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Matinee: Shahidul Alam Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

18 August 2018

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 163rd in our series of Saturday matinees today: Shahidul Alam on the Revolutionary Power of Photography.

Shahidul Alam was tortured and imprisoned several days ago after "giving an interview to Al Jazeera and posting a series of live videos on Facebook that criticized the government's violent response to two weeks of student-led protests that began over road safety," as James Estrin reported in his piece for Lens yesterday. His bail hearing won't be held until Sept. 11.

His crime was to criticize the Bangladesh government online, an act prohibited by Section 57 of Bangladesh's Information Communications Technology Act.

As Estrin reports, human rights organizations have come rushing to Alam's defense. Nothing is sacred to despots but Alam has long been held in high regard by both his peers and his countrymen.

In this video from 2012, Alam begins by introducing himself and telling his own story. That's exactly who should do the telling, he has always felt.

He paints a different picture of his country and culture than what we in the west are used to seeing. Because he is there.

The difference is seeing Bangladesh through the eyes of a Bangladesh photographer rather than a western one sent to cover a breaking story for a few days. And, by extension, to give the local photographer control of the story rather than cede it to an editor in New York unfamiliar with the local angles.

Sounds rather less than revolutionary, doesn't it? Who knows the story better than those who are living it?

The revolutionary part is photography as the storytelling medium. It needs no words to be make its point. And, in the era of the smartphone, it is accessible to all.

Alam, who earned a doctorate in chemistry before becoming a photography, is an articulate spokesman for the value of local photojournalism. The language of photography in the hands of local storytellers, he notes, has interested people in their own history in a way they had not previously been engaged.

And that scared some people. They would not exhibit his work.

So he built his own gallery. Drik Gallery opened in August 1993 with the first exhibition by the World Press Photo in Bangladesh. The gallery is now the largest private gallery in Bangladesh. Its mission statement reflects Alam's approach to photography:

Drik believes in the power of culture and promotes cultural diversity with an emphasis on visual medium. Its emphasis on photography relies on the power of the medium to validate history and its ability to create a powerful emotional response, thereby influencing public opinion. Drik's broader practice, utilizing the entire gamut of visual culture, is inclusive, but positively promotes majority world practitioners. There is a commitment to participatory production and the involvement of women, youth and marginalized communities.

And to accomplish that last goal, Alam started a school for photography, teaching students how to gather the news and tell it in stills and video. There is even a rural program teaching students how to report their stories using their ubiquitous iPhones.

Two thirds of the way through the video, a slide show of Alam's work is presented. It's powerful stuff.

Alam calls this a silent revolution in a small country, in "a world that is not known about."

But with his incarceration this month, the spotlight is on Bangladesh. And, one hopes, the truth, which was all his camera ever caught, will set him free.

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