The Man Who Saw Too Much

Why the Bangladesh government fears Shahidul Alam

Elections 2024
01 December, 2018

ON THE NIGHT OF 5 AUGUST, a couple of dozen men turned up at Shahidul Alam’s house in Dhaka. They dragged him from his apartment, bound and screaming, smashing surveillance cameras on the way out. A few family members and friends who lived in nearby apartments heard thuds, shouting and the screech of tyres. Alam’s partner, Rahnuma Ahmed, was with a neighbour, so she could not react in time.

By the time anyone fully realised what was going on, Alam had been thrown into a white van and driven off into the night’s darkness. When they rushed downstairs and reached the spot where the vehicle had stood, there was only the dust the van had kicked up. The timing, the men and the van all seemed to suggest one thing—that one of Bangladesh’s most famous photographers had been disappeared. For a while, it looked like that was the case.

This happened in the midst of unanticipated turmoil in the country. About a week before the photographer’s abduction, a bus plying through the streets of Dhaka ploughed into two schoolchildren, killing them. Road accidents are frequent in a city of around 20 million—there are nearly 3,000 incidents per year. But this one sparked an uproar. In the following days, thousands of students took to the streets demanding better road safety and rule of law, and asking for greater accountability from the government. They closed down parts of the city in protest, blocked roads and started managing the traffic themselves. The government clampdown was violent. The police fired at the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, threatened journalists who were reporting the events and turned a blind eye to members of the ruling party, the Awami League, beating up students.

In July 2018, a bus plying through the streets of Dhaka ran into two schoolchildren, killing them. The incident sparked an uproar and thousands of students took to the streets to protest. adminmamunur rashid / nurphoto / getty images

From the vantage points of Dhaka’s roofs and street corners, Alam caught images of the clashes. He uploaded Facebook videos explaining what he had seen, added information on the number of injured students, based on reports from his contacts at hospitals, and put up pictures such as the one of members of the youth wing of the ruling party wielding a machete in “full view of police as they chased unarmed protesting students.”

Hours before he was taken away, in an online interview to Al Jazeera, Alam drew a connection between the protests and the larger state of politics in the country, arguing that the protests were an indication of “pent-up energy, emotion, anger that has been let loose.” It was not simply about the road accident, but also about “the looting of the banks, the gagging of the media … the extrajudicial killings, the disappearances, bribery at all levels, corruption,” he said. He described the incident as “the valve that allowed things to go through.” His criticism of how the Awami League, was failing Bangladeshi citizens was searing: “You cannot tame an entire nation in this manner.”

“It is not an elected government, so they do not have the mandate to rule,” Alam said. “But they have been clinging on by brute force.” He was referring to the fact that the Sheikh Hasina administration had won seats almost unopposed in 2013 because the opposition had boycotted the elections over a dispute about how the election should be fairly managed. About the prime minister he said: “she has no credibility.”

Shocked at Alam’s disappearance hours after the interview, his friends and family desperately tried to find out where he had been taken. Ahmed went to report his abduction at the central Ramna police station. The police there told her they knew nothing. Tasneem Khalil, a Bangladeshi journalist who reports on South Asian security, decided to track what had happened. He contacted his sources in the security forces. Someone tipped him off about where Alam was being held. It was for this reason, according to him, that a likely disappearance was thwarted. “They would take him and they would deny they would have him but because this insider could leak this info to a journalist, that was a sort of a shock for them and they had to change tactic,” Khalil told me. (Khalil had himself suffered in the hands of intelligence services in 2007.)

A Bangladeshi policeman clamped Alam’s mouth so that he could not speak to the press during an appearance in court. suvra kanti das

It was the police’s detective branch, accompanied by the cops from Ramna station, which had detained him. He was likely in their custody when Ahmed went to the police station. “That was actually a bit more dangerous than him being in jail because there was no accountability for his physical presence at all,” a foreign photographer who was in Bangladesh at the time told me.

