Jun 01 2007

Conversation with Photo-Journalist Shahidul Alam

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Shahidul AlamGUEST: Shahidul Alam, world renowed photographed

From now until June 5, Shahidul Alam is visiting the UCLA campus to lecture on the impact of technology on the shape of modern journalism. This week, he delivered two lectures at UCLA. The first, entitled “Publishing From the Streets: Citizen Journalism,” explored how activist communities have taken advantage of advances in personal technology, and the second lecture, “The Majority World: Reconfiguring the Frame,” examined how similar technologies allow people from developing countries to represent themselves. Shahidul Alam is one of the world’s most recognized photographers and a major activist in Bangladesh, having founded the Bangladesh Human Rights Network in 2001. His work in the late 1980s and early 1990s was recognized by the Mother Jones Award in 1992, the first time it had ever been awarded to an Asian. He has since gone on to win numerous international awards, including the Andrea Frank Foundation Award and the Howard Chapnick Award [for excellence in photojournalism], and induction as a Honorary Fellow into the Royal Photographic Society (UK). Mr. Alam also serves as a juror for National Geographic. He founded the Drik Picture Library in 1989, the Bangladesh Photographic Institute in 1990, Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography in 1998, and Meghbarta, Bangladesh’s first webzine in 1999.

For more information, visit www.drik.net, and www.banglarights.net. Shahidul Alam’s blog is online at shahidul.wordpress.com

Rough Transcript:

Kolhatkar: There is a lot to talk about. You’ve had a very, very fulfilling career, and now you are in Los Angeles, having just delivered these two lectures. Let’s first talk a little bit about the issue of journalism here, as you see it, in the United States. You are a photojournalist and journalism is really the way in which the ordinary citizenry understands, or tries to know, what’s happening around the world. As somebody visiting the United States, what’s your assessment, to begin with, of US journalism?

Alam: I think a lot of it is US propaganda. And there is a significant difference between where I come from and what’s happening here. Certainly, in a country like Bangladesh, we fight for the rights of the media and the issues of oppression, in many ways, are quite important. What I find interesting here is, by and large, the American public is far less aware of political issues than the average Bangladeshi is. So, a lot of what is presented as news is actually official handouts, which don’t get questioned. I mean, I was very interested to find a program such as this, because this is quite unusual. There aren’t that many programs which take on a critical perspective.

Kolhatkar: It is an unusual thing in the United States, a station like KPFK and Pacifica. Let’s talk about the issue of Citizen Journalism and, particularly, how ordinary people in countries like Bangladesh have used the emerging technologies that have made media so accessible. What are some of the ways in which people are able to take journalism into their own hands and, in fact, what do you even mean by Citizen Journalism?

Alam: Well, firstly, I don’t think ordinary citizens is particularly fair a term. I mean, there is this hype about Internet and new technology, that it is accessible to everyone. Where there are such big disparities, I don’t think the term “everyone” really applies. Certainly, in Bangladesh, some time ago, people protested because they needed electricity, and they were fired upon, killing 20. Now, when situations are as basic as that then, certainly, these are not the people who would ordinarily be able to use new media to that effect. But, the activists, the journalists themselves have teamed up and have become champions of these movements. And that is where the difference is taking place. And I think most recently, we, on World Press Freedom Day, organized a round table, which involved some of the leading activists and journalists, who have been doing very critical work. And, using video streaming, using the Internet, we were able to get stuff live on the net, without it having to go through the main stream filters. That was very important.

Kolhatkar: Give us some examples of how that’s happening, particularly through the institutes that you have founded in Bangladesh.

Alam: Well, the school of photography in particular is one where critical thinking is very actively encouraged. And, photographers have taken on many of the social issues that should normally have been taken on by main stream media. But what they have also done is, largely through images, presented it in a much wider milieu. Some of the things we also do, we have a festival of photography, but rather than confine it to conventional galleries, we put the images on rickshaws, rickshaw vans, we take them into the streets, on boats, to school fields, to football playgrounds, and it is open to a much wider public than art or journalism would conventionally be.

