PopTech 2011 Interview: Shahidul Alam on photography for change

Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam walked on stage on Thursday wearing a marigold-colored salwar kameez, a camera over his left shoulder, and a beltpack slung around his hips. There was no mistaking his calling. The Bangladeshi photographer, activist and social entrepreneur has almost single-handedly rebalanced the world of photojournalism, long dominated by Western photographers and their worldview. He has shifted its lens eastward and southward by training legions of photographers in his homeland, creating an award-winning photo agency to sell their work and founding a prestigious international photography festival to showcase their talent. And this fall, he published a book, My Journey as a Witness, telling the story of Bangladeshi photography as an instrument of social justice. He serves as an ambassador of this movement, in the words of PopTech’s executive director, Andrew Zolli, “travelling the world leaving new cultures of art makers in his wake.” We sat down with Alam backstage in Camden, Maine.

PopTech: You founded Drik, a photo agency, and the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography. Why did you feel it was important for Bangladeshi photographers, as well as their peers, to have these outlets for their work?
Shahidul Alam: Firstly, it was a question of addressing this very distorted perception people have of what I call the “majority world” countries. Our poverty is a reality, but that is not the only identity that we have. Secondly, I wanted to challenge a very unidirectional form of storytelling that has -- to a large extent -- been propagated by the West. The richness and diversity of human life gets lost in a very agenda-led information distribution system. So that was the beginning.

We also wanted to celebrate our own culture. It’s not that I am against white, Western photographers producing work in Bangladesh -- I think our ideas need to be challenged just as much. It’s the monopoly of dissemination that I was against. So we wanted to create a space for diversity -- for both Western work and our own work. That’s where the Chobi Mela festival came in -- to facilitate that cultural infusion.

Yesterday morning, in your presentation at PopTech, you showed a few examples of mobile photography exhibits -- on rickshaws and tuk tuks -- going places where that kind of exhibit has never been before. You called it “Taking the Gallery to the People.” Why was it important to you to get photographs out of galleries and out of the city?
In some ways, I am part of the problem I’ve been describing. I’m a middle-class male photographer. If I were in a slum, photographing a woman who probably doesn’t have a door to slam in my face in the first place, the power relationship between the two of us would not be very different than the power relationship between her and a Western photographer. We are perpetuating a situation in which the disenfranchised do not have the opportunity to tell their stories. To address this, we started doing two things: One was training women photographers; the other thing was teaching working-class children photography. I’ve very happy that today our agency has a large number of women and people who have come from a middle-class background. And they have a very different story to tell.

What kind of challenges do photojournalists in Bangladesh face today, and have they changed since you started out?
There are differences in terms of degree, but in principle they’re still the same. Let me give you an example. Several years ago there was an exhibit in London about the Millennium Development Goals, put together by Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children -- several major NGOs. All the work was produced by white, European photographers. So I asked one of the organizers why this was the case, and he replied to me that the curator had mentioned to him that “they” -- meaning us -- “did not have ‘the eye.’” A statement like that about women, people of color, people with handicaps of any form would be completely unacceptable in this day and age, yet here was a curator dismissing an entire group of cultural producers from what I call “the majority world”. In response, we collected work by majority world photographers, and they produced a calendar called “Having the Eye.”

Why did you put together your new book, My Journey As A Witness?
I thought it was important to document the phenomenal shift -- the marvelous revolution that had taken place in Bangladesh. The book is also challenging in a very tactile way the fact that, still today, for many news organizations, the only answer is to send out a photographer to countries like Bangladesh.

Does the book itself chronicle your career?
It chronicles the movement -- and my career as part of that. But it talks much more about political and social environment in which we’ve evolved. It’s not simply about photography, but about the geopolitical space we live in.

Do you think digital photography and the access to digital photography is democratizing the kind of storytelling you’ve been doing all your life?
I think the fact that so many people have digital tools certainly will change the predatory nature of media. But that’s only a small part of it. If I am photographing a farmer in a field in Bangladesh for, let’s say, the New York Times, the person who’s probably most knowledgeable about the situation is the farmer. Through my proximity, I know a little bit less. The person who probably knows the least is the editor at the New York Times. He or she is the most powerful person in the chain and the farmer probably has no say in how that story is told. So I think that the publishing process needs to be subverted, and until that is done, I don’t think simply producing more imagery will change things.

Image: Kris Krug for PopTech

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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