From the remote, hilly terrain of the Chittagong Hill Tracts to the rubble of a garment factory where scores of lives were lost in a fire, Shahidul Alam’s camera captures humanity like no other. These images are part of an exhibition of 25 photos, taken by the renowned Bangladeshi photographer, at the Drik Gallery in Dhaka, of which Alam is founder and managing director. The show opened on September 4 and ends on September 10.

The exhibition is titled “A Struggle for Democracy”. It comes at a time when Alam, 63, remains in a Bangladeshi jail for what he calls speaking up about the ruling Awami League’s failures but what the government has termed “spreading propaganda and false information” against it.

On August 5, policemen in plain clothes picked up Alam from his home in Dhaka and later arrested him under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act. Activists accuse the government of using this section to crack down on journalists and bloggers and gag free speech in the name of law and order. Alam’s arrest came hours after the Al Jazeera network aired an interview in which he spoke about student-led protests for safer roads that had engulfed Bangladesh at the time and embarrassed the government.

The exhibition at the Drik Gallery in Dhaka opened on September 4 and is on till September 10.
The exhibition at the Drik Gallery in Dhaka opened on September 4 and is on till September 10.

ASM Rezaur Rahman, curator of the exhibition, called the show a form of protest against Alam’s imprisonment. He also said it opened on September 4 to commemorate the day Drik started its journey way back in 1989.

Several visitors to the gallery said they had come in solidarity, to demand Alam’s release. Among them was activist and academic Meghna Guhathakurta. “This solidarity is made of relationships, cultural networking and fighting for the same cause,” she said, rejecting the charges against Alam. On the title of the exhibition, she said, “It is evident from his life, his works, his commitment towards the truth. There is no place or event where he did not speak for democracy.”

In pictures

In some of the photographs on display, Alam captures Bangladesh’s struggle in pursuit of democracy.

One black-and-white image shows the silhouettes of people against the backdrop of a near empty road in Motijheel, Dhaka’s commercial district. It was taken in 1987 in the midst of a strike called by Opposition parties against the government of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad and its ban on political protests. It speaks of Bangladesh’s struggle for democracy in the late 1980s when the country was ruled by an autocratic regime.

A near-empty Dhaka street during an anti-government strike called by Opposition parties in 1987.
A near-empty Dhaka street during an anti-government strike called by Opposition parties in 1987.

Another photograph captures a mural on the walls of Jahangirnagar University in the outskirts of Dhaka. The mural was dedicated to Noor Hossain, a young activist who was part of the street protests against Ershad in 1987 – the slogan “let democracy be freed” painted on his back – and was shot dead by the police.

Other images simply capture the struggles of common people. One photograph shows the horror of the 1991 cyclone, depicted on the face of an orphaned girl sitting by the ruins of her home in Anwara, Chittagong.

This image depicts the horror of the 1991 cyclone, which killed close to 1.5 lakh people in Bangladesh.
This image depicts the horror of the 1991 cyclone, which killed close to 1.5 lakh people in Bangladesh.

As a lifelong advocate of democracy, Alam could always be found, camera in hand, in places where he believed the voices of the weak were being suppressed. He was there when the devastating fire at the garment factory in the outskirts of Dhaka claimed more than 100 lives in November 2012. An investigation found “unpardonable negligence” on the part of the owner, and the incident focused attention on unsafe work conditions and low wages in several such factories in the country. One haunting image from that fire shows rows of charred machines in the gutted factory.

The November 2012 fire at a garment factory in Dhaka left close to 120 people dead.
The November 2012 fire at a garment factory in Dhaka left close to 120 people dead.

A few of the photographs on display are from Alam’s travels outside the country. One, titled “Women in Aurangabad”, is an early morning shot of women fetching drinking water. It apparently captures migrant workers from Rajasthan working as bonded labourers in Maharashtra in 1997. The working women reportedly travelled far to fetch the water as effluents from sugarcane factories had polluted water bodies closer to their homes, making the water undrinkable.

Apart from the photographs, a letter hangs on the wall of the gallery – one written by Alam in 1992 to Khaleda Zia, who was then the prime minister of Bangladesh and is now in jail following her conviction in a corruption case earlier this year. In the letter, Alam protests the lack of coverage by state-owned Bangladesh Television of the “public trial” of a war criminal from the country’s 1971 Liberation War. He writes: “The news last night mentioned the parade in the morning, a small march past in Gazipur, violence in distant lands, even the man of the match in a game of cricket. Nowhere was there a reference to the fact that almost a million people had gathered that morning for a public trial of a war criminal.”

Judge ‘embarrassed’, no bail

On the same day the exhibition opened, a judge on a High Court bench in Bangladesh said he was “embarrassed” to hear Alam’s bail petition. The petition was thereafter forwarded to the chief justice.

Alam’s counsel, Sara Hossain, sought to know why one of the two judges on the bench had felt embarrassed. But the court did not disclose the reason, or the name of the judge.

Alam has been in jail since August 13, after the end of his initial seven-day police remand. He filed the bail petition on August 28, citing ill health and saying he would face trial and not leave the country.

“I had a small hope that maybe, Shahidul will be with us today,” said academic and activist Anu Muhammad as she arrived at the exhibition. “However, when I heard that the High Court bench was embarrassed, to me it meant either they are not doing their work properly or they cannot do their work properly.”

Muhammad added, “Looking at the current state, it seems Shahidul is the biggest threat to the government. Therefore, they tried to silence him and imprisoned him. But Shahidul’s photographs will speak for him.”

Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist.

Photographs courtesy Parvez Ahmad