The book Shahidul Alam: Singed But Not Burnt (edited by Ina Puri, Emami Art, March 2023) offers an expansive view of the work of the renowned Bangladeshi photojournalist and activist, starting with his accidental acquisition of a camera in the early 1980s and moving on to his rousing documentation of resistance movements in the 21st century. An exhibition of the same name, curated by Puri and with images featured in the book, was scheduled to run at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi, from July. But Alam withdrew his works days before the launch in protest against the KNMA terminating its employee Sandip K. Luis for his social media post on KNMA founder Kiran Nadar’s participation, along with other artists and curators, in the Jana Shakti exhibition in May to mark the 100th episode of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann ki Baat radio programme.
Speaking to the media after announcing his withdrawal, Alam expressed solidarity with critics of the exhibition, noting similarities in how state propaganda machineries are eroding spaces for critical thinking in both India and Bangladesh. “In terms of our struggle towards democracy, the recent resistance [in Bangladesh] exemplifies my photographic journey. I wanted to present the works through that lens as opposed to pretty pictures or documentary photography,” Alam said.
The exhibition would also have offered glimpses into his work as an institution builder and the role institutions play in a struggling democracy—Alam founded the Drik Picture Library, Pathshala Media Institute, Majority World Agency, and the Chobi Mela festival of photography in Dhaka. After pulling out of the show, he talked to Frontline over the phone. Excerpts from the interview:
You once said: “I use photography because it works.” How has this belief shaped your practice?
I got into photography because I wanted to achieve certain things. At that time photography was, and is probably today as well, the most powerful tool available. To me, it was a means to an end, not an end in itself. While I enjoy the medium, while I enjoy producing interesting imagery, that is not the point of the exercise. Tomorrow, if I need to sing and dance, neither of which I do well, I would have no hesitation taking up some other tool. It is a question of achieving the social and political goals: that has been my guiding force.
Many photographers speak of “making” photographs. In your book, you talk about “taking” photographs. Does that shift define your relationship to the image?
While I haven’t really analysed the semantics of this, it is certainly very much a question of a relationship. “Making” suggests an authorship that in some ways is independent of the other person and usually, in my case, it is a person at the other end of the camera. Photography is a reciprocal event. It is not just me “taking”; it is also giving. It is through that partnership that images are produced. I would put far more weight on what is produced through being gifted something in that relationship, as opposed to merely being the independent author who produces something.
““While I enjoy the medium of photography, while I enjoy producing interesting imagery, that is not the point of the exercise.””Shahidul Alam
How did “Singed But Not Burnt” (the cancelled exhibition) come about? What does it mean to look at an expansive selection of your work, all that lived experience, produced in different spatial and temporal contexts, in a single volume?
This was going to be my first major exhibit in India, which has been very important in terms of my photographic practice, although Bangladesh is where it’s rooted, of course. It was also important because of the particular relationship of India and Bangladesh, with India playing Big Brother, and dominating so much of our political space. As a child in 1965 (during the Indo-Pakistan war), when we were part of Pakistan, I was drawing cartoons, very jingoistic ones, fighting the enemy (India), if you like.
In 1971, that changed dramatically. The role India played in the liberation of my country is incredibly important. That a nation can lose its goodwill so effectively in such a short time [after Bangladesh’s independence] is amazing to me. So, reaching out to the Indian audience was very important for me, not just as an image-maker but also as a person involved in social change who has used images.
Singed But Not Burnt talks about the spaces we occupy, about how easy it is to step back to a place of comfort, and about the fact that in that process, one actually loses one’s effectiveness. That is something I wanted to remind the audience of.
“We are tiny, but the environment of Drik, Pathshala and Chobi Mela has become an oasis in what is otherwise an environment of fear. We’ve looked at how we can enable people to become braver, stronger and more resilient.”Shahidul Alam
In the book, the camera is not just a visual implement but also a sensorial organ. You talk about how your camera learnt to love the smell of the streets. How does one photograph with the body?
I used to live in a place called Lalmatia (in Dhaka). I would cycle or walk to work. I found it amazing how that eight-minute walk was so special every time. Every little nuance, every nook and cranny, the pauses I make, the people I look at, the expressions, the looks, the hesitations along the way, were all rich and meaningful. That, to me, is what photography represents. The image is certainly an end product, but the journey is very important. Often, in a situation, I can smell a photograph. I know it is there. Not because I’ve seen it, but because I can smell it, look and probe, and hopefully find it.
