Shahidul Alam.

Artists Rally in Support of Jailed Bangladeshi Photographer Shahidul Alam

British art-world bigwigs such as Tate Modern director Frances Morris; Arts Council England chair Nicholas Serota; and artists John Akomfrah, Lubaina Himid, Chantal Joffe, Anish Kapoor, and Mark Wallinger, among forty others have signed an open letter demanding the release of the photographer Shahidul Alam, who was arrested for criticizing the Bangladeshi government last month.

The outspoken critic of corruption was detained on August 5 after he was interviewed by Al Jazeera. Alam denounced the government’s handling of a student-led protest over road safety, which resulted in clashes between the authorities.

The Dhaka Metropolitan Police charged the photojournalist under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information & Communications Act, which according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, allows the persecution of anyone convicted of disseminating material “deemed to be false, obscene, defamatory, likely to harm law and order, tarnish the image of the state or an individual, offend religious sentiments, or provoke individuals or organizations.” He now faces a maximum sentence of fourteen years in prison and a fine of roughly $120,000.

Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery in London and one of the signees of the letter, told the Art Newspaper: “Freedom of speech, artistic expression and talking truth to power are vital barometers of civilisation. Whatever is done to one person against these central pillars of a fair and tolerant society, is done to all of us.”

Sofia Karim, a UK–based architect and the niece of Alam, told Artnet that the letter was drafted after one with similar language was started by members of the Indian art community. She also said that all three British Bangladeshi MPs voiced their support for her uncle. 

It is suspected that Alam has endured beatings since he was detained. Seven days after his arrest, Alam appeared before a judge, but was not allowed to have a lawyer present. The sixty-three-year-old was denied bail, which sparked an international outcry.

Organizations and individuals calling for Alam’s release include National Geographic, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, a number of Nobel Peace winners, Serpentine curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Sarah Munro, the head of the BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art. Supporters of Alam will hold vigils for the artist in London and New York for the artist on Saturday, September 7.