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Interview

Truth to Power: Shahidul Alam & Hari Kunzru in Conversation

On November 7, 2019, ARC co-hosted a private opening of Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power before the exhibition opened to the public at the Rubin Museum of Art. The exhibition presents the first comprehensive U.S. museum survey of Shahidul Alam, renowned Bangladeshi photographer, writer, activist, and institution-builder and Time magazine Person of the Year in 2018. At this intimate event, Shahidul Alam was joined onstage and in conversation with Hari Kunzru, journalist and author of White Tears.

This event was presented with the Rubin Museum and made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Photograph by Asya Gorovits, courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

HARI: I think we should begin with your early work that came about during the period of military government in the 1980s. What about that experience formed you as a photojournalist?

SHAHIDUL: It was the other way around. I decided to become a photographer based on my need for social justice. I thought, well, does Bangladesh need yet another research guest? I thought that with photography I could perhaps achieve a lot more, so I tried it out. While I was in London, I joined a studio taking pictures of kids, stopping people in the streets. That’s what I did, and it was good, but I knew that what I wanted to do was very different. The problem was, when I got to Bangladesh, the type of photography I wanted to do was not something I was known for. I had left Bangladesh in 1972 and it was a free country. We fought for its freedom. I came back and it was under military rule. That began as a personal project then and continues to be one today.

HARI: I found out just before we came on that you set up the first email network in Bangladesh. Why would you do that? 

SHAHIDUL: I was showing work in Belfast and staying with friends in Yuri. They had a five year old daughter called Carina. Usually when she sees me she jumps into my arms and we tell each other stories, but that day she’s just standing there. So I say, “What’s the matter, Carina?” She says, “You’ve got money?” I said, “Yes, I do.” And she replies, “But you’re from Bangladesh!” So that thought got me into thinking - what is this space of [the] cultural, social, political, within which a five year old grows up where she’s incapable of seeing a Bangladeshi as anything other than an icon of poverty? It also had to do with this wonderful African expression, which goes something like: “Until the lions find their storytellers, stories about hunters will always glorify the hunter.” So I thought, maybe I need to do something so the lions find their storytellers. We had to set up where the lions were, where the photographers were. So we set it up in Bangladesh, but then you’re far away from the marketplace, so how do you stay engaged? We made Bangladesh’s first email network. 

HARI: You use this phrase, “majority world.” Talk to us about why horizontal connections are necessary between countries.

SHAHIDUL: Well, the term that was being used at the time, and [which] is still being used today, is “third world.” I don’t want to be third of anything. I want to remind the people who call themselves the “first world,” that we happen to be the majority of humankind. I want to remind this minority world that a) we are the majority and b) when you talk of democracy and freedom, it’s bullshit you don’t actually believe. While I’m very appreciative of the huge amount of international support that we’ve received, I’m also very critical of the role the northern countries have played to a larger extent, and [that] they continue to play. The citizens of these countries need to start to ask their government[s] to be accountable. Your tax dollars go to bombing people across the globe. Your tax dollars go into suppressing people like us, your tax dollars and the surveillance equipment that you sell are the things that keep us repressed. 

Shahidul Alam discussing work with visitors at his exhibition. Photograph by Asya Gorovits, courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

HARI: Bangladeshis are all over the world and you have made a point of trying to express that point. Can you say something about how you’ve been trying to present the migration?

SHAHIDUL: I was on a cheap airplane flight from Dhaka and sitting next to me was this young man. I started to talk to him. He was going to Tripoli and he was getting $118 a month, not a huge amount of money, but he had dreams. He wanted to send back the money for his sister to get married, for his brother to perhaps buy a little shop, for his dad to buy a plot of land. He wanted to die differently from the way he was born. That’s an aspiration we all have. We try and climb up the social ladder. We call it initiative when our children do it, but when the disenfranchised have the same dreams, suddenly they’re entitled to something that might be questioned. My need was to remind ourselves that we are human beings. 

HARI: Speak to us a little bit about the diversity within Bangladesh? One body of work upstairs is about an activist called Kalpana Chakma, who vanished. Those are very moving photographs to me, but maybe you could explain to us the context of what she came from?

SHAHIDUL: When you consider the birth of Bangladesh - when in February 1952 the Pakistanis wanted to have Urdu as our state language, we rebelled. People came out on the streets and we were shot by the police. People gave their lives for our right to speak our language. That’s how we became independent. Yet, within our own country we deprive other people the right to speak theirs. The word “indigenous” is banned in our constitution. Kalpana was fighting for her people. She was picked up by the military on the 12th of June, 1996. What I decided I would do is interrogate the silent witnesses, the people that might’ve watched her on that last walk. So I picked up objects - bark of a tree, little things that I might’ve found along the way and I subjected them to a forensic analysis, what I believed a proper investigation might’ve done. But the idea was really to ask these silent witnesses because the real witnesses weren’t being heard. Maybe the silent witnesses will tell us what they actually saw. The next year I did a body of work where I looked at her personal belongings and tried again to humanize this person.

A visitor looks  at Shahidul Alam's work on Kalpana Chakma. Photograph by Asya Gorovits, courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

HARI: Could you speak a little bit about the circumstances of your arrest and how you passed your time during those 101 days of imprisonment? I understand you managed to create during that time.

SHAHIDUL: On the 29th of July these two young students were mowed down by a bus, and, of course, the students protested. I’m a journalist. I’m a photographer, so I’m taking pictures. I’m posting live on Facebook. I got beaten up. My equipment got smashed. I continued reporting. The doorbell rings, I go open the door, and these 25-30 people come in. I live in Bangladesh - I know what the scene is. I was blindfolded, I was handcuffed, I was taken away, I was tortured, and I was told that the worst was going to happen: that my family was going to be the next target. The following morning they offered a deal. Alt control delete. You go home, we forget everything, nothing on the record, we’re friends, you stay quiet. Interestingly, we had actually been talking about this earlier. There’s a wall in our flat where there are pictures of friends who’ve disappeared, who’ve been crossfired and, sadly, every few days, there’s another picture that goes up on that wall.

HARI: How did you say no to that offer? 

SHAHIDUL: It is a terrifying situation. I think a lot of attention is on me, but in fact I am part of a much bigger collective, which includes my family, my students, my colleagues, and all the activists around and I knew I was not making a decision for myself. I was making a decision for us collectively and for me to sell out, I would be selling out that entire community. At the end of the day, while fear is contagious, so is courage, and I’m beginning to understand that.

HARI: So you politely turned them down and they imprisoned you? How did you pass your days?

SHAHIDUL: What happened in jail was, for me, very interesting. Not that I’d recommend going to jail - but I was treated very very well by my fellow prisoners. I was itching for this camera. We said, "Let us have brushes and paint," and they let us do that. So they started painting murals and all along the interior of the jail are these giant murals, some of them 32 feet wide. It’s like the interior of a museum. They came up to me and said, "We want one of your photographs." I’m not going to tell you how we got it in, but we managed to get one of my pictures inside. For me to be on there, on the jail, that’s the ultimate. Suddenly all of you and across the globe, PEN and everyone else made hell. Eventually, they had to release me. I am the citizen of an independent nation. My constitution gives me rights. I will exercise those rights continuously, and it’s their problem if they can’t deal with it. I think that is the space we need to create.

Edited for brevity and clarity by Anna Schultz and Olivia Salama, December 2019.

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