After Khalil tweeted out the leaked information about Alam being in detention, journalists bombarded the authorities with questions until a senior police officer finally went on the record, admitting that Alam was in custody. Still, no one saw him until he was glimpsed being bundled into a van before he was moved to a new location. Later, he was seen coming out of yet another van to face a judge. “I was hit,” Alam told colleagues crowding around as he was spirited through, his hands cuffed and legs buckling as he walked through supported by two officers. “They washed my blood-stained punjabi and then made me wear it again.”

On the day of Alam’s arrest, other photographers who were on the street also faced intimidation and attacks. “It was not just Alam being taken, the whole tide was turning,” the foreign photographer said. “That was a very dangerous time.” According to her, around ten students from Pathshala—a photography school Alam founded—“were violently attacked.” Many of Alam’s friends were under surveillance. They feared that their phones had been tapped. “They started to get threats,” she said. “Two or three of my friends were getting phone calls, not from the government but people from the government saying ‘We know on this day you sent a message,’ and another got a message saying ‘We know you’re not in your house right now.’”

A group of Alam’s associates campaigning for his release had to abandon working out of Pathshala after a police patrol made its presence felt. “They used to keep these black tinted vans around us that would keep circling around,” the foreign photographer said. Zafar Sobhan, the editor of Dhaka Tribune, told me Alam’s arrest “sent a message that raising your voice and speaking out boldly will be punished.” While I was reporting this piece, it was not easy to get in touch with Alam’s friends, students or other journalists in Bangladesh, as many feared their conversations were being monitored.

An international community of media watchdogs, human-rights groups and other supporters picked up the baton. The International Federation of Journalists put out a press release stating, “Such acts of arrest and violence are against the press freedom and hinders independent journalism.” The South Asia deputy director of Amnesty International said, “It is crucial that the government adheres to its international obligations, including the protection of the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and security of persons.”

Alam’s detractors doubled down after the arrest gained international attention. The prime minister’s son Sajeeb Wazed—who uses social and digital media to promote Bangladeshi success stories, defend the government against criticism and often lead attacks on critics from both the opposition and civil society—sent out a series of posts over several days. These accused Alam of inciting protesters, claiming that he lied about being tortured and even implying that the photographer was involved in a kind of international conspiracy against Bangladesh. Wazed’s claims, repeated in various forums before, came as Bangladesh appeared increasingly intolerant of dissent. Alam was charged under section 57 of the Information Communications Technology, or ICT, Act, which prohibits electronic representations that “tends to deprave or corrupt the image” of the state. Sweeping arrests of opposition activists followed the last election, but as the next vote approaches in December, much of the focus appears to be on journalists and academics in Bangladeshi society.

“His crime was not necessarily being an outspoken critic of the government; his crime was journalism,” Khalil told me. “Very, very normal ground reporting.”

But it was perhaps the work Alam had done before the interview that had embarrassed the government the most. Although the state’s lawyers accused him of “hurting the image of the nation,” they did not seem to realise that he had a long history with images. This is a man who not only built his life around reading and making images, but someone who served as a witness to the transformations of a nation, and made sure future generations would do the same.

SHAHIDUL ALAM WAS 15 YEARS OLD WHEN BANGLADESH, which was previously part of Pakistan, won its independence in 1971. The freedom to speak, write and use one’s own language, Bangla, had been an important precursor to the struggle for independence against Pakistan. The war was bloody and had a profound impact on the people living in the newly liberated country, including Alam. In his autobiographical photo book, My Journey as a Witness, he recalled an incident in which he heard “the screams of people being burned alive,” near the Hotel Intercontinental in Dhaka. He watched the events unfold with his father in silence from their verandah.

Throughout his career, he would keep returning to this period, providing the country with a valuable visual archive and foregrounding some of the most vital debates about what constituted the spirit and legacy of 1971. “He has brought together the various images of ‘71 under one roof,” Nayanika Mukherjee, an anthropologist at the University of Durham, told me. “In having that archive, it became a very important voice of that period.”

