The founder of Drik and many more institutions since then, Dr Shahidul Alam sits with Saad Hammadi to share his days as a bouncer at a night club in London to being a catalyst for social and political change
Twenty years on from his experiments in the line of photography from behind the lenses, to having overseen its institutionalisation, Dr Shahidul Alam has added a new dimension to South Asian photography. Yet the architect of Drik, Chobi Mela, Majority World and Pathshala continues to spend 17 hours of his day nurturing his brainchildren.
But amidst his projects with photography and media gaining global recognition, the person, with a doctorate in chemistry, has been less known about as the writer, poet or the sportsman he has been.
At the Liverpool University, Alam was not only the bright science undergrad in the ’70s but was also the president of 12 different sports clubs. Starting with swimming, squash, volleyball to chess, bridge and many more, he had enjoyed leading in them all and winning trophies. There was also a time when he was considered a professional bridge player.
But with photography stealing his charm over sports, he realised he could not do too many things at a time. Now his latest excitement revolves around working on 20 different projects simultaneously with the finest minds from all over the world.
‘When I go to sleep, I do so in eager anticipation of the following morning,’ says the man in his 50s with his trademark salt-pepper beard, wearing a cotton panjabi with a pouch around his waist.
At the end of each day, he rides home on a bicycle and while it may set an impression of a health conscious person, his view to the practice is rather surprising. While there was the time he cycled from Liverpool to London, back at home, he continues to exercise it with a political viewpoint.
‘I live in a culture where it is beneath one’s dignity for a middle-class person to ride a bicycle,’ he says. In a culture where rickshaw pullers are discriminately addressed to as tumi rather than apni, riding a bicycle is a way of expressing a lifestyle different to the prevailing one.
As he sits for this interview about his personal life, he explains, ‘for me the personal is political.’ He attributes his efforts and activities to social and political changes he longs for. ‘The most effective social change you can bring about is by being a catalyst. There’s only so much you can do as an individual.’
Born in Azimpur, Dhaka, Alam went for higher education to London at the age of 17. He grasped the norms of the practical world very early on in his youth while financing his own education.
As his life partner, anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed puts it, his working experience – from building sites to cleaning toilets during his student – life has set him free from society’s status-conscious mindset. Interestingly, he was also a bouncer at a night club, Alam confides.
Much of his down-to-earth nature and way of looking at life was inspired by Jimmy Christian, a former co-worker at the Lockwoods Constructions in Liverpool, where he worked to finance his graduation course. As building labourers, their job was to carry timber. Jimmy would come in every morning at 8:00am and join the rest of the workers. At other times, Jimmy and Alam would often engaged in huge arguments about life, politics and religion.
It was only much later that he discovered Jimmy was a director of the company. ‘The fact that the director of the company and the rest of us workers were all seen as equals, to the extent that I did not even know that there was a director amongst us, impressed me hugely.’
The move to photography after accomplishing a doctorate in chemistry in 1983 was not so much a shift, he says. ‘I had actually started working professionally as a photographer in London, in between. I had a PhD so that I could always fall back into it in case a career in photography did not work out.’
His passion for photography began before he completed his doctorate. It started in 1980 when he went to New York on a budget airline. A friend of his had asked for a camera from Alam. ‘I had my credit card and with that I bought a camera, a rickety tripod and a flash and some lenses,’ he says.
But when he returned to London, his friend did not have the money to pay for it and so the camera remained with Alam and became a passion, much larger than life for him. It was a Nikon FM, he recalls.
After coming home in February 1984, he partnered up with the Fuji Lab at Elephant Road, to start up Fotoworld but by the end of the year, he realised that this wasn’t really what he wanted to do. He started freelancing from January 1985.
In 1988 when the floods occurred in Bangladesh, the Western media sent their own photographers to cover the story. Alam realised that they were only interested in the negative stereotypes. ‘They weren’t interested in the type of disaster story that I’d wanted to do.’
As a result, he was inspired to establish Drik in 1989 to change the western perception of Bangladesh being merely a poor nation. Since then, Alam’s efforts have paved the way for a new dawn in photography and perception. He had also established the first email network in the process for sharing photographs with the foreign media.
It was during the anti-Ershad movement in 1987 that Rahnuma and Alam got to know each other and decided to share their lives together. Asked about her contribution to Alam’s success, he says, not only do they compliment each other’s work but they are also very strong critics of it.
The poet at heart and writer in many different spectrums – from essays, shorts stories to blogs – Alam’s latest literary work is a manuscript called ‘Journey as a Witness’ which is currently at the hands of its publishers.
While Drik completes two decades and Alam gets on with media academy – a larger project on broadcasting, television, radio and investigative journalism – he feels that he has not been able to fully concentrate his efforts in photography. ‘I would like a situation where I can get back to photography,’ he concludes.