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“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.
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.
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.
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.