Photographer Interviews

Great Photography Teachers: The Vision of Shahidul Alam

September 28, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Shahidul Alam at the CatchLight Summit, a leadership retreat, held in San Francisco in November 2017.

For our issue on mentors and educators (PDN October), we wanted to do something different to recognize the leadership of Shahidul Alam. In the 20 years since he founded Pathshala South Media Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh, its graduates have won a disproportionate number of awards from World Press Photo and NPPA Best of Photojournalism, and been chosen for Joop Swart Masterclass and PDN’s 30. Some of the school’s most accomplished graduates have been recruited to its faculty, and are now training the next generation of photographers. He created Chobi Mela, the annual photo festival in Dhaka, to bring together renowned photographers from Bangladesh and around the world.

Through his speaking, writing, curation and activism, Alam has done more than anyone to empower local photographers to tell their own communities’ stories, critique the blinkered view of outside photographers covering news in the majority world and to diversify perspectives in photojournalism. “He has an incredible sense of mission,” says Contact Press founder Robert Pledge, a frequent collaborator with Alam. “I think he’s one of the most significant people in the world of photography, particularly in documentary photography.”

PDN had asked a member of the Pathshala faculty to interview Alam in early August.

Then, on August 5, Alam was forcibly removed from his home by at least two dozen plainclothes police office. It happened a few hours after he had given an interview to Al Jazeera criticizing the government’s handling of student protests and assaults on journalists covering the demonstrations. When Alam was brought to court on August 6, he was limping; he said he had been beaten in police custody. He has been charged under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act which criminalizes the sharing of material that “prejudices the image of the state or a person” or “caused deterioration of law and order” and has been used to quiet government critics. As we go to press, Alam remains in jail, and faces a sentence of 7 to 14 years.

Amidst the continued security crackdown and curtailing of internet service across Bangladesh, colleagues of Alam’s were hard to reach, but photographer Munem Wasif, a Pathshala graduate and faculty member, sent us comments on Alam’s influence. (His remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Photographer, educator and activist Shahidul Alam on his preferred mode of local transportation.

Munem Wasif: He never taught us only as a photographer: He was interested to talk always about something bigger. He wanted to document social inequality. For him, photography was a medium which we can use to raise questions, to talk about differences. One of the greatest things he has as a teacher is that he can look at things in the long run, and push you to look beyond yourself.

Shahidul has sacrificed his own career. He is a fantastic photographer but he could have done more work. But he decided to set up [photo agency] Drik Photo which has [raised] the professional standard of photography in Bangladesh. He decided to start Pathshala, where thousands of photographers have managed to study photography, and get exposure to the bigger world. And then he started Chobi Mela, which is the [first] and most important photo festival in Asia, because he thought it’s not possible for us to go to Europe all the time. And why should Europe be the benchmark? We should have our own dialogue and our own discussion.   

One of the reasons he started the school was because there was no space for photography in our cultural sector. The art school, the national arts council—nowhere was photography included. So he created a space where we could talk about certain issues. Before Pathshala, the kind of photography we were practicing in Bangladesh was more about Pictorialism, all about beauty, sunsets, landscapes. The critical engagement or political commentary in the image-making was missing.

Shahidul wanted to establish photography as a profession, not a hobby. The only way we can reach a different audience is to publish our work in international magazines and newspapers. That’s the way we were going to sustain ourselves, because in the local market there isn’t much space—you’ll never get a spread like in National Geographic or Time magazine.

I first saw him in 1999, when he was speaking at the first Chobi Mela [photo festival]. He always rides a bicycle, and that was interesting because people of his stature have big cars and it’s difficult to reach them. Shahidul was someone who looks very different. When I first got admitted to the school around 2003, he interviewed me. I noticed he’s very rigorous, very specific. When he asks a question, he gets to the exact point.

His love is something so unique. We see so many famous artists and photographers, and you look at them and you feel that they have a strange sense of power and ego. Shahidul doesn’t have that.

#Freeshahidulalam: How You Can Help

Since police dragged him from his home in Bangladesh on August 5, photographer, educator and activist Shahidul Alam has been charged under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act for commenting about recent protests in the country on social media and in an Al Jazeera interview. The ICT Act criminalizes sharing information that “prejudices the image of the state or a person” in Bangladesh. As we go to press, Alam remains in jail; his bail hearing is scheduled for September 11. Photographers, artists and human rights groups around the world have called for his unconditional release.

Metropolitan police in Dhaka have also detained activists and, according to the police commissioner, have scrutinized the social media accounts of 150 people who shared information about the protests. For their safety, some friends and supporters of Alam have now deleted their social media accounts and are avoiding the use of email and phones.

In the midst of the crackdown within Bangladesh, supporters outside the country are continuing to speak out, demanding both Alam’s release and the protection of freedom of expression for journalists and activists. 

Amnesty International encourages supporters to write directly to the following government officials soon:

Minister of Home Affairs
Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal
e-mail: [email protected]
Salutation: Honourable Home Minister

The Bangladesh High Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh:
address: Segunbagicha, Dhaka 1000, Bangladesh
e-mail: [email protected]
Salutation: Hon. Minister Mr. Abul Hassan
Mahmood Ali, MP

Copies of emails to those officials should also be sent to diplomatic representatives accredited in the sender’s country.

In the US:
The Embassy of Bangladesh in Washington, DC
Ambassador Mohammad Ziauddin
Phone: 202-244-0183 (PABX)
fax: 202-244-2771
Contact form:
Salutation: Dear Ambassador

In Canada:
High Commission for Bangladesh in Ottawa, Canada
Ambassador Mizanur Rahman
Phone: +1-613-236-1088
e-mail: [email protected]
[email protected]
Salutation: Your Excellency

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#Freeshahidulalam: How You Can Help

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