A Conversation with Shahidul Alam

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Shahidul Alam’s work as a media activist and director of the award-winning Drik Picture Library (drik.net) has inspired many to blend cultural production with political work. Shahidul deliberately locates his work squarely inside Bangladesh, often defiantly placing himself against local stakeholders such as government ministries, the US embassy, and the World Bank. At times, he has paid a price for his solitary defiance: Drik’s phone lines have been cut, exhibitions have been cancelled, and during anti-government demonstrations in 1996, Shahidul was stabbed by unknown assailants. Drik’s journey over the past decade highlights the relative privilege of those who live between worlds, within easy reach of a diasporic space of safety.

Besides Drik, Shahidul set up the Bangladesh Photographic Institute, Pathshala (South Asian Institute of Photography) and Chobi Mela (Festival of Photography in Asia). His work has shown at MoMA, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the Royal Albert Hall, and Kuala Lumpur National Art Gallery.

Filmmaker, writer, and tactical media artist Naeem Mohaiemen directs Visible Collective, which works on art interventions on hyphenated identities, loyalty tests and security panic. Project excerpts have shown as installations and lectures. He showed with the Wrong Gallery at the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

Naeem Mohaiemen: In the 1980s, you left London to move back to Dhaka and start Drik. In your writing, you’ve talked about the need to locate media work outside he dominant narrative spaces. Both you and your partner, anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed, also consciously made a decision to conduct all your work in the Bengali language, Bangla, even in the difficult case of transliterated email.

Shahidul Alam: I returned to Bangladesh, where I was always going to be. The biggest need was to change the way majority-world countries were portrayed. I was working with a London-based studio, and the only pictures they ever seemed to be interested in were pictures of disaster or poverty. So being based in Dhaka was a fairly automatic decision.

My partner Rahnuma and I were involved in the anti-military junta agitations at that time, so I began documenting that movement. It was a much more “lived” experience than I had felt before. The move towards speaking Bangla and the introduction of new media were, in combination, a mechanism aimed at reducing the digital divide. Without international lines, faxes, or money to make expensive calls, we needed to find other ways to communicate. So setting up Bangladesh’s first email network was an obvious choice.

The introduction of written Bangla in Roman text dramatically changed the demographics of participants in our internet network, which brought home the centrality of the vernacular, even in urban, literate circles. Since then we’ve brought out several books and a photography magazine in Bangla. Later we developed a Bangla font that could be used on the net, which we used in the online magazine I was publishing, so we could reverse the information flow.

NM: I’m thinking of the imagine.art.after project, curated by Breda Beban, which brought together artists who left home and now live in London, and others who remained in “the country of their birth” (a misnomer anyway — I don’t know where I fit since I was born in London, grew up in Tripoli and Dhaka, and work in New York and Dhaka). This brings to mind all the differences in privilege, access, interests, methodology and networks that are created when artists migrate. Bangladesh has a different trajectory from the exile dynamics in locales like Lebanon, Iran or Sri Lanka, but at times we’ve had equally volatile eruptions, especially the turbulent Seventies with coups, counter-coups, and dirty wars. Those in exile or in diasporic conditions may choose to locate in “the belly of the beast,” to challenge from inside. But for this to work, diaspora cultural producers need a theoretical and practical framework for exchanges between those who “stayed” and those who “left.”

SA: Leaving aside my overseas education, I was conscious of the fact that I was highly privileged in Bangladesh, by the fact that I had the opportunity to study and did not have to worry about tomorrow’s meal. We had all used the resources of this country for our education, but wealthier countries were reaping the benefits of that training. Through us, Bangladesh was effectively subsidizing the West.

If enabling social change is measured, it is in Bangladesh that one can get the maximum returns for one’s efforts. This works at a personal and emotional level, and also if you evaluate how we can change our lives. But there are obvious risks of working in Bangladesh, particularly for journalists for whom this is said to be the most dangerous country after Iraq [according to the Committee to Protect Journalists].

NM: Well, I know that when I tried to show a rough cut of Muslims or Heretics in Dhaka, the film was refused until you used your networks. I understood then that the risk of recrimination from the Islamists was borne by Drik; the fact that I work in New York provided a strange kind of insulation. This is what made me think of the overlapping and divergent paths of diaspora versus “back home.” What do these terms even mean when many have dual passports, conflicting loyalties and multiple workspaces?

SA: Being overseas allows one to work with greater impunity and substantially lower risk. Technological benefits, as well as greater mobility, and the ability to network gives advantages that working here does not. Traveling on a Bangladeshi passport also makes a lot of my international work quite difficult (I was off-loaded from flights twice after 9/11). I see clearly different roles for those who work within and those outside. Moral judgment and self-righteousness shouldn’t enter either sphere.

