Shahidul’s choice in career meant that he found himself in many difficult situations, particularly when it came to photographing people in power – “conflicted situations,” he calls it. “I mean, when you’re photographing the police beating people up, obviously the police aren’t happy about this.”
The stories that he’s dealt with over time have, of course, been highly conflicted, with his more recent work focusing more on “absence” and “people disappearing”, as well as those who have been killed. But because of the subject matter, many of his exhibitions have been shut down. “That has been pretty much part of what we’ve had to deal with – our shows being closed, regulators and the police coming down heavily on us.”
One of his most recent – and most prominent – controversies, as mentioned, developed into his arrest. What’s interesting is that at the same time, he and his wife had been curious as to what actually happens when people disappear. In Bangladesh, it’s not uncommon for journalists to be taken from their homes without a warrant, and there have been countless occasions – one being the arrest and persecution of Abul Asad who, on 19 September 2011, was arrested from his home because of his role as editor of The Daily Sangram, an outlet that’s critical of government policies. Another case saw Hedayet Hossain Mollah, who works for the Dhaka Tribute newspaper, arrested and accused of publishing “false information” about voting in an election won by prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
As for Shahidul’s case, like the others, he was simply doing his job. “I know how things work in Bangladesh,” he adds, “and at that time, my most urgent need was to ensure that I did not go unnoticed.” Shahidul resisted, fought back, screamed and bought himself time for his neighbours to hear his calls. “I’m sure that it contributed to the resistance taking place as quickly as it did – while they handcuffed me, took control of me and took me away, people knew what was happening.” As such, his partner and colleagues went into action and “pressed the buttons,” which was a lucky moment because soon he was to be completely cut off from the external world. That’s when he was tortured and asked to remain silent, but he refused to accept and made sure to stick to his guns. “They were very angry about it and they threatened me with consequences of what might happen if I did refuse,” he says. “I got taken to court and I spoke about it – if someone claims that he or she has been tortured, then it’s the legal requirement that it be investigated. None of that happened.”
Eventually, after his bail was rejected five times, he was released on 20 November. It’s now been over a year and, “this is the crazy thing,” there are no charges yet to be made. “The charges in the bail rulings stipulated the prosecution had been unable to provide evidence of any of the charges made against me,” says Shahidul. “There is nothing that I’ve done which is illegal as a citizen, as a reporter; I was well within my rights to be reporting on what I had been seeing in front of me, so they really have no grounds to suddenly arrest me or harass me in any way.” Yet this harassment prevails to this present day and, as a visiting university professor at the University of Sunderland, the founder of the Drik Picture Library and the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, this makes his life difficult. What’s kept him utterly afloat is the support and the resistance felt throughout the entire process.
These experiences form the crux of his new publication, The Tide Will Turn. Although focusing primarily on his experiences throughout his arrest, it’s also an important documentation of the people who had risked their own lives for his freedom. “In a sense, [the book is] what I feel that I owed to the people – they stood by me during difficult times as well as my fellow prisoners who took very good care of me. I dedicate this book to them,” he says on his reasons for publishing his story.
A further dedication goes to Abrar Fahad, a second-year student who was brutally assassinated in the university by the same group of students who were attacking others at the protests. The crime was spurred on by his last Facebook post, where Abrar criticised Bangladesh’s agreement with India to allow the country to withdraw water from the Feni river. “These assassins took time off to watch a game of football and to have a meal, and they came back to finish him off. How this can happen in a hall of residence in my country is incredible – the book is dedicated to this young man and my fellow prisoners.”
Inside the book, expect to find a carefully considered record of honest and impactful essays written by Shahidul, which sit alongside an introductory editor’s letter from Vijay Prashad, as well as photographic contributions from Amanul Haque and collaborations from artists including Sofia Karim plus his fellow inmates. It’s split into four parts, which includes an entry from Shahidul’s time in jail; a chapter on art and a chapter on politics; plus the published letters exchanged between him and writer Arundhati Roy, a close friend whose works inspired the title of the publication, while imprisoned. “I think this book is meant to give hope, inspire confidence and resistance, [and the title is] borrowed from Arundhati because I wrote to her, she’s very generous – I read her letter while I was in jail and it was seriously motivating for me,” Shahidul explains. And the thing is, the oppression taking place in Bangladesh is, in fact, ubiquitous across the globe – “I hope that the tide will turn for all of us and this needs to be verbalised.”
Since publishing, the book has been unsurprisingly well-received – not only by those whose lives have been touched by what has happened and still happens in Bangladesh, but also from people outside of the country. “It gives an insight that one does not usually get,” says Shahidul. Alongside this publication, Shahidul is currently exhibiting works in a comprehensive survey at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, running until 4 May 2020.
As for additional projects, he’s currently working on a book will give a deeper insight into his experiences of being in jail. “But activism itself continues,” he adds, further noting that it’s proven more difficult to work because of security reasons. “I used to go about on a bicycle and go out in the street to talk to people – that was the nature of my work. For me to do that today, I don’t carry a mobile phone because I get tracked, I have to constantly let people know where I am and I don’t travel alone. Those are the things that were very alien in the past but I’ve had to adapt to.”
Shahidul will never stop his fight for social justice. When we come close to the end of our conversation, he politely stops me and adds: “there’s been a lot of attention on me.” Instead, he prefers to give the spotlight to the people who have suffered far more – the people outside who dealt with the legal, financial and security pressures, as well as the uncertainty. Pointing to the people who helped him as the true heroes in this story, these further details mark him as the strong, compassionate and selfless man that he’s proven to be.