Kolhatkar: Now, the issue of people, particularly from the Global South, having access to particularly a journalism like photography, I think, brings up a lot of questions, because, when we look at representations of brown peoples throughout the world, oftentimes, they are objectified. Oftentimes they are objectified by people who are not brown on the other side of the camera. What are some of your thoughts on how these technologies are maybe changing that dynamic between the photographed and the photographer?

Alam: It’s changing at a technical level. I think there’s still a way to go to change it at a conceptual and editorial level, because the gate keepers are still the same. And I think, the beauty of new technology is, it allows you to bypass some of the gate keepers.

And who do you mean are the gate keepers?

Alam: Editors in big magazines, people like yourself perhaps, not just here, but in many other situations. How do people have access to people? It is through a filtering mechanism. And the people who have established themselves as the controllers of those are largely white, western people in countries like this. Now, in the past, we’ve never had a mechanism whereby we can either question them or bypass them. But now, there is. And, even wire agencies, who have put out [inaudible] reports which, in the past, have not been questioned, are now being challenged by people on the streets who are not even journalists, but are eyewitnesses and can question what is being reported.

Kolhatkar: Now, you are a juror for National Geographic. This is a magazine that is well known for, you know, depicting folks all over the world, but particularly in the Global South. How does your position with National Geographic, how is that consistent with or not, your views on just what we have been discussing?

Alam: Yeah, I’m not actually a juror. I’m on the Board of Advisors for a program which is very interesting, called All Roads. And, the whole concept of the All Roads program is to change the way National Geographic has operated over the years. So it is specifically designed to produce opportunities for indigenous photographers, for photographers from marginalized communities all over the world. And, what it does, is every year, it selects four photographers from all over the world. Majority world photographers, who are then given a career boost through opportunities, financially and technically, but also through linking them up with potential publishers and people who might use their work. So, it is precisely to change National Geographic that the program is being developed.

Kolhatkar: Let’s talk a little bit more about this. The images that we often see of people in the Global South are images of suffering, are images of victims. And, how are the photographs that are taken by the indigenous populations different?

Alam: Well, whether they are or not in itself needs to be questioned. And I would have said that it is not so much simply that they are indigenous, but that their politics are different. And, I think, that is what gives rise to the changes. You cannot address politics without addressing exploitation. And when you have a very unequal world, where power structures are so centralized, and where the decisions of a few people affect the lives of so many others, who have very little control over their own lives, you actually need to challenge that power structure itself. In the past, the majority of images produced and seen in main stream media, certainly in the West, had been produced by either white western photographers or staff working in NGOs; and because it has been that way, it has catered to a particular agenda: The need for main stream media to show, perpetuate certain images and, of course, to raise funds. Now, what we have questioned is the concept of development, where, if raising funds simply requires putting people in positions where their only identity is icons of poverty, then, I think, there is a degrading element, which doesn’t fit in with the concept, underlying concept of development.

Kolhatkar: And, in fact, I think when we think about Bangladesh here in the United States, there is definitely a stereo type of this victimized country that has been, you know, ravaged by natural disasters, suffering from poverty, et cetera. What are some of these stereotypes, or one-dimensional lenses, that Americans view Bangladesh through, that you have encountered, and how do you counter them?

Alam: Well certainly, people expect me to be skinny. They are surprised when I speak English. A little girl was taken aback when I had coins in my pocket. So, those are all things which are part of that package, I suppose, but, I don’t necessarily see myself as that example either. I think this whole thing stems from a lack of awareness and understanding of people and their cultures. I think there is a large similarity between the struggles of poor people all over the world, including the United States. What is not seen sufficiently is the fact that nations like the United States, through their foreign policy, have actually perpetuated a lot of the things that we suffer from. So, on the one hand talk of the grief of people without taking on board the active role which minority world countries have played in creating that is something which is problematic. On our end, what we’ve tried to do is, take pictures of everyday life, which, in itself shows that people are [inaudible] and have great differences.

Kolhatkar: What are some of the ways in which the United States and US policies have directly affected Bangladesh?

