Kathmandu:

A warm smile in a beaming face gre-ets one. The smiling bright eyes remind one of friendly professors that one had come to look up to during one’s university days. And when he talks about two of his students, one envies them.

Meet ace photographer Shahidul Alam, who was in the city to choose photographs of our conflict for a book that is being prepared by nepa~laya. If one was to list the achievements and the honours that decorate Alam’s crown of fame, even this entire page would not be enough. However, it has to be mentioned here that he was the first non-Western, a ‘coloured’ if one may be allowed use the word, to chair the World Press Photo.

“This is a sad reflection on photojournalists that it took us so long to get a non-Westerner to chair the World Press Photo, but it is a start,” says the photojournalist from Bangladesh. The other non-Westerner (or “not pucca-sahib” as Alam describes) to chair the WPP is an Argentinian.

Having seen and been actively involved in Bangladesh’s struggle for real democracy, Alam is no stranger to people’s power. Talking about the struggle against President Ershad’s rule and his ultimate downfall, Alam says, “It was very uplifting to see people’s power prevail. In Bangladesh, the women’s movement is very strong and we’ve seen powerful reforms legally, though socially and practically these are not as powerful as in words. But we have women at the helm of things, and it is something.”

As he recalls the dark times that Bangladesh saw, one is clearly able to visualise what it must have been like. It is what Nepal went through in the very recent past. Describing the gagging of Press, he says, “The year 1991 saw the worst form of the curbing of Press freedom. Government censorship was at its worst. It was so bad that even government news editors protested this.”

And he was in Nepal as a representative of a free world, an icon of people’s power, to choose the best work that describes what people’s power should really mean. About the photographs that have been submitted, he says, “They are humbling and at the same time uplifting and sobering. Some of the photographs are great, and some are not so great in the photographic sense but all tell stories, important stories... personal stories, of struggle, of belief, of people’s courage.”

As he is not a stranger to Nepali photography (he has taught here), he says he has seen a certain flair that has developed in our photographers. Alam describes himself as a photojournalist, a writer and an activist. A chemical researcher by education, Alams says he entered media as he “was always interested in social change and thought that perhaps media would be the medium to bring about a social change in Bangladesh”. And adds laughing, “I thought Bangladesh did not need another research chemist.”

Of his picture library, Drik, he says with pride that it is perhaps the “best picture library in South Asia”. “Drik was set up in response to the negative way that the majority world was being presented by the Western Press. We were just icons of poverty to them. Drik was set up as a platform for media practitioners in the South.”

From Sri Lanka to Afghanistan to the ends of the earth, he’s seen life at its worst and at its best. He’s also learnt a lot as he says, “I have become much more aware of my limitations. Earlier I used to think I could change the world, but now I think that it is easier to change myself.”

But is it possible? He laughs again. A man with a thousand responsibilities, constantly on the move, organising this and that, and trying even now to change the world in his own way, how does he relax?

“By working” is his answer.

Work for him is more than worship. His work, his photographs define him. And what more could a photographer and a teacher want than that two of his students — one all the way from Mexico, the other from Bangladesh — should come across each other’s work on the net, find parallels and similarities, only to communicate and find out that they had the same teacher — Shahidul Alam.

The mark of the master.