Story by Kyle Almond, CNN
After Shahidul Alam went on TV last year and criticized the government of his native Bangladesh, the renowned photographer was taken from his home and thrown in jail for 107 days.
If it was meant to quiet him, it didn’t work. He remains as defiant as ever.
“I see myself as a citizen of an independent nation, and my constitution gives me rights. And I intend to exercise those rights, and I will continue to do so whether or not the regime tries to stop me,” he said this week in a phone interview with CNN. “That's what I was doing before, that's what I'm continuing to do, and that's what I will keep on doing.”
Alam, a well-known activist in the South Asian journalist community, was arrested in August after comments he made during an interview with Al Jazeera. Alam, who had been covering student protests that paralyzed parts of the country’s capital of Dhaka, told Al Jazeera that the unrest was about more than just road safety, and he accused the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of clinging to power by “brute force.”
Soon after, he was charged with spreading rumors and false information via text messages and inciting violence against the state. He said he was also tortured by police, an allegation authorities have denied.
As news of Alam’s arrest spread, along with photos of him raising a fist in defiance, there was an international outcry. Human rights groups called for Alam's “immediate and unconditional release,” slamming the allegations against him as “a blatant violation of his right to freedom of expression.”
Alam said he was aware of the #FreeShahidulAlam campaign while he was behind bars. He said it energized him.
“It made a huge difference not just to me but also for my fellow prisoners, because they then felt that this was a campaign against injustice — not merely a campaign for my freedom,” he said. “They were the ones who would constantly get information to me. Fellow prisoners actually made a radio for me so I could listen to the news.”
In November, Alam was released on bail. A month later, he was among the journalists featured in Time magazine’s annual Person of the Year issue.
But his freedom remains in the balance.
“The case still hangs over my head,” he said this week. “If sentenced, I face a maximum sentence of 14 years.”
Running afoul of the government is nothing new for Alam, who has been critical of Bangladesh’s various leadership going back decades.
Over the years, he’s had a loaded gun pointed at his head. He’s been stabbed. But when fighting for social justice, he says, the risks come with the terrain.
“The job of a journalist is to be at the edge, to be constantly alert, to be feeling the heat,” he said.
It’s what he has been teaching his students for years at his photography school in Dhaka, the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute.
He doesn’t tell them to be martyrs — “martyrs don’t make good reporters,” he said — “but I also remind them that they came into a profession which requires them to take certain risks, and unless one is prepared to do so, perhaps one is in the wrong profession.”
The war for social justice is one of the reasons Alam started the school as well as Chobi Mela, Asia’s first photo festival.
“I recognized that if I was to fight a war, I needed warriors, and I started the school and later on the festival — the idea being that we would get pressure upon the political space through three areas of intervention: media, education and culture,” Alam said.
Alam also co-founded Drik, a photo agency in Bangladesh, to give local photographers a way to tell their story instead of leaving it to outsiders.
The idea came in 1989, when Alam was staying in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and a little girl was surprised because he had coins in his pocket.
“She was incapable of seeing a Bangladeshi as anything other than an icon of poverty,” Alam said. “And that got me thinking about how people portray the social and cultural environment that this little girl was growing up in that that was the only identity she could give to someone who is from Bangladesh. And I felt I needed to challenge that stereotype.”
Alam took that concept and expanded it to showcase local photographers in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
Frustrated with people using the term “Third World,” he named the new agency Majority World.
“I felt that perhaps the world needed to be reminded that we were the majority of humankind, and that we should be known for who we are rather than what we lack,” he said.
While Alam fights his legal case in court, he continues to receive plaudits from around the world. The International Center of Photography honored him this month with its prestigious Infinity Award, and his work will be showcased later this year at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. It will be his first US retrospective, covering his career over four decades.
He’s also found a new cause: jail reform.
“While I was in jail, I could see what happens to people who are incarcerated, the fact that many of them were not in a position to even fight for the rights they had,” Alam said.
He’s been working with several NGOs and donor organizations to help prisoners in his former jail find legal support. He’s also worked with jail officials to introduce vegetable patches, adult education classes, musical instruments and painting supplies.
He was honored, he said, when the prisoners chose to paint a mural of one of his favorite photos, a beautiful sun-lit sailboat in the Padma River.
In October, Bangladeshi President Abdul Hamid approved the Digital Security Act, a controversial new digital security law that rights groups fear could be used to further erode press freedoms and dissenting videos online.
The country ranks 146th in the most recent World Press Freedom Index, and the Prime Minister was re-elected to a third term following a disputed landslide election in December.
But Alam said he is still hopeful about the future.
“I continue to believe that my people will resist,” he said. “One of the things that gives me hope is the fact that when I walk the streets — and I don't do that too often because it's dangerous for me to do — people come up to me, they hug me, they have tears in their eyes and they tell me, ‘You said what we all wanted to say but didn't have the courage to do.’
“I think they feel empowered, and while it is true that there are people who are silent it is also true that there are people — both within media and outside — who continue to take risks and continue to speak out against a very repressive regime.
“So, yes, we will prevail. It might take time and it will require sacrifice, but I'm confident we will get there.”