Since its hard-won independence, Bangladesh has seen extensive periods of unstable electoral democracy and frequent political shifts, ranging from military coups and caretaker governments to switches between presidential and parliamentary forms of government. Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state in the 1970s, had dismissively called Bangladesh a “basket case.” In 2014, the Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam wrote in The Guardian that ever since this comment, “we’ve spent the better part of four decades refuting that label.” Bangladesh’s ruling party hails the country’s economic progress as proof that it is no basket case, but the party’s ever growing intolerance for any sort of criticism has been a source of concern.

Alam, 63 years old, has lived through and navigated these epochal shifts, documenting, as well as challenging, its changing political realities.

The commercial centre of Motijheel was empty as opposition parties united to try and oust Ershad on 10 November 1987. shahidul alam / drik

“Though history books carry distortions, the photographs say otherwise,” he wrote in the introduction to an annual calendar prints.“Photographs say, there is evidence, I am the witness.” And yet, Alam did not have a naïve faith in photography’s ability to represent the truth either. He saw it as a coded medium, capable of generating multiple responses. “Photographs in particular take on the dual responsibility of being bearers of evidence and conveyers of feelings,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The irrelevant discussion of whether photography is art has sidelined the debate from the crucial one about its power to validate history and create emotional responses, which can influence public opinion.” He found it a duty to correct the skewed narrative of Bangladesh—what he preferred to call “my majority world country,” instead of the third world, and one that he felt was “rarely seen beyond clichés and even less understood”—that circulated in the global imagination. “In addressing incidents which others haven’t addressed, he’s highlighting his role as a Bangladeshi, who’s also fierce about its weaknesses and its strength,” Mukherjee told me.

Over the years, Alam founded and built key institutions that have contributed to the growth of photography in the country. He turned his family home into a groundbreaking gallery called Drik; set up Majority World as a photo agency telling alternative stories; founded the Pathshala school and started the biennial Chobi Mela photo festival. For these, he has been widely hailed as a pioneering figure in South Asia, bringing a pedagogy of documentary photography to the region. With each step, he has returned the conversation to Bangladesh’s foundational moments—the early hope and promise the liberation war had represented for the ordinary Bangladeshi, and the later struggles for democracy and its attendant disappointments. His photographs of the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as those depicting the overthrow of General Ershad, or his images of the first round of voting when the country moved to parliamentary democracy, would become iconic.

Alam’s work has been displayed all over the world, including the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Tate Modern in London. He is on the advisory board of the National Geographic Society and the Eugene Smith Fund. He was the first person of colour to chair the World Press jury. In 2015, he was awarded the Shilpakala Padak, the country’s highest national award given to artists, for his contributions to photography. “Regardless of how many awards one might get from wherever in the globe,” Alam said at the time, “to be appreciated by one’s own community is always special.”

Most people I spoke to impressed upon me how he represented many things to them, not simply a photographer or archivist. Sobhan, the Dhaka Tribune editor, called him the “father of photojournalism,” but argued that it was his role as a mentor that had had the most significant impact. “His real legacy is the thousands of photojournalists who have been trained or inspired by him,” he said.

On the night of 4 December 1990, when General Ershad stepped down, jubilant people took to the streets. shahidul alam / drik

One of Alam’s first students indicated to me how his mentor’s impulse was to push boundaries. “Shahidul did not box himself within the rules of documentary photography or photojournalism,” he said. Generations of students under him were encouraged to speak truth to power. “He is very conscious of inequalities in society and always talked about how we should constantly ask questions to ourselves,” the former student said. “And if we are making power structures happy, then there is something wrong.”

Alam has been a fierce critic of successive regimes. However, while there had been serious repercussions of his activism in the past, it had never landed him in jail before. The immediate fear, that he had been disappeared, was well-founded. It had happened to others like him. In Bangladesh there have been 430 enforced disappearances since 2009, according to the rights group Odhikar. The pattern has repeated itself: groups of men would come to a home, grab their victim and drive off. The family look for answers and find none.

