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Majority World Finds Voice in Photos
Photo courtesy of Shahidul Alam

Majority World Finds Voice in Photos

Photographer from Bangladesh delivers lectures at UCLA about human rights, images, and new takes on citizen journalism.

This article was first published on Friday, July 19, 2007 in UCLA Today Online.

By Ajay Singh

IT'S NO SECRET that most humans live in the "majority world," a relatively recent term that refers to the developing world. Acclaimed photographer Shahidul Alam has long been concerned that most photographic images of this vast region are taken not by locals but by Western photographers.

A native of Bangladesh, one of the world's most impoverished nations, Alam recently delivered a University of California Regents' Lecture in UCLA's Bunche Hall about this disquieting trend. In a captivating talk, he related how the advent of the Internet and digital photography are slowly but surely challenging stereotypical Western representations of the majority world.

Alam's May 31 lecture, "The Majority World: Reconfiguring the Frame," was sponsored by the Asia Institute and the History Department's Colloquium on South Asian History and Cultural Studies.

To Westerners, It's Romantic or Hopelessly Poor

Photo by Rashid Talukder

According to one recent study, Alam said, more than 90 percent of the photographic images about the majority world are taken by non-indigenous photographers, including those working for development organizations and charities raising money from the Western public. Far too many of these images tend to either romanticize the non-Western world or depict it as a hopelessly poor and violent region, said Alam.

A noted human rights activist, Alam is the first Asian to win the prestigious Mother Jones Award, famously given to individuals who "fight like hell for the living." His photographs have been exhibited in some of the world's leading venues, including New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"I have no problem with white, Western photographers working in my country, but it is their exclusivity that worries me," said Alam, who is a major figure in Bangladesh's public, intellectual and cultural life. He added: "I want people to look at the things I look at."

Showcase for "Invisible Photographers"

Photo by Md. Mainuddin

Alam, who has the distinction of first introducing e-mail to Bangladesh, has worked tirelessly to present local realities in the media. In 1989, he launched Drik, a photo agency in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, devoted to showcasing the works of what he calls "invisible photographers ignored by the mainstream world but who can often sense important stories before they are broken by the mainstream media."

Alam's agency, which has a host of major international clients, including United Nations organizations, regularly organizes mobile photo exhibitions in public on such themes as social exclusion, inequality and people's movements. Among Alamís latest initiatives is a Website, majorityworld.com, that champions the cause of indigenous photographers from the majority world.

Alam's lecture was interspersed with numerous slides of his work and that of other Bangladeshi photographers. Among the most striking images was a 2006 photograph of Abdus Sattar Idi, a little-known Pakistani social worker and samaritan who runs a huge fleet of ambulances that pick up unclaimed dead bodies for burial in the strife-torn city of Karachi.

"How come the world knows about Mother Teresa and not about Idi?" Alam asked. "Because the stories about Pakistan in the Western media will always be about terrorism," he added. "Idi's work flies against the bearded, hardline image of Pakistani Islamists that the Western media propagates -- it's a story they will never tell."

Citizen Journalism

Photo by Bijon Sarker

The theme of this photographer's talk was closely allied to another UC Regents' lecture that he delivered on campus a day earlier. Titled "Publishing from the Streets: Citizen Journalism," it chronicled the rise of amateur writers and publishers as a result of the great strides in personal technology in recent years.

Inexpensive computers, digital cameras and blogging on the Internet have presented individuals unprecedented opportunities to reach global audiences at a time of considerable distrust of the traditional media, Alam said. In Bangladesh, for example, major newspapers are seen as catering to -- and having common cause with -- the elite. The nation's leading daily receives just under $100,000 per month in advertising revenues from a single telecommunications company, said Alam, adding: "Therefore there is no criticism of telecom in the paper."

Despite new media's phenomenal potential, it's too early to gauge its effectiveness as a journalistic medium, especially in poor nations, Alam said. "The rules of engagement are changing but in large parts of the world a computer modem costs more than a cow," he said. At the same time, governments in many countries, including Bangladesh and China, are enacting new laws to curb cyber-dissidents.

There is also some concern that the Internet, being essentially a participatory medium, tends to offer the "illusion of debate," said Alam, quoting the noted linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, who has called the Internet "the smart way to keep people passive."

While it's not always possible to tell the real experts from the demagogues on the Internet, the shifting media landscape is a positive and welcome development, said Alam. And whether citizen journalism will eventually triumph or not, he added, will depend on one thing: "Credibility of sources."