8-14 November 2013 #680

Eye witness

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-capita 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 other parts of the world have made him an 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, My Journey as a Witness, 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 are 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.

Shahidul Alam

My Journey as a Witness

Skira Editore, Italy

Bengal Foundation, Dhaka


Hardcover  224 pages

ISBN: 978-88-572-0966-1

The book provides an in-depth look at Shahidul’s main passions: documenting injustice, exposing environmental degradation, and bringing to light 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 Battalion. 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 rely on a distorted 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.’

Kunda Dixit

Watch video of Shahidul Alama