In September, the government passed a new law called the Digital Security Act to replace the earlier ICT. Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, warned that this new Act was much worse, stating that it “is a tool ripe for abuse” and “a clear violation of the country’s obligations under international law to protect free speech.” The European Union, too, has called on Bangladesh to revise the Act. Not only does it give authorities the opportunity to detain critical voices, it has also secured powers for a Digital Security Agency to monitor social media and communication channels, and block public accounts and information. There are provisions that can lead to sentences of up to 14 years in prison for spreading “propaganda and campaign against liberation war of Bangladesh or spirit of the liberation war or Father of the Nation,” or for publishing information that is “aggressive or threatening.”

A woman in an election booth in Lalmatia who cast her vote in 1991. This became an inconic photograph representing the first free and fair elections held in Bangladesh after Ershad’s rule. shahidul alam / drik

“Journalists are scared, they are extremely scared,” Khalil said, pointing out that while the law highlights punishments for publishing falsehoods, journalists are more worried by the impact of publishing facts contrary to official narratives. “Recent arrests, including Shahidul’s, have had a chilling effect on freedom of expression, no question,” Sobhan said. “Don’t write or say anything that could cause offence. Why take a chance? Everyone knows the score.”

While these measures may have had a chilling effect within the country, expressions of solidarity, from Kathmandu to London, demonstrate how far and wide Alam’s influence has reached. “Shahidul’s practice kept reminding media practitioners, artists, cultural producers and the citizens of Bangladesh and South Asia that every citizen is answerable to the society,” Tanzim Wahab, the former vice-principal of Pathshala, told me. As he and many others see it, Alam has become a “symbol of democratic voice in the subcontinent.”

ON HIS BICYCLE, Shahidul Alam is easy to spot—floating through Dhaka’s congested arteries atop his slight fold-up bicycle, wearing a kurta and with his scarf flapping in the pollution-laden wind. He grew up in the residential area of Dhanmondi, one of three siblings born to middle-class parents. His father was a prominent scientist and his mother, a child psychologist.

In 1972, Alam went to the United Kingdom to pursue a doctorate in chemistry, following his sister, Najma Karim, who was already studying medicine there. He made a habit of walking the streets of Liverpool in his lungi. According to Karim, he considered it a form of national dress. He even taught some of the other students staying with him at the university’s chapel how to wear one. In college, he was introduced to activism through his involvement with the Socialist Workers’ Party.

Shahidul Alam with family on a trip to Wales. He went to the UK in 1972 to pursue his studies, following his sister Najma (far right) who was already studying there. courtesy najma karim

“There was no end to his inquisitiveness, he used to wonder about everything,” Karim told me at her home in London, where family portraits captured by Alam lean against the walls. She compared him to both their parents; their father, from whom he drew technical knowledge and their mother, who sparked his creativity.

It was in London that he fell in love with photography. And it happened by accident. Alam had brought a camera over from the United States for his friend, who ultimately could not afford to pay for it, so he found himself stuck with it. He started experimenting with it and was soon “completely intoxicated” by images, consuming a wide array of literature on photography and the visual medium. He taught himself how to use the camera and develop photos, eventually taking portraits of children to support his living. Soon, he won a London Arts Council award for a photograph that he took. This boosted his confidence in pursuing a career in photography.

Najma Karim compares Alam to both their parents; their father, from whom he drew technical knowledge and their mother, who sparked his creativity. rahnuma ahmed

Alam decided to return to Bangladesh in 1984—two years after Ershad gained power by imposing martial law. According to his former student, Alam was part of a generation that was keen to pass on the values they learnt abroad. “It was a very different form of motivation that brought these people back into the country,” the student told me. “They had seen the war, the struggle.” According to him, it was the need to “give back to the community” that propelled Alam’s return. In his own telling, Alam was getting “dangerously comfortable” in London. “It was time for a clean break,” he wrote. “I packed my bags for Dhaka.”