You live in a country that has bombed twenty-two nations since World War II and is clearly responsible for more civilian deaths in recent history than any other nation. To be a taxpayer and therefore an accomplice to the most brutal nation on earth does require a lot of redemption! Having said that, to pay the taxes and utilize the benefits, to be able to turn the machinery in one’s favor and to actively subvert the normal course of the machinery may well be a strategically viable position — but it has to be carefully measured.

NM: You have a history of taking anti-authoritarian positions in your struggles inside Bangladesh, which involve a level of actual danger. There were situations when you were covering the Ershad junta, and the collapse of the first rightist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regime, where you came under physical attack. From the early days of Drik’s work as an internet provider, the email service as well as your phone lines came under constant interference from government authorities. When Drik sponsored screenings of Muslims or Heretics, one of your employees received threatening phone calls. But I also note the recent Time magazine cover story “Bangladesh: Rescue Mission” carried a photograph of the Prime Minister, taken by you. How do we negotiate these interfaces with power?

SA: Our anti-establishment position has been perceived (by governments) as pro-opposition, regardless of who is in power. Hopefully it also reinforces our credibility as being non-partisan, in the sense of party politics. When we put together the exhibition The War We Forgot on Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971, the government asked us to remove the images that showed revenge killings by Bangalis against Urdu speakers. We replied by pulling the entire exhibition from the National Museum and holding it in Drik’s gallery instead. The government was left with egg on its face because visitors constantly asked why such a show was refused by the National Museum. Our credibility and network (local and international) dissuades governments from bothering us unless we seriously become a threat. It’s gauging that distance that is critical. One needs to feel the intensity of the heat without getting too badly burnt.

NM: There is an iconoclastic orientation in your work. You documented the outre, diamond-studded wealth of Prince Musa, the adom bepari or human exporter who makes millions sending poor Bangla migrant labor to the Middle East. You have a habit of catching the powerful in unguarded moments: Prime Minister Zia surrounded by sycophants, ex-dictator Ershad enjoying a wedding feast after getting out of jail, former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif entourage-less at an airport. You also clashed with both the Dutch and French embassies for some strange dress code that didn’t allow you to attend a formal dinner wearing sandals. How do these provocations fit with political re-orientation for our icon-blinded politics? How do today’s characters compare with the founding heroes/villains: the Caesar figure of Sheikh Mujib, the tragic-romantic Maoist guerrilla leader Shiraj Sikder, the secretly-executed crippled freedom fighter Colonel Taher, the hodgepodge of Islamo-Communism of Bhashani, etcetera. Compared to those flawed but colorful characters, today’s political butcher house seems so debased that the punk ethic of “kill your idols” doesn’t even seem necessary. Even satire is irrelevant for leaders who are already self-made caricatures.

SA: I was young and never met [independence movement leader] Sheikh Mujib personally, though I was there for the historic 1971 rally and was moved by his speech. I suppose I’ve never been awed by these icons and have been more observant of their human attributes. Part of our condition is we deify or vilify our political figures, losing the opportunity to sift out the good and build anew. Godfathers support such idolatry as it is essential for their survival. I must admit some pleasure in bringing down these deities a peg or two. Maintaining such a position is not easy in Bangladesh. Even after thirty-five years we haven’t been able to move away from the Zia or Mujib dynasties.

NM: Drik has always maintained the difficult position of not being dependent on donor money but surviving instead through your own commercial assignments. You also have an honorable commitment to internal wage equity, so that your salary is only slightly higher than the entry-level employee. But some of the photographers you train eventually leave to take higherpaying jobs with NGOs and foreign donor agencies. What are your thoughts about this dynamic?

SA: Being financially independent is essential for the credibility of a media organization. But we do take on contractual work, some of which is derived from grants. From a donor perspective, “partnership” can be simply a pretty word to use, and consultants and machinery continue to be tied to sources of funds. So donors assume a subservience in any partnership they enter into. The USIS [United States Information Service] reminded us that they would never work with us since we opposed Clinton’s visit to Bangladesh. Similarly, the British Council reminded us that Bangla-right’s [banglarights.net] opposition to the invasion of Iraq would jeopardize future projects. They would never demonstrate such arrogance in their own countries (and have learned never to try it again with Drik). We know that we are black-listed by many donor organizations and will never get work from them, but we take that as an indicator of our success.

Our salary structure does cause problems, and things like our equal bonus policy is not always welcomed by those in higher ranks, and yes, we do lose people to NGOs and donor agencies, which is not a bad thing. What disappoints me is when bright energetic youngsters with spark get head-hunted by the donors and turned into well-paid clerks who do the donkey-work for their western counterparts.

NM: Last question: whose work are you tracking at the moment?

SA: Pedro Meyer [zonezero.com], Tyng-Ruey Chuang and Shunling Chen [Open Source Software Foundry], Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran [malaysiakini.com], Martin Chautari Group [Nepal], Marcelo Brodsky [Buena Memoria], and tehelka.com.