Stories in a frame

Shahidul Alam is one photographer who needs no introduction. This photographer from Bangladesh has shown at major international galleries, has judged the World Press Photo competition, been a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and so on. But through all of this, what shines most is something very basic and fundamental, yet most complex and politically charged. The relentless effort to use the image to tell stories but without the hierarchies of the subject, photographer and photo editor and the institution he represents where the former is the most vulnerable in the power equation. So for Alam, making an image is not enough. After all, what the image conveys is premised on who tells whose story in what context. For instance, how invested is the photo editor sitting in New York in the everyday realities of the woman running her home on microcredit? In the choice between representing her agency and her travails, what is the story that will get prominence? Why is it an either or? Alam set up the picture agency, Drik in 1989 to challenge this skewed power dynamics between the north-south. The majority world is not just the vortex of natural calamities and armed conflicts but it is a landscape of a million stories, which challenge its hegemonic and unidimensional representation in the West. I spoke to Alam on the eve of Drik completing 25 years. What follows is a conversation on changing organisational structures, new media and most importantly the art of storytelling. About storytelling, Alam uses the famous example of Remus Reed. Sample this piece of news:

‘Remus Reid, horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889.’

Now the same news stated as:

‘Remus Reid was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honour when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.’

So then, how does one communicate in allegories and metaphors, in ellipses and silences when bare facts do not seem to move us as much anymore? Or when stating facts invites State ire? In this interview, Alam also speaks about new idioms of communication in the light of his recent work Crossfire.

After 25 eventful years at Drik, what is the biggest challenge before you?

When Drik began, there were two objectives. One was of course to change the narrative because Bangladesh was seen through a very singular definition of poverty; we wanted to challenge that; so it was a question of changing the narrative through changing the storytelling. That has, I think, to a large extent, been successful. We also had another goal; that we would not be a funded organisation, that we would be not only socially relevant but also financially solvent, that has been quite a difficult, balancing act, in the sense that there are a whole lot of things that we believe need to be done, we are passionate about but we know will not generate revenue. And it is important that we continue to do; so that has to be offset by the services that we provide as a media organisation and generate enough revenue to be able to sustain that part of it. In some cases, there have been off one of things, but in others they have been far more substantial investments, for instance the school of photography, ‘Pathshala’, which we felt was very important to say that we did, the festival ‘Chhobi Mela’ which we also wanted to sustain, they have all been very successful, but in a sense we have been a victim of our own success. They’ve grown so much, they’ve become globally recognised entities and so while we were initially planning to keep it containable, now it’s taken on a shape and form of magnitude that requires us to be far more efficient, far more business-like, so one of the things we are having to do now is to develop a very different work ethic, work structure, and in a sense be a lot more corporate, if you like, which is not natural to the organisation. We’ve required to have a culture, which we found difficult to adapt. But we also recognised that as the organisation grows, the old way of doing things might not work anymore. We want to, at the same time, retain the intimacy, we want to retain the passion, we want to ensure that we are not deviated from our goals but we also find it very, very important, particularly because we are of very critical and powerful entities, that we are not reliant upon the same entities for our survival. So that becomes and remains a challenge. One of the things we have done, of course, is we’ve had the new department, broadcast and multimedia journalism in ‘Pathshala’, and that too has been a problem in the sense that with photography, we have had relatively low investment. As soon as you go into television and things like that, the scale of investment is much, much higher, and is difficult for us to cope with. But we’re managing, I think. Of course, one also has to then live with one’s own legacy, the fact that ‘Pathshala’ has been so phenomenally successful, that it has produced so many world-class photographers, that is what we are compared against, so the new department, which is struggling both financially and is new, is compared, with what people know and what Drik and ‘Pathshala’ can afford so we have created a very high benchmark for ourselves. But I think that’s healthy, in the sense that, it will ensure that we weren’t that complacent, it’ll ensure that we will push ourselves hard and I believe it’s doable.

The structures that you were talking about, that the structures one needs to bring into place when one becomes very large scale… could you give some examples?

Yes absolutely, for instance when I started Drik, I was managing director, I was photographer, I was janitor, which is fine but that’s the case but now, it doesn’t make sense to me to play that role, and in fact I don’t even think of being a managing director is anymore my role so we’ve have actually taken on very top management people; there’s a new CEO, not so new, he joined in April, 2 years ago (2012), work is being put in place in processes and systems, we now have a very efficient marketing team, we concentrate a lot more on process than we used to, there are many things we used to do intuitively, in terms of our gut feeling, we still hope we do that, but we have much more long term projections, we have budgets, we allocate things for places, we look at hiring on long term basis and there are targets set for everyone and one is accountable to those targets. We didn’t have that culture; we are having to take it up on ourselves.

