Shahidul Alam’s Photo Festival in Bangladesh Is ‘an Act of Defiance’


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Over the last 20 years, the Chobi Mela photo festival in Dhaka has become one of the world’s premier photo events, featuring rigorously curated exhibits and animated discussions about the medium’s place today. It is a beacon for advocates of greater inclusion in the photo world, as well as those seeking freedom of speech in Bangladesh.

And it almost didn’t happen this year.

Last August, Shahidul Alam — a photographer, human rights advocate and the festival’s founder — was jailed by the government for speaking out against its violent repression of student-led protests. His imprisonment, which drew vigorous condemnations from international human rights groups and journalists, threw this year’s festival into uncertainty. But Mr. Alam and his team decided that despite the government’s campaign against him, the festival had to go on.

“It’s an act of defiance, an act of resistance, really,” he said in a telephone interview. “We live in a climate of fear which is the very situation where these voices need to be voiced to be able to provide strength to those who are still scared in the situation”

Mr. Alam was released on bail in November after 107 days of imprisonment. But since the charges have not been dropped, he potentially faces 7 to 14 years in prison under a law that lets the government arrest people who criticize it online.

Despite his release, it has been a struggle to put on the festival, which opened this week. All but one of the local corporate sponsors withdrew, while public museums and other venues used in previous festivals became unavailable. But Mr. Alam and his team “improvised and by the skin of our teeth put together a program which has turned out to be the best festival we’ve had,” he said.

Undaunted, they relied mostly on a 10-story cement and brick building that is still under construction as the future home of Mr. Alam’s Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. The school has trained hundreds of photographers over the last 30 years and helped Bangladesh gain a reputation for its vibrant photo community. Mr. Alam’s Drik Photo Agency will also be housed there.

The festival’s curatorial team of Rezaur Rahman, Munem Wasif, Sarker Protick and Tanzim Wahab have put together an impressive festival that includes exhibits by Susan Meiselas, Rashid Talukder, Dayanita Singh, Taslima Akhter and Vanessa Winship.

There are also sound and video installations and daily film screenings. Speakers include Raghu Rai, Gerhard Steidl and Abir Abdullah. Mobile exhibitions on rickshaws will bring the festival to remote areas of Dhaka.

Chobi Mela has grown in influence since its inception in 1999 and has consistently challenged a “colonialist viewpoint” that is often promoted in Western photography, Mr. Alam said.

“Chobi Mela addresses and represents a much wider community than the traditional photographic world either recognizes or gives importance to,” he said. “It is an attempt to open up photography to many more people in my part of the world, but also to make their work available to a much wider audience to make that connection, to build that bridge.”

Photography can be used as a tool for oppression or brainwashing people, he noted, so it is particularly important to use it in constructive manner.

Mr. Alam has not kept silent in his fight for freedom of speech in Bangladesh, despite the toll of torture and mistreatment while in prison. He recently gave blunt interviews to the BBC and Channel Four in Britain.

He believes that to be free but stay silent against injustice is to still be imprisoned.

“I am not prepared as a citizen to live that life and I want to question that life and I will continue to do so as long as I can,” Mr. Alam said. “I continue to believe I am the citizen of an independent state and my constitution gives me certain rights. I will insist upon exercising those rights and if there are people who have problems with that then they will deal with it. It’s their problem not mine.”

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