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The man who has transformed the face of photography in Bangladesh. About his series Migrant Soul.By Fariha Karim | Apr 2009
"What's Shahidul like?" one of the other foreign correspondents asked. We were in Dhaka's Nordic Club, an ex-pat affair in the exclusive part of town.
I was lost for words. What could I say about this man, my uncle, the renowned photojournalist who had set up Drik, Bangladesh's largest photo agency, the first Asian chair of the World Press Photo contest judging panel, the pioneer of e-mail to the country, the man behind Chobi Mela, Asia's biggest photo festival, the founder of Drik picture agency, Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, Majority World agency, and the only one of my relatives who took us to theatres and the cinema as a child instead of asking me if I was doing well at school?
I replied by saying the only thing I could think of. "He's very busy."
Shahidul Alam has transformed the face of photography in Bangladesh. From being a profession taken by a handful of people, it now jostles with established nations such as France, the US and the UK in global competitions. A fierce critic of establishment practice, his photographs portray a rare humanity. When asked if he is carrying any sharp objects before boarding a plane, he replies 'only my tongue' before turning his lens and shooting the gentlest of portraits.
We're talking about his work on migration, entitled Migrant Soul. An exploration of the path of migrant Bangladeshi labourers through the UK, Singapore, Dubai, India, Malaysia, Nepal and the Maldives, it is a story of aspiration and expectation, love and loss, within the dynamics of economic reality and colonial history.
He chose the subject to challenge European stereotypes regarding migration. But it also arose from seeing how his own middle-class upbringing and 'family values' perpetuated inequalities faced by migrant labourers, after he saw a family photograph of 21 cousins in which he was the only one still in Bangladesh.
"All these were people who were privileged and had received the best my country had to offer, yet chose to serve countries that had invested nothing in their upbringing. Last year, migrant workers in Bangladesh remitted $6.7 billion. But these are the people who are treated like trash and the ones who have taken the most are respected."
Images range from a portrait of a young child amidst her sugarcane home to a pair of battered boots, a tender moment between a couple about to be separated by thousands of miles to a barbed wire fence.
In one, three workers on a break in front of the Petronas Tower, Kuala Lumpur, loom in prime importance in the foreground while the skyscraper is shrunk in the background. A deliberate choice to locate the workers at the centre, I ask?
"Imagery is often done subconsciously," he says. "Your politics drives your imagery. Art is a very powerful tool, a weapon of change. For me, it was more important to recognise them as important individuals within that space, but also to point out the distances between them and the citadels they built. These workers who had built that tower would probably never shop in those fancy boutiques."
If imagery is driven by politics, what is his politics? "Class," he says, "and social differences generally. The work I've taken on has related to that - ship breaking, the work I've done on sexual minorities, HIV. What we need to do is not reduce people to stereotypes, but recognise them for what they are, as rich human beings with lives that are eventful and passionate and complex."
His introduction to the photojournalism he now does began on the streets. For his own personal project, he had been photographing the popular movement against dictator General Ershad from 1986 until he was ousted in 1990. Before that, he did bread-and-butter work in fashion, corporate and advertising photography. Afterwards, he submitted his pictures and picked up a coveted Mother Jones award, the first Asian to do so. It was also how he met his partner of 21 years, Rahnuma Ahmed, a writer and anthropologist also involved in the movement, while showing his pictures to a mutual friend.
I ask him to describe his activism. I expect him to talk about Drik, set up to challenge Western dominance in representations of Bangladesh, or the human rights portal, Banglarights.com. Or Majorityworld.com, the world's first agency for indigenous photographers from the global South.
Instead, he refers to a boy named Mizan who used to work in his mother's home. He describes how he used to watch TV from the verandah, peering through the door, until he took a photograph, printed it in the calendar and gave a copy to him and his mother. "After that day, Mizan sat inside and watched television," he continues. "It's a small thing, but it mattered. That I could influence things in my own home was significant."
With Shahidul, you get the impression it's the everyday, minute stories that are the seeds which blossom into these major institutions. A small act becomes a political cause, realised through a new venture or organisation. He lives as he believes - riding a bicycle instead of driving is a political choice, or refusing to wear anything but sandals, even at formal occasions. For his politics, he has also faced violence. When Drik gave a platform to the movement against military oppression under Khaleda Zia's premiership in February 1996, he was attacked and injured by an armed gang as he returned from visiting his dying father in hospital.
There's a story often recalled about when he photographed a group of children during the floods of 1988. As he released the shutter, he realised the boy most keen to be photographed was blind.
Why was that so important? "It was a self realisation. I didn't ask the boy his name. That haunts me. That I'm given as much importance as I am because I'm a journalist is something I treasure and hope I'll never betray. I can be a voice for the voiceless. That boy reminded me of the power of my position."
It must be some sacrifice to have so much artistic instinct yet spend so much time on organisational work. Where does he see himself in 20 years time?
"I would like to be able to engage with the world on a much more philosophical level, but that can only happen when the fire has been put out."
Freelance writer and photographer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and London, UK.
Migrant labourers from Bangladesh