“I think he saw it as a duty,” Karim told me. “Always, always, he had a great affection for Bangladesh,” she said. “He thought that with photography he could represent his country the best. He could really make an impact.”

Alam met the love of his life, his “dearest friend and harshest critic,” Rahnuma Ahmed, in the 1980s. Their first meeting, according to Alam, is “disputed history.” drik

Bangladesh would also be where Alam would meet the love of his life, his “dearest friend and harshest critic,” Rahnuma. “Her name, a Persian word which means ‘The one who shows you the way,’ could not have been more apt,” he told me. “We collaborate, we argue and we fight. We make a very good team. A very great deal of whatever I’ve been able to achieve is due to her.”

Since he did not have formal qualifications in photography, the only kind of jobs he was being offered upon his return were teaching positions at Dhaka University. He could not land gigs on his own, so he joined the Bangladesh Photographic Society. Throughout the late 1980s, while working on assignments for multinationals to make some money, Alam photographed the political and social ferment on the streets. “I went to secret meetings, saw police attacks, and captured students breaking curfew,” he wrote. “For the first time in my life, I wanted editors not to credit me. I needed to continue my work and had to remain invisible.”

Planning the layout for the “Struggle for Democracy” exhibition at the Drik studio in 1993. drik

Within three years, in 1987, Alam was elected the president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society and had become a regular contributor for Western newspapers and magazines. The following year, the worst floods in a century hit Bangladesh. Alam took photographs highlighting the mismanagement of relief funds and the struggle of ordinary people.

One incident rankled him. A Western agency was hounding him for photographs of the floods, “the biggest tear jerkers I could find,” for which he set to work. Later, he found out the agency also sent one of its own photographers on commission, without telling him so. “The differential treatment and lack of trust bothered me,” he wrote. “I was clearly a second-class citizen. If a privileged Bangladeshi photographer with good English skills could be marginalised so easily, what hope was there for a lesser known photographer with limited resources?” His home—the same one which formed a lot of his identity, according to his sister—was converted into a gallery. On 4 September 1989, the Drik Picture Library came into existence.

Bangladesh’s first picture-editing workshop held in 1999 on the Drik Terrace. There were participants from all over South Asia. drik

The government had enforced strict censorship during the late 1980s. As things took a turn for the worse, with curfews and brutal clampdowns, most national newspapers stopped publishing material critical of the government. Alam’s images, in which he wanted to show the “raw courage of a people against the cruelty of a tyrant,” would stand in as a historical record of the time. The photos he captured during this period became the defining moments of his career. After Ershad stepped down in 1990, Drik held its first exhibition of the photographs at Dhaka University. “There were queues over a mile long,” Alam later recalled. “Some 400,000 people saw the show in three and a half days!”

Alam continued to document the wider social life of the country, from student and civilian protests to the lives of Adivasi women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts to extrajudicial killings to migrant labour—issues in which the outside world appeared to only be intermittently interested. In the first five years of Drik, there was a large body of requests for photographs from publishers and non-profits all around the world. “Almost invariably, they had to do with floods, cyclones, and slums,” Alam recalled. At “the first hint of disaster,” they “returned with the same piteous imagery, reducing a proud people to icons of poverty.”

Rabeya Sarkar Rima (left), who later became a child juror of World Press Photo and Moli Akter of the Out of Focus Group, both worked at Drik. shahidul alam / drik / majority world

In 1993, Alam wrote to the World Press Photo and asked them if they would consider changing their name to “Western Press Photo,” owing to the fact that representation of large masses of people in the world was missing. The director, in the same period, asked Alam if he would be willing to bring the exhibition to Dhaka within a month. In a matter of weeks, the Drik gallery was host to South Asia’s first World Press Photo exhibition.

