Curators and Exhibitions

Shahidul Alam’s latest exhibition of photographs traces the confluent journeys of the internationally renowned photographer and institution-builder and his nation-state of Bangladesh as it emerged from the shadows of a violent birth in the post-1970s decades. Alam belongs to a generation of artists and activists who cut their teeth during the resistance movements against General Muhammad Ershad’s military dictatorship (1983-1990). But the photographs in this exhibition -- especially Alam’s early works -- serve to remind us that his political education took place in the wider context of the global solidarity movements that emerged as Cold War tensions thawed. In turn these gave rise to complex machineries of neo-colonial control, driven largely by the politics of aid and development.

These historical trajectories are apparent from the very first phase of Alam’s photographs which drift from migratory observations on the globalizing world as seen in the streets, gardens and museums of London, to more pointed images of popular protests in his own country. Subsequently, his practice militated against efforts to reduce Bangladesh to the objectifying gaze of Western journalists and photographers, especially in the aftermath of political or climate crises. As Alam put it, “The photographers in the West were photographing someone else’s struggle, (while) I was an activist taking photographs of my own movement. The political stories I was trying to tell are much more complex than the tightly packaged stories of Western photographers. Class issues, issues of religion, environmental issues, are all part of it.” It also helped that he was perceived as a local photographer by his subjects: “They (saw him) as one of them.” [1] In Alam’s photographs, climate-induced disasters are therefore reproduced as occasions to mark human survival and ingenuity, such as the one depicting an elderly woman cooking on the roof of her home after the 1988 cyclone. The 1980s saw several such natural catastrophes take a toll on Bangladesh’s infrastructure, making its economy more dependent on international aid.

Alam’s attempt to produce new conditions of visibility for his country has been consonant with his search for ways to introduce new non-idiomatic universals in the global languages of art. His photographs establish the streets of Dhaka as a specific site of protest in the Global South whose vocabulary could inform dissident movements anywhere else in the “majority world” (Alam has increasingly pitched for usages such as these over epistemically damaging terms like the “Third World” or “developing” countries). [2] Images of the Polish Solidarnosc Movement, therefore, quite naturally lead to others of rebellion against the Ershad regime, like the Motijheel Hartal of 1987 when protestors played a dangerous cat-and-mouse game to confuse the state police who tried ousting them from the public spaces of Dhaka’s famous commercial district. [3]

Alam’s distance from the generation of Liberation War-era activists and artists has allowed him to be equally critical of Bengali imperialism, especially as he saw its adverse effects creep up on the ethnic minorities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), who fought to preserve their autonomy through semi-organized resistance from the 1970s to the 1990s. [4] This stand is evident in his journalistic documentation of state military operations in that area and of refugees taken to Bandorban’s impoverished camps. A striking installation at the exhibition contains portraits of CHT activists created with laser etchings on straw mats. These depict the lawyer Samari Chakma and Bengali intellectuals such as Badruddin Omar and Meghna Guhathakurta. The displays also mention military abductions and violence, one of which led to the ‘disappearance’ of activist Kalpana Chakma in 1996. [5]

Alam harks back to several other moments in the young nation’s past -- stretching back to its pre-1971 East Pakistan days -- when development projects (such as the Kaptai Dam on the Karnaphuli river) were planned without the consent of indigenous populations who were rendered homeless. A photograph depicting the waves on Kaptai Lake acquires an ominous charge in the face of these histories of occupation, suggesting that the floods were largely man-made and driven by state interventions to subjugate the delta’s entangled water bodies.

Alam’s photographs also reveal how incomplete processes of decolonization have given way to new forms of colonial control in Bangladesh. The struggle to graft the popular nation into the body of the imperial state continues to be a concern, leaving an ever-widening chasm between the two. Even as the former is repeatedly and romantically figured in the photographer’s works, there is equal attention paid to the representation of state forces as a brutal or deliberately opaque and alienating presence. Additionally, while Bengaliness attains an easy cosmopolitanism in Alam’s early images, it faces growing pains when its universalist claims are put to democratic test. This contrast is evident in images depicting an unaffected conviviality between Alam and his friends (and later, students) in Dhaka and London, and his poignant depictions of departing migrant labourers who are forced to leave their loved ones behind in search of work. [6]

The hermeneutic of suspicion that Alam employs upon his own country’s historical claim for “more light, more space” [7] picks up the latent hypocrisy in the very first democratically elected government that was set up after the fall of the Ershad regime. It was headed by Khaleda Zia, the widow of a former military ruler and the founder-president of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whose appearances in public were typically buried under several layers of protective security cover, such that she was barely visible as the winner of such a momentous election. This is reinforced in Alam’s photograph titled “Begum Khaleda Zia after Elections”. There is a strong trace of irony in this image which shows her fleeting appearance at a rally before the elections, and viewers must painstakingly search out her anointed face amidst the throng of supporters and security forces. Bangladeshi heads of state make themselves conspicuous through their carefully crafted public appearances and in the political imagery used in propaganda posters. But Alam’s photographs peel back this polemical layer of hypervisibility to reveal an anxious, democratically-elected state leader who cannot bring herself to trust the people of her country.

