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_Laura Diamond____________
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On July 29 in Dhaka, a speeding bus killed two teenagers. In the following days students responded with massive protests about the government’s failure to reduce road accidents. On August 5, Al Jazeera interviewed the Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam about the demonstrations. When asked about other causes for the protests, Alam spoke to governmental corruption:
The looting of the banks, the gagging of the media — you mentioned just now that mobile internet is currently switched off — the extrajudicial killings, the disappearances, the need to give protection money at all levels, bribery at all levels, corruption in education, it’s a never ending list, it’s been huge, so it really is that pent-up energy, emotion, anger that has been let loose. [1]
Shahidul Alam, from the series “Crossfire,” 2010.
Later that evening, plainclothes cops took Alam away from his apartment in a white van, a feared marker of goom and opohoron, the Bengali words for disappearance and abduction. Alam has since been in jail, accused of breaking Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, which carries a sentence of up to 14 years. His imprisonment has led to calls for his release and widespread concern for his physical and psychological health, particularly given Alam’s allegations of assault while in jail. [2] 

By imprisoning Alam, the state is attempting to silence an artist who has sensitively represented both the quiet everyday moments and urgent crises of what he has called the “Majority World.” [3] As a photographer, Alam has used his medium to counter the image of Bangladesh that typically circulates in the Global North, by resisting visual tropes of despair in his photographs. He has extended this project beyond the frame of his own photography by also working to train younger artists and increase the exposure of fellow photographers from the region. He has founded a number of institutions to support photographic culture in South Asia: the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute (a photography school), the biennial Chobi Mela photo festival, and the photo agency and gallery Drik Picture Library. [4]
Alam’s detention concerns not only fellow Bangladeshis who live with the specter of goom and opohoron, or those who work to protect free speech, or the international art world, but also architects concerned with spatial justice. In his Al Jazeera interview, Alam spoke of the violent repression of protestors: “What we need to look at is what’s happening in the street today. The police specifically asked for help from these armed goons to combat unarmed students demanding safe roads." [5] By sacrificing his own freedom in support of peaceful protest, Alam was also protecting the possibility of a redesigned Dhaka, one with streets that could allow safe crossings and protect the right to the city.
Shahidul Alam, Smriti Azad, Dhaka, 1994.

NOTES ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓

All images courtesy of Drik Picture Library.

[1] Al Jazeera, “What Incited Protests in Bangladesh?,” YouTube video, 4:14, August 5, 2018.


[2] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Who is Afraid of Shahidul Alam?,” New York Times, August 20, 2018.

[3] Shahidul Alam, “With Photography as My Guide,” World Literature Today, 87, no. 2 (March/April 2013): 136.

[4] The photographer Dayanita Singh wrote about the significance of Pathshala: “[Alam] created the only space for photographers in the entire region. As [the Kolkata-based photographer] Ronny Sen said, ‘He gave us the sky in which we learned to fly.’” Ben Davis, “Why is the Case of Jailed Photographer Shahidul Alam So Important? Martin Parr, Dayanita Singh, and Others Explain His Significance,” Artnet News, August 19, 2018.

[5] Al Jazeera, “What Incited Protests in Bangladesh?”

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