Alam’s challenge to ways of seeing was not only directed at the Western world, but also internal. A year after the international exhibition came to the country, he began teaching photography to a group of working-class children—calling the group “Out Of Focus.” By 1997, the eighth annual Drik calendar featured the works of some of these children, instead of a selection of more established Bangladeshi artists.

The Drik gallery was host to South Asia’s first World Press Photo exhibition in 1993. drik

By 1998, he had established Pathshala. This marked a watershed moment, in which the practices he developed over the years were formalised and taught to younger generations of Bangladeshi storytellers. Alam wanted the institute to be much more than one that taught photography. “It’s about using the language of imagery to bring about social change; to nurture minds and encourage critical thinking,” he wrote. “It’s about responsible citizenship, and in a land where textual literacy is low; about reaching out where words have failed.”

Two years later, Alam launched Chobi Mela, the first photography festival in South Asia. Its very first exhibition was entitled “The war we forgot,” centred around 1971, with photos collected from prominent photographers such as Raghu Rai, Rashid Talukder, Don McCullin and Mary Ellen Mark.

During the 2006 Chobi Mela festival, mobile exhibitions pulled through the city on rickshaw vans, bring the art to the city’s residents. drik

When I met Alam in 2014 in a brick-walled cafe below the Drik gallery, he spoke to me about the ethos behind Chobi Mela. “We recognised that Bangladesh had a very negative image and it was very poorly understood,” he said. Alam founded Chobi Mela after attending an event in the French city of Arles in 1994, when he took along two young Bangladeshi photographers, who were floored by the experience. “I could see the transformation it brought. I realised it couldn’t be restricted to these two young men, it was something that needed to be made available,” said Alam. He knew how hard it was for most Bangladeshis to access exclusive events in distant countries.

Over time, the festival grew bigger and now attracts the most prominent names in photography while still being pitched to a local audience. Some exhibitions are displayed in dilapidated corners of old Dhaka. Mobile exhibitions, pulled through the city on rickshaw vans, bring the art to the city’s residents.

“It’s not just a question of informing people. It’s a matter of interfering, forcing power structures to change,” Alam said. In many ways, it is the legacy of Alam’s own activism, his championing of minorities and dissent, which encouraged the creative organising and groundswell of support he received from art communities across the world.

Over time, Chobi Mela grew bigger and now attracts the most prominent names in photography while still being pitched to a local audience. habibul haque / drik

NEARLY THREE WEEKS AFTER ALAM’S ARREST, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC, an international organisation of seven South Asian nation states, held its summit in Kathmandu. The heads of state, including from Bangladesh, arrived for the talks. Driving through the city in her cavalcade, Sheikh Hasina likely received a rude shock. Along the walls of various buildings throughout the valley were projected images of Alam, with his fist raised and the words “Free Shahidul.” Apart from these, his photographic images and quotes lit up Kathmandu.

In an editorial in their newspaper the next day, the Kathmandu Post joined “the call for Shahidul Alam’s immediate and unconditional release.” It stated, “Alam is more than just a brilliant photographer—his work speaks to the dignity of the marginalised and their quiet revolutions; he is a mentor to an entire generation of photographers from all over South Asia, including Nepal.” Among the people who have been deeply influenced by Alam in Nepal is Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati.

Kakshapati first met Alam in 2006, when he was visiting Kathmandu for a photo exhibition organised by Kunda Dixit, the editor of Nepali Times. It was a project that Dixit had initiated, looking back on the ten-year Maoist-led peoples’ war that had just ended. They called for contributions from Nepalis and non-Nepalis alike. Alam, eager to find ways to engage, had helped Dixit put together a book on the war, which is now a historic archival source for the years of war that eventually led to parliamentary democracy in Nepal. “We were this young bunch and eager, and he is a very approachable, accessible man,” Kakshapati recalled to me. “So immediately we started talking.”

Alam prodded Kakshapati and others to think deeply about the politics of representation. “I think it really has forced us to have conversations within the community here,” she said, “to think about how we might be representing ourselves to the outside world but also within Nepal. There’s huge diversity and even politically there’s a conversation to open up society and get community on the margins to open up.”

