Shahidul Alam on The Power of an Image in The Era of Fake News

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 the Dhaka Medical College. It 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 the 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 the university, and went to party protests 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. I saw how effectively they used images. If I was to fight for rights back home, it made sense to use the most powerful weapon at my disposal. I had found my weapon. I had also found my calling.
I had bought the Nikon FM in New York for a friend back in London. He didn’t have the money to pay for the camera and I got stuck with it. It was a happy accident.
In your definition, what is a powerful image? What should a photographer require 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, such as its composition, tonality and other aesthetic characteristics, as well as its content. On rare occasions a photograph may have both. The image of Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore in Bodrum beach on 2nd September 2015, lacks the aesthetic qualities, but is still a powerful photograph, because of what it conveys. Other images, such as Rashid Talukder’s photo of the killing fields in Rayerbazar, taken on 17th December 1971, is both visually strong and has a powerful message. A photographer needs the visual sensitivity of an artist, a nose for news, and a sense of history. One needs to recognise that one is standing at a moment in time, which needs to be preserved forever. A good photographer smells a great image even before she sees it.


As 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 photographs that allows layered and multiple readings, and resists simplistic conclusions, presented in a sequence that forces the viewer to reflect, to question, to transport oneself, both physically and metaphorically, to unfamiliar spaces. A photograph that is also contextualised by relevant and meaningful text is needed to ensure that the complexity of a story is not lost.


Your images are not conventional representations of suffering and resistance. What is your process of breaking through the clichés 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 instil 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.

In telling the story of a disaster, the plight of victims is undoubtedly important, but in my experience, the most remarkable aspect has been the generosity of the poor. We hear of the role of governments, of NGOs, of philanthropists. Rarely do I hear the stories of how common people, find, despite their own plight, the ability to reach out to another, also in need. Telling the story of their resilience, their ability to support one another, their tenacity, and their indomitable spirit, and also, very importantly, the fact that their very existence is a direct questioning of our privileges – these make for a compelling story, but one that is rarely attempted.

I don’t always succeed, but when I do, it is because the humanity of the subjects comes through.


They say peeking through the lens of a camera changes your perspective, being a man of your stature and history, were there any moments that changed your perspective towards your country 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 power of photography. We gained independence through the sacrifice of many in 1971. The right to speak our own language was the rallying cry behind our war of liberation. Unfortunately, soon after independence, the Chittagong Hill Tracts was effectively brought under military occupation and successive regimes, of whatever colour, have actively supported the persecution of the indigenous community that lives there. We have denied the rights of the paharis to speak their own language, and snatched away their land.

What gives me hope however, is the fact that nearly twenty five years after the abduction of Kalpana Chakma, the Jummas still fight for her justice, and that they are not alone. The champions of the Jumma resistance includes paharis, Bangalis and women and men from many disciplines. As long as a nation is prepared to fight for justice, as long as equality remains a dream for the thinkers of a nation, there is still hope. A nation where warriors fight for the downtrodden, will always overcome. I am humbled by the fact that despite the systemic abuse by Bangalis, Jummas still see some of us as friends, and trust us as fellow warriors. They open up their homes and their lives to us despite the history of Bangali domination that they continue to face. 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 contextualisation. It is true that images lend validity to a claim, but it was as early as 1902, 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, liars may photograph. It becomes necessary, then, 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 responses. Nick Ut’s photo of the Vietnamese girl burned by Napalm. The Abu Ghraib photographs of the torture of Iraqis by their American occupiers and, fleeing persecution, little Aylan Kurdi’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 believed, 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.


Any closing statements?

I am concerned that in this image-saturated world, where our minds are constantly being shaped by images, by 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 systems that have little relevance in 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  professor, 1936.

The future is now.
*The answers of this interview were written  by Dr. Shahidul Alam and published here as it was sent.