I think photographs need to be read in terms that go beyond the visual image in front of you. You see, particularly in family photos, not just what is in the frame but also beyond it. What makes the frame meaningful is the history, politics, dynamics, social structure that envelop the frame.
What happens to all these nuances in a time of social media oversaturation? Through your career you have critiqued situations where people from the Global South are tokenised in images. How does one control the narrative when images circulate at a dizzying speed?
In terms of my practice, I have embraced technology in whatever way I can. Social media, for instance, now allows you to be an author in ways that you could not be before. But I think it’s also deceptive when people say the Internet is an equal playing field because it certainly isn’t. Being online requires cumulative resources that make some people far more visible than others. I’ve tried to work not merely in terms of my photography but also to build a collective-resistance platform through schools, festivals, agency, through teaching and mentorship, and through nurturing people so that this very unequal field can be combated.
- Bangladeshi activist and photojournalist Shahidul Alam recently cancelled an exhibition of his work that was to be held by Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi.
- Alam was protesting against the KNMA’s sacking of an employee over a social media post where he had criticised the KNMA founder, Kiran Nadar.
- Alam has always used photography to protest against injustice.
- Alam was arrested and detained shortly after giving an interview to Al Jazeera and posting live videos on Facebook criticising the Bangladesh government’s violent response to the 2018 Bangladesh road safety protests in 2018.
In the book, you describe the institution as a site of encounters and as a means of occupying different positions in the societal landscape. Perhaps the institution as a collective holds forms of agency and power that individuals do not. In times of state repression, what role do institutions play?
The regime [in Bangladesh] has systematically dismantled the state institutions I’m surrounded by. The police is now the armed thug of the government, the judiciary has long since ceased to be independent, and the bureaucracy is an extension of the regime. For me, the biggest damage is what has happened to the education system. I feel that the way to counter this is to build resilient institutions that can play the role these state institutions should have played. We are tiny, but the environment of Drik, Pathshala, and Chobi Mela has become an oasis in what is otherwise an environment of fear. We’ve looked at how we can enable people to become braver, stronger, and more resilient.
I recognise that in an environment of fear, not everyone will want to march in the streets or be identified as someone who questions authority. But given an opportunity, I feel that these people would want to show their solidarity too. We have tote bags, T-shirts, mugs, bookmarks—all low-cost merchandise— which carry a message of resistance, defiance, or hope. A person who might be hesitant about marching in the street might be okay drinking coffee from a mug which makes a statement. These objects become catalysts for resistance in some way.
To extend this reflection on the role of institutions to what happened with the KNMA, how does an institution negotiate its power, agency, and survival in the current political landscape? Is it even ethical to attempt a balance, given the injustice you see around you?
Sometimes, I talk about my sandals, which cost 120 taka, being put in a high-profile museum, in a vitrine, under spotlights, with a very high price tag on them. I challenge people to question the value of these 120-taka sandals. Because once there is a label, recognition, and endorsement, it is no longer a 120-taka sandal but an art piece that is worth whatever the label associated with it is. And these institutions are part of this process—they are the ones that validate it. They make you the big photographer, the big artist—or not. In that sense, they have a very important role to play.
I think KNMA is a beautiful museum. It has played an important role in the promotion and evolution of many artists. When Ina [Puri] told me about the show, I was very happy for it to be shown there. I began telling friends. But then I got the message about Sandip’s termination and started looking at the possible reasons. To go ahead with a show knowing that this was the backdrop would have been unethical; it would have amounted to selling myself out. I apologised to all the people who had put in work to mount the exhibition. I am respectful of the professionals within the museum who have taken a lot of trouble to accommodate my work.
I understand the reality that some of these people work within. I recognise that compromises need to be made in life. What I found problematic was the termination and also KNMA’s inability to come up with a statement saying: “This is my position. This is the world I live in, and in order to continue the good that I do, sometimes I have to swallow unpalatable things.” I think there would have been a much more respectful engagement had that been the case. To penalise an academic within the organisation, who made what I thought was a very valid critique, that I found outrageous.
I am not a purist. I recognise the realities. Sometimes we have to engage and sometimes we have to walk back so that we are singed and not burnt.
Ranjana Dave is an artist and writer. She is the editor of Improvised Futures: Encountering the Body in Performance (Tulika Books, 2021).