“No matter how bleak or menacing a situation may appear, it does not entirely own us. It can’t take away our freedom to respond, our power to take action,” wrote Ryder Carroll. So has gone the life of Shahidul Alam, whose powerful work is on view at Wrightwood 659. Alam was born in East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh. In the 1980s he began documenting protesters on the streets of Dhaka, and for nearly fifty years, he has used his camera to bring to light corruption, oppression and the resilience of the Bangladeshi people. In a part of the world that passes from crisis to crisis, Alam brings quiet dignity to his subjects and exposes the difficulty of the struggle for democracy and the inequality that exists within the country.
There are images that are seared into my mind after seeing this finely curated exhibition. In one, “Student in Prison Van,” from 1996, a man is barely visible behind both bars and hastily applied chain-link, his agony apparent in his open mouth as he cries out. He is caged like an animal and the image is heartbreaking. In another, a woman wades through waist-high water while boats carry people to safety in the background. The flooding in 1988 was the worst in a century, leaving almost twenty-five million people without homes. Natural disasters are common in the area, but the elite remain silent and carry on with their privileged lives while the poor fend for themselves.
Alam, who was a Time magazine Person of the Year in 2018, has suffered for his beliefs and for bringing attention to the issues that plague Bangladesh. He spent 107 days in prison for “inciting violence against the state,” and “spreading rumors and false information via text messages.” Living in a nation where the goal is to display a homogeneous national identity, Alam stands out for his unwillingness to conform and to turn a blind eye to the injustices he sees. Photography allows him to expose conditions that the country’s leaders seek to ignore or conceal. In the section titled “Crossfire,” three minimal but haunting images, “Gamcha,” “Morgue,” and “Bullet Hole Wall” eloquently speak of the turmoil—when the work was shown in a Bangladeshi gallery, the police stepped in, closed the exhibition about extrajudicial killings, and despite the evidence of the photographs, the home minister claimed there had never been crossfire.
The show’s title comes from a quote by Alam himself—“As journalists, we need to feel the heat, stand close to the fire, and risk being burnt. Take one step back, you become ineffective. The trick, therefore, is to get singed but not burnt.” Alam has spent nearly a half century getting close to the fires that burn in Bangladesh. His impact and that of his photographs is as enormous as his passion for his country.
“Shahidul Alam: Singed but not Burnt” at Wrightwood 659, 659 West Wrightwood, admission by advance ticket only here. On view through July 15.