"Don’t let those things stop you. Just look for ways of getting the message across, through subtle imagery, creative words," said Alam, while discussing about 'Art as a Witness' with Sanjana Hattotuwa at the Colombo Art biennale.
Dressed in a red salwar kameez and a black belt-pack sitting on his hips, Alam’s British accent belies a steely determination to champion the underdog.
Once stabbed eight times for daring to display subtle photographs highlighting extra-judicial killings and disappearances in his native Bangladesh, Alam jokingly says he has not been knifed since.
However, the element of danger still lurks and the feisty Alam is not shy to carry on his crusade.
While hundreds of photographers have trained under him, focusing their lenses on social issues, Alam built www.drik.com, an award winning photo agency to sell their work and began an international photography festival to showcase local talent."I got tired of photojournalism being dominated by white Western photographers and their view of the world. I wanted to change that," he said when asked what prompted him to start the school and highlight social issues.
One of his recent works, 'Crossfire; which focused on extra judicial killings in Bangaldesh, got worldwide attention. It focused on RAB the Rapid Action Battalion – that has been linked to hundreds of extra-judicial killings. RAB, was formed to fight anti-crime. But little has been done to stop the executions, which police say the victims usually die during exchange of gunfire.
"The information about the killings is known. The public know about it. The police, the government knows about it. And still nothing happens. So, we looked at ways to provoke people, to jolt people into action."
Alam moved away from literally documenting the killings, to create a series of large images that are evocative of the places where the victims were found or murdered. He tapped researches to examine cases, to point out inconsistent details with official accounts.
"It’s all about using powerful subtle imagery," he said while showing a visual of a victim to illustrate his point.
The victim has been shot four times, but the garment is intact. A field that was supposed to be the possible scene of a shootout is shown undisturbed, giving the impression that the corpse had only been dumped there.
"Knowing the topic with earned the wrath of the Bangladeshi authorities, we first launched the publicity on the New York Times and then waited for the action to begin at home," Alam says with a laugh.
The Bangladesh government shut down the provocative show, but relented after Alam challenged the decision in court. As with other exhibits, Alam collaborated with grassroot human rights organisations to take the show on nooks and corners of the country.
At the Drik Gallery in Dhaka, Alam also put at online Google map, allowing people can add details about certain killings.
"It was just one of our ways, to create a platform where the public can get involved," Alam said.
"And it worked. There were people who also wrote down names of their loved ones. A lot of peoples’ lives have been affected by this issue but didn’t have an avenue to engaging with the problem."