Shahidul Alam talks about Bangladesh, his ideals, and what led him to take up photography. This interview was taken on April 18, 2018
As founder of Drik, Chobi Mela, and Pathshala, Shahidul Alam has made a huge contribution to photography and culture in Bangladesh. The words in the title are how he answered my final question: “What keeps you going?”
Even before this weekend’s news, it was a poignant point at which to stop recording. The edited extracts presented here are from a conversation while he was in London presenting an exhibition at the Commonwealth Peoples Summit.
Friendly and seemingly ever-willing to chat, Shahidul Alam was in full multi-tasking mode when I glimpsed him late one afternoon in a corner of the Science Museum in South Kensington.
Camera in hand, he was filling in a “free” hour live streaming his chat with the curator of an exhibition of photographs from the first 100 years of Indian photography.
The next morning, he was due to fly to the US, having already fitted in a presentation on human rights to the UN in Geneva and the World Press Photo awards ceremony in Amsterdam during his week in London.
Despite still having another meeting, he patiently sat down to make time for a few words.
What is your involvement with the Commonwealth Peoples Summit?
It’s the second time I’ve been involved, the first was two years ago in Malta showing my work, Kalpona’s Warriors. The sad thing is because of the extremely high security, the public cannot see the work. Obviously, the concept of the Commonwealth itself is problematic to say the least. There was a Pakistani woman there who made an interesting statement: “The thing that holds us together is that we were all robbed.”
As a founder of institutions, who are you accountable to?
The one entity one needs to be answerable to is your conscience, more than anything else.
As a citizen I am answerable. Yes, it is a nation with huge problems politically, economically, and environmentally. It is also a nation with huge possibilities. A nation with a richness of cultured traditions, its art is phenomenal in many cases. And that is why I do what I do.
How did you get interested in photography?
I think the fact that I was curious had something to do with it. I found the characteristics of the medium very seductive. I didn’t have a camera. But while I was doing my PhD, there was guy called Freddy Laker who introduced Laker Airways. This was the first budget airline. It was £90 on the Skytrain.
So I was about to get on the Skytrain and a friend of mine says America is a cheap place to buy cameras and asks me to get one.
I turn up in New York, I buy a camera. A Nikon FM, a tripod and some lenses, a flashgun. I have my sleeping bag, I have my tent … I hitchhike around the US and Canada, taking some pictures while I’m doing it.
I make it back to London. My friend says he doesn’t have the money to pay for the camera, so I get stuck with it.
That was the accidental part that led me to owning a camera.
How did your activism develop?
I was influenced by my involvement with the Socialist Workers Party at college in the UK. What happened essentially was -- I’m from a middle-class home -- the usual sort of thing, you get pushed into a respectable profession … I moved sufficiently far away to Life Sciences which I had a personal interest in. Then, as I was doing my PhD, I thought: “Does my country really need another research chemist?”
Are you making plans for the 50th anniversary of independence?
In 1993, when we had World Press Photo, I was doing research. There was a very famous photograph of the bayonetting in Paltan, which was Rashid Talukdar’s photograph. We were able to convince Rashid bhai that it is part of our history which needs to be said.
While there were Bangladeshis who photographed images in 1971, we didn’t have a chance to see it. We looked at Western photographers because that was in the mainstream. Bangladeshi photographers never had that opportunity. So I started doing research and pretty much went all across the globe trying to collect material.
Having set up Drik as a platform for local story-tellers for the 25th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence, we decided to produce a calendar of images. And that’s when we systematically began collecting Bangladeshi work, and now we have what is easily the finest collection of photographic images of 1971. One of the things I’ve been trying to do is recreate is the Concert for Bangladesh in Bangladesh.
Apart from anything else, we owe it to Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, and all the others. We got an endorsement via Ravi Shankar, but now it’s very complicated because of copyright, and so convoluted -- of course he’s passed away so I don’t think this can ever be pulled off.
I think we owe it to the world and those artists to acknowledge our gratitude for what they did, and also because it’s a very important part of history.
What do you think of the Liberation War Museum?
I think the fact there is a museum is important. That things are being collected is important. But I don’t really know what their curatorial policy is. One of the things that concerns me is that historians sometimes have a problematic role. There is a saying that goes: “God cannot change the past but historians can.”
What are your ideals?
The only politics of the day is accumulation. We have AL, BNP, Jatiya Party, Jamaat -- when you look at, say, the four major parties, they all appear to be right-wing.
Several times I’ve looked at my role within my nation. And certainly, this is my country, warts and all, but this is the only place I feel I belong. I see myself as a global citizen but my identity is Bangladeshi. And I think the onus is on me as my nation has given me a lot. I’m a hugely privileged person that way. All of us are privileged in a country like mine by the simple fact that I do not have to think, will I have food in my stomach tomorrow. This nation that has given me that privilege -- I owe this nation immensely.
What keeps you going?
What keeps me going is that when I teach, when I work with the youth, despite all the things that are wrong in my country, I see young people who still believe. I see young people who still have anger, I see young people who still have hope. And while that is there I think we have a nation in the making.
Niaz Alam is a member of the Editorial Board of the Dhaka Tribune. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical business issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want.