Shahidul Alam is a Bangladeshi photojournalist and activist whose criticism of his government landed him in jail in 2018. But that hasn’t silenced him, as Rob Gerhardt discovered when he caught up with him in New York.
Photojournalist Shahidul Alam sits in a lecture hall at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York, a long, long way from the Bangladeshi prison where he was jailed for 107 days in 2018.
His time in prison and the torture that he endured haven’t slowed the activist down or taken the ever-present smile from his face. But Alam still faces the possibility of a 14-year prison sentence in Bangladesh after an interview with Al-Jazeera in which he criticized the government for its violent response to road safety protests.
He was let out of prison on bail after an international backlash, but the case is still winding its way through the judicial system. The High Court in Bangladesh issued a stay on the police investigation until Alam’s petition to the High Court is concluded. When we met, he was confident the case would be dropped at a court hearing scheduled for December 18.
But the Bangladeshi court did not respond to his case on that date, and made no statement about it. Sofia Karim, his niece, told me afterwards that she thinks this is the government’s attempt to keep the case dragging on – and hanging over him. She felt it also allows the government to keep pressure on Alam without admitting that they don’t have a case against him. So, as we went to press, things remained in a state of limbo, without even a future court date.
Alam’s visit to New York coincided with the first major exhibition of his work in the U.S., at the Rubin Museum of Art. Titled Truth to Power, it follows the publication of his new book, The Tide Will Turn (published by Steidl).
The book is in four parts; the preface and first section, Keranigani Jail, tell the story of Alam’s arrest, his time in prison, and the work done by those both named and unnamed who worked to get him out. Sections called Art, Politics and Letters follow.
The book reads like a memoir, interspersed with sections of photographs from all stages of his career. The text and photographs are tied together through telling the stories of the people involved, whether they are in the frame or not.