Shahidul Alam. Image: Rahnuma Ahmed.On 5 August, the internationally acclaimed photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested by Bangladeshi police for making “provocative comments” about student-led mass protests which gripped the country for more than a week.
Alam was forcibly taken from his home in the capital Dhaka by at least 25 police officers hours after accusing the government of clinging to power by “brute force” in an interview on Al Jazeera TV. On Saturday, more than a 100 people were injured at a demonstration when police fired rubber bullets into a crowd. The protests were spurred by the killing of two schoolchildren by a speeding bus on July 29. Tens of thousands of students have since taken to the streets to demand improvements to road safety.
Alam was charged last week under section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information Communications Technology Act, a broad law that prohibits electronic communication which “prejudice[s] the image of the state”. Human rights organisations have accused the government of using the law to suppress free speech and detain critics. Prior to his court hearing, Alam told reporters he was beaten while in custody. Police have denied the allegations but a high court judge has ordered an investigation into Alam’s treatment. He remains imprisoned in Dhaka.
As a photographer, Alam has travelled to some of the most forbidding and dangerous crises zones in the world to tell the story of those at the centre of them. He has tackled challenging and difficult issues with dedication and courage. His work has documented the lives of homeless children, those affected by HIV/AIDS, women who have been beaten and scarred in acid attacks, human rights activists, and people who have been trafficked.
Over four decades, Alam has made an important contribution to the field photojournalism both in Bangladesh and further afield. His photographs have been published in several major media outlets, including The New York Times, Time Magazine and National Geographic. He has trained and inspired hundreds of photographers through his institutions, the Drik Picture Library and the South Asian Institute of Photography, and inspired many more. The Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, organised by Alam, has made Dhaka a hub for international photography. The first festival in 2000 was widely praised for its wide-ranging examination of Bangladesh’s Liberation War and its genocide.
For his extraordinary talent as a photographer, he received the Harvey Harris Trophy in 1983, the Mother Jones International Documentary Photography award in 1993, Andrea Frank Foundation and Howard Chapnick Awards in 1998, Shilpakala Padak in 2014, Lifetime Achievement Award in 7th Dali International Photo Exhibition in China in 2017, and the Lucie Foundation Humanitarian Award this year.
Alam has borne witness to injustice with courage and vision and shared his knowledge with generosity and commitment. He has stood up for freedom, fairness and our common humanity. He is vital to Bangladesh and to all of us. He must be released immediately to continue his vital work as a voice for the powerless.