A New Hope, from Pain

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A New Hope, from Pain

Zhenghao(Steve) Wang


December 10, 2019 Seeing Shahidul Alam’s photographs is not always pleasing. Honestly speaking, I felt a bit

uncomfortable when entering his show, probably because there’s a kind of sad story behind every

one of his photos. By looking at his works, I started to draw Alam’s image in my mind: a well

educated middle-aged man, lives at least as a middle class but without fancy clothes or

decorations; instead, he looks like a normal worker and can fit right into that group. As a result,

his vision, unlike any other photographer that lives a middle-class way, is the same as his


The gap in the distribution of wealth in Bangladesh may be traced back to the 17th century

when people from the United Kingdom founded the British East India Company and began their

business in the Bengal area. To rule farmers more efficiently, the East India Company signed the

“Permanent Settlement” with the Zamindars—landlords in the area—allowing them to collect 1

tax from farmers on behalf of the British rulers. The consequence was quite obvious: low-grade

farmers worked hard to earn their livings while “it gave rise to what was virtually a new class of

landlords.” That began to form the enormous gap between the wealthy and the poverty. As K. 2

Purushotham concludes, “the Zamindars continued to exercise law and order powers for a long

time after the settlement also.” Later during the Mughal Empire, Zamindars belonged to the 3

nobility and formed the ruling class. The gap became bigger. Such a social form didn’t change many in the past centuries, so in modern Bangladesh which was founded in 1971, Zamindars still

run the whole country.

While Zamindars are gaining wealth and controlling the country by monopolizing in major

industries and controlling lands, normal Bangladesh people are living in extreme poverty. And 5

poverty is the stereotype that westerners have for this country. When western photographers

travel to Bangladesh, what they’re looking for is such a stereotype. I looked up “Bangladesh” on

CNN website, the first link that jumped out is about refugee children. I scrolled down a little

more, the articles are all about how desperate people are in Bangladesh. Is this the truth in that

country? It might be, or it might not be. But western journalists won’t care about that question.

As long as they can capture or “create” the poor and hopeless lives those people have in

Bangladesh into their lens, their jobs are finished because those are exactly what westerners

would like to see about South Asian countries: a life that is far worse than theirs. But things are

different in Shahidul Alam’s pictures. Though the overall poverty could not be changed since it’s

a truth and historical problem, people don’t show any clue of desperation in Alam’s lens.

Considering the history I learned about Bangladesh, I would say that desperation is a kind of

normal status for poor people. But in Alam’s Migrant Labor series, what I can tell from his

pictures is a grateful, satisfied and happy attitude. So I think what Alam did was extracting minor

goodness from the desperate lives of the poverty to bring hope and happiness to his people.

One of the pictures in this series is Airport Goodbye which according to the wall label was 6

taken in Dhaka’s international airport. In the frame are two people: a woman on the left side and

a man on the right side. Between those people is a segregation wall that is made of metal and

glass that separates them apart. The woman on the left side is facing the man and looking at him

and smiling, with love in her eyes. The man, however, is not looking back. Instead, he leans

towards the wall to make his right ear as close to the wall as possible, meanwhile, a big smile is

on his face. The wall label says that “only passengers are permitted inside Dhaka’s international

airport, so goodbyes happen through cracks in glass panes that separate the indoors from

outdoors”. And the reason why that man is leaning towards the wall is to hear what his girlfriend

or wife is saying. I think what makes this image so iconic and powerful are smiles on their faces.

When we’re thinking about farewell, we would naturally picture a frame of people crying and

hugging and waving hands. That happened to me two years ago when I was about to fly to the

States alone for the first time, my parents cried in the airport, but I didn’t. I saved my tears until I

was halfway across the Pacific Ocean. I’m pretty sure that the couple in the picture might also

cry, but Alam managed to extract a happy moment from a painful farewell.

The other picture is called Girl in Sugarcane Field and it’s about child labor. A young girl, 7

looks like 5 or 6 years old, in the middle of the frame, standing, is looking at the lens. To her left

and right are two tents that are straw mat over some woods. The girl’s dress appears to be dressed

a lot so it’s a little bit rough, and she is standing on the solid full of sugarcane’s leaves with bare

feet. Rough clothes and roughly built tents indicate that her childhood might not be a happy one.

But the kid is not crying; she just stares at the lens with a barely noticeable smile on her face.

