Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam knows that art can be dangerous.

On August 5, hours after he had expressed his support for massive student protests demanding road safety in Dhaka, he was arrested and kept in jail for more than 100 days. In 2010, the police disrupted and temporarily halted his photography exhibition on extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh, titled Crossfire. The previous year, his exhibition on Tibet had been shut down by the police. In 1996, unknown assailants pulled him out of a rickshaw and stabbed him eight times.

In this interview, he tells Ina Puri about his new book, which documents his experiences in jail, the global campaign for his release, and the battle for secularism and democracy in his country and elsewhere. He also discusses a retrospective of his work at New York’s Rubin Museum, which will be on display until May.

During the time you were locked away in Keraniganj Prison, fellow inmates showed their solidarity by painting over 30 murals on prison walls, including a fresco version of your much-published photograph of a fishing boat caught midstream with an orange sail flowing in the wind. They also built you a radio so you could listen to the news. The touching token of technology so lovingly crafted by the inmates, was a part of the Rubin Retrospective recently in New York. It serves as a reminder that your work and mission has support beyond the circle of distinguished writers and photographers to the ordinary man. You have gone back to the streets, to protest and speak up for people. In recent days, it is the rape of a student of Dhaka University that is causing students to agitate?

The rape of the Dhaka University student [earlier in January] is one of a series of recent incidents involving university students. The murder of BUET student Abrar Fahad, the attack on Vice President of DUSCU [Dhaka University Central Students’ Union] Nurul Haque Nur and his associates, both attacks linked to the fact that the victims questioned Bangladesh’s acquiescence to India, and now this rape, indicate that crime will go unpunished.

It is not merely the crimes, but the impunity of the perpetrators and the insult to the student body that has enraged people. No serious action has been taken in any of the cases. There also appears to be a clear attempt to destroy evidence, and in the case of the attack on Nur, ridiculous charges framed against the victims themselves. One person has been arrested after the recent rape, but the incongruences in the case have led many to believe it is similar to the arrest of Joj Miah, an infamous case where the government manufactured a case against a fictitious man named Joj Miah, by framing Jalal Uddin, an innocent man who was tortured and made to agree to “confess” in a high profile case. It is not students alone who are being raped. According to the New Age, an average of nearly 13 women and girls were raped in the country every day in the first four months of 2019.

What I discovered in jail was that by far the majority of people inside were not criminals in the normal sense of the word, but had been locked up because they were political opponents of the government. Many had been dissidents. Some had been arrested merely for sharing or liking posts on social media. They recognised me as a fellow dissident and felt I had articulated their thoughts. They took the national and international support for me as a support for the community. The care they took of me, the mural and the radio, were all part of that expression of solidarity. The murals we collectively produced were also an expression of that solidarity. It was a creative act where we could all be involved. It also gave us an agency we did not earlier have. The literacy classes, the musical band, the formation of the library and the many other self help activities the prisoners were involved in gave a much-needed sense of dignity and pride.

Fresco of fishing boat in Keraniganj jail, painted by prisoners as a tribute to one of Shahidul Alam's best-known photographs.Kalpana's Warriors installation at Drik

As for continuing to be in the streets speaking out, the streets are where I belong. My constitution gives me and my fellow citizens rights which we all need to protect. Speaking out is not an option. I am now speaking out for the students, but we need to speak out whenever and wherever there is injustice. The love and respect I received from my fellow prisoners was because they too believe in these rights. I represented a demand for those rights, and in a climate of fear, it is all the more important for those who are more visible to ensure that the collective voice is heard.

The Rubin Retrospective was finally not just a singular vision of Bangladesh, but equally, would you agree, a reflection of the current state in other countries?
The western world tends to cast a critical eye on China. Indeed, the repression of the Uighur community in China is deplorable and must be condemned in no uncertain terms. But the so-called democracies of the USA, Israel and India, have long lost their moral right to accuse others. They have all been involved in extra judicial killings, torture and gross miscarriages of justice and are guilty of war crimes. Indeed, in copycat fashion, much of the world today has largely become a very intolerant space, where the rights of the disenfranchised are routinely being trampled upon and the Muslims are the new Jews being persecuted.

As far as these countries and the rest of the international community are concerned, as long as Bangladesh delivers on their agenda, human rights abuses and the erosion of democracy on the domestic front can be safely ignored. As Bangladesh is currently handling the Rohingya situation, and maintains the facade of containing the “Islamic extremists” in the so called “war on terror”, the international community is happy to conduct business as usual.

