-time Salzburg Global Fellow told of the importance of standing up to government and police repression.

“You have governments which come in for their own interest alone. And rather than serving the public, their task generally has been to squeeze as much out of the public resource, as they can for themselves.

“Similarly…” he continued, “the police is often used to serve the needs of the party in power. Forgetting that they are really answerable to the public.”

Adopting photography as a tool for social justice, Alam established Drik Picture Library in 1989 as a means of using “the power of the visual medium to educate, inform and draw powerful emotional responses to influence public opinion.” He believes that “building stronger institutions” is one answer to fighting against repressive governments, and that power “should never be concentrated on single individuals, but spread out.”

Many people have said to Shahidul Alam, “You’re an artist – why are you doing politics?”

But, he explains: “I cannot separate my art from politics.”

Part of ensuring that power is not concentrated comes in ensuring that local people own and tell their own stories, as well as reporting their own experiences.

“I think… as long as local people are [telling their own stories], they will understand the language; they will understand the cultural perspective. They will have the empathy, but they will also have an accountability to their audience and therefore, they need to be far more responsible in their reporting than they might otherwise have been.”

Having said that, Alam also recognizes that there could be blind spots when locals tell or report their own stories and therefore having an external perspective is not unhealthy. The problem, according to Alam, emerges when “external forces” or narratives from foreign correspondents become “far more powerful [than the narratives] from the local community, and that imbalance is problematic,” Alam explains, echoing sentiments he shared last time he was in Salzburg in 2016 for the program Beyond Green: The Arts as a Catalyst for Sustainability: “Until the lion finds their storyteller, hunters will always be portrayed as the hero.”

Alam’s activism, high profile arrest and subsequent persistence in the face of adversity saw him acknowledged as one of TIME magazine’s People of the Year in 2018. It has been an unexpected rise to fame.

Alam explains that before he was arrested, “I was known in professional circles and people like Sanjeev [Chatterjee] and people here [at Salzburg Global Seminar] knew me, and certainly within Bangladesh, my fellow professionals knew me. But the average person did not. Today if I’m in the streets, I get hugged by people. They have tears in their eyes. They tell me, ‘You said something which all of us wanted to say but we couldn’t.’”

After Alam’s arrest, his impact spread throughout Bangladesh and other parts of the world, as many became inspired by his courage. Alam tells the story of a woman who asked him to bless her child.

“It moved me,” he said. “I felt that here was a woman who was not bringing up a child to be saved from everything and [to] look after its own interests, but to have the courage to stand up for what is right. And when a mother is prepared to do that, I think there is a lot of hope for a nation,” Alam said.

“I think it cannot be that mother alone. It needs to be all of us. And while fear does create fear in other people, so does courage. And I think all it takes is for a few individuals to stand up and be counted, for others to rise up as well. And that’s what’s needed.”

The Bailey Morris-Eck Lecture on International Media, Economics, and Trade was established out of the generosity of Salzburg Global board member Bailey Morris-Eck and her family. The lecture is delivered annually at Salzburg Global Seminar programs. The Salzburg Global program, The Cost of Disbelief: Fracturing Societies and Erosion of Trust, is part of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change.

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