“Being behind a camera, gives you a power that can be Dangerous” -Shahidul Alam


Nikon FM, was that the first camera you began your journey with ? 


Yes, I bought it in New York, along with a normal lens, a tele- zoom and a wide angle adapter, as well as a rickety tripod and a flashgun. I hitchhiked across the US and Canada and took pictures along the way.


What were the events that transpired which led you to pursue your craft despite having a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University  of London?


I come from a family of academics. My mother was the founder of a school. My Father had been a professor at Dhaka Medical College. I was natural that I would pursue higher studies. I had a love of animals and wanted to study life sciences.  So I studied biochemistry and genetics at university and went on to do a PhD in organic chemistry. Until that point, it all seemed natural. No one in my extended family had ever been an artist or a journalist, and back then, they weren’t really considered serious professions. During my PhD, I got very involved with the Socialist Workers Party at university and went to party protest and rallies. Many of them were about rights. Workers rights, gay rights, race rights. We were also campaigning for the Solidarity movement for workers’ rights in Poland.


In your definition, what is a powerful image? What should a photographer required to capture such an image?


September 2, 2015: Three-year-old Kurdi lying dead on the beach Mediterranean Sea, near Bodrum, Turkey (Nilüfer Demir)
December 17, 1971: Photo shows a dismembered head in the Rayerbazar killing ground, where the nation’s finest intellectuals were murdered on December 14, 1971 (Rashid Talukder/Drik)

The power of an image is directly linked to the response it can elicit. This depends upon the intrinsic quality of the image, suck as its composition, tonality and other aesthetic characteristics, as well as its content. On rare occasions a photograph may have both. The image of Alan Kurdi, washed ashore in Bordam beach on 2nd September 2015, lacks the aesthetic qualities, but is still powerful photograph., because of what it conveys. Other images such Rashid Talukder‘s photo of the killing fields in Rayerbazar taken on 17th December 1971, both visually strong and has a powerful massage.


A social activist or a photojournalist, how can one tell complex political stories? 


Complex stories need to be unpacked, and context has to be created. It is difficult to do it in a single image. Images on their own are generally not sufficient and a combination of images and words are needed. A well told story is able to present both the nuances and the intensity of the situation. A series of photograph that allows layered and multiple readings and resist simplistic conclusions, presented in the right sequence and supported by relevant and meaningful text is needed to ensure the complexity of story is not lost.


They say peeking through the lens of a camera changes your perspective, being a man of your stature and history what were there any moments that changed your perspective towards your county for the better?


Being behind a camera, gives you a power that can be dangerous. It allows a form of transgression, that is not always obvious to the viewer. On the other hand, it also provides an insight into how people view the pores of photography. I remember photographing group of children in Gaforgaon during the devastating floods in 1988. A group of children insisted on being photographed, which I was happy to do. A blind boy pushed himself into the center of the frame insisting of being recorded.  Stories about villagers rarely give them much importance. They generally exist as numbers. Often because some disaster has befallen then. By being photographed (and published), the boy felt he would exist as a person as opposed to a statistics. It is a powerful thought that has stayed with me. It reminds me to treat the people I photograph with care, and ensure that I do not abuse that trust.


You believe that images can be powerful enough to open our eyes to what really transpires in the real world. In the world of censorship, algorithms to bury stories, fake news and doctored images do you think your belief still stands? 


June 8, 1972: Kim Phúc, center left, running down a road naked near Trảng Bàng after a South Vietnam Air Force napalm attack (Nick Ut / The Associated Press)

The perception that images do not lie, is a myth. It is not only through tools like Photoshop that we doctor images. We also do it through association, omission and contextualization. It is true that images lend validity to claim, but it was as early as 1920, when Lewis Wickes Hine had said in 1909,  “You and I know that this undoubted faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken; for while photographs may not lie, lies may photograph. It becomes necessary,than , in our revelation of the truth,to see to it that the camera we depend on contracts no bad habits”he was not talking of digital doctoring, but the many lies we tell through association. Images are still powerful. Not merely because they potentially present facts, but also because they trigger powerful emotional response. Nick Ut’s photo of the girl burned by Napalm. The Abu Ghraib phtographs and Alan Kurdie’s body washed on the shore, have shaped history. But the authenticity of the source is still as precious as it was. An honest person is believes, a liar is doubted, whether it be words or images. So we must return to the basics. There is no shortcut to establishing one’s credibility.


Your images are not conventional representation of suffering and resistance. what is your process of breaking through the cliches in a photo – saturated world ?


Issues of representation are always fraught with danger. It is easy, in trying to show suffering and resistance, to reduce people to victims. In trying to evoke empathy, to instill pity instead. To turn to stereotypes and for the people depicted to become tropes for poverty, disaster or even the absence of justice. I try and constantly remind myself about the dignity of the people whose stories I tell, and hopefully, avoid the trap of reducing them to mere objects and building blocks of my story. I don’t always succeed, but when I do, it is because the humanity of the subjects comes through.


Any Closing Statements?


I am concerned that in this image saturated world, where our minds are constantly being shaped by images, b promoters, politicians and prophets, our education system pays virtually no attention to the language of images. When billboards, advertising hoardings and screensavers constantly inundate our minds with messages we are unable to resist, our education system does not prepare us to read the language that we are most vulnerable to. We cling on to pedagogic system that have little relevance int the world we live in. I return to an old quote,

The illiterate of the future will be ignorant of the use of pen and camera alike. – laszlo Moholy- Nagy, painter, photographer, bauhaus instructor, 1936.

That future is now.