Alam wrote a letter after the momentous events of March 26, 1992, when a mass or ‘people’s’ court was assembled by the Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee (The Committee for the Annihilation of the Killers and Collaborators of 1971) that meted out capital punishment to the Jamaat-e-Islami leader and opponent of Bangladesh’s independence, Ghulam Azam. A recording of the letter as read out byAlam is played on loop in the exhibition and becomes a reminder of the tragic shadow-state that has haunted the imagination of the Bangladeshi people since the East Pakistan era. Azam was eventually arrested in 2012, when the only other major opposition party, the Awami League, was in power. The media-state nexus that Alam critiques in his letter lies at the root of such hauntings.

Arranged in the same row of photographs that capture the enshrouded appearances of Khaleda Zia is another famous photograph titled “Student in Prison Van”. It dates from 1996 when student protestors (primarily of minority faiths, such as Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, residing in the Dhaka University Hostel, Jagannath Hall) were beaten up and arbitrarily detained by the police. [8] This was a day before Khaleda Zia was scheduled to make a public appearance near the campus. Alam’s photograph captures the rage of the protestor trapped within the cages of state-conditioned visibility; his stark expression and row of bone-white teeth lend power to the forcibly stifled voice of the popular nation.

Many of Alam’s images taken during his maturing phase as a photographer have acted as supplementary visual material to liberal democratic critiques of Bangladesh that its civil society has laboured to highlight against tremendous odds. No social revolution is too small for Alam to document -- his frames include women increasingly occupying public spaces of work and leisure, and even his mother’s domestic help Mizan, who got to watch television in the living-room for the first time after Alam took a picture of him surreptitiously watching from an adjacent room. These images have been reproduced in newspapers, journals and magazines across the world and have justifiably made Alam a famous name in the fields of activism and photography. He received further attention in 2018, when he was arrested for giving an interview to Al Jazeera where he criticized the Awami League government that was struggling to fend off growing civilian protests sparked by endemic failures in road safety measures. [9]

Alam’s realist style continues to evolve with the technologies of new media, as we see him appear more regularly on social media livestreams, and sometimes in the middle of street protests. By taking such risks, he eschews the safe distance maintained by the gallery photographer and reaffirms his ongoing quest to seek social justice through photography. This philosophy has also guided his efforts to build a range of formidable institutions in Dhaka, such as the Drik Picture Library and the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, set up in 1989 and 1998 respectively, to train, showcase and generate employment around photography.

Seriousness and the promise of ‘transparency’ that an aesthetic of realism grants to photo-journalism were not always on the agenda for Alam. The exhibition features a few early images when he was experimenting with photography as a student of chemistry in London. Accidentally finding a Nikon camera in his possession, [10] he produced several abstract images that suggest an intriguing political unconscious grasping for formal expression. [11] Sexual themes are apparent in these dark and sinuous photographs, not least in a confident, nude self-portrait he made in 1982 -- still a rarity among South Asian photographers. A prize-winning photograph he took in London’s Kew Gardens, titled “Floating Forest”, evokes an idyllic atmosphere at first glance; but a closer look may remind the South Asian viewer of the damaging colonial legacy wrought on Bengal’s waterways with the experimental introduction of water hyacinths in the early decades of the 20th century. State bureaucracy, science and private commercial interests came together to create this aesthetically-pleasing but toxic menace that soon became an ineradicable environmental disaster, hampering rice cultivation, spreading diseases like cholera, and causing difficulties in navigation. [12] Shahidul Alam’s photographic eye is always contaminated by the memory of the people he belongs to, and these memories extract their toll with ominous undertones even in the more ‘pretty’, ‘apolitical’ pictures he takes.

Curated by Ina Puri, this exhibition was on view at the Emami Art Gallery, Kolkata, from June 8 to August 20, 2022.


[1] Arthur Lubow, “Using His Camera as a Witness and Weapon,” The New York Times, December 23, 2019,

[2] Shahidul Alam, “Majority World: Challenging the West’s Rhetoric of Democracy,” Amerasia Journal, 34, no. 1 (2008): 88-98,

[3] The mass civilian protests against Ershad took off after his victory in the parliamentary elections of 1986, which were widely perceived to be contrived by the dictator himself. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, and the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, acquired popularity during these protests. The Motijheel incident was one of many hartals/strikes which were frequent till 1990, when Ershad was pushed out by a groundswell of opposition. From David Lewis, Bangladesh: Politics, Economy and Civil Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 89-90.

[4] Willem van Schendel, A History of Bangladesh (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 245-250.

[5] “Abduction of Kalpana Chakma,” Chittagong Hill Tracts,

[6] The remittance economy thus created would eventually help wean Bangladesh off its extreme reliance on Western “aid industries” (van Schendel, A History of Bangladesh, 268-270).

[7] Sumana Roy, “Reading the Reader,” Open Magazine, May 17, 2012,

[8] “Bangladesh: Beating and Arbitrary Detention of Religious Minority Students,” Amnesty International, April 30, 1996,

[9] Qumr Ahmed, “Why Did Bangladesh Arrest Shahidul Alam?” Al Jazeera, August 9, 2018,

[10] Shahidul Alam, “With Photography as My Guide,” World Literature Today, 87, no. 2 (March-April 2013): 132-137,

[11] Definition of “political unconscious”, Oxford Reference,

[12] Iftekhar Iqbal, “Fighting with a Weed: Water Hyacinth and the State in Colonial Bengal,” Environment and History, 15, no. 1 (February 2009): 35-59,

All online links were accessed on August 17, 2022.

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