Behind her are trees, soil, and cloudy sky. But there is a beam of sunlight that is leaking from the

edge of the cloud behind her, and it looks like sunlight is tearing clouds apart. And I think it is

that beam of sunlight makes this picture much more meaningful than it appears to be. The cloudy

sky may represent the arduous life of not only this little girl but also other poor people that were

suffering. Their lives were filled by difficulties just like the sky is filled by clouds. But as

sunlight would eventually tear clouds apart and bring warmth to the ground, difficulties in

people’s lives would eventually be beaten by hope. And that’s the essential quality in Alam’s


The reason Alam’s vision is different from other photographers might be that he lives the

same way as his subjects. If another photographer who doesn’t know those people that well takes

the same pictures I mentioned, they will be different. The airport pictures would probably

become another cliché farewell picture full of tears and hugs. And if a western photographer

comes to take the picture for the little girl, he/she would probably focus on the working scene

and publish articles attacking the Bangladesh government’s lack of human rights or children

protection, just like what they did last month when a truck of illegal immigrants found dead in

the United Kingdom. And even Alam himself would have a lot of choices to take those two

pictures. At the airport, he could focus on the man walking into the terminal or boarding the

airplane. But he didn’t. He simply put the segregation wall right in the middle of the frame while

capturing a happy moment of that couple’s farewell. The wall, as a sign of leaving, an

unchangeable reality, sets the contrast with smiles on those couples’ faces. But on the other hand,

that smile, deep from the heart, releases the pain of the reality. About the little girl’s picture,

Alam could have taken it inside the tent, or capturing her playing with other kids: those can all

be happy moments. But he didn’t. He simply let the girl stand on the soil between tents, not

letting her perfectly fit into the surroundings while the sun in the background is penetrating clouds. Now the little girl becomes a symbol of hope, which is what he wished to bring to his

fellow people, his friends, and followers. And such hope is not a thing that can be easily

discovered. As Alam himself recalls, “I was trying to employ photography in a way that was

unnatural to the medium. I wanted to push it to where it was uncomfortable, forcing it against its

will.” 8

I had a similar experience last summer. In the past decades, the Chinese government has

been supporting a public service project called “Project Hope” which aims to bring schools into

poverty-stricken rural areas of China. In the past years, I’ve seen a lot of pictures about Project 9

Hope, and the majority of them were focusing on the poverty of those rural areas, such as

students couldn’t afford shoes and they could only sit on rocks to study. It seems like the poorer

those students appear to be, the more successful the whole project will be. During the last

summer, I went to a poor village in southwest China as a volunteer teacher. While staying with

kids every day for weeks, I also took a lot of pictures. And my pictures, different from those I

saw on the internet, are all about happy memories I had with my pupils. I even forgot that I was

in a poor village; to me, my pupils are not different from any other kids in big cities, and my

camera was filled by their happy smiles.

Shahidul Alam is the best photographer that represents Bangladesh's normal people and

their way of living. He didn’t use special effects or techniques; he simply lives the same way as

his people and represents them. When western photographers were taking pictures to look for

scenes that fit stereotypes in their minds, Alam was seeking for a way that can support people

with his pictures, to bring hope to them. It’s a simple way: extracting minor happiness from great

pains, and it is such happiness that makes his pictures strong. He used to say that “I felt self

conscious, knowing I had little power to change their lives, not wanting to create false

expectations,” and he did it. 10

10. Shahidul Alam, The Tide Will Turn, ed. Vijay Prashad (Göttingen: Steidl, 2019), 40. Bibliography

Alam, Shahidul. Airport Goodbye, 1996. Rubin Museum, New York City.

Alam, Shahidul. Girl in Sugarcane Field, 1997. Rubin Museum, New York City.

Alam, Shahidul. The Tide Will Turn. Edited by Vijay Prashad. Göttingen: Steidl, 2019.

Baden-Powell, B. H. "The Permanent Settlement of Bengal." The English Historical Review 10,

no. 38 (1895): 276-92. www.jstor.org/stable/547788.

Mocangli, “There’s a huge gap in the distribution of wealth in Dhaka…” Zhihu, February 7,

2018. https://www.zhihu.com/question/26072763.

“Project Hope.” Baidu. https://baike.baidu.com.

Purushotham, K. "1802 Permanent Settlement and the Consequences in the Venkatagiri

Zamindari (Summary)." Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 47 (1986): 685-86.



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