Alam: It started historically, I think, before our independence. The presence of the 7th fleet, the fact that they supported a military government committing genocide in my country, was how it began. Since then, the famine that we had in ‘74 is believed to largely being backed by US preventing PL-480 wheat coming into Bangladesh and that had to with the fact that Mujib, at that time, maintained relations with Cuba, which the US didn’t support. But, even today, where we have what is officially a neutral caretaker government, it is generally perceived that the military has a strong role behind the scenes and certainly, the United States, while it spouses democracy, has singularly supported autocratic regimes, which it has found far more convenient to handle.

Kolhatkar: Recently, on Uprising, we had interviewed British journalist George Monbiot about his new book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. It is a book, of course, about global warming and, in that book, he cited how the world’s most powerful nations, like the United States, and its policies on spewing industrial chemicals into the air and greenhouse gases, are going to disproportionately affect poor countries, particularly in Asia and Africa. He cited Bangladesh and Ethiopia as two of the most vulnerable countries in the world today. Can you talk a little bit about that as well, in terms of US policy and if folks in Bangladesh are making that connection with US pollution?

Alam: I don’t know if people here are doing it, but certainly, in Bangladesh, it is fairly obvious. And it’s, I think, I would go beyond that certainly in terms of global warming and things like that. The fact that the Americans have such a large environmental footprint relative to people in countries like Bangladesh means that the major damage is done by people here. And because Bangladesh is such a low-lying country, obviously, with global warming, with water levels rising, we will be the first people to suffer. But I think it goes beyond that. I think, in terms of the US resistance to the Kyoto agreement. And, you know, when you have a situation where nuclear warheads, or at least contaminated warheads, are being pummeled down into all our countries, which is something we have to live with the legacies of is problematic. But, even at a much more clinical level. When countries like Bangladesh were very active in trying to promote breastfeeding, it was the United States, because of its interest with larger companies that sell milk powder and things like that, that actively opposed it.

Kolhatkar: Is the critique of US policy towards Bangladesh, and in general US foreign policy, pretty common in main stream journalism in Bangladesh today?

Alam: No, it’s not, and that’s what’s worrying. Because while, at a popular level and a general level, that is felt, today, sadly, main stream media itself has largely been curtailed. And that’s what I was referring to. The fact that there is this power behind the scenes means that we have much less freedom in the field of media than we did, yet, these are the same forces that are being supported and propagated by the larger countries.

Kolhatkar: Now, are most of the journalism outlets either state-run or commercial or a mix of both?

Alam: It’s a mix of those. I don’t believe there is such a thing as independent media, but that is where Citizen Journalism really comes into the full. That is where the net itself becomes a tool for subversion, if you like. And, interestingly enough, some of the most thoughtful writing and investigative work has actually appeared in that field. And, for us, it is very interesting because good journalists doing extremely good work, who find their own outlets no longer available for them, have been coming to us to get their voices aired.

Kolhatkar: Finally, where can listeners here in the United States, perhaps using the Internet, find the work of these Citizen Journalists in Bangladesh?

Alam: I think the website drik.net would be a good starting point. There are a lot of links within that, but Banglarights.net is one, and certainly there is a whole range of other sites, which, while they don’t relate specifically to Citizen Journalism, does talk of the activism taking place.

Kolhatkar: That’s drik.net and Banglarights.net. And, you have your own blog as well, don’t you? And that is?

Alam: It is shahidul.wordpress.com

Kolhatkar: And we will certainly link to all of these from our website later today. And, do you have any more plans for any more lectures at UCLA or are you pretty much done?

Alam: I don’t know. My life seems to be changing every day. I mean, since the lectures, I have been inundated by calls for all sorts of things. I am going back to UCLA to meet the staff of AsiaMedia right now, and I’ll be visiting Getty foundation later on. There is only really today and one working day left, so I don’t know how much we will pull off. But there seems to be a lot of demand.

Kolhatkar: Well, we certainly hope you return to the United States, Mr. Alam, I want to thank you very much for joining us today.

Alam: Thank you for doing what you do.

Special Thanks to Claudia Greyeyes for transcribing this interview.

34 responses so far

34 Responses to “Conversation with Photo-Journalist Shahidul Alam”

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