Books

Shahidul Alam’s Firsthand Account of Bangladesh’s Fight for Democracy

The Tide Will Turn centers on the 100 days the esteemed photographer spent in prison for protesting Bangladesh’s religious, nationalist government, but also wisely focuses on the conditions that made his arrest inevitable.

Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World, Smriti Azad protesting at a rally at Shahid Minar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, (1994) (all photos from The Tide Will Turn by Shahidul Alam published by Steidl)

“I have been trying for many years to tell the stories of absence,” writes Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam. While Alam has dedicated most of his career to documenting others, his most recent book, The Tide Will Turn, centers on his own absence during the 100 days he spent in prison for protesting Bangladesh’s religious nationalist government. Although Alam plays a central role in this narrative and is the connecting thread tying together the book’s four chapters, the topic at hand is larger than Alam himself. He wisely also focuses on the conditions surrounding his arrest — the rise of authoritarian rule in Bangladesh and the parallel surge of protest movements. With journalistic rigor, he documents and foregrounds the stories of those around him — the activists, prisoners, intellectuals, and average citizens who comprise this movement.

The Tide Will Turn by Shahidul Alam published by Steidl

As much as The Tide Will Turn is a collection of photographs tracing the protest movement, it is also a well-researched, firsthand history of contemporary Bangladeshi history. The images Alam has selected draw attention to an array of events in recent Bangladeshi history that led up to the current protests. These protests were set off in 2018 by the hit-and-run killing of two students whose deaths were caused by an overworked bus driver. The government’s poor response to the catastrophe galvanized Bangladeshis to protest decades of government inaction and suppression.

Amanul Haque, many of his models were family members. He was known to prepare meticulously for his photographs, often using elaborate props. He produced most of the covers for the well-known magazine Bichitra.

The Bangladeshi government has often tried to silence those who protested its inhumane policies. For example, Kalpana Chakma, an indigenous woman from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a disputed region on the border of India and Myanmar who fought against Bangladesh’s occupation of Chittagong and the military’s widespread abuse of its indigenous inhabitants, was abducted by military police in 1996 and vanished. The government denied this had happened, claiming instead that Chakma had eloped to India. In a three-part forensic study, Alam photographed pieces of evidence, such as a muddied shoe and a newspaper clipping — the only surviving traces of Chakma’s presence. Here, as in most of Alam’s photographs, the camera is a means of conscientious visual documentation, a corroborator of a truth and an antidote to propaganda pushed by the state.

Shahidul Alam, students demanding justice for fellow students Abdul Karim Rajib and Dia Khanam Meem who were killed on 29 July 2018, when a bus ran them over, at Manik Mia Avenue, Dhaka, (August 2018)

Alam also recognizes the interrelated nature of art and politics and devotes a section to historicizing photography and photojournalism in Bangladesh. He focuses on the Bangladesh Photograph Society and Drik Gallery, two institutions that served as incubators for Bangladeshi photographers, as well as sites that exhibit images which document the government’s failings. The photo pages in this chapter are overwhelmingly dedicated to the works of lesser-known photographers. As Alam notes, photojournalists like Aktab Ahmed and Rashid Talukder never achieved fame in the way that Western photographers who parachuted into foreign conflicts to capture war images did. But, with their images reproduced here, evidence of their work and the events they choose to capture are preserved.

The Tide Will Turn tells the story behind the story — Alam’s narrative of events like the Rana Plaza disaster. Besides providing an insight into his process, these segments expose the compassionate perspective behind the images. Time and time again, Alam reminds us that the camera is not a neutral observer. It is, as Vijay Prashad notes in his introduction, a hammer that breaks through the walls of obfuscation to reveal the histories and narratives beneath.

Taslima Akhter; this is the most well-known image of the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh (April 2013). Akhter is a former student who now teaches at Pathshala.

The Tide Will Turn by Shahidul Alam, edited by Vijay Prashad (Steidl, 2019) is now available on Bookshop.

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