And in all of this, isn’t it a challenge to maintain the intimacy?

Completely, completely, it’s a very difficult challenge. In the sense that certainly people feel that Drik isn’t how it used to be. It was a small organisation; we used to sit together; there was a time when every month we would have a meal at one of the colleagues’ homes, now when you have about 50 people, I mean apart from the fact that people can’t accommodate 50 people, it doesn’t come round to you for 50 months. I mean those are practical things at all levels but I think there are other issues for instance we now need accountants, we now need HR managers, we now need a lot of things which on a small level, we never really needed, we were everything. But that’s the reality. The point is, I think where it becomes difficult is, I don’t meet all my colleagues on a regular basis as I used to, there are many things am not able to share to the same extent as I used to be able to. It’s a big animal with different things happening at different places and not everyone knows what everyone else does so it does become important to stop every now and then, consolidate, make sure everyone is on board, make sure the ethos of the organisation is not lost. The faster you run, the more likely it is for some people to get left behind so special efforts need to make ensure that doesn’t happen.

Your work has always challenged the imbalance that is there in terms of the coverage of news and you keep talking about that one example about who has the highest stakes- the photo editor in New York versus the person who has been photographed in the small, little village. You’re an iconic photographer and you have been celebrated in the West. Today do you think that certain things have changed in the last 25 years or it’s still a daily struggle?

It is still a struggle but things have also changed and I think significant changes have taken place. More so, because of what a lot of young people have achieved. I think my role has been more of a catalyst from the fact that there are so many young photographers today who are there and have to be counted. When an evaluation of any sort of status is made, means that our regions cannot be ignored anymore. That is not to say that the status quo is very different. I think we’ve attained a level where we simply have to be taken on board. The structures are still what they were. Imbalances, while not as extreme, are certainly qualitatively as they were. But I think there are changes, which are organic, I mean, if I look at ‘Pathshala’ for instance, when I started, I was only the local teacher, everyone else was a borrowed teacher from the overseas; very good; very generous. I hustled them into saying, ‘you’ve gotta come’, sleep on the floor, spend quality time with my students and they did that, they were very generous. But today, out of my 26 teachers at ‘Pathshala’, 24 are former students. That’s organic. No one can take that away.  Today, these are the people who determine what direction ‘Pathshala’ will go in. These are the people who really are the lifeblood of ‘Pathshala’. So it’s no longer dependent on me as it used to be and I think that base level structure is there. Other things that are happening is, for instance, there are books being written in Bangla, there is research being done, and there are far more home-grown role models to look up to and whether everyone admits or not, I think in Bangladesh, there is a sense of pride that there wasn’t till this extent before; and that changes things.

Pride in the history…?

Pride in the history, oneself; a sense of achievement, self-confidence, so when a Bangladeshi photographer is negotiating with an external client, he or she does so with a knowledge that they have a level of confidence and to be honest, there are times we used to get taken for a ride. It’s no longer so easy.

Is it also a result of the fact that the market has opened up, social networking has become so popular which allows one to reach one’s work to a maximum number of people?

That is true. In fact, we played a part of that as well. We introduced e-mail to Bangladesh in the early 90s. Certainly in ‘Pathshala’, I no longer teach photography because there are so many people to teach good photography now; I am not needed to play that role. I take on a very different role; I talk about survival; not survival in terms of facing guns or bullets, but in having an online presence, in being able to do budgets, in proposals, in negotiating with clients, ensuring that we have a decent contract, making sure that you are treated fairly and that you treat people fairly. So those are things that are part of our learning now so the photographer today is not only a good photographer but someone far more aware of the industry and how it works and far more able to negotiate in terms of clients.

Since you mentioned bullets, this particular video I saw where you were interviewing this policeman about what the images of Crossfire conveys to him and he knows that the image of just a gamchha means how it is used to choke people. What is most exciting and unnerving in this is that without showing blood or dead bodies, you communicated the horror of extra Constitutional killings and hits the State so hard that it tries to ban the exhibition. Tell me a bit about Crossfire and its language of communication?

I think it’s worthwhile going back to the basic principles, in the sense that I took on photography because it’s so powerful. I am not married to photography and if tomorrow it ceases to be the tool that they are, the weapon that they are, I have no problem abandoning it and pick up anything that works. Within photography, I think we need to recognise that at the end it’s for the audience and not for yourself. So it is what will work, what will be most effective, and is a question that needs to be answered at a strategic level and an aesthetic level. So at a very practical level, certainly Rapid Action Italian won’t take me around to photograph the killings while they were happening so there was no question of me being the witness to those situations. More importantly, I felt that it wasn’t the lack of information that was an issue. It was not being sufficiently emotionally charged about what was happening; not being sufficiently angered by the injustice; not being sufficiently provoked by the fact that a huge impropriety was being performed on ourselves by our own establishment so what we needed to do was engage in some way so that it gave us a personal touch. So people felt this is, it was a more emotional contact, more subliminal contact if you like. There was another aspect to the work and that is the audience was required to work harder to understand the image and engage with it so in the way in which the exhibition was put together, there were no captions, there was very detailed information in the Google Earth map, but you had to then work out in finding out what image related to what so you had to immerse yourself into that image to find out. Also, for instance, we had a blank canvas in the exhibition where every visitor was asked to write the name of one of the people who had been killed and in the process of writing their name, in a sense they gave a little bit of themselves and made a contact; a connection with the deceased. There was a young man who came and said, “My brother is not on your list.” And it wasn’t; our list was incomplete; we made a list as complete as we could but there were gaps.  His brother is one of the people killed, so he too pointed out his brother and that was the blame with which he engaged with our exhibition. As the exhibition has grown and gone on it has been a phenomenally successful exhibition in the sense it has been reviewed 3 times by the New York Times, its been shown at Tate Modern, it’s been at museums in North America, Australia, Latin America, India as well. What has also happened is some very very interesting things at the same time that we’ve been asked by the Supreme Court to show the work in the court itself because they wanted to know how when the highest judiciary body in the country is ineffective against a government, a photographic exhibition can put the government on the back foot; the fact there were people on the streets; they were human trails; the fact that the Art College in Bangladesh which at one time had refused to show photography because it was not ‘art’, came out with slogans saying, “Closing down Drik galleries like banning painting.”  So there were many shifts that took place, which I do not think would have happened had we used the conventional ways of showing the killings or whatever. So I think, different strategic shape needed to be taken, which is also something we have tried for Kalpana Chakma’s two shows, which have happened subsequently. But again, those shows have evoked an emotion far stronger than conventional shows have done.

And the fact that when you are showing it in the West, you don’t really make an exception and give detailed captions…

No, they have to work at it the same way. Though, what we do is provide some context overall because their knowledge of the country, of the region is not so much but we’ve actually had a different target that we felt in the west in the sense that when I showed it in Queen’s Museum, one of the targets was to ask Americans what role their government was playing in this; the fact that the Rapid Action Battalion have been trained by the CIA and MI6 is a message we need to get across. And the fact that they are culpable, their statements about freedom and justice and democracy, the fact that it doesn’t match with their actions is something I wanted to take to them. We’ve done that in other cases well, I mean, earlier on we showed work in a very different nature when we did a documentary on a Norwegian company which was exploiting Bangladeshi workers here. It was taken on by the Norwegian parliament where the Prime Minister of Norway was asked questions and had to answer to what we considered to be very valid questions.

When you say that the moment you think that photography is not potent enough anymore, you will shift to some other medium, I wonder about the power of the visual media in also distorting facts…

This is the age of information and also the age of misinformation to some extent. Which is why, at the moment, we are working very much in terms of social media. Because this is a space, whether we like it or not, has become important; will become important, and I think one needs to have an acceptance of that ground reality; and rather than ignore it, take it on board and find out how best one can utilise it. So when it comes back to what I teach, I spend a lot time telling people how to be present online, how to ensure that one’s message gets across. One of the things we are doing right now is working on a partnership with Facebook so we could look at how storytelling can be done more effectively on Facebook because social media is very interesting but Facebook hasn’t been used very intelligently by many people; these powerful stories that are out there could be used by on Facebook to actually, powerfully send messages that need be taken to all corners. And that’s exactly what we are doing right now.

But when you use these media, even on Facebook, a lot of censorship happens…

Yes… It often gets distorted, it takes another context. I think what we need to do is ensure that at all levels, you as an author, have sufficient control over your work. And that has not happened because we’ve let other people control our work; did not take ownership of our own work. And I think that is in a way the beauty, I mean while problems exist, the beauty also is today you can be a self-publisher. Today you can, if you’re intelligent, if you’re strategic, you’re skilful ensure that there are the relatively lesser sources, you can make a mark, you can reach out, you can have a far bigger footprint than you might possibly ever had. Shahidul News is one blog, I run. It has a subscriber base of 60,000, which has multiplied and we have found that it is our online presence that has allowed us to get away with some of the things we do. We are in a very repressive environment. All sorts of attempts have been made to quieten us. We have gotten away with things that human rights organisations; major human hights organisations cannot get away with. And I believe it has to do with the fact that we have such a powerful online presence.

How do you negotiate the mobile phone camera?

I embrace it! Ya, completely! I mean, I think it’s wonderful! My iPhone 5s was stolen some time back and for a long time I was working with a very cheap camera with a very limited chip. I continued using it, I didn’t enjoy it as much. I just got back to a decent camera; I use it. You know, the beauty of it is it’s not so much the technology. I think the way people engage with social media content is different from the way people engage with museum space and things like that. And I find that I put up images here that I would perhaps not put up the same way and everyday I take pictures of everyday situations and I am constantly communicating with my community in a manner in which I could never do otherwise before. For me, that’s a very powerful feeling to know that I am part of a much bigger entity. That is, little breathing, constantly pulsating. Am giving you signals, good and bad, I don’t know!

Don’t you think it is also taking away from the rigour of making an image?

No, because I apply exactly that same rigour, regardless of what device I use, and in fact, I think this is a very good question. I think that there are purists who will say well, film was better than digital, will say that 8×10 was better than 35. I think each one has its space provided each one is approached with the same degree of rigour. I think that rigour is something you can never get away from. And that rigour is not simply in terms of the photographic image; it has to do with the idea behind the image, it has to do with how and what you intend to do with the image, it has to do with your politics and it has to do with your engagement, and all that needs to be taken on board and in that sense, taking a picture is actually a very tiny part of a process.

What I have felt, what I have observed is that the mobile phone has done something which is like this feverish need to document everything, like we take a small trip, every single thing from the glass of water we drink to the party we attend; everything needs to be documented and then shared on Facebook and other networking sites, looking for validation from ‘likes’..

Sure! There is the narcissistic element to it as well and the constant reaffirmation and all that sort of thing. That is true but I might look at it slightly differently in the sense that professional photographers have for a long time just disengaged from everyday life, in the sense that, we have looked for the grand stories, we’ve looked at the great wars, we’ve looked at capital letters for everything that we’ve dealt with. Things we do at home or things in our backyard, weddings, circumcisions or birthdays have never been considered proper things yet they are part of our lives. And I think we have done a disservice to our community by ignoring these aspects. I think what now happens is by other people, outside of photographers, taking it on, professionals have had to look at their own practice and I think that there is a very interesting shift taking place within the professional community whether waking up to the fact that there is the world out there and it is as important a world as the big capital letter words they were chasing. And perhaps this has greater relevance to the community we live in.

Has Shahidul Alam ever taken a selfie?


What is his take on a selfie?

The last selfie I took was with the GoPro underwater in Dubai; in Ajman actually, little town outside, I mean one of the things we do is putting together a South-South Media Culture Collaborative because we think it’s very needed to set up a place for critical thinking in the field of culture and art. So we had gotten together in Ajman for that and for the group picture, I insisted we all get underwater and we do an underwater shoot. Having done that, there was this little light coming from one of the portholes which was beautiful coming in the blue water being filtered through and whatever so I needed a selfie of myself in that blue light and it was fun!

Did you show it?

Oh ya! I put it up online.

Could you tell me about your favourite films, books which inspire you or which feed into your work?

I don’t read enough. I wish I had a lot more time to be reading a lot more, reflecting a lot more so the books that are closest to me are the books that I have read a long time back. Things like The Little Prince, then Jonathan Livingston Seagull, there’s a lovely book by Gamow on relativity which is called Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland. It’s almost like relativity for a five year old. Beautifully written, very lucid, perfectly valid physics but written in the form of a storyteller’s genre. I find those wonderful things.

And films?

A range of films, but a film, which is very close to me; it’s not a very well known film; you have probably never heard of it, it’s called An Ancient Trilogy. I saw it in a small theatre in Brighton many, many years ago. It was a very tender film about a gay couple trying to come to terms with their own relationship and the stigma that surrounded them. I found it very beautiful, I found it very tender, because it was as in so many situations we forget the vulnerability of the people around us and we take a lot of things for granted. And in that process, we aren’t often very blind and I think that in the end is the job of a photographer to ensure that no one remains blind.

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