Framing The World Through My Photographs

#Phonar Interview with Shahidul Alam – Reflections

Shahidul grew up in a middle class Bangladeshi family where their culture dictates that individuals should get a respected job such as a doctor. A tour across America was the stimulant for becoming involved in photography, and because his parents had sent Alam to Britain to study life science he found that his knowledge as a chemist made it easy for him to engage in a darkroom. Alam returned to Bangladesh to become a photojournalist but he found he hadn’t got  the credentials to do so, therefore he started with commercial photography to make money. When visiting friends friends in Belfast their five year old daughter couldn’t understand how someone from Bangladesh could have money. Alam began to question the cultural social economic environment in which a five yr old grew up in Britain where she couldn’t see someone from Bangladesh than an icon of poverty. He said “it’s a gross distortion of the people we are.” Upon realising this Alam wanted to change this perception of Bangladeshi people, he thought about how photographic agencies distributed images of people in Bangladesh, and how this relates to the view the young girl thought as him as nothing other than an icon of poverty. Photo agencies have the control over what is seen and what is not seen.

Alam thought the best way to change this was to start with the mechanism. Alam began to set up his own photo-agency which was closer to the photographer, which gave the chance for local storyteller to tell there stories that they wanted to tell. It was different from other agencies that he was working for at the time.Alum recognised that English agencies could buy all the infrastructures, but in his agency it all had to built from the ground. Alam decided to bring education and technology to Bangladesh, he became interested in the educational aspect to The World Press Photo which he was in conversation with around this time. With this in December 1998 he set up The School Of Photography, which dramatically changed attitudes towards photography in Bangladesh. When Alam started teaching he was the only Bangladeshi teacher now there is over 24 bangladeshi’s teaching photography. Alam decided to have a festival where the world would come to Bangladesh 1999.

When Alan was photographing a women in a slum in Bangladesh he became aware of how little power she had over how she was depicted.With this Alum began training women and children so that the representations being made were more varied. He said that the problem lies with  elitism with mainstream multi-media focusing on the elite in the big cities and it was as if small villages were non existent. In light of this Alum set up a “rural visual journalists network” where journalists in the village would use i-pod touches to record and edit content in which Alum and the photo agency would determine where to disseminate them. And now stories are being seen on rural Bangladesh. In 1997 set up the agency the majority world which has representation of Asian African and latin american photographers, looking at social justice. Photography is the tool for changing the social injustice. Photography can not change this alone. Back in the 1990’s multi-media would not have been the appropriate tool to try and do so, however in todays world it is very appropriate to use multi-media. Alum believes it is best to  pick up the new tools and leave the old behind.

Alum believes photography should change perceptions of how people view the world, which goes along with the quote from Mark Muguire which Jonathan Worth highlighted if “if you want to change the world you need to start changing the way you describe it”.

“To see us as only photographers is a very limited way of seeing ourselves as storytellers”

“We have to transport the people around us into a world where things happen in a particular way and help people see the world in different ways.”

Alum talks about elitism in Bangladesh and how literacy was mostly taught to the higher classes. Alum states “If we only define literacy through the written word we undermine the knowledge that everyday people have.We need to see how the building blocks and what we do whether it be multimedia or still or words all add up to in the end conveying and idea to someone else” Alam looks at teaching how to tell stories to the wider community. Which like Worth says, “a digital world lends itself to a non linear way of story telling which moves us away from having to read.” The photographer needs to skill in story telling to be able to convey they bigger picture. The ability we have to disseminate information online means that everyone has the opportunity to be published as well as the media being able to determine what we can hear and restrict what we can’t, but because of this as Worth states “when everyone can be heard is everyone heard” That particular quote stuck out for me as I feel we get spoonfed so much information, we what we perceive of being the truth but is that what we are made to believe much like the five year old who had only seen images of Bangladeshi people as the “icon of poverty” when actually there is so much more depth to when we see that we don’t get to see because of the overwhelming information we get from other sources. I feel Alum is changing the way information in spread – he says, “The mechanism is not so much about amplifying voices its about removing the barriers we see mainstream media spreading information but it also prevents other voices digital allows alternative voices to surface.” The press want to influence a vast amount of people, but Alum sates change doesn’t have to happen on a large scale, and often the the most significant change Alum felt happened in his home where he was able to question. Alum also argues that for a photojournalist to begin to change the world, it can’t happen until the journalist can look at themselves and critically and be able to ask “what is preventing you from becoming the tool of change”.”Change needs to happen within.”


“Storytelling is about empathy and understanding” (Worth)

The photographer is more than an image maker they have the ability to communicate to the wider community though our images.


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This entry was posted on November 6, 2014 by in #Phonar and tagged .
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