Photos from the majority world
The feet of a Bangladeshi migrant worker in Paris. (Photo by Shahidul Alam)

Photos from the majority world

From Bangladesh to Sri Lanka to the United Kingdom, photographer Shahidul Alam draws attention to the power relationships that define people and places

By Vincent Lim
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

On a drizzly summer afternoon on the Los Angeles campus of the University of California (UCLA), Shahidul Alam stands inside a dimly lit room preparing to speak before a seated audience that is eager to hear him talk about his work, his travels and his life.

The room's pulled-down blinds obstruct views of the modern edifices and high-rise parking structures, indelible features of the Los Angeles landscape, as Alam begins to speak. In a taut British accent, he tells his attentive audience that people in countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are often depicted as "icons of poverty" by western photojournalists; images in the western media draw attention to the problem of poverty, but fail to explain why it exists. He says that he tries to look beyond the poverty of the people he photographs and seeks to understand and illustrate the reasons for their plight.

Alam, one of the most famous photographers in Bangladesh and founder of the Drik photo agency, says that he considers himself -- above all -- a political activist. He just happens to use photography as a means to promote social change. It is through the lens of his camera that he aspires to change people's perceptions of those living in the poorer countries of the world, such as Bangladesh.

"Activism can take place in many different ways," he says.

In Sri Lanka, activism took the form of documenting the lives of those who survived an epic natural disaster. In the aftermath of the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated South and Southeast Asia, Alam longed to put the disaster into perspective. He longed to provide human context for the suffering felt by those in Sri Lanka who survived the catastrophe.

"What happened with the tsunami is not as important as what happened to the people [who survived it]," Alam says.

The ability to see photographs almost instantaneously with a digital camera, a tool he only recently began using, helped him convince people in Sri Lanka to allow their photographs to be taken. Those being photographed could see how they looked right after Alam snapped their photos. Using his digital camera, Alam captured not only people's pain, but also their moments of joy despite their suffering -- images Alam says the western media chooses not to give prominence. Informed by his own political sensibilities, he understands the power that photographs possess.

See more photos by Shahidul Alam.

In Los Angeles, though, Alam tells his audience about migrant workers from Bangladesh. His exhibit, "In Search of the Shade of the Banyan Tree," explains how migration is intertwined with power dynamics in the world.

The photos from this exhibit, which focus on the journey of migrant workers away from their homes and their families, produce feelings of serene yet sincere sadness. Though the migrants appear to approach their journey with optimism -- one photo shows a worker smiling as his wife wishes him a fond goodbye -- there is a sense that their hardships might be the result of unjust circumstances. There is a sense of the world being out of kilter, and an imbalance of economic and social power in the universe.

One surprising photo, amidst shots of workers, is that of a self-proclaimed prince in Dhaka who lives in opulent luxury. The bright colors and the man's shiny face bring the imbalance to the forefront.

Alam himself never owned a camera as a child but was always fascinated by it. And as strange as it sounds, he began his photography career as a research chemist in London. While living in the city, he started taking photos of people in his neighborhood and ended up joining a camera club. When he returned to Bangladesh in 1984, his fascination turned into a serious career.

He started a commercial photo studio and earned money by snapping photos of noted luminaries. "I came back to Bangladesh and was doing corporate work," he says, "but what became important was to tell [everyday people's] stories."

He founded Drik in 1989, as an attempt to provide context, a new vantage point for understanding the lives of those in the third world -- or rather, the "majority world," as Alam prefers to call it. Drik affords aspiring photographers the resources to build portfolios. Even if a photographer has only one high-quality photo, Drik will attempt to sell it. That way, he says, the photographer will be able to earn money and continue taking photos in the future.

In Sanskrit, "drik" means "vision," an apt reflection of both the ambitious nature of the agency and the power of seeing. While Alam is an eloquent speaker, he found that through photos he was able to tell stories that words could not convey.

"With text, you can stop reading," Alam says. "With photos, it's hard to stop looking."

And it has been hard for people to stop looking at the work that Alam has produced. His photos have been featured in some of the world's biggest media outlets -- Time, the New York Times, Newsweek and BBC television news. His photos have also been on display at the MOMA in New York City and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

But what Alam cherishes most about his work is not the acclaim he receives. What he says he loves most is that he can connect with people and help change their lives by taking their pictures.

"Photography is about relationships," Alam says with a smile.

The subject of Alam's next project, funded by the UK Arts Council and Sunderland University, will be the British aristocracy. He views the project as a way to learn more about people in power. The idea is to create a simple reversal: instead of the historical trend of the west creating and defining images of the third world, the majority world will now create and define images of the west.

Alam presented his ideas and photos on September 26, 2005 at an event sponsored by AsiaMedia, the UCLA Asia Institute and UCLA Colloquium on South Asian History and Cultural Studies.