With Alam’s encouragement and help with securing funding, Kakshapati went on to establish, a platform for photography that attempts to “nurture unique voices and engage with social change in Nepal.” It was this organisation that projected the “Free Shahidul” images all over Kathmandu during the BIMSTEC summit.

At the heart of the lesson for Kakshapati was to think about whom photographs were meant for. Photo Kathmandu, a biennial international festival, launched in 2015, mirrors closely the ideology of Chobi Mela. It brings photos to the streets of the city, along with workshops and seminars—ways to create a public conversation around photos that might have been only locked into gallery spaces and museums. “The push to take responsibility for the stories that we’re telling,” Kakshapati said, “I think a lot of what he calls for is that.”

During the BIMSTEC summit, which Sheikh Hasina attended in August, images of Shahidul Alam, his work and his quotes were projected all over Kathmandu. sagar chhetri /

The expressions of solidarity were not only regional, but also international. In October, the Cuban artist and activist, Tania Bruguera, was commissioned to exhibit her work on the international migrant crisis in London’s Tate museum. On learning of Alam’s arrest, she organised an impromptu exhibition on the floors of the famous Turbine Hall, to draw attention to it. She had herself been imprisoned in Cuba in 2015 and is an outspoken critic of censorship in her country. “When you are in prison, what gives you strength are your principles and knowing that other people understand and are there for you,” she said. Sofia Karim, Alam’s niece, was gratified to see children running around with torches, investigating the photos laid out across the hall. “I love the fact that the seemingly rarefied spaces of one of the world’s leading art galleries became the site for such a spontaneous, un-precious, but engaging and interactive show,” she said at an event that had been organised alongside it.

The photos Bruguera decided to introduce were from Alam’s series called “Crossfire,” a visual exploration of what he imagined the victims of extrajudicial killings experienced. Although each of the photos was constructed out of in-depth research and case studies, they were not meant to present documentary evidence. Rather, the series aimed to reach the viewer on a different register. “To get under the audience’s skin; to walk those cold streets; see the terror in the eyes of the victims and hear their cries; to sit quietly with a family beside a corpse,” he wrote. For instance, one photograph called “Paddy field, Bangladesh, 2009,” depicts a lush green field. This was based on a case in which the police claimed that there had been a gunfight, chase and ambush in a field, and the victim was caught in the crossfire. Villagers demanded to know why, if that was indeed the case, the paddy was undisturbed, except at the location where the body was found. “A fragment of each story was used to suggest the whole,” Alam wrote. “It was a quiet metaphor for a screaming truth.”

When Alam first tried to exhibit the series in Bangladesh in 2010, the authorities banned it. The police also prevented the famous Indian writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, who was to launch the exhibition, from entering the gallery on the day of the opening. There were spontaneous protests at this act of censorship, along with international condemnation from human-rights organisations. But it was only once Alam took the matter to court that the exhibition was allowed to open.

This was not the only time his exhibitions were hindered—the police also shut down a 2009 exhibition on Tibet. “Wherever there is injustice happening, he will fight for it. That makes him unpopular,” Najma Karim told me. In 1996, Alam was attacked by unknown assailants at a time when there were widespread protests demanding fair elections, under a caretaker government. The Drik gallery, in those days, often functioned as a meeting space for those who were critical of the government. On his way to the gallery, he was pulled out of a rickshaw by a group of men who stabbed him eight times and stole his computer and camera.

Dissent has been central to Alam’s politics and photography. In 2015, the same year he received Bangladesh’s highest arts honour, he faced contempt-of-court charges alongside other civil-society figures for signing a petition in support of David Bergman, a journalist hauled in front of Bangladeshi courts for his coverage of the controversial war-crimes tribunals.

