Shahidul Alam’s indelible images of immigration and floods

Shahidul Alam, Airport Goodbye, Dhaka Airport, Bangladesh, 1996. Photo courtesy of Rubin Museum of Art.

NEW YORK – The first comprehensive US museum survey of Shahidul Alam, the renowned Bangladeshi photographer and activist, who was a Time magazine Person of the Year in 2018, ‘Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power’, is exhibited at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, through May 4, 2010.

Over 40 images and ephemera on display show the breadth of Alam’s practice and impact throughout his four-decade career. The exhibition includes portraits, landscapes, and scenes of daily life, strife, and resistance in the “majority world”—a phrase Alam has used since the 1990s to reframe the notion of the “third world” or “global south.”

The term also confronts the ways in which Western media continues to define how the majority of the world’s population – especially Bangladesh – is portrayed in relation to poverty and disaster.

While shining an unflinching light on major Bangladeshi tragedies and struggles, Alam’s images reveal a country and cultures often misunderstood and misrepresented. In addition to his powerful photographs, Alam has made an impact in Bangladesh, across South Asia, and even globally as the conceptual architect of transformative institutions, including Drik Picture Library, Drik Gallery, Pathshala South Asia Media Institute, Chobi Mela Photography Festival, and Majority World Photos.

Shahidul Alam, Smriti Azad at Protest at Shaheed Minar, Shaheed Minar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1994. Photo courtesy of Rubin Museum of Art.

The exhibition highlights Alam’s important bodies of work, including ‘A Struggle for Democracy’, his earliest series as a professional photojournalist, which highlights Bangladesh’s political struggles against an autocratic leader in the 1980s, General Hussain Muhammad Ershad.

There are also photographs from the ‘Brahmaputra Diary’ series, which explores life across three regions (India, the Tibetan Plateau in China, and Bangladesh) and religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam) along the length of the Brahmaputra River; and a sculptural installation of portraits on straw mats from ‘Kalpana’s Warriors’, which attempts to break the silence on the disappearance of Bangladeshi feminist activist Kalpana Chakma.

The exhibition also features new work, including a 3D model of the prison where in 2018 Alam spent more than 100 days behind bars for giving an interview on the student protests for road safety in Bangladesh to Doha-based television channel Al Jazeera.

“I heard of the possibility to show my work at the Rubin through three layers of bars with noise levels of over 100 decibels. I was in jail, but the choice was clear: this was an opportunity not to be missed,” Alam said. He was present at the Rubin Museum last week for the opening of the exhibition.

“Photographic imagery in South Asia has become an effective means for the underrepresented to claim voice and political presence. Alam is masterful at using images to tell stories and shine a light on injustices and inequities,” said Beth Citron, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Rubin and organizer of the exhibition. “In a time when free speech and expression is challenged in Bangladesh and across the world, Alam’s lifelong work reveals the power of truth and voice in effecting change.”

Alam’s strongest works, which create an indelible impact, are ones where he explores themes of immigration, and separation, as well as activism – the latter subject closest to his art and which drew him into photography even as he was studying to be a chemist in England.

A photo of a young couple at the Dhaka International Airport – taken more than 20 years ago, perhaps bidding goodbye to each other through a pane of glass as the man likely is going away on a journey or for work in a distant country, is beautifully stirring, poignant and timeless.

The photo could well be one of a couple meeting in incarceration what with the glass divide between them, but for the abundant happiness and excitement on the man’s face, or perhaps exuberance at the thought of being soon in a position to do more financially for his family in a land of promise he had only envisioned till then, and the dreamy-eyed look on the woman’s face, as if still in the thrall of savoring the success of her husband in getting a job overseas, and new life ahead for both of them.

The photo by Alam, entitled ‘Airport Goodbye’, could spawn an entire novel or a film, and still not be done with its countless threads of possibilities. One can well imagine how the initial euphoria might soon give way to a darker mood and situation, evolve to eventual pangs of home sickness, resultant depression. Or perhaps, the couple were reunited shortly thereafter, lead a happy life now.

In his notes to the photo which is hard to take one’s eyes off, Alam has this to say: “At Dhaka International Airport, only passengers were allowed into the terminal building. It was difficult to hear across the glass wall, except through the gap at the hinge, so people took turns speaking. One would speak, and the other would turn their head to listen. Here, a woman bids goodbye to her man, unsure of when they might meet again.”

Shahidul Alam, Bangladesh Migrant Workers in Maldives, Male, Maldives, 1994. Photo: Sujeet Rajan.

Another photo that delves into the theme of immigration, albeit, a stark look at harsh reality of living away from home, is titled ‘Bangladesh Migrant Workers in Maldives’. Taken in 1994, the photo of two brooding young men sitting close to each other lost in their own thoughts, has a sense of immigrants caught in a vortex of cruel fate, kept in a detention camp or jail. Or perhaps, the duo is coming to grips with the grim life they’re enduring, with no succor in sight.

It’s again a photo for all ages; one which has sharp modern context in the present Trump administration’s drive against immigration. The two men could well be two South Americans caught at the US border, being readied for deportation.

Alam adds these notes to the photograph: “Bangladesh migrant workers resting in between shifts. Many workers in Maldives start off by getting jobs as laborers in the docks in Male. Better paid jobs in the resorts require better knowledge of English.”

No exhibition on Bangladesh would be complete without photos of the ravages of floods which the country continues to endure annually, and Alam has a section on it, with a standout one of a woman wading through floods to reach work.

Shahidul Alam, Woman Wading in Flood, Kamlapur, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1988. Photo: Sujeet Rajan

Taken in 1988, the photo of a waterlogged street in a neighborhood of Dhaka, as the woman and others wade stoically through more than knee-deep water, is striking for the surreal calm it exudes, as if this is the new normal; adjustment admirably made to the vicissitudes of seasons. One gets the sense that if even if the water reach to the neck, people would still go about their daily chores and business with fortitude.

Alam had this to convey of his photograph: “In 1988, Bangladesh faced its worst flood in a century, adding, “the resilience of the average Bangladeshi is remarkable.”

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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