The Bangladeshi ruling party on the other hand, knows it can ignore the occasional jibes on the validity of the elections, knowing full well that as long as the needs of the international community are met, the local factors will not be an impediment. Morality or ethics have never played a role in international politics. It could have played a role in national politics, but now that the government no longer needs the people’s mandate, that too is no longer a concern.

Apart from the other photographs, there were the striking sculptural installations of Kalpana’s Warriors, telling the tragic story of the Chakma feminist activist who disappeared one day and whose narrative you later resurrected from fragments of eye witness accounts and memories. Tell us how this documentation was possible when the key protagonist was missing?
The work on Kalpana Chakma was a long time in the making. It is remarkable that a nation whose independence was built on the need to speak its own language, can so easily dismiss the rights of others to speak theirs. The work is a trilogy with phase one questioning the investigation itself, by simulating a forensic technique through which the silent witnesses – objects collected from the path Kalpana followed on her last known journey – were interrogated through scientific investigation. It was produced through research conducted in Bangladesh, UK, Germany and Australia, in that order.

Kalpana's Warrior installation at Drik in Dhaka. Credit: Habibul Haque/Drik

The second phase, attempted to address the othering that often accompanies the characterisation of the “enemy”, by showing the personal effects of Kalpana in an effort at humanising the pahari community through her. The third phase of the work, involving considerable research, embeds the politics of the work within the artwork itself. The straw mats that Kalpana and many of the pahari people use as their core furniture was used as the canvas on which the images were to be made, while the images themselves were burned by charring the straw with fire, symbolising the razing of village homes by the military.

The fire on the other hand, was produced by modification of a laser beam commonly used in the garment factory, another symbol of inequality and injustice. Photography is a very effective tool, in representing events and objects that are visible. Representing the invisible does not come naturally to the medium. This complex and conceptual approach had been deliberately chosen to find a way to create a presence of the remarkable woman who had once walked amongst us.

In the talk that evening with Hari Kunzru, you spoke of the role of the political artist and the importance of documenting injustices and inequalities. Now more than ever. Will you please elaborate?
Artists have played an important role in key junctures in our history. The language movement in 1952, the movement leading up to liberation in 1971 and even during the democracy movements since. It is because of people like Rashid Talukder that we have a visual record of how our country has been shaped. Students too have played their role and the universities have traditionally been places of critical thinking. Today, when we are facing the greatest danger to democracy that our nation has ever faced, for artists to remain silent, is a betrayal of enormous proportions.

That media, with important exceptions, has abdicated and become part of the state propaganda machinery is something they will need to answer for to future generations. This is not the Bangladesh that so many gave their lives for. The government, clings on to power through this mix of coercion and favours, but for artists and journalists to allow themselves to be used in this way, is a huge slap on the face of the ordinary people of my nation.

Blind boy, Gaforgaon, Mymensingh, Bangladesh, 1988. Credit: Shahidul Alam/Drik

What is your take on the recent developments in India, post the attacks at Jawaharlal Nehru University?
I had initially thought Bangladesh was better off than India. Here, we were robbed. Our votes stolen. The government in Bangladesh got in through a blatantly rigged election. In India, you voted in BJP. However, the resistance that has grown in India post the JNU attacks, the width of the platform, the spontaneous participation of people from all segments of society, is spectacular and gives us hope. We in Bangladesh have failed to resist in this manner.

There is one significant difference however. In India, the military has largely stayed away from politics. In Bangladesh, the military have also been power hungry, and today, has played a part in propping up an unelected government. We hope our military will desist from this adventurism and play a more responsible role The resistance, however, is awe inspiring and I believe you can overcome even as repressive a regime as the current Modi government.

Soon after the Rubin Retrospective, at the Prix Pictet Award function, at Victoria & Albert Museum, you were singled out for championing the cause of freedom of expression. While international attention has been consistently favourable, in Bangladesh the situation is not quite the same. Would you agree?
The recognition at Rubin and the V&A and across the globe has been remarkable. The situation is different in Bangladesh, but one must recognise that it is far more dangerous in Bangladesh, to be seen to be “Shahidul Friendly”. Except for one national sponsor, all other Bangladeshi sponsors in Chobi Mela backed off. The CEO of a multinational company called me on our handphone from an unidentified number to tell me it was too dangerous for her to even pick up my phone calls. I met people in Keraniganj jail who had been imprisoned for having liked or shared my posts on Facebook.

That people resisted the way they did, despite this repression and fear, needs to be appreciated. Having said that, the silence of the art community, especially established architects, painters and writers, was telling. It does show a degree of subservience and selling out, that is deeply worrying. I am heartened when I see the thousands taking to the streets in India. Despite our great tradition of resistance, the major cultural players and the urban elite in Bangladesh have largely sold out.

