Shahidul Alam

  • Name: Shahidul Alam
  • Discipline: Photographer
  • Country: Bangladesh
  • Threat(s): Arrest, imprisonment, torture
  • When: August 2018
  • Current Status: Released on bail

Shahidul Alam is a celebrated photographer and writer who has devoted his life’s work to telling the stories and showing the perspectives of marginalized communities in Bangladesh—from targets of the late dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad to cyclone survivors, Rohingya refugees, and victims of extrajudicial killings. Although Alam’s work has been well received throughout the world, he has not been spared from government repression in his own nation. Throughout his career, he has faced backlash from rulers, politicians, and others who feel that his work has threatened their power. The retaliation culminated in August 2018, when he was arrested while documenting and reporting on the brutal suppression of student protests in Dhaka. After spending 107 days in confinement, during which he was tortured and went on a hunger strike, international outcry led to his eventual release on permanent bail.

From the Artist:

“I’m an artist because art is so powerful. I write because words are so powerful. The point of the exercise is my activism, not the art itself. And if tomorrow words cease to have an effect, I would give it up. If tomorrow photography ceases to have an effect, I would give it up, I would pick up whatever else is needed. I believe a fairer world can and must exist. I am just one of many in a community that is fighting for its rights.”

I grew up in Bangladesh. I’d seen a genocide, I’d seen the War of Liberation, I’d seen what happened to people, so social justice was what I wanted to do, that was my raison d’être. I didn’t know how I would do it. It was that need for social justice that made me look for the tool that I would use.

In 1991, we had a full-page spread in The New York Times, and to my knowledge that was the only picture story of the cyclone in Bangladesh that was not about bodies, not about death. It was about people, their tenacity, their resistance, and their reason to live, if you like. So I thought: “Okay, you can intervene, you can make a difference, you don’t simply need to follow the guidelines. You can be your own storyteller.” We had recently had a change of government, but the new government also acted as a dictator. The opposition promised change and were voted in, but even under the new government, extra judicial killings and disappearances continued. That’s when I started doing my work on extrajudicial killings.

Right from the beginning, I was challenging the power structures. During General Ershad’s time, I had a loaded gun pointed at my head. We were building the Drik Picture Library, our gallery, and the armed civilian cadre of the government stopped it. I was briefly arrested. Ershad was deposed, but the new government began using the military to round up opposition activists prior to a rigged election. Drik was where the protest took place, so soon after that I got stopped in the streets and was stabbed eight times.

Repression escalated further under the present regime. On August 4, 2018, I was walking in the streets and again I got attacked. My equipment got smashed, I got roughed up. But I continued reporting, and that night I took pictures close to the party office, which became a flashpoint. On August 5, I gave an interview to Al Jazeera. I went back out again, I was shooting, I was livestreaming. I came back and was uploading pictures in the flat when the doorbell rang. That night, I was questioned and tortured. I later spent over a hundred days in jail.

But during this time, organizations like ARC and PEN America and so many people across the globe, and people in Bangladesh, felt this was the time to stand up, so they came out onto the streets. Sadly, with notable exceptions, the established cultural players, educators, and intellectuals did not say a thing. But activists did, and my students did, and at the grassroots level many, many people came on board and they performed in the streets and drew graffiti on the walls and protested and had press releases—they did everything that was necessary. And of course by then there was this massive global campaign. We also had the best lawyers in the country representing me, many of them pro bono, and we took the challenge. My family made the very brave decision that they were not going to compromise and make a deal. Rather, they were going to challenge the government, they were going to challenge the legality of this case. My bail was turned down five times, and on the sixth attempt I was finally given bail. The case still hangs over me, and I potentially face 14 years in prison if convicted. But now we are actually challenging the law itself, and that has opened the door to many other people who feel they, too, can challenge the law.