The acclaimed Bangladeshi photojournalist and rights activist Shahidul Alam has been made a National Geographic Explorer at Large by the National Geographic Society, the world’s largest and best known non-profit scientific and educational organizations.
Explorers receive an annual stipend and additional grants from the Society to continue their work in societies around the world, as part of the programme.
Other Explorers at Large include the famed American oceanographer Bob Ballard, the Mexican ecologist Rodrigo Medellin and the marine biologist Sylvia Earle.
For over 40 years, Alam has demonstrated the power of storytelling to drive impact, and yet it was something of a happy accident that he became a photographer in the first place.
Alam was traveling through North America in 1980 when a friend asked him to buy a camera, but couldn’t reimburse him––so Alam began using it.
He started as a children’s portrait photographer while he studied to become a research chemist, and eventually recognized that effective images could fuel activism.
“Through a photograph, I could transform a statistic into a person,” Alam once said.
When he returned to Bangladesh in 1984, Alam became a dedicated photojournalist, documenting the democratic struggle to remove the country’s autocratic ruler, Hussain Muhammed Ershad.
Over time, his photographs of life in Bangladesh––including social and political conditions and the environment––became well known in his country and around the world.
Inspired by the impact he achieved through his own photography, Alam worked to empower others as well.
He founded the Drik Picture Library, the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, and the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute––considered one of the world’s finest schools of photography.
He also created the “Out of Focus” initiative, which teaches disadvantaged children about photography.
His work was featured by major western media outlets like The New York Times, displayed in prestigious museums like the Tate Modern in London, and he was named TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2018.
That followed events in Dhaka when Alam’s commitment to social action put his life directly in danger.
The Bangladeshi capital had been convulsed by street protests after two teenagers had been killed by speeding buses.
Thousands of young people called for swift action and improvements to road safety among other things but the authorities responded with violence.
Alam live-streamed the uproar on Facebook, and claimed that police had stood by while government-backed mobs attacked the protestors. Hours later, Alam was arrested, beaten, tortured and detained for more than 100 days.
His arrest sparked outrage around the world with figures like Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky campaigning for his release.