Last year on the night of 5 August, award-winning Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was forcibly taken into custody from his home by the Bangladesh Police. As his whereabouts remained a mystery for a long time, hundreds of Bangladeshi journalists and members of the international media demanded his release.
Only a week before his arrest, Alam had documented the civil turbulence in Dhaka, as thousands of students took to the streets, blocking roads and bringing the city to a standstill. They demanded better road safety and accountability on the part of the government for any mishaps that take place as a result of road accidents – a frequent occurrence in the city of Dhaka. The government, in turn, tried to suppress dissent by firing rubber bullets, beating up the protesters who were mainly students, and intimidating journalists and photographers who were trying to document the protests.
Alam captured the events in photographs and on Facebook Live videos. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he criticised the government for its lack of accountability on various issues like "the looting of the banks and the gaggling of the media... extrajudicial killings, disappearings, bribery and corruption (sic)". Displeased with this interview, the government accused Alam of making "false" and "provocative" statements.
He was charged with a criminal offence under section 57 of the Information Communications Technology (ICT) Act, that prohibits any electronic communication that “tends to deprave or corrupt" the image of the state — a law that many journalists, academics and intellectuals in Bangladesh believe is conveniently used by the government to snuff out dissent of any form.
Above: Shahidul Alam at the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. He spoke about how "building stronger institutions" is the only way to fight repressive governments and that he has always worked towards harnessing "the power of the visual medium to educate, inform and draw powerful emotional responses to influence public opinion." Image via Facebook/ Shahidul Alam.
After spending 107 days in jail, Alam was released following an outcry from the media in Bangladesh, other South Asian countries and the West.
His photographs of Bangladesh have appeared in several newspapers and magazines across the world. Among his many contributions to photojournalism is the conception of the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, which he founded in 1998. It is known to encourage students to question the confines of their discipline.
To examine the craft that is being nurtured in Pathshala is to better understand Alam as both a teacher and mentor.
Here, Firstpost has featured some of the student photographers from the 2018 batch of Pathshala's six-month International Photography Programme to understand the themes and perspectives explored in their works, in light of Alam’s arrest and the subsequent disruption of communication, as well as the challenges photojournalists face at large.
NGIMI LAMA | Snapshots from the village of her childhood
"Before joining Pathshala, I had only attended some short photography workshops in Nepal, since there are very few photography schools in Kathmandu," says 29-year-old Lama, who was introduced to the art form in 2018.
She chose the snapshot theme and used a compact camera, which made it easier for her to shoot from any position and angle. This technique is in accordance with her preferred style.
"I am fond of creating and taking images spontaneously wherever I go, of whatever I see. I always shoot without thinking on the spot,” she says.
Through her pictures, Lama has tried to capture the everyday life of the village where she spent her childhood. "Exploring my village through the camera helped me remember my childhood days. I tried to collect moments in a different light and at a more personal level," she says.
She shot the environment very closely, and was quite attached to it during the course of the project. "I was taking many images of in-between moments and photos that posed questions to myself, rather than giving me answers."
AKASH GHAI | The complicated nuances of spirituality in India and Nepal
The twenty-six-year-old photographer from Chandigarh, currently based in Washington DC, has previously worked with the National Public Radio, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and China Daily. For his final submission at IPP 2018, Ghai planned a 2000-kilometre road trip through the religious sites of Nepal and India, travelling through small towns and places that are linked to his family history.
"I knew that the subject had been covered several times before, but faith is something one has to experience first-hand to be able to form an opinion on it. No two journeys are the same. My motivation to take on this journey was to understand how much of the spirituality and faith we project in Nepal and India was real," he says.
Ghai reveals that though his intention was to uncover the complicated nuances of spirituality in both these countries, his work became more about the psychological experience of being there. "I was covering nearly 100 kilometres each day and I intended to capture my state of mind during the journey. The politics and religion seemed to fade away, and it became a more personal narrative."
"My main learning was that the core of spirituality in India and Nepal is still intact, but most people representing it may not have their hearts in the right place. The ones who do, are far and few in between," Ghai says.
NIDA MEHBOOB | Profiles of the Sukumbasi community
Mehboob, 33, is a photographer and filmmaker based in Lahore, who is also a grantee of the 2019 Photography and Social Justice Fellowship by the Magnum Foundation.
Mehboob chose to shoot profiles of a community she had befriended during her class assignments. "It is a community that resides near the river Bagmati in Kathmandu called Sukumbasi (which means ‘the ones who migrated’)… Unintentionally, I kept going there for each class assignment, and when the final project had to be decided, I knew this was the place for me."
Her intention was to photograph the community as intimately as possible, while respecting their personal space. "They were open to me and invited me into their houses." She considers this one of her major learnings. "To gain the trust of your subjects is the most important thing while photographing. Once you get that, things start becoming easier for you."
"I also learned the power of collaboration. If you involve your subjects in the process, the story becomes more authentic. Giving away power can give you more power as a photographer," she adds.
SEAN NORONHA | Human interactions with nature, and their effects
"Photography has always been a passion, and the art of visual storytelling is something I always wanted to learn," says the 37-year-old ex-commercial deep-sea diver from Mumbai, who has also worked in the oil and gas sector for a few years.
Though he is a city boy, his childhood was immersed in experiences involving nature. In Nepal too, he formed a similar connection with the environment. He decided to showcase how exploitative human interactions with nature could be harmful to both the environment and humans.
"I was looking at our interactions with nature and how our alterations and interference has put us on a very dangerous path of self-destruction."
HARI SAI SRIKAR | The transformation of the landscape of Khokana
Originally from Visakhapatnam, 26-year-old Srikar holds a degree in Digital Video Production from the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology, Bengaluru.
During his initial months in Nepal, Srikar had the chance to visit Khokana – the village that is at the centre of his final project – which he chose to explore through the lens of development.
"What caught my attention was that despite being very close to the urban environment of Kathmandu, Khokana had retained its rural landscape and culture. But it was changing because of the fast-paced urbanisation, progressing in an unsustainable way – eating into farmlands and displacing livelihoods."
"The village of Khokana became a metaphor for what urbanisation brings with it – the promises and the disquiet." In his photographs, Srikar attempts to show how this slow change and transformation of the landscape was affecting the everyday lives of the people in and around the place.
"I have realised that our notions of development have become somewhat hazy and skewed over time. We are slowly forgetting the reality that looks nothing like the growth we see in numbers," says Srikar.
— All photographs courtesy the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute.