Spotlight | Art

Photography meets activism: Shahidul Alam’s New York exhibition

‘Dhaka Siege Day’, 1987.

‘Dhaka Siege Day’, 1987.   | Photo Credit: Shahidul Alam/ Drik/ Majority World

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In Alam’s first exhibition in a U.S. museum, over 40 photographs highlight his purpose to reveal the truth

If there is any question about the social impact of photography, there’s no better example than Shahidul Alam’s three-decade oeuvre and dedication to his native Bangladesh. The acclaimed activist-photographer and Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year found his calling perchance when a camera purchased for a friend never found its way to its rightful owner — so it became a gadget he experimented with. Spurred by the power of the camera, Alam swapped careers after obtaining a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of London. He returned to Dhaka in 1984, where his campaign against the autocratic regime of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad began.

In his first exhibition in a U.S. museum, over 40 photographs highlight his purpose to reveal the truth. ‘Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power’ at New York’s Rubin Museum has works from Alam’s ‘A Struggle for Democracy’ series, in which ordinary people are turned into heroes. Black-and-white images of protest against General Ershad’s martial rule like ‘Dhaka Siege Day’, 1987, and ‘Rejoicing at Ershad’s Fall’, Dhaka, 1990, reveal the mood of the capital city at a crucial moment in history. Here Alam’s brilliant moulding of light is critical to his narrative. In the former image, darkened figures loitering in a desolate commercial centre during the uprising capture the city’s fitful mood. Their stark silhouettes on a sunny day heighten the collective significance of their unheard voices. Alam reverses this deft mechanism of sharp contrasts in the latter image by illuminating a gleeful truckload of young men celebrating after Ershad’s downfall. Seen against a dark background, these wonderfully lit people appear to be uplifted by the halo of light.

Decisive moments

The decisive moments that Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to abound in Alam’s compositions. Take ‘Smriti Azad at Protest at Shaheed Minar’, 1994. The young woman’s fervour and passion in a crowd of agitators is palpable. With just the right click, Alam catches her arm lifted like a graceful ballet dancer’s and her head and flowing ponytail tilted back as she shouts. Part investigator, part bard, Alam straddles art and activism in equal measure. From photographs like ‘Bishwa Ijtema’, 1988, one becomes acutely aware of his edict that the photographer is the “authenticator of the image” and “the primary witness”. Taken during the largest annual gathering of Muslims in Bangladesh, the hazy light in the background barely camouflages thousands of devotees gathered in the distance. In the foreground, bands of men huddled around steaming pots on makeshift fires as they ready for the pilgrimage hint at Alam’s concern that Bangladesh had slipped from a country founded on secular principles to one pushed by Ershad to embrace Islamic strictures.

The plight of the “majority world” — a term coined by Alam to reflect the global demographics of people of colour — informs much of his practice. The devastating effect of floods in the low-lying regions of Bangladesh is captured in many of his photographs. In ‘Woman Wading in Flood’, 1988, and ‘Woman Cooking on Rooftop’, 1988, the woman’s misery is emphasised by the drama of darkness and theatrical lighting. Like a movie still, light shines on the water as a woman whose back is to the camera wades through the knee-deep water. Several others are perched in boats and on bicycles. The scene is reminiscent of a dreamscape. Poetic despondence permeates the photograph of the woman cooking on the roof of her hut. Her skeletal body seems to be covered with the same rags that hang off the shacks below her, while ominous dark clouds hover threateningly above. These photographs, like many others, in the series are majestic, but still compel us to focus on what they intend.

Intimate portraits

Although Alam’s colour photographs from the ‘Brahmaputra Diary’ series are more picturesque, it is his eye for composing honest, unpretentious portraits of his subjects that unites the images. Life on the delta plains of the Ganga (Padma), Brahmaputra (Jamuna), and Meghna rivers is captured through intimate photographs of villagers migrating on a boat with a bicycle and petrol cans tethered to the hull, a pensive family huddled together on a canoe, and colourful fishing boats floating on a river. Yet in all the works the unpredictable sky looms above, conspiring to wreck havoc.

Alam’s fierce devotion to empowering his countrymen by telling their stories is single-minded, be it by memorialising the belongings of Kalpana Chakma, the feminist activist who disappeared; or by creating alternative spaces for social justice interventions like the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and the Drik Picture Library. In August 2018, Alam was jailed for speaking out against his government’s repressive practices. After his release, he continues to use photography to advocate for equality and freedom of speech.

The New York-based writer reviews exhibitions based on Asia, Africa, and West Asia.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 2:19:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/photography-meets-activism-shahidul-alams-new-york-exhibition/article30296338.ece

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