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Life After Jail for Shahidul Alam

Words:

Edd Norval

Photos:

Shahidul Alam
November 6, 2019

Many claim they're willing to fight for their beliefs, even going so far as to claim that being locked up wouldn't stop their crusade. Most of these people are lying. There are few amongst us committed enough to anything to do this. One that would is Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam.

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There are some parts of the world that take their freedom for granted, whilst still being adamant that it is being unfairly encroached upon. The United States and United Kingdom are quick to condemn their governments as being quasi-fascistic states, places where certain voices are completely disregarded in the media - and other public spheres. Although not entirely false notions, the voices making these concerns often receive disproportionate airtime to the actual complaint. Relative to the majority of the world, people in those places have it good.


We must be wary not to be sucked into this swirling abyss of opinions inflamed by faceless avatars online and extreme personalities whose voices hold little sway outside of their niche groups. Instead, to better understand how good we have it, or how others don't, seeking out dissenting voices - that's true dissent, where those doing so are genuinely at risk - gives us an insight into other cultures beyond bland mainstream media depictions, helping us tune our worldview into something far more significant.


In Bangladesh, late last year, plainclothes policemen disabled the CCTV of Alam's apartment block, cutting the lights and lining the corridor and stairwell as he was dragged, kicking and screaming, from his home in Dhaka, the country's capital city with a population of almost 9 million people. His was a voice that obviously stood out above the din of screeching cars and general street life.

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What must a man say to provoke such a brutal reaction? For Alam, it was more about what he showed. The activist and photojournalist used his street smarts and photography nous to hold a mirror up to a society he felt was broken, one that he felt merely living in should raise questions. These are questions he wanted answers to.


After nearly four months in prison and allegedly suffering torture at the hands of the police, he was released towards the end of last year and in a new retrospective, has had his story up until now told in the way that suits his life best - through the medium of photography in New York's Rubin Museum of Art.


As one might expect, the exhibition is politically charged, juxtaposing his harshly beautiful images - which manage to capture almost peaceful and serene snapshots of life in turmoil - with architectural models that examine his own life during his spell in prison, detailing the everyday life of the photographer with no camera.

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In a country with a reputation for institutional human rights abuses, Alam's photographs questioned the conditions of his fellow countrymen and the government's role in shaping this sociopolitical landscape. Having refused to learn from history, and reacting to his artistic works in a kneejerk manner, his arrest made a sort of martyr of the man, giving a proven and significant face to the country's issues. It was no longer a self-contained set of problems, but ones that gained international recognition.


Alam's arrest came shortly after he faced backlash targeted at comments he made in an Al Jazeera interview - deemed as 'provocative' and seen to insult the country's non-elected government. The government were able to charge him with making public communication that "tends to deprave or corrupt" under Section 57 of Bangladesh's Information Communications Technology Act - a law that has allowed the government to censor other journalists and activists, regardless of what it is they're actually saying.


In a sort of exorcism, giving the photographer room to stretch his legs and free his mind after the imprisonment, the exhibition which runs from Nov 8 to May 4 2020 will collect his four-decade long body-of-work in a curated re-telling of both his own growth as a photographer alongside the changes, and lack thereof, that Bangladesh as a whole has undergone since his journalistic work began.

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