During the BIMSTEC summit, which Sheikh Hasina attended in August, images of Shahidul Alam, his work and his quotes were projected all over Kathmandu. sagar chhetri /

Alam also launched “Kalpana’s Warriors” that same year, an exhibition about activists fighting for Kalpana Chakma, who went missing 20 years before. Chakma was reportedly taken from her home in Rangamati in Bangladesh’s remote Chittagong Hill Tracts by a group of plainclothesmen from the Bangladesh army—a scenario eerily similar to Alam’s own abduction in August. She was the organising secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation—an organisation that campaigns for indigenous people’s rights. Alam’s exhibition was a follow-up to a previous work he had done on Chakma. She was someone who did not fit into the country’s national image—Bengali and Muslim—even in a state built on the back of a movement for language rights.

“Kalpana, you are not a pahari, or a woman or a chakma or a buddhist, but each one of us,” Alam wrote before the launch. “For there can be no freedom that is built on the pain of the other. No friendship that relies on fear. No peace at the muzzle of a gun.”

BY 20 NOVEMBER, Alam had spent 107 days in detention, before he finally stepped out of Dhaka Central Jail. He was met with a mini stampede of friends dashing towards him, engulfing him in hugs and loading bouquets of flowers into his arms. He raised a fist and the crowd cried “Alam Bhai, Zindabad!” He exited the jail’s gates with his partner Rahnuma Ahmed. A camera was already slung around his neck.

The moment was caught by the bursts of many camera flashes. But Alam also turned the camera on the many journalists who were present there, and photographed his own release.

“I am relieved to be out,” he wrote to me in an email on 29 November. “But the real task is ahead. Ensuring that the people who are governed have a say in the process of governance. Photography and writing and activism are all a means to that end.”

The process had been arduous. Even after the courts finally decided to grant him bail, Alam had to wait five days to actually be released. Tanzim Wahab told me that they had to jump several bureaucratic hurdles, even though they had all the required documents. The prison authorities sent the documents back to the court for a small correction in the home address. After waiting a whole day, the police sent his waiting friends and family back home, saying that office hours were over. His release, it seemed, would be postponed by yet another day.

However, when the family and friends were halfway home, they were called back.

“We thought Shahidul will be angry and upset but once he was finally out, we found him smiling, cheering us up instead,” Wahab recalled to me. He had been reading a book while the authorities were deciding.

Wahab told me Alam had mixed feelings about leaving prison because he had made friends with fellow inmates and did not want to leave them behind. Compared to other prisoners, who were in a far worse condition, Alam felt he had struggled little inside jail. He told a news agency that he hoped his release would “signal freedom for many others.”

He was equally sensitive to the anxiety of his loved ones and well wishers outside who worked tirelessly for his release. In his email to me, he reflected on the burden Ahmed carried throughout the ordeal. “Even when I was in jail, I was writing. She was the one, who was chasing lawyers, visiting me every day in jail, somehow managing finances, trying to keep Pathshala and Drik afloat and ensuring my wellbeing.” Referring to the “gender relations that play out in even activist’s homes,” he wrote, “She ends up mopping up behind the scenes, while I end up in the limelight, when in many ways it should be the other way around.”

Since his release, Alam has begun to ease back into his work even while in hospital for medical check-ups. On 24 November, he wrote his first Facebook post after retrieving some of his social media accounts that had been hacked in his absence.

“Never thought Dhaka traffic, winter smog, and the incessant honking of horns could be so attractive,” he wrote. “Never appreciated the meaning of the word ‘Freedom’ to such an extent.”

One of his cameras was broken during the student protests, and his laptop and phone were confiscated during the arrest, but Alam is already thinking of beginning a new project. “My stint in jail has opened up another window,” he wrote to me. “I recognise the importance of jail reform and that is where much of my energy will be spent.”

For Wahab, the day of Alam’s release was one of the most memorable in his life. “He has become a phenomenon,” he said. “It is not a story of a person, it is about a cause.

Throughout the 1990s, Shahidul Alam documented the social life of the country from student and civilian protests to extrajudicial killings. rashid talukder / drik