A photojournalist's powerful portrait from prison

Alam gagged by police officer. Photo: SUVRA KANTI DAS

On Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2018, Indian author Arundhati Roy penned an open letter to Shahidul Alam, the renowned Bangladeshi photojournalist who had been incarcerated for over 100 days. ‘Dear Shahidul,’ Roy wrote, ‘I believe the tide will turn. It will. It must. This foolish, shortsighted cruelty will give way to something kinder and more visionary.’

Shahidul Alam replies in his book, The Tide Will Turn, a photography and text collection lovingly named after Roy’s letter. Combining sketches from fellow inmates, historical work by Bangladeshi photographers, reflections and political commentary, The Tide Will Turn does more than document Alam’s time in jail and his views: it serves as a curated collection of political art and writing, acting as a critique of autocracy.

Alam was arrested and detained on 5 August 2018, shortly after a televised Al-Jazeera interview where he criticised Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina government for its response to protests by young students demanding road safety. The months after saw a worldwide campaign for his release with mass exhibitions, petitions, demonstrations and letters from prominent figures.

In Nepal, journalists and students protested in front of the Bangladesh Embassy in Kathmandu and lit up the city’s walls with projections of quotes and photographs by Alam during the visit to the Nepal capital by Sheikh Hasina for a South Asian leaders’ summit.

Alam, still imprisoned, was awarded the Photo Kathmandu Award of Excellence on 26 October 2018, both to celebrate the immense impact he has had on generations of Nepali journalists and photographers and as a clear sign of solidarity with one of South Asia’s most prominent photojournalists.

‘There is a Bangla saying – “Apnake dhonnobad janie choto korbo na” (I will not belittle you by thanking you),’ Alam writes in his preface. ‘This book is my way of making amends.’

Alam dedicates the first part to the prisoners in Keraniganj Jail in Dhaka. Without a camera to document his stay, he uses vivid writing to capture images of his detainment: the surroundings, the guards, his inmates and their stories, and the sparrows he made friends with.

The chapter also includes notes, sketches, a mural and even a radio made by inmates who were concerned that Alam ‘a journalist, did not have access to news’. The chapter can almost be read as a standalone, a poignant reflection on his 107-day incarceration.

The longest section of the book provides a detailed historical commentary on Bengali photography, touching on artists who have captured some of the most striking images to come out of Bangladesh, as well as on Alam’s own work. It includes one of his earliest series, which focuses on former sex worker Hazera Beagum.

When Shahidul Alam first met Hazera Beagum in 1996, she was a sex worker. Beagum at her orphanage in Adabor Market in Dhaka in December 2014 (pictured right). Photos: SHAHIDUL ALAM

The photographs show Beagum first in 1996 and then in 2014, now running her own orphanage and ensuring that all her children receive an education. With photospreads of select iconic images, the chapter also makes for a stunning collection of Bangladeshi art over a century.

The third section of The Tide Will Turn centres entirely on Bangladeshi politics. Alam uses the 1971 Liberation War as a starting point to discuss identity, secularism and the failures of the government, detailing his own experience with the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse and the killing of Bangladeshi-American secular blogger Avijit Roy. There is an underlying critique of autocracy running through the book, but it is this chapter that really reveals to us Alam’s commitment to free speech and democracy.

The Tide Will Turn is best summed up by Alam himself in his letter to Arundhati Roy: ‘The tide will turn, and the nameless, faceless people will rise. They will rise against the entire state machinery.’ This deep conviction that underlies his stunning photography makes for a book that leaves readers with much to ponder.

The Tide Will Turn

Shahidul Alam

Göttingen, Germany, Steidl, 2019

184 pages, 111 images, Hardback

€ 28.00

ISBN: 978-3-95829-693-0