Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – 21 February 2020

This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – Shahidul Alam’s exhibition “Truth to Power” at the Rubin Museum New York. Also, this weekend in Brisbane the FotoAIDconference is on. I’ll be speaking on Sunday. Check out the full program and remember all proceeds go to bushfire recovery programs.

Exhibition: New York

Shahidul Alam – Truth to Power

Smriti Azad at Protest at Shaheed Minar
Smriti Azad used to attend political rallies with her sister when she was a child. As a singer and a performer, she was involved with the women’s movement, the committee demanding the trial of war criminals and the cultural group Charon Shangshkritik Kenro, which led to her joining the cultural group Shommilito Shangshkritik Jote. As part of that group she was active in the movement to bring down general Ershad. Here, Smriti was protesting at a rally at Shahid Minar. Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1994. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The final show in the Rubin Museum’s 12-month exploration of the concept of power is Shahidul Alam’s ‘Truth to Power’. Alam is a Bangladeshi photographer, writer, activist and institution-builder – readers of Photojournalism Now will recall our review of his book The Tide Will Turn in December last year.

In 2018 Alam was one of the journalists named TIME Person of the Year after being incarcerated and tortured for speaking out against the government in a TV interview with Al Jazeera. A global effort to see him released resulted in Alam being freed after more than three months. The trial is pending and Alam still faces the prospect of a prison term.

It was in 1980 when studying for a PhD in chemistry in London that Alam picked up a camera for the first time. Already agitating as a social activist, he recognised “how powerful images were.” Returning to Bangladesh in 1984, he asked himself if the country needed another scholar or a documentary photographer. He chose the latter.

In 1989 Alam cofounded Drik Picture Library with his longtime partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, a writer and anthropologist. Drik champions local Bangladeshi visual journalists, but Alam and Ahmed’s initial intention was to amass “warriors” to document the protests against the tyrannical President of Bangladesh, General Ershad who was ousted in 1990.

A Struggle for Democracy
(C) Shahidul Alam – Dhaka Siege Day, Nov 10, 1987

Since that time, Alam has continued to be a vocal opponent of corruption and injustice and a champion for the marginalised and forgotten. The exhibition at the Rubin which features more than 40 images including new work allows the viewer to begin to understand the stories of those pictured. The ephemera in the collection also gives a unique insight into the workings of Alam’s mind and the depth of his commitment to telling stories that others would conceal. His book “My Journey as a Witness” which I have checked out of the library numerous times, was nominated as the “most important book ever written by a photographer,” by the late John Morris, a renowned picture editor.

A Struggle for Democracy
(C) Shahidul Alam – Bishwa Ijtema; Tongi, Gaipur, Dhaka, Bangladesh 1988. Second largest religious gathering of Muslims after Mecca.
Mural of Noor Hossain in Jahangirnagar University Campus
(C) Shahidul Alam – Mural of Noor Hossain in Jahangimagar University Campus, Dhaka, Bangladesh 1987. “Noor Hossain was a young worker who joined the protest in the streets. “Let democracy be freed” was painted on his back, and police shot him. The mural on the walls of Jahangirnagar University on the outskirts of Dhaka is dedicated to him.”

In addition to his own photography practice, Alam is also the brains behind Drik Photo Agency, Pathshala South Asia Media Institute, Chobi Mela Photography Festival and Majority World Photos. He is a powerhouse of positive energy and resolve, and one of the most erudite people I know.

Alam says, “Truth to Power is a tribute to the numerous acts of resistance all across the globe and gives hope to those who continue to believe that a better world is possible. I’m thrilled to have the support of the Rubin Museum.”

Shahidul Alam_Rohingya Refugees
(C) Shahidul Alam – Rohingya Refugees after having just landed in Bangladesh, 2017
Climate refugees
(C) Shahidul Alam – Climate Refugees, Bangladesh 2009
Shahidul Alam_Sheep at Sunset
(C) Shahidul Alam – Sheep at sunset, Tibetan Plateau 1999

Beth Citron, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Rubin and organiser of the exhibition says, “Photographic imagery in South Asia has become an effective means for the underrepresented to claim voice and political presence. Alam is masterful at using images to tell stories and shine a light on injustices and inequities. In a time when free speech and expression is challenged in Bangladesh and across the world, Shahidul Alam’s lifelong work reveals the power of truth and voice in effecting change.”

Sailboat Fishing for Ilish
(C) Shahidul Alam – Daulatdia, Bangladesh, 2001. “Sailboats are rapidly disappearing in Bangladesh, but small fishing boats still use sails, particularly during the monsoons. This photo was taken in Daulatdia in the river Padma. The Ilish fish is a delicacy in Bangladesh, and connoisseurs swear that the best Ilish is from the river Padma. It was overcast when I arrived, and the light was flat, so I stayed with the fishermen. On the third day, there was an opening in the sky, and a shaft of sunlight fell on the boats nearby. The dark clouds at the back were a perfect backdrop. The red sail was a bonus. The magical light only stayed for a few minutes, but that was enough. I had my picture.” 

The Rubin Museum of Art is an arts and cultural hub in New York City’s vibrant Chelsea. Emphasizing cross-cultural connections, the Rubin is a space to contemplate ideas that extend across history and span human cultures. 

I can’t see this show, but if you do, please send me a photo!

Until 4 May

The Rubin Museum of Art 150 West 17th Street New York

All images courtesy Shahidula Alam/Drik/Majority World

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