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Eye witness

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

When media students in Nepal are asked what first comes to their mind about Bangladesh, most reply “poverty”, “floods”  or “hartals”. Very few in Nepal know that Bangladesh has a higher per capital income, it grows enough food to feed itself, it is the world’s major exporter of medicines, or that it has Shahidul Alam of Drik Picture Gallery.

Shahidul Alam is Bangladesh’s best-known photographer, and someone who has worked tirelessly to change the international image not only of his native country, but also of what he calls the Majority World. His photographs of Bangladesh and the world have made him and international conscience-keeper, his images exposing injustice and hypocrisy, but also providing tantalising hope for a better tomorrow.

Nepal’s photojournalists have known Shahidul through the many workshops he has conducted in Kathmandu, and some have returned after training at his Pathshala photography school in Dhaka to be accomplished photographers themselves. His latest photo book reaches out to a wider international public with his life’s work and philosophy. And it is fitting that the legendary Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado and India’s Raghu Rai have written tributes to their colleague. ‘We both come from a tradition of concerned political photojournalism in the truest sense of the term,’ writes Salgado, ‘a photojournalism whose purpose is to denounce injustice.’

But unlike many who carry the world’s burden with a missionary zeal, Shahidul’s personality and photography is not self-important or arrogant. Both in person and in his pictures, he comes across foremost as an artist who thinks before pointing his lens, there is a purpose to his pictures where the photographer slips into the background and lets the protagonist or the image tell its own story. For Shahidul it is not enough that he is a good photographer, he wants others to be as good as him: hence his establishment of Drik, Pathshala, the Chobi Mela biennial of photography in Dhaka and now the Majority World photo agency in London.

The book provides an in-depth look at Shahidul’s main passions: documenting injustice, exposing environmental degradation, and global inequality.

Many of his works will relate to Nepalis and possibly inspire photographers here, especially the stunning images from his adventurous journey following the Brahmaputra from its source in Tibet till the Bay of Bengal, the series on Bangladeshi migrant workers, Bangladesh’s Naxalites, and Crossfire, his latest expose of summary executions by the dreaded Rapid Action Bureau. Shahidul has been eye witness to the Sri Lankan tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake, cyclones, tidal waves and floods but everywhere the images are not of despair, but of survival and the human spirit overcoming adversity. The pictures come with explanations, ruminations and revelations in the accompanying text.

Shahidul is scathing about photographers and Western donor agencies who portray a self-perpetuating image of ‘Third World’ hopelessness and victimhood. Perhaps the reason Nepali students have a distorted image of a neighbouring country is because they are fed only negative ones by Western filters. This book is an eye-opener, it will quite literally change your point of view on the world.

Notes Shahidul: “A camera may be used with extreme sensitivity or not at all. That the camera never lies is the biggest lie of all.”

Shahidul Alam
My Journey as a witness
Skira Editore, Italy
Bengal Foundation, Dhaka
Hardcover  224 pages
ISBN: 978-88-572-0966-1

Watch video of Shahidul Alam

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2 Responses to “Eye witness”

  1. rupa joshi on Says:

    this “one-sided” story has been talked about wonderfully by this ted talker chimamanda…

  2. rupa joshi on Says:

    listen to chimamanda’s ted talk about how people build images of things, places, people by hearing the “single story”

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