Prix Pictet

Photo series by formerly imprisoned Bangladeshi artist shortlisted for Prix Pictet

Shahidul Alam, who was arrested by Dhaka police last year, captured life in an orphanage run by a former sex worker

The Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam has been shortlisted for the eighth edition of the Prix Pictet photography award. Alam joins 11 other photographers who were announced today as nominees for this year's prize, which has the theme "Hope" and is worth CHF 100,000 (£80,700). Joana Choumali, Margaret Courtney-Clarke, Rena Effendi, Lucas Foglia, Janelle Lynch, Ross McDonnell, Gideon Mendel, Ivor Prickett, Robin Rhode, Awoiska van der Molen and Alexia Webster are also shortlisted.

On 5 August, more than 20 law enforcement officers arrested Alam at his Dhaka home for critical comments he made online against the Bangladeshi government concerning the use of physical force by police at a student protest in Dhaka earlier that week. Alam says that he was tortured on his first night in police custody. He was detained for 102 days, only being granted bail in November 2018. He still faces trial and his arrest has drawn widespread global criticism from art world figures.

Alam's nominated series of photographs, Still She Smiles (2014) explores the life of Hajera Begum, a former sex worker in Bangladesh who set up an orphanage on the edge of Dhaka for abandoned children who may otherwise have been drawn into the sex trade. Adopting each child as her own, Begum now has around 30 children who consider her to be their mother. Documenting the joy and laughter Begum and her children share despite their circumstances, this is the the first time the series has been shown in its entirety.

Alam tells The Art Newspaper that "the nomination [for the Prix Pictet] was made while I was in prison. I am still on bail, but what wonderful news to come out to! It shows that there is always hope. For Hajera, for me. I believe for Bangladesh."

The winner of the Prix Pictet will be announced on 13 November at the opening of an exhibition of works by the 12 shortlisted photographers at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, due to run from 14 November until 8 December 2019.

Each cycle of the Prix Pictet tours the world, with exhibitions taking place in over a dozen countries annually. The Hope tour is due to begin in Tokyo on 12 December 2019.

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Begum (sitting) captured in 1996 with fellow sex workers at the House of Parliament grounds in Dhaka, where they would give out condoms to other sex worker to prevent the contraction of HIV/AIDS. Having known Begum for over 20 years, Alam says “when I first met Hajera in 1996, she was a sex worker in Dhaka. We became friends, and she and her friends would often visit us in our flat, which would be considered an unacceptable act in most Bangladeshi homes."

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hajera and her children live in rented rooms on the first floor of 16 Adabor Market

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Ayesha at the orphanage Amra Shihuder Jonno (translated as "We, for the children")

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hajera rescued Rahat when he was only three hours old. His nickname is Shongram, meaning "struggle"

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Fatema shows off her new dress

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

One of Hajera's children attending school

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hajera bathing her younger children at the orphanage

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The orphanage's floor is used as a giant slate for drawing

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hajera checks her child's hair for lice while simultaneously arranging for supplies for her orphanage

© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Speaking of her long-standing friendship with Alam, Begum says, "you hugged me today when you saw me in the street, just like the old times. That’s something men will never do. They will have sex with me, grope me in the dark, rape me if they get the chance, but they will never hug me, as a sister, as a friend. That is what I want for my children. That they will grow up with dignity, in a world where they will be loved.’”