Justice for Nurjahan, the accused in Moulvibazar court. Credit: Shahidul Alam/Drik

The role of Drik, the multimedia organisation you established in 1989, has been immense in not only working with brilliant young photographers but also resurrecting those who were lost to history, drifting into oblivion. Please elaborate further, on how Drik is able to reach out to veteran storytellers, helping to build their archives and giving them a platform. We were able to witness some of the incredible work this year at Chobi Mela, the edition you curated, barely out of jail.
What we have been able to achieve in Bangladesh has not happened overnight. I’ve been chipping away since 1984, initially through the Bangladesh Photographic Society, then through building Drik, Pathshala [photography school] and then Chobi Mela. There is a synergy here.

It was because we had Drik that Pathshala could be formed and because of the combined effort of Drik and Pathshala that we could pull off Chobi Mela. We took a different approach, concentrating on building skill sets rather than infrastructure. It is only now that we have an army of skilled practitioners that we are shifting to building the infrastructure. The leadership has grown from within.

Most of the people at Drik, Pathshala and Chobi Mela are homegrown people who have a huge sense of identity and take ownership of the organisation they are within. The growth has been organic, and has encouraged the development of leadership skills. It has also involved building trust. Our photographers have been exploited by so many for so long that they’ve developed a distrust.

We had to build that trust over time before legendary photographers like Rashid Talukder and Amanul Haque decided to hand over their entire collections to us. The families of both these photographers have since approached us to say they would like us to set up grants for other photographers using the royalties earned.

Chobi Mela is a unique space where work by emerging photographers can be seen alongside that of legends. It has been the launchpad for many a young photographer’s career, while legends who had never met have often found each other in Dhaka, while our “buddy” system has allowed many emerging photographers to assist senior photographers during their stay leading to lifelong relationships that both have treasured.

“I want my images to challenge that illegality, and all the illegalities that are spouting around us. The illegality of a right to a homeland, the illegality of protest against oppression, the illegality of wanting a better life. I want to photograph Moli’s dream and that of the man with the cart and of the blind boy and other children, the many children who want to be photographed as a sign of hope.” Your words mirror the sentiments of the people today in our country, who are fighting against the laws of discrimination. If you had a message to the youth in our country, what would it be? I know how disappointed your admirers are because you have been denied a visa, yet again!
Often the forces of repression feel insurmountable. We feel alone and resistance feels futile. That is when people often say, “What’s the use?” People give up. We need to recognise that it is precisely that process of giving up that leads to victory for the repressor. That is when they have won, as they no longer need to rely upon the repressive forces to subdue the population. We underestimate our own strength, our power to resist.

Hajera & Peer, Sex Worker. Credit: Shahidul Alam/Drik

By resisting, we create space not only for ourselves but for others around us. Never in history have repressive powers been able to withstand the collective might of the people. It is by fragmenting us, and keeping us divided that autocrats rule over us. So my message would simply be, believe in yourself and never give up. Dream on. You are far more powerful than you are led to believe.

Yes, I’ve been denied a visa yet again, but it merely demonstrates how scared they are. They know they cannot stand up to our logic, our integrity, our creative resistance. Last time, I spoke through Skype from an airport terminal. We shall find a way again.

You have been incredibly busy this last year working on projects, exhibiting and lecturing across the globe tirelessly. Please share some of your forthcoming projects with the reader.
In January, I spoke at the Storytellers Summit of National Geographic Society in Washington DC. It is an annual event which reunites visual staff of National Geographic with their field photographers for inspiration, camaraderie, and renewal. The audience of about 500 in the invitation-only programme included photo professionals from other publications, as well as museum curators and university faculty. I spoke about my life and work in conversation with Wajahat Ali, a contributor at CNN and op Ed writer at the New York Times.

I will also be running a workshop in Havana and have talks at NYU and OSF in New York and at Twelve Gates Arts in Philadelphia. In February and March, I shall be speaking at Rajshahi and Chittagong Universities in Bangladesh, RMIT in Melbourne, UNESCO in Paris and the Photographers Gallery and University College London. I have launches of my new book The Tide Will Turn in all these cities. I shall also be featuring at BBC Hard Talk as well as having a film made about me, working on a new book and continuing my new series of portraits of survivors of torture.

I’d loved to have come to Delhi for the keynote at the India Art Fair and attend Jeddah arts, but making time has become as much of a problem as getting visas. I shall generally be talking about human rights and freedom of expression as well as the state of the earth and how we are destroying the planet we live in.

Two Girls Sitting, 1994. Credit: Shahidul Alam/Drik