“I heard of the possibility to show my work at the Rubin through three layers of bars with noise levels of over 100 decibels. I was in jail, but the choice was clear: this was an opportunity not to be missed,” says Shahidul Alam. That statement says much about the man – a Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018 and a virtual celebrity in South Asia.
Shahidul Alum is a renowned Bangladeshi photographer, writer, activist and institution-builder, influential and sought after public speaker and to many of his students and those who know and love him, a father figure.
The jail he talks of was in Dhaka, Bangladash and in total Alam spent 102 days there after giving an interview to Al Jazeera and posting live videos on Facebook that criticized the government’s violent response to the 2018 Bangladesh road safety protests. It was a bogus charge and humanitarian organizations and friends worldwide had spent those 102 days hard at work trying to free him. With freedom gained he’ll be able to be at the opening of his own show at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.
According to Alam the show “Truth to Power” “is a tribute to the numerous acts of resistance all across the globe and give hope to those who continue to believe that a better world is possible.”
The show is the first comprehensive museum review in the United States of Alam’s and brings together works from his four-decade career, showing the breadth of his practice and impact in Bangladesh, across South Asia, and beyond. It features over 40 photographs and ephemera including portraits, landscapes, and scenes of daily life, strife, and of resistance in the “majority world” – a phrase Alam has used since the 1990s to reframe the notion of the “third word” or “global south”.
This pioneering exhibition will provide visitors with a nuanced view of Bangladesh and South Asia, explores systems of personal and collective agency, and underscores the importance of self-representation, empowerment, and truth that Alam’s life and work embody.
Important bodies of work will be highlighted, including “A Struggle for Democracy”, his earliest series as a professional photojournalist (He has a BSc in Chemistry, photography came later…), which highlights Bangladesh’s political struggles against an autocratic leader in the 1980s; photographs from the “Brahmaputra Diary” series, which explores life across three regions (India, the Tibetan Plateau in China, and Bangladesh) and religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam) along the length of the majestic Brahmaputra River; a sculptural installation of portraits on straw mats from “Kalpana’s Warriors”, which attempts to break the silence on the disappearance of feminist activist Kalpana Chakma; and more. While shining an unflinching light on major Bangladeshi tragedies as well as daily life, Alam’s images reveal a country and cultures often misunderstood and misrepresented.
The exhibition will also feature new work, including a 3D model of the prison where he recently was incarcerated for speaking out against the Bangladeshi government, as well as recent images taken after his release.
That gives you just a peak at to how hardworking the man behind the famous (and cheeky) smile is. He just doesn’t stop for a second. In addition to his powerful photographs, Alam’s global impact and importance as the conceptual architect of transformative institutions – Drik Picture Library, Drik Photo Agency, Pathshala South Asia Media Institute, Chobi Mela Photography Festival, Majority World Photos – and the regional solidarity he has been able to catalyze cannot be overstated and will be illustrated through the exhibition narrative.
Alam’s role as a change maker is one he inhabits with equal resolve and energy. His belief in nurturing visual literacy has driven him to go beyond mere advocacy: through the institutions he has built, the disenfranchised and misrepresented are able to tell their own stories.
— Samantha Reinders