Shahidul Alam did not set out to be a photographer, a social justice activist, or a political leader. He wanted to be a scientist — a chemist, to be exact. While working on his PhD in London, he purchased a camera by chance, for a friend who turned out to be too broke to pay him back. Stuck with this thing, he started using the camera himself, capturing images of London street life as he was finishing his degree.
Alam returned to his native Bangladesh in 1984 during a time of political turmoil and hit the streets to document the lives of his countrymen and women. Capturing on film the myriad dimensions of Bangladeshi life proved to be his calling. Alam has documented over 40 years of struggle and change in the country and in the process, founded some of Southeast Asia’s most important photo agencies and photography programs.
A retrospective of his career is now on view at the Rubin Museum of Art where it will run until May. Truth to Power is arranged chronologically, and starts in the 1990’s, when Alam’s photos first began to be picked up by the international media and circulated worldwide. As a photojournalist, he has chronicled flood, war, famine, joy, refugee migrations, street life, and political oppression. Select images also allude to his work as the founder of the Drik Picture Library, the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography (now the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute) and the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, each dedicated to free speech and self-expression. These institutions are actively training future generations of photojournalists in Southeast Asia. Alam’s is an extraordinary career of commitment to capturing and telling stories that matter.
Alam’s early photographs are very much in the spirit of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos of India from the 1940’s. High contrast and dramatic framing heighten the narrative. In his photo from 1987, “Protesters in Motijheel Break Section 44 on Dhaka Siege Day,” he presents a formalist view of an urban street, a wide and long expanse framed by buildings. Backlit, the figures of the protesters are sharply thrown into shadow. They appear as dark cutouts in a brilliant haze of light. Everyone in this photograph is moving. There is an air of expectancy, unrest; at the same time the elegant lighting and composition reads simply as a beautiful moment captured on film.
From this section of early work, the exhibition moves us into a grouping that addresses Alam’s social justice practice head-on. In the 2010s Alam produced three bodies of work addressing the disappearance of feminist activist Kalpana Chakma, who was kidnapped in 1996 and of whom no trace has since been found. Entitled Kalpana’s Warriors, Alam’s series ventures into a realm of imagery that is abstract and artistic, rather than journalistic. Bits and pieces of women’s clothing are photographed in color, as well as Kalpana’s journals and shoes (shot in black and white). They depend heavily on their labels for explanation, and although I think that Alam was attempting to create an atmospheric portrait of the missing activist this grouping does not have the power of his straightforward documentarian work.
“Red Orna” (2013), is a photograph from this series presents what appears to be a piece of deeply saturated woven red fabric (an orna is a woman’s garment common to Southeast Asia). It stretches across the entire picture plane, light streaming across it accentuating the richness of the color. The extensive wall text explains that this is part of Alam’s interest in how a photographer and their viewers “interpret the truth” about an image. Personally, I prefered the photographs that are more straightforward, which allowed me to experience his vision without conceptual explanations. However, as the exhibition is arranged chronologically this part of Alam’s body of work is important to consider.
It is fascinating to see the evolution of Alam’s work and vision. From the early black and white film photos, to the later digital color work one can see both the continuity in his work and the changes that new technology have brought. At the terminus of the show, which focuses on Alam’s imprisonment, the museum has mounted several terminals that show, in slideshow mode, his most recent photographs taken on an iPhone. I wish that they had given this work a bit more prominence. These new photos carry a sense of energy that is fresh and captures Bangladesh right now. They would have made a great counterpoint to the vintage images in the show.
Over the course of his career, Alam has tirelessly produced bodies of work documenting the movements of migrant laborers, sex workers, environmental devastation, and most recently the forced migration of the Rohingya people. His photos are urgent and necessary. There’s an interesting line that activist artists must walk — having your social justice bonafides in the right place and making great art are sometimes different skill sets. It can be complicated to have to critique journalistic images that are timely but sometimes don’t work as well from an aesthetic perspective. Luckily for us, Shahidul Alam is an important humanitarian with a beautiful aesthetic sensibility. This exhibition will move you on both levels; Alam bears witness to troubled times and people. And he makes beautiful photographs.
Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power continues at the Rubin Museum of Art (170 West 17th Street, Chelsea) through May 4, 2020. The exhibition is organized by Beth Citron.