‘Third World’ and ‘Developing World’ not our chosen identity: Interview with photojournalist Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam at the PopTech 2011 conference

Shahidul Alam at the PopTech 2011 conference (PopTech / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Noted Bangladeshi photojournalist, activist and writer Shahidul Alam started documenting the post-liberation political landscape of Bangladesh in the 1980s, only to find himself as an activist in a social justice movement that would eventually end the nine-year dictatorship of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Even without actively joining the political scene, he has built a media ecosystem that continually holds the polity accountable.

Alam was arrested in August 2018 on charges of instigating “students to continue a movement against the government” and was detained for over 100 days before being released on bail. He was one of Time magazine’s persons of the year in 2018.

Global Voices author Subhashish Panigrahi interviewed Alam during the National Geographic Storytellers Summit 2023, an in-person event in Washington, D.C.

Subhashish Panigrahi (SP): What inspired you to become a photojournalist and a social justice activist?

Shahidul Alam (SA): Being from a middle-class home, I ended up in academia and was trained as an organic chemist in Britain, but I left that for photography and moved back to Dhaka. With a stint in fashion photography and corporate advertising, I soon got involved with the political movement to bring down a powerful General.

Like many others, I was hopeful that my nation, which gained independence after a war of liberation, would become egalitarian for average citizens. Upon returning to Bangladesh, I was drawn into a social movement geared toward bringing down an autocratic and powerful military general. I began documenting this movement. That helped me look closely at sociopolitics to the role of the military and power elites and the lives of everyday people, especially Indigenous communities and their struggles. The General eventually fell, but I continued my journalism and activism.

In our political system, the way to get into politics has been through money and muscle. I did not want to go that way. Given the context, it wouldn't have allowed me to achieve what I managed to achieve. Therefore, I consciously created entities in different areas — media, education, and culture — actively intervening in politics. These institutions ensure politicians and the power elite cannot get away with their indiscretions.

SP: What role has technology played in your work?

SA: I took on photography when I started my career, recognising its tremendous power. My choice would have been on social media if I were starting today. As we struggled with exchanging information, we recognized that one way to fight back was to have the power of intervening tools. We didn't have an international telephone line, nor could we afford it. We found it very difficult to send pictures as we had no internet connectivity then. So, we decided to act independently instead of waiting for government support.

In 1994, we contacted a Dutch organization, TOOL, which helped us set up an offline FidoNet Network. It required very low-end technology. For instance, our server was a computer with a 16-bit Intel 80286 microprocessor. Since we did not even have an international telephone line, colleagues at TOOL would ring us twice a day from Amsterdam. We developed an electronic postbox (DrikTAP), and people in Bangladesh could dial into our server locally. We used cheap modems, and all those emails would be packaged in an electronic postbox. When TOOL would ring us, those emails would go to the Netherlands, get unpacked, sent to the internet and go across the world. Using a reverse process, we would receive emails from the rest of the world in our Dhaka server, which would then be distributed across individual computers nationwide. Setting up this system helped connect Bangladeshis with Latin America, Africa, and others in Asia.

We also set up electronic bulletin boards to disseminate and discuss social campaigns, human rights issues, health and other inaccessible information. We were able to do more things collectively. We set up an email club and taught people how to use email and browse using the Veronica search engine, which used the Gopher protocol. We had our own space on the internet, but it was costly — transferring a 1Mb file costing 350 USD. So, we taught people about file compressing and converting files into text files to save costs. We also set up a fax gateway so that people from rural Bangladesh could send messages to other parts of the world without internet connectivity or even an international subscriber dialling (ISD) line. The rural regions got connected with the main cities.

SP: How was the internet experience of the Bangla speakers, especially those who were not fluent in English?

SA: Despite encouraging meaningful conversations, the electronic bulletin boards saw low participation. Only international NGOs and people fluent in English would participate. We didn't have the Bangla fonts to help with interface localization. So, we started introducing Bangla transliteration, by writing Bangla using Roman letters. Suddenly, those who felt threatened earlier by English-only interfaces started participating — women and people from rural and marginalized backgrounds — turning those boards into a diverse space. It helped us realize how technology could be both enabling and limiting at the same time. Learning about these power structures inspired me to write the piece for Bytes for All titled ‘When a Modem Costs More Than a Cow,’ which it did in those days.

We still had no option for Bangla input online. Companies then started developing their proprietary input tools, creating more fonts and input tools. But input systems are still not properly standardized. We needed a universal input system then. We later started developing Bangla on Unicode using ad-hoc and guerilla tactics, and with the emergence of input tools, people could read and write in Bangla on the web.

SP: How has your work impacted how the “majority world” is perceived, and what led you to frame this term?

SA: During an exhibition of mine in Belfast, I was staying with Irish friends. During the stay, their five-year-old daughter Karina and I would tell each other stories. One day, I returned from the show, emptying my pockets, and she was standing at the doorway staring at me. When I asked why, she said, ‘you're from Bangladesh, but you've got money.’ Her parents were development workers who helped Bangladeshis, but she only knew Bangladeshis as icons of poverty. Seeing a Bangladeshi with coins in his pocket was an oxymoron to her. It got me to think how much a five-year-old girl grows up in this social and cultural space where she can't see a Bangladeshi anything other than an icon of poverty. I realized that stereotypes of my people were created blindly by white Western photographers who came into my country, had diarrhoea for two days, photographed on the third, and returned with the same old tropes they propagated. We can't shift that unless storytellers change their stories.

We are called ‘third world’ and ‘developing world’ — not the identity we had chosen for ourselves. The G8 countries represent 13 percent of the world's population, yet they make decisions that affect a farmer in the field in Bangladesh. And the farmer never chose them to be our representatives.  They were the first world and we were the third world. We wanted to question their rhetoric of democracy, reminding them that we are the majority of humankind, and we want to be known for what we are, not what we lack. That's why we began using the term ‘majority world’ as an alternative to ‘third world’ and ‘developing world’. It took time to finally become more common, in academic and public discourses.

A gallery display form the 2021 edition of Chobi Mela, the international festival of photography in Dhaka, Bangladesh hosted by DRIK.

A gallery display from the 2021 edition of Chobi Mela, the international festival of photography in Dhaka, Bangladesh, hosted by DRIK. Image by Rezwan. Used with permission.

Alam says, “we knew that if you have to fight a battle, you need warriors”. He has experience violence in many extremes — a loaded gun pointed at his head during one regime and eight knife wounds in the next while being jailed for 107 days. His resiliency has been reflected in the organizations he has founded and co-founded — the photography agency and picture library Drik Picture Library in 1989, the world’s first bachelor’s program in photography in 1998, Chobi Mela (the first Asian photography festival) in 2000, and the photography agency Majority World in 2004 (DRIK’s counterpart for Latin American, African, and other Asian countries).

His work continues to highlight three significant areas often attacked by majoritarian governments — media, education, and culture. He and the large community he has created work to exert pressure upon the political space. Housed in a 10-story building in Dhaka, these organizations continue to nurture freedom of expression and local journalism at a time when mainstream media is largely controlled by either political parties, corporate bodies, or religious organizations.

You can listen to the interview here:

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