The respected Bangladeshi photographer was arrested on 05 August in Dhaka and is still in prison; now universities, galleries, and museums across the UK are displaying images by him to draw attention to his plight and the struggle to free him
At 10pm on 05 August, photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam was arrested at his home in Dhaka. The next day he was charged for violating Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), after giving an interview to Al Jazeera on the current wave of student protests in Bangladesh against unsafe roads, in which he said that these actions stemmed from anger about widespread government corruption. He now faces up to 14 years in prison.
According to Amnesty International, which has taken up the photographer’s plight, Section 57 is a “draconian law” that has been used against well over 1000 people since it was introduced in 2006. “Police do not need arrest warrants or official permission to prosecute,” explains the organisation. “Those accused are mostly denied bail pending their trial and kept locked up for months with no official verdict. Shahidul himself was denied bail on 10 September 2018. Those arrested are often journalists who’ve published articles criticising the government.”
Amnesty describes Alam’s arrest as “a gross human rights abuse” – but adds that it is also concerned for the photographer’s safety. “He was unable to walk by himself when he appeared in court in August, and he told friends that he had been beaten up by the authorities,” the human rights organisation explains.
Shahidul Alam, image courtesy Drik
Amnesty is urging supporters to “help free Shahidul and end the crackdown on free speech in Bangladesh” by emailing Bangladesh’s Minister of Home Affairs via https://www.amnesty.org.uk/actions/free-shahidul-alam And now organisations across the UK are supporting this call by exhibiting one image each from an exhibition of Alam’s work recently shown in Dhaka, Bangladesh: A Struggle for Democracy – A Photo Journey by Shahidul Alam
The UK-wide action will take place from 08-28 October, and has been organised by the Northern Centre of Photography (University of Sunderland), Autograph (London), and Drik Picture Agency (Dhaka, Bangladesh). The spaces involved include: Autograph; Side Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne; Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool; Impressions Gallery, Bradford; The Photographers’ Gallery; Redeye: The Photography Network; Panos; New Art Exchange, Nottingham; Photo North Festival, Harrogate; FotoDocument; Nottingham Contemporary; Breeze Creatives, Newcastle upon Tyne; Pop Recs, Sunderland; Swadhinata Trust, London; Royal Photographic Society; Sunderland Culture, as well as universities such as London School of Economics and Political Science; Royal College of Art; Anglia Ruskin University; and University of Sunderland. Beyond the UK, festivals such as the Encontros da Imagem – International Photo Festival, Braga, Portugal are also involved.
Alam’s work is also going on show at the FIX festival in London, which will take place from 28 November-01 December. Organised by Laura Noble, the festival will also include exhibitions by many other photographers, including Chris Steele-Perkins, Chloe Rosser, and Robert Clayton.
Rajshahi wind © Shahidul Alam, courtesy FIX Photo Festival
Alam’s photographs have been published in almost every major media outlet over a more than four-decade career, and his book, My Journey as a Witness, was described as “the most important book ever written by a photographer” by John Morris, the former picture editor of Life magazine. His recent exhibition Crossfire, which was held at Drik Picture Library, was widely acclaimed but closed down by Bangladeshi police, leading to nationwide protests. Alam is a leading critic of the Bangladeshi government, its police and the role its army plays in political life.
Alam is the founder and managing director of Drik Picture Library; he is also the creator of the renowned Patshala South Asian Media Academy, a photography school in Dhaka that has trained hundreds of photographers, from Bangladesh. In addition he is director of Chobi Mela, a photography festival in Asia, and has served on the jury of numerous competitions, including World Press Photo, which he has helped judge four times, and for which he was the first Asian chair.
To add your voice to the campaign demanding Shahidul Alam’s immediate release, email your support for him to Bangladesh authorities via Amnesty International at https://www.amnesty.org.uk/actions/free-shahidul-alam, and use the #freeshahidulalam hashtag on social media https://autograph.org.uk/events/a-struggle-for-democracy
Dhaka Siege Day, Motijheel, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 10 November 1987. The commercial centre of Motijheel is empty as opposition parties unite to oust a dictator. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Noor Hossain, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1990. On the 10th November, 1987, the opposition parties in Bangladesh had tried to stage a siege of Dhaka city in an attempt to oust the autocratic general Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Noor Hossain was a young worker who came out in the streets to join the protest. He had painted on his back “Let democracy be freed” but was killed by police bullets. The mural on the walls of Jahangirnagar University on the outskirts of Dhaka is dedicated to him. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Dance Class, Dhaka University, Bangladesh, 1990. During the peak of the resistance against President Hussain Mohammed Ershad, during a lull in the violence we had gone to staff residences at Dhaka University, where our friend Meghna lived. Meghna was teaching her neighbour’s daughter to dance. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
People rejoicing at Ershad’s fall, Mirpur Road, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1990. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Anwara, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 1991. Orphaned girl by the remains of what was her home in Anwara, the aftermath of a deadly storm. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Bandarban mother and child, Bandarban, Bangladesh, 1991. ‘All quiet on the hill tracts,’ the official version: the tranquillity of a tribal home. The Chittagong Hill Tracts, once the natural habitat of indigenous communities, which despite the signing of a peace treaty, is still effectively a military occupied zone. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Protest against violence, Shahid Minar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1994. 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 is pictured protesting at a rally in Shahid Minar. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Group at Rupnagar, Mirpur. From the series Out of Focus, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1994. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Bangladeshi migrant workers resting in between shifts, Maldives, 1994. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Champa, Naxalite series, Jessore, Bangladesh, 1994. Champa was a leader in the Naxalite movement – a far-left militant party dedicated to the liberation of peasants. She used to dress up as a boy to sneak into party meetings as a child. When the party disbanded in the 1980s members were asked to go back to their communities. But they had burnt their bridges and reintegration proved difficult. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Phalan and Iqbal in Lalmatia, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1995. From Out of Focus. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Hajera and Parliament Building, Cresent Lake, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1996. Hajera (sitting) and her fellow workers share a joke beside Crescent Lake at the House of Parliament grounds in Dhaka. They give out condoms to sex workers in an effort to prevent HIV/AIDS. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
‘Royal’ Wedding, Dhaka International Airport, Bangladesh, 1996. Guests at the wedding of the daughter of a powerful minister, held while the nation still reels from the effects of a devastating flood. The ‘who’s who’ of Bangladesh was present including leading editors and journalists, but the event was omitted from mainstream media coverage. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Jagannath Hall, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1996. Jagannath Hall of Dhaka University is a residencehall for minority students, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and others. The students are generally considered to be pro Awami League, the party in opposition in January 1996 when this photograph was taken. A student who had been picked up in a massive police raid, reaches out for help from the prison van. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Mizan watching TV, Dhanmondi, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1996. “My image of Mizan watching TV at my mother’s house was published in our 1997 Drik calendar. Mizan and my mother received a copy each. From then onwards, Mizan would watch TV inside our living room. It was a small but important victory for me. It may not have changed the world, but it changed my mother and it certainly changed me,” Shahidul Alam. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Nelson Mandela, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2009. Portrait of Nelson Mandela, Nobel Peace Laureate and former president of South Africa. Prior to his 91st birthday he was visited by Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, who was presenting the 7th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik
Paddy Field, from Crossfire. Bangladesh, 17 November 2009. From a photo story on extrajudicial killings by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in Bangladesh. Image © Shahidul Alam, courtesy Shahidul Alam and Drik