Shahidul Alam has long been gripped by the life of a woman he has never met.
It’s been two decades since Kalpana Chakma was abducted, but Shahidul refuses to forget her. Standing at the threshold of his latest exhibition,Kalpana’s Warriors, the Bangladeshi photographer pauses for a moment.
In the room beyond is the third in a series of photo exhibitions that began with Searching for Kalpana Chakma in 2013, and was followed by 18 in 2014. The woman around whom these pictures revolve is notably absent from them. She was abducted at gunpoint in the early hours of 12 June 1996 from her home in Rangamati in Bangladesh. Her captors were a group of plain-clothed men who were recognised as being from a nearby army camp. Kalpana never returned home and her fate remains unknown.
When the exhibition first opened at the Drik Gallery in Dhaka, many of those who had been photographed could not risk coming out of hiding, yet the room was full of people who knew Kalpana’s story intimately. Some simply stood for a while before the portraits, others wept. Continue reading “Kalpana's Warriors in Delhi”
(Editor’s introduction to “Birth Pangs of a Nation” produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh and the 60 anniversary of the establishment of UNHCR.)
The Bangladeshi War of Liberation, like all other wars, has a contested history. The number killed, the number raped, the number displaced, are all figures that change depending upon who tells the story.
But in our attempt to be on the ?right side? of history, we often forget those who ended up on the wrong side. Those who have gone, those who were permanently scarred, mentally, physically, socially, don?t really care about our statistics. The eyes that stare into empty space, knowing not what they are searching, the frail legs, numbed by fatigue, drained by exhaustion, yet willed on by desperation, the wrinkled hands, seeking a familiar touch, a momentary shelter, longing for rest, do not care about the realpolitik of posturing superpowers.
Is a 40th anniversary more than a convenient round number in a never-ending cycle of the displacement of the weak? Is a 60th anniversary more than a celebration of a milestone amongst many, where brave men and women have stood by those in need, but watched in silence as the perpetrators of injustice continued in their violent ways, leaving them to deal with the fallout?
I have been asked many times what I think about the fact that nowadays almost everyone takes pictures. The question of course, has a sort of hidden agenda. It suggest that photography has become so common place so as to render photography into a commodity, taking away from it, it’s aura of sophistication, uniqueness and or the merit of being seen as some form of art, after all most people make pictures that are quite bad.
All along my answer has been consistently the same. I more than welcome the fact that so many more people today take pictures in comparison to, lets say, just ten years ago. Let me explain: if we were having this debate over the written word, probably no one would object that a nation make all the needed efforts to achieve total literacy. As a matter of fact, all over the world there is a strong awareness of how important it is for its population to become literate, at least in the dominant language of the country in question.
No one in their right mind, would expect someone to jump from not being able to read and write to becoming a laureate poet. Yet somehow the expectations that are being upheld for photography are a bit like that. We expect photos taken by people who yesterday did not even have a camera, to come up with at least good images, and if it does not happen then we should somehow be disappointed.
Let us look at this more in detail. To be visually illiterate is the equivalent to not knowing how read and write. However, as cameras have become more ubiquitous, and the price of the instrument coming down considerably, and the cost of taking a picture near zero , the number of pictures taken have increased exponentially. In other words, more and more visually illiterate people are making pictures because they can, not because they acquired a great visual culture before making their pictures.
Add to that, the fact that all the new technologies we have available today, have created cameras that are so intelligent that they make most of the decisions for the photographer with regard to the exposure and sometimes even the framing, allowing our new found photographer to obtain results that reward the efforts of pressing the shutter button. It’s almost the equivalent of someone speaking to a microphone and the computer translating the sound of the voice, into a written text. We would not say that this person had in fact learned how to write. Well much the same happens when a camera takes a picture that is acceptable even though the person behind the lens has no knowledge of photography what so ever.
So we have that the entry cost has come down so much that it has made the picture making process a lot more democratic. Add to that, the technology has empowered everyone to have some kind of satisfactory result. This would suggest that although pictures are being made, they apparently are not the outcome of a deliberate decision making process as when you really know what you are doing. After all security cameras register images and we would not call such results as being provided by a photographer.
Having said this, we have to wonder how accurate such thoughts really are. After all how can one say that someone does not know at all what they are doing. Maybe what is happening today has to be viewed in a completely different light ( no pun intended). Consider how any teenager sending pictures to all his or her friends, with regard to their latest adventures, would certainly fall into the realm of autobiographical expression, even though such a category might be far removed from any conscious decision making process. In fact I would think that this tidal wave of images, has left the intellectual community confronted with new challenges to understand and see photography in a “new light”. Certainly the concept of “bad photography” is taking hold as a new concept that has to be dealt with. Has “bad photography” liberated “good photography” from becoming something else?
As I see it, with so many millions of people, the world over, having now explored making images, their curiosity for doing something different and new to their previous results will probably lead many to a new era of acquiring more and more visual literacy and technological know how, and leave the curatorial world scratching their heads as to what to make of it all. How could anyone dealing with photography in the XXI century, dismiss as trivial the shear volume of photographs that have been created. The collective document that has been produced world wide, documenting so much of our daily life in this period, will surely become a fundamental piece of information for generations to come. If this was it’s sole merit, that alone would already give importance to all that has been photographed.
This opens up the field of photography in the realm of education and publishing in ways that will probably explode in the years to come.
