The real picture

When Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam sent a nasty letter to the World Press Photo foundation in the 1980s...

Written by Nikhil Roshan | Published:March 8, 2009 5:52 am

Legendary Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam comes to India with a new mission

When Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam sent a nasty letter to the World Press Photo foundation in the 1980s,it was in response to the way his country was portrayed up until then by the international media. All the images of the country showed the grim realities of poverty and destruction,and the cyclone-ravaged countryside,he felt. “And though these were true,for us,that wasn’t the story,” says Alam,who was immediately invited by the foundation to be a fellow jury member and to give voice to the concerns he had raised. His letter had obviously made a dent on the processes of the prestigious photo foundation.

Today Alam is something of a legend among photojournalists all over South-Asia. As a crowd of enthusiastic photojournalists gathered on Thursday at the Y B Chavan auditorium in Mumbai,to get their work analysed and approved by Alam,it was clear to see the following this man has in India. “Our concern was that western photographers were showing only one aspect of our so called ‘under-developed’ countries” says Alam. He likes to politically replace the term ‘under-developed countries’ with ‘Majority World’. “We feel that it takes indigenous storytellers who are culturally sensitive to their realities to tell the whole story,” he explains. In 1989,Alam began Drik Picture Library,creating a base for the many gifted photojournalists who were quietly documenting the changing face of their disturbed country. As the library grew,Drik spread its wings to its SAARC neighbours and today,majorityworld.com,their online resource centre has more than 10,000 images,from all over the subcontinent.

Alam also set up the Bangladesh Photographic Institute; Pathshala,the South Asian Institute of Photography and the DrikNews photo agency. In Mumbai,along with his Drik India partner Suvendu Chatterjee,the kurta-clad,alternate media practitioner will enter the Sunset Boardroom at Trident,on a new mission — to woo corporates to work in partnership with them. Though many are interested in addding Corporate Social Responsibility to their company profile,Drik affirms they are not here merely to ask for funds. “We are trying to employ big business as a means of sustainability. And after all,social responsibility is our business,” Alam explains.

It is probably the same industriousness that has helped this student of chemistry — who took up photography quite by accident — set up the infrastructure for photojournalism in his country. The past five years have seen three Bangladeshi recipients of the prestigious National Geographic All Roads prize for photography,all below,or around the age of 30. Only one Indian photojournalist,Sudharak Olwe has received the prize so far. And though prizes may not assess the true worth of an artist,Alam points to a lack of a larger photographic movement in India. “I sit in Delhi with Raghu Rai,Pablo Bartholomew and Dayanita Singh and they say ‘Kuch karna hai’,but I don’t see much happening,” he laments.

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