Shahidul Alam was born and raised in Bangladesh. Alam was expected to get a respected job. As a result of this and the war of liberation, which broke out in 1971, Alam moved to Liverpool and studied live sciences and completed his PHD in London, thus becoming a chemist. With the invention of budget airlines, Alam travelled across America and began taking images. Having access to dark rooms and chemicals once he was back in the U.K, Alam began experimenting in printing images and image making processes. He was involved in social debates and political movements and realised the space Alam’s images could have within that. Alam moved back to Bangladesh and worked as a commercial and fashion photographer despite wanting a job in photojournalism. As an outcome, Alam began documenting his movement as an activist, reflecting a certain period of time.
Alam went to visit his family and a young family member saw Alam with money in his pocket and thought, “You’ve got money? But you’re from Bangladesh?” This triggered a journey. It inspired Alam to explore the cultural, social, economical reality of Bangladesh. Poverty is a reality in Bangladesh but there is so much more, “Only poor people a gross distortion of the people we are”. Alam wanted to challenge and change the image western society had of the people of Bangladesh. Alam wanted to use different mechanisms and use different avenues. Agencies controlled how and which images would be made public and used. Therefore, Alam wanted to create his own agency so local storytellers could also tell their stories to others.
In 1989 Alam created, ‘Patshala” and worked closely with London agencies, however were promised no money until 3 years later. And so Alam would try and sell images of the photographers and pay them that way. In the U.K they had all the infantries set in place to sell and buy images. However, in Bangladesh everything had to be built from scratch, prints, calls, distribution, everything! By 1993, Alam began using Email. They had to be relevant and find those mechanisms to interact with the public and the masses. However, they needed more talent and photographers. Therefore, Alam became interested in teaching and education.
Alam began interacting with World Press Photo who held 3-day workshops in 4 different countries, Bangladesh being one of them. However, the workshops were too short and didn’t work for the long-term. By 1998 Alam formed the School of Photography. With the first set of graduates, Alam could see potential in some who could become teachers. 22/24 students became teachers. The photographic gaze was phenomenal. Photography is Bangladesh was changing. But how does one get the work out? Alam began forming festivals so the world could come to Bangladesh and interact with the work being produced there.
By 2010 there were so many other tools then just photography that could be used; multi media, journalism, broadcasting, sound. Alam created post-graduate courses and also began teaching women and working class children, who were amazing. The news was about the urban people and created ‘Rural Visual Journalism’ which produced multi media pieces/feeds using Ipads that have the potential to reach those around the globe. ‘Patshala’ meant social change. Photography is just a tool of many tools we could choose to use. “If we all did was make pretty pictures and good photographers it would have very little meaning”. It set up to address social justice. ‘Majority World-we make up most of the world, we are the majority, we are not just poor and third world”
It’s all about addressing social justice, creating good citizenship and using the most appropriate, available tool to tell the stories. The most current tool is multi media but Alam will evolve whenever is necessary. It’s all about using the most appropriate tool in whichever moment in time, images, text, and media, whatever is needed. The mechanics are constantly evolving. The chosen tools must always be effective. “Describe the world differently”, we should break away from conforms and old media. Using the right tools and achieving social change is the aim of being an effective storyteller.
Alam questions modes of story telling. Elitism is very common in Bangladesh. We value the written word but if we define literacy only through the written word we undermine the knowledge that everyday people have and are not recognised as storytellers. Images, sounds, media can build up a story belonging to someone else. Example of the African tree. The centre is sacred. That’s the place of a storyteller. They will carry and share their stories, which travel across generations. Teaching=learning how to tell stories and share them with a wide audience. With mainstream media you can only expect so much. The digital allows more access mainly production (immediate, internet, global) and dissemination (authorship). The digital can reach out to anyone. Who should be heard? If anyone can be heard, will anyone actually ever be heard? It’s not about amplifying voices but removing barriers. It’s about hearing alternative voices. It’s important to reach just one person; it doesn’t have to be a massive scale. Change yourself then your practice. It’s about turning the lens on yourself. We are the tool of change. Change must begin from within.