The entry cost to participate in the creative world has come down so much that we can truly say that if you want to make a film, record a disc, make photographs, publish a book, and so on, it’s not something that is beyond your means, as it was not too long ago. It has finally come down to the most meaningful part of the act of creating, and that is that you have something meaningful to share. And if you don’t know what to say then don’t worry, then at least have a lot of fun doing what ever strikes your fancy, that also counts as contributing in some degree to the well being of all those around you, after all happiness is contagious, and who knows, maybe without you knowing it, are changing the face of photography for ever.
I am personally very gratified to see so many people in the world engaged in creative activities that we could hardly believe possible not too long ago.
Coyoac?n, Mexico City
November 2010 First published in zonezero.com
The Bangladesh war was one of the 20th century’s bloodiest, yet outside the region, little is known about it. Now, 37 years on, an exhibition records the painful birth of a nation.
Tahmima Anam report
In December 1971, in the midst of their celebrations at the end of the war for independence from Pakistan, the people of Bangladesh began to reckon with the human cost of their new nation. As they took account of what they had won and what they had lost, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the independence movement leader who became the first prime minister of Bangladesh, urged his people to embrace the many thousands of women who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers. He gave the women a title – birangona, brave women – seeking both to exalt them as war heroes and erase the shame of their violation.
The contradiction between exalting and forgetting persists in Bangladesh, where the war remains a contested space, still charged 37 years later with an emotional and psychological intensity that brings to life William Faulkner’s words “The past is never dead, it is not even past”.
Yet these complexities are captured in a photograph taken by Naib Uddin Ahmed of a woman – one of the birangona – obscuring her face by clutching a thick mass of her own hair. This is just one of many haunting images that make up Bangladesh 1971, a new photographic exhibition at the Rivington Place public gallery in Shoreditch, east London, and which contribute to its powerful visual retelling of the story of this war.
It was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century, and yet it is a largely unacknowledged event: outside Bangladesh there is little awareness of the campaign of violence on the part of the Pakistani army as the Bengali people of the then East Pakistan sought to achieve political sovereignty.
In this exhibition, all but one of the photographers are Bangladeshi; most were amateur photographers at the time, men who happened to be holding a camera when they found themselves caught up in the war. For almost two decades, Shahidul Alam – director of the Drik picture library in Dhaka and a curator of the current exhibition along with Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph ABP – has made it his mission to collect these photos, visiting the photographers in their homes and saving their negatives. By highlighting the images taken by these accidental archivists, the curators have created an intimate, reflexive portrait of the war, ranging from photographs that are well known to others that have never been seen in public.
The exhibition consists of more than 100 images organised in loose chronology, beginning with the first stirrings of nationalism and resistance to Pakistani occupation. The ebullient spirit of 1969-70, when war was imminent, is captured most powerfully by Rashid Talukdar’s image of a young boy, no older than 10, leading a street march. The boy is obviously poor (he marches in bare feet) but his mouth is formed in an ecstatic shout as he leads the procession of men behind him, as though for those few minutes, it is his war, his people, his country.
The collection includes many iconic, even universal, images of war: Abdul Hamid Raihan’s image of two children staring into the distance, a carpet of missiles scattered at their feet; Mohammed Shafi’s portrait of a freedom fighter – a boy who could be from anywhere – reveals a young man’s tenderness and fear apparent despite his attempt at studied resolve. Other images reveal the horror of this war with haunting specificity. On the night of December 14, knowing they were about to lose the war, the Pakistani army and its local paramilitary allies massacred the future doctors, teachers, lawyers, and writers of Bangladesh in an effort to cripple the new nation. The bodies were not found until after independence, when a mass grave was discovered in the city. One photograph of the massacre stands out: a face surrounded by submerged bricks and covered in a thin sheen of mud. The face is ghostlike, other-worldly, and the aesthetic intensity of the image serves to underscore the almost unfathomable brutality of the act.
Bangladesh 1971 also presents a complex portrait of the slaughter.
One photograph shows a uniformed man circled by a large crowd, stabbing a civilian with a bayonet; the caption tells us that it is not a Pakistani soldier but a Bengali one, attacking a local man who has collaborated with the army. At Alam’s first exhibition of war photos in Bangladesh, the government requested that he remove this image, in which the roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. His refusal led to the exhibition being shown at a private gallery rather than at the National Museum.
There are other complex figures, most notably Sheikh Mujib. Revered throughout the independence struggle as the father of the nation, then brutally assassinated in 1975, Mujib left a legacy that is continually being reassessed, not least because his daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, is a prominent Bangladeshi politician. Naib Uddin Ahmed’s photograph of Mujib returning to Dhaka in January 1972 (he had been in prison in Pakistan throughout the war) emphasises the passion he inspired in his followers, as his procession is surrounded by thousands of cheering citizens of the newborn country. But the most touching portrait of Mujib is one where he is shown embracing his daughter, the young Hasina. He glows with pride, and she with love. It’s a reminder that behind every political execution – and south Asia has had its share – is the death of a loved one.
It is in its attempt to challenge our expectations that the exhibition is most successful. In the flagship piece, displayed against the window of Rivington Place, a group of women march in perfect formation through the middle of a busy road, rifles cupped in the palms of their hands. Another photograph is a seemingly idyllic image of two women wading through a pond with a basket of flowers. But the caption reads: “During the liberation war, female freