This episode features a conversation with noted Bangladeshi photojournalist, activist and writer Shahidul Alam. Recorded and edited by Subhashish Panigrahi during the National Geographic Storytellers Summit 2023 in Washington, D.C., in January and published in March 2023, highlighting Alam’s journey as a photojournalist who documented the post-liberation political landscape of Bangladesh in the 1980s. He later became a social justice activist. His contribution to a larger movement would eventually end the nine-year dictatorship of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. He spent the following decades building spaces for independent journalism and media, and activism to hold the polity accountable. An abridged version of the interview was published online on Global Voices by the author. The full interview was published here as the sixth episode of OFDN Conversations, a conversation series hosted at the O Foundation.
(SHAHIDUL): I am a photographer and writer. I was born in 1955 in Dhaka, and I live and work in Dhaka.
(SUBHASHISH): Dr. Shahidul Alam is prominent Bangladeshi social justice activist. He was awarded as one of Time magazine’s persons of the year in 2018. He and other activists brought down the nine-year dictatorship of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad in 1990. He didn’t become a politician but worked hard to build a media ecosystem that continually holds the polity accountable.
In August 2018 the Bangladeshi government arrested Shahidul on charges of instigating “students to continue a movement against the government”. He was detained for over 100 days before finally being released on bail. I met Shahidul at the National Geographic Base Camp in Washington DC this January. Shahidul, what has been your journey like?
(SHAHIDUL): I see myself as a social activist, and being from a middle-class home, I ended up in the usual sort of things in academia and whatever, but at some point, I felt that the most powerful tool available is photography, so that’s when I chose consciously to become a photographer. I trained as an organic chemist, but then since making that decision, I was in Britain at that time, I went back to Bangladesh, and initially, the type of photography I did, because that was the only thing that was going to be, was corporate advertising fashion photography, but I soon began to get involved with the political movement to bring down a powerful General, and it was the documentation of that movement that led to the work that I’m doing now.
(SUBHASHISH): How did you use journalism as a tool in your activism for democracy?
(SHAHIDUL): So Bangladesh was born in a war of liberation in 1971, and we were very hopeful about this nation, this independent nation that we’ve been part of forming. Yeah, and of course, the core beliefs were that it would be an egalitarian Nation with prosperity for the average person. I came back to Bangladesh to find a military General to take over, so many of us began working towards bringing down this powerful General, and that was what I began documenting. But as I went along, I also looked to see how that politics was not simply a question of who gets into Parliament but of the social movements, of the lives of everyday people, of the struggles of everyday people, or the situation of indigenous communities with my country, of the role of the military, and essentially of the power elite and how that expands its influence and where the common person finds himself or herself. So a lot of the work since then has been about telling the story of the struggle of the common person, which is what I continue to do today. But of course, as I do that, one of the things I looked at was how we could make an intervention. I recognized that in a system where politics is the biggest game in town and the way to get into politics is through money and muscle, entering into politics, even if that were possible, would not achieve what I wanted to do because I would have to do it through that same process, through money and muscle. Therefore, I made a very conscious decision of creating entities on different areas, so I work on the areas of media, education, and culture, and I’ve built institutions on that basis which actively intervene in the political space, so politicians and the power elite cannot get away with the indiscretions.
(SUBHASHISH): 1980s and 1990s saw a remarkable change in the way people communicated. You were involved a lot in the early days of email and the internet in Bangladesh. What role has technology played in your work?
(SHAHIDUL): It wasn’t email so much in the sense that the idea was social justice and you looked to see, as Malcolm X might have said, whatever tool that works. I took on photography when I did because I recognized how powerful it was. If I was starting today, I would probably have taken on social media. As we were struggling, we recognized that one of the ways for us to be able to fight back was to have the tool sets through which we could actually intervene. We didn’t have an international telephone line, certainly we didn’t have the money to be able to communicate. I would go to pictures across the globe and I’d be very jealous when the picture that edited with someone in London would ring up someone in Switzerland and talk about things and whatever. We need to be able to do that, but there was no way we could afford to do that. We found it very difficult even sending pictures across or anything like that. So at that time, when we didn’t have internet, we decided we would do something on our own rather than depending upon the government.
So there was an organization called Tool, which was about appropriate technology in the Netherlands, and we contacted them. And through them, we developed an offline FidoNet Network, which required a very low-end technology at our end. And so our server was a 286 machine. We did not have an international telephone line, so they would ring us twice a day from Amsterdam. We developed an electronic postbox, if you like, and people in Bangladesh could bring our server using local calls. We used cheap modems, and all those emails would get packaged together in an electronic boost box, if you like. When they would bring us from Amsterdam, it would go to the Netherlands. It would get unpacked, and those emails would be sent to the internet, and through that, messages would go across the world. And through the reverse process come back, unpacked in Bangladesh and then end up in individual computers across the country. And we use that to link up people with Latin America, with Africa, of course, between Asia.
What we also did at that time was to set up electronic bulletin boards and those electronic bulletin boards were things where we took on social campaigns, human rights issues, things about health, and information that people might not have. That became the way through which we were able to collectively do things. What we also did is we set up an email Club and taught people how to use email to interact with the internet, so using gopher, Veronica, things like that. How we would, using just this basic technology, be able to have a space on the internet. Alongside that, we did a very basic teaching. You know it was very expensive at that time, one kilobyte of data cost us 35 [US] cents. So, a megabyte file would have cost US$350. So, we taught people how to compress files, how to convert files into text files and things like that to really pin it down to the cheapest possible way in which we could do it. We also set up a fax Gateway so people could send messages out from rural Bangladesh to somewhere in the United States or whatever without having an internet line or even an ISD line which linked up the rural region to the main cities. But it worked and through that, we began this. The other things we also started doing fairly early on is to develop Bangla on Unicode because when the net did come up, we still didn’t have the facility for using Bangla on the net. So, we began developing small things like that, very ad-hoc guerilla tactics basically.
(SUBHASHISH): Tell me more about the internet experience of the Bangla speakers, especially those who were not fluent in English?
(SHAHIDUL): Yeah, so some of the problems remained, that there was not a standardization of keyboards which still hasn’t taken place, but what we wanted to do at that time is to have one covenant platform which everyone could share. Sadly, that didn’t really continue because once the companies came in, they no longer wanted things for everyone, they wanted proprietary things, so it just became compartmentalized and different people developed different fonts, not just fonts, keyboards, and entire systems, and the thing that we had begun at that time never really became universal in that sense. But it still did mean that we could do it. One thing which was very interesting for me is these electronic bulletin boards that we had. They talked about very important things. The participation was very skewed; it was mostly the international NGOs and people speaking English who participated. We didn’t, at that time, have the Bangla font interface, so we started introducing right in Bangla using Roman letters. Suddenly it was a very different demography, and you could see there were people who were so threatened by the language that they would not be able to participate. So once we started using Bangla in Roman script, then more women participated, people from rural communities participated, subaltern people participated, and it became a very, very different space. So you realize how the technology is also so limiting and the power structures within it, and I remember writing a piece at that time in Bytes for All, and Bytes for All was set up by one of my colleagues along with an Indian colleague at that time. Again one of the ways through which we were intervening, but the piece I wrote for Bytes for All at that time was called “When a Modem Costs More Than a Cow,” which it did in those days.
(SUBHASHISH): What an amazing story! How has your work impacted how the “majority world” is perceived, and what led you to frame this term?
(SHAHIDUL): I was having an exhibition in Belfast and I was staying with Irish friends and they had cleared out their room so their five-year-old daughter’s uncle could stay there. I’m very fond of kids so Karina, this five-year-old girl, and I, we would play together. Whenever she saw me, she’d jump into my lap. We’d tell each other stories. One day, I came back from the show and I was emptying my pockets. She was standing at the doorway staring at me. I said, “What’s the matter, Karina?” She said, “You’ve got money.” I said, “Yes, I’ve got money, but you’re from Bangladesh.” And she couldn’t make it fit. Her parents were development workers. They helped Bangladeshis, and she knew Bangladeshis as icons of poverty. So, for her to see a Bangladeshi with coins in his pocket was an oxymoron. It didn’t fit, and that got me thinking. About how much a five-year-old girl grows up in the sort of social and cultural space within which she grows up, where she’s incapable of seeing a Bangladeshi as anything other than an icon of poverty. And I began questioning how this perception had been built. I realized that stereotypes of my people were created blindly by white Western photographers who came into my country, had diarrhoea for two days, photographed on the third, and went back with the same old tropes that they propagated. And I recognized that unless we were to shift that, unless the storytellers changed the stories.
But along with that, I looked at what those tools are perpetuating, that client-patron-client relationship. And that included the lexicon, the terminology that was used. Being called third world, developing world, uh, it was not an identity we had chosen for ourselves. They were first world, we were third world, and we thought, “Okay, you talk about democracy and freedom. The G8 countries represent 13% of the world’s population, yet they make decisions which affect the farmer in the field in Bangladesh. And the farmer in the field never chose them to be our representatives.” So we wanted to question their rhetoric of democracy, reminding them we happen to be the majority of humankind, and we want to be known for what we are, not what we lack. And that’s why we began using the term “majority world” as an alternative to third world, developing world, or any of those sorts of things that they were using. It took time, but now it’s become much more common. It’s crept into academia, and I think it’s getting people to ask those questions about how, by defining people in a particular way, they put us in those cubicles.
(SUBHASHISH): We often don’t think about the language and its prominent impact on public narratives. How the organizations you’re behind have carried forward this theory of change?
(SHAHIDUL): Okay, so the photo agency which was set up as a platform for local storytellers was set up in 1989. It’s interesting, 200 years exactly 200 years after the French Revolution, and quite important in that sense. The fact that we were, through that, actually building a collective, getting strength from each other, recognizing that we could tell our own stories as we went along. We knew that if you have to fight a battle, you need warriors. So in ’98, we set up a bachelor’s program in photography, one of the first in the world. In 2000, we set up Chobi Mela, the first festival of photography in Asia. And in 2004, we set up the agency Majority World. The agency Majority World does what DRIK began to do within Bangladesh but for also Latin American, African, and other Asian countries. We felt this was an idea that belonged to the world, and while we’ve been very successful in our own country, the transition needed to take place in a wider sense. So through these three entities: DRIK, which deals with media; Bachelor, which leads the dedication; and Chobimela, rooted in culture; we have these three areas of intervention that we have: education, media, and culture, through which we exert pressure upon the political space. So politicians and power brokers cannot get away with their discretions. What an amazing idea, right? The three areas where most majoritarian governments attack, and there’s a lack of independent media across the board.
(SUBHASHISH): Journalists and independent media institutions often find themselves fighting against really powerful people, and those people would do everything in their capacity to bring independent reporting down. How these organizations you call home are prepared with resilience?
(SHAHIDUL): It’s still a long way to go, but yes, there has been a difference. I mean, I think the biggest difference is a confidence that we have that we didn’t have before. The other, I think, is an awareness of each other. Now, you are here interviewing me. We are telling each other stories, and our source of inspiration is not always the North. We recognize the value in ourselves, but yes, it has been difficult and dangerous. I mean, I had a loaded gun pointed at my head during the shot regime. This is one of eight knife wounds I got during the next government. This government put me in jail. I spent 107 days, I was tortured, and spent 107 days in detention. But we continue to resist, and some of the things that have happened are we are now a very resilient organization. In physical terms, we have a 10-story building which is our own space. It’s been, you know, we’ve added. We’ve had a digital inventory done. When we go into our building, all our equipment is vetted for cyber risk and things like that. So, we recognize the threats that we have, but we also recognize that we have strength, and it has become an oasis of resistance in a space which is extremely repressive. It is space where there isn’t freedom of expression, freedom of thought. Ours is the one space where people can still speak out, and I think that has created space for many people. And I think it is also a role model, and in the end, we also need to create local role models. We shouldn’t always be having to look up to what’s happening in the west and the North and use that as our source of inspiration.
(SUBHASHISH): I cannot just imagine the constant challenge and the trauma you and your colleagues go through on a daily basis for doing your job. On the other hand, I imagine that this collective would have changed how journalists operate now.
(SHAHIDUL): Well, there are two things to look at. One is the media itself, which has some built-in problems because today mainstream media is largely controlled by either political parties, corporate bodies, or religious organizations. Because that is how it’s controlled, there’s really very little independence in media, and governments have ways of controlling it. It’s not simply fear, it’s also money, because government advertising in many of our countries is one of the core reasons for the survival of publications. One of the things we’ve looked at is actually building entities which can survive on very low budgets. I think that independence is key to us being able to do what we do. The fact that we’re lean, the fact that we can work with very limited resources, the fact that we’re nimble allows us to be what others would not. Now what we find is a lot of journalists who are very frustrated in corporate media begin to work with us, sometimes on the side, sometimes all the time because they find that this is a space where they can actually practice journalism. The journalists no longer have the independence within their own corporate entities, and it’s not simply repression by the government. It’s often self-censorship imposed by the owners in many cases which prevent them from doing what they started out doing.
(SUBHASHISH): Great, thank you so much, Shahidul. This was such a huge honor for me.
(SHAHIDUL): Thank you very much. But I do hope we carry on this conversation, yeah, because I think it is very, very important for us to create our own role models. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that solidarity is part of our strength. And one of the things, and I’ll end with this, one of the things we’re trying to do, I mean, there was the Nam movement. When it began, it gave us a lot of hope. We hoped at that time that they would be a counterforce that we would not depend upon the old delivering structures. But in the end, that never really achieved its goals. We are now trying to create the cultural equivalent of the land movement, and I think that is a space worth fighting for. So hopefully, together, we will make that happen.
With that, our conversation came to an end as Shahidul had a long flight to catch. His work and activism have inspired many media and democratic revolutions. His initiatives — Drik and Chobimela – are some of the handful of organizations from the majority world that continue to challenge the skewed and often misinformed narratives about our majority world. Like Shahidul, I am hopeful that individuals, collectives and civil society institutions, as our representatives, would tell stories about our communities.
I am Subhashish, and I’ll be back soon with another episode of O Foundation Conversations.