When Sofia Karim was growing up in the UK, her uncle would frequently take exception to her British citizenship: “He would always admonish me, saying, ‘You’re part of the brain drain!”
Karim’s uncle is Shahidul Alam, the famed photographer incarcerated in his home country since August 5 for speaking out against the Bangladeshi government. The term he used in Karim’s childhood describes a well-known phenomenon in which educated professionals from so-called “Third World” countries migrate to wealthier “First World” powers. But though Alam may have embraced the concept of the brain drain, he rejected those ranked global categories.
“‘Majority World’ was his term,” Karim said, explaining that Alam would ask her: If the majority of the world’s population lives in the colonized and exploited lands of the Global South, why should they be considered “third”?
Alam himself showed early signs of brain drainage—earning a PhD in chemistry at the University of London before launching his photography career. But he moved back to Bangladesh in 1984, because, as Karim put it, “He knew that Bangladesh needed him more than the UK did.”
Though Alam often critiques the government and documents its abuses, he is, by all accounts, a proud Bangladeshi. When Karim would ask as a child about his favorite country, her uncle always proclaimed “Bangladesh!” Alam started Drik Picture Library “in response to the stereotyped portrayals of our world in the western media” in 1989, and later launched the agency’s educational wing, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, so that other Bangladeshi photographers wouldn’t have to leave the country, as he did, to get their start. As a judge for the World Press Photo competition, he saw a need to recognize photography local to Asia, and in 2000 he started Chobi Mela, which prides itself on being “the most demographically inclusive photo festival in the world.” Then in 2004, he founded an international photo agency for photographers from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East—appropriately called “Majority World Photo.”
As Karim explained, Alam did all this to put the tools of representation into the hands of the people. “He felt that the only way that stereotypical image of Bangladesh could be reversed would be with Bangladeshi photographers,” she said.
Ignoring Alam’s commitment to his country, the Bangladeshi government detained and charged him under Section 57 of the country’s Information and Communication Technology Act, prompting international outcry from his fellow journalists, photographers, and activists. The jailing of Alam has been cruel and unjust: He was abducted without explanation by more than 20 plainclothes detectives, allegedly tortured in prison, and shuffled into a courtroom barefoot. But Alam is far from the first to be prosecuted under Section 57, which resembles a speech code with its prohibition of “publishing fake, obscene, or defaming information in electronic form.” The government has weaponized the law against anyone whose communications do not comply with its ideals.