Turning the tide with images

Shahidul Alam’s new book remembers Keraniganj jail and the inextricable ties between photography and politics
In October 2017, Shahidul Alam travelled with a Rohingya family by boat as they came into Teknaf. Photo courtesy: Mohammad Shahnewaz Khan

Shahidul Alam's The Tide Will Turn (2019) is a book of absences. In the aftermath of the road safety student movement in 2018, those of us who followed Alam's arrest and the ensuing global backlash will remember the letter he received from writer and activist Arundhati Roy. "This particular malaise, this bout of ill health that has engulfed our planet will pass," Roy insisted in her letter. The book borrows its title from Roy's indignant hope. In a brief narrative comprised of photographs and text, it touches upon the manifestations of this "malaise" across Bangladesh's past and present, and highlights how art—photography in particular—has tried to serve recurrently as an antidote.

 It is a book of absences because, as Alam addresses in the first chapter, "Recording the invisible is not the photograph's strength. Absence is implied. The missing referred to in hushed tones." We know why these omissions are necessary and unavoidable—over the course of Alam's activism, evidence of the cruelty he tried to document through his lens was often wiped clean. There were no photos remaining of Chhatoktchhori's Nurjahan, who took her own life to avoid the violence of patriarchy, nor was there solid proof of the abduction and disappearance of indigenous activist Kalpana Chakma in June 1996. These gaps form one kind of silence. The other relates to how Alam must restrain himself while talking about the circumstances of his arrest on August 4, 2018. And even as he remembers, in this book, the wardens and fellow inmates who made his stay in prison more tolerable, along with the power structures that govern our fractured society and inspire much of Alam's activism, he must be careful not to land anyone—including himself—in too much trouble.

3D printed model of Alam’s cell made by architect and artist Sofia Karim, based on recollections dictated by him. Courtesy: Shahidul Alam

 It is in "hushed tones", therefore, that he narrates the events that sparked the student movement, his own arrest, and the time he spent in Keraniganj jail in Part I of the book. The journalist in Alam kicks in early. The "5Ws and one H" are promptly addressed: July 29, 2018. An Uttara-bound Jabal-e-Noor Paribahan bus crashes into young students, injuring 11 and killing Abdul Karim Rajib and Dia Khanam Meem instantly. A conscience-raising protest ensues. Shahidul Alam speaks out on social media, gives an interview to Al Jazeera, and finds himself behind bars. Later in the chapter, we learn of the buildings named after flowers and rivers in Keraniganj jail: Bonoful, Shapla, Jamuna, Monihar; the gathering of new prisoners at the case table at 5am every day; the dust kicked up by volleyball matches in the evening. We read of bug-infested mattresses and mosquito nets with holes, and meet inmate baro tukra Rimon (his name changed in the book) whose "undisputed authority and well-maintained complexion were all food for [Alam's] missing lens."

 Part II addresses the inextricable ties between art and politics that have prevailed in Bangladesh since before independence, a link powered by the likes of Rashid Talukder, Golam Kasem Daddy, Anwar Hossain, Bijon Sarker, Manzoor Alam Beg, Sayeda Khanam, Aftab Ahmed, Amanul Haque, Nasir Ali Mamun, KM Asad, Ferdousi Priyabhashini, Taslima Akhter, and so many others who feature prominently in the book. Here we revisit iconic episodes of Bangladeshi photography, such as when the head of an intellectual lay submerged in mud, framed by dislodged bricks (Rashid Talukder, December 17, 1971); when the back of a tiger in a zoo stretched vividly across Bijon Sarker's frame; when Nasir Ali Mamun captured artist SM Sultan crouching on the floor eating rice, facing four cats in front of his plate; when KM Asad's photograph of a Rohingya refugee made it to the cover of the National Geographic in August 2019; and when a man and woman embraced in death, half buried in the debris of the collapsed Rana Plaza garment factory (Taslima Akhter, 2013). Following these histories, Part III is a brief body of text many of us have already read before—the letters Alam exchanged with Roy during jail time and which inspire the underlying message of the book: that the "nameless, faceless people will rise".

 One mustn't confuse a hushed tone with a weak one. Alam's voice in the text rings with clarity; it is confident about both the specifics of the history he recounts as well as the flaws and triumphs he finds in them. He dwells on each incident, memory, criticism, or word of gratitude only for long enough to drive his point home. If some parts risk feeling staccato—the pacing too fast, the details too brief (if only because we want to know so much more of what he has witnessed)—they are compensated by the overall sweep of his lucid and quiet passion, the hint of a smile by turns compassionate and sardonic, that one remembers from hearing him speak in person.

 And being, above all, an artist of visuals, Alam deals with some inevitable absences with earnestness and creativity. In lieu of pictures from inside Keraniganj jail, we are presented with the note issued when inmates have visitors. A letter in a prisoner's scrawl reveals words commonly used to describe their conditions. Architect and artist Sofia Karim conjures a 3D-printed model of Alam leaning against a window in the jail and later facing the case table during his trial. And, drawn from memory, a sketch by artist Najmun Keya recalls a scene from when Alam was visited by family— "The sound in the meeting room can reach up to 110 decibels," he shares in the caption—while another produced by a prisoner pictorialises the sparrows Alam would host at the window of his cell. In the stories that accompany these images, Alam flits between personal anecdotes and national history, etching tender, relatable portraits of the latter.

 As a general reader, I felt that the characters and episodes described by the author seemed to demand more screen time earlier on in the book, particularly in the chapter recalling Keraniganj jail. But as I kept reading further, revisiting the liberation, the extortion of Bangladeshi migrants and hill tracts residents, and victims of atrocities such as the Rana Plaza collapse, I felt the author's voice grow stronger, sharper, incrementally more invested and fearless, and climaxing, ultimately, on a note of fierce hope. On the last page, Alam iterates, "The case still hangs over my head and the threat of bail being withdrawn is the threat they hope will silence my tongue, my pen and my camera. But the ink in our pens still runs. The keyboards still clatter. At 1/125 of a second, the shutter still clicks."

Rohingyas make the hazardous journey, often in moonlight, to Malaysia. Photo courtesy: Shahidul Alam, October 2014

Sarah Anjum Bari is In-Charge of Daily Star Books. Follow dailystarbooks on Facebook and @thedailystarbooks on Instagram.

Email: [email protected]


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