‘The Tide Will Turn’ by Shahidul Alam: A cri de cœur of photography & prose

Alam’s power as a photographer, bearing witness to so much around him, is a belief that we – Asians, people of colour, brown folk, those from the Global South or in Hans Rosling’s framing, those from Tier 2 or 3 countries – are the best placed and able to tell our own stories. Alam started to say this, and work on ways to promote stories from the Global South, by those in the Global South, long before it was fashionable to promote this way of framing and working. He largely defined, by his own life and work, the importance of bearing witness to vital narratives as only those embedded in the context could best frame, empathically grasp and were there to live through. The parachuting journalist, and the white person’s burden to frame or recount was eschewed in favour of photos, frames and stories told by those with a deeper commitment to the stories they covered. This deeply political critique, for Alam, extended to what he saw as wrong and unjust within his own country. For this, he is today held in custody, tortured and charged with crimes by the state that are as absurd in their submission as they are positively disturbing in their intent.

An arrest in Bangladesh, 12 August 2018

Having ordered it a couple of months ago, I was somewhat confused to see a package outside my apartment last week that didn’t give any hint as to what it contained. Bewilderment soon gave way to elation upon discovery of Alam’s book wrapped inside. Beautifully produced, there are two elements to the book – one expected, the other, not so much. Alam the photographer is, unsurprisingly, present throughout. There isn’t anything new to say of Alam’s photography because the critical appreciation of his work is legion. His photography is its own grounded language and never short of compelling, contesting a Western gaze through a critical framing that is powerful, poignant and profoundly political. Alam’s photography is rooted in a moment and also timeless. Subjects look at you, often unsettlingly. The framing or focus forces a reflection that is searingly anchored to marginal, parenthetical or violently erased perspectives, judged from majoritarian loci or narratives. At the same time, the photography resonates far beyond temporal, geographic and subjective specificity. Alam’s photos are from, unmistakably, Bangladesh, Myanmar, or some other country, city, community, moment or movement. At the same time, they immediately fire in mind of reader (the word is used intentionally, because every photo of Alam is an essay inviting considered reflection) connections to other realities and histories, often far removed from Alam’s capture or intent. But all of this is expected. Alam’s a fantastic photographer. So yes, the photos are very good. What makes this book truly special is how Alam captures (no pun intended) his incarceration and torture in Bangladesh, late-2018, through his own writing. The prose, on every page, matches through sonorous Bangla or resonant image, the visual texture of his photos.

The first part of the book, anchored to Alam’s abduction and incarceration, I am somewhat connected to. Since embarking on doctoral research in 2018, my research and studies have been regularly interrupted by socio-political developments back home in Sri Lanka. Alam’s arrest was the one episode or event that occupied my time outside of the violence I confronted and studied at scale from Sri Lanka.

As a first response, and more from a sense of shock and outrage than any strategic intent, I changed the banner images of the Twitter and Facebook accounts of Groundviews to seed and spread Alam’s disturbing fate amongst a Sri Lankan readership that I also knew included diplomats, leading media freedom organisations, local press freedom groups, the UN and regional activists. I then pivoted my doctoral Twitter data collection to harvest a global outrage and concern over Alam’s fate, that was unrelenting in its pressure to have him released and the condemnation of the Bangladeshi government. Throughout the time Alam was incarcerated, I continued to capture, analyse, visualise and project data (largely pegged to the #FreeShahidulAlam & #FreeShahidul hashtags).

These visualisations, which at the time I regularly published on my own Twitter account, captured tens of thousands of tweets. Campaigns by media freedom organisations, as well as rallies in many capitols and cities used the #FreeShahidulAlam & #FreeShahidul hashtags as well. (Digital) collectives and communities of outraged or concerned voices, linked by geographic proximity, campaigns, rallies or petitions, formed new, pulsating constellations of support and solidarity. This was Alam’s moral authority taking a new form and currency. It was through this work that I had the pleasure of interacting with Alam’s niece and architect Sofia Karim (@_maquette_). Her 3D models of the conditions Alam faced in jail, which feature in ‘The Tide Will Turn’, translate the photographer’s vivid, painful recollections of lived experience through an architect’s visual vocabulary. It is a surprisingly powerful rendering, doubly-so when framed with Alam’s writing.

Parts 2-4 are compelling in their own right. It is the first part of the book however that I found spoke to me the most. It is also the part with the least amount of photos. Alam’s capture of Dhaka’s Keraniganj Jail is painted with a light, humane touch. It could easily have just been about Alam and what he underwent. No one would have faulted the book for a self-referential focus and subjective take on the torture and conditions the author suffered. And yet, Alam’s field of vision is greater. It is nothing short of extraordinary how this man – unjustly jailed, inhumanely treated and at the time, facing the prospect of an extended sentence behind bars – finds the humanity and generosity of spirit to capture, in granular, moving, empathetic detail, a common humanity. Here we encounter Mamun, the jail’s photographer. In a single paragraph that is worth the price of the book, Alam draws us into bond formed in the most surreal circumstances, around the technicalities of photography. We see through the treatment of Alam by other prisoners, including tributes anchored to famous photographs, a love that doesn’t just suddenly materialise. Alam’s capture of their stories, and how with little to give they nevertheless provided the photographer with all they had, are amongst the most poignant in this book. Not unlike the photos, they are a stark reminder of Sri Lanka’s own issues – for decades – with police brutality and torture in our prisons.

It is also this moral authority, which the Bangladeshi government does not have, that took the authorities by surprise. Alam the man may have been abducted from his house, but his identity as photographer, speaker, activist and writer remained free, irrepressible and amplified by a global community. This was not lost on the authorities. Twice, in different ways, they tried to undermine and hijack the global sentiment and outrage around Alam’s incarceration and torture.

The efforts failed, but not for want of trying. A bankrupt government with a bogus case, faced with growing opprobrium from domestic and international quarters, took to the only way it knew to deal with the political fallout and loss of face. It dug its heels in, employed trolls and attempted to hijack hashtags. Alam was oblivious to all this, dealing with more pressing existential concerns in jail. His health deteriorated, and at the time, there was no guarantee of his release. Part 4 of ‘The Tide Will Turn’ – an exchange of letters between Arundhati Roy and Alam – captures the significant fears and farce at the time, in a language of resistance, courage, and hope.

I stopped my data collection the day Alam was released, and privately released all my records and data visualisations to his family.

‘The Tide Will Turn’, which when I go back to Sri Lanka will find a suitable home next to ‘My Journey as a Witness‘, is such a beautiful outcome from a violent, ugly incident – and in that sense, entirely unexpected. The book is so much more than what the photographer (and his family) had to endure. It is about a country and its history of violence, through images around violence so heinous, the only honest or competent vocabulary that can frame it is the visual. Alam was there. The book is about complex stories – of the displaced and sex workers – touched by the photographer’s presence or entirely indifferent to him. Alam was witness. The book is about the political trajectory of a country, from independence to more contemporary unrest and institutional decay. Alam is an active participant. The book is about enforced disappearances and children, in agentive frames as producers of photography that capture best what they know and conditions they live in. Alam’s light touch is here. The book is about life, love, anxiety, yearning, escapes, destinations reached and journeys never completed. Alam is a co-traveller, companion and witness. Alam the writer captures landscapes, experiences, memories, trauma and aspirations with words that sometimes exceed the power of his photography. That’s saying something. Alam the photographer’s journey, in this book, is more than witness. He was a victim. And yet, ‘The Tide Will Turn’ is a testimony how, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, Alam was changed by what happened to him, but refused to be reduced by it.

As the Editor Vijay Prashad puts it so well in a wonderful introduction to the book,

Governments are afraid of art, the impression of life. Art touches us deeply – moves us to want to do something. It is why artists are so frequently killed and imprisoned. ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality,’ said Brecht, ‘but a hammer with which to shape it.’ Such is the camera of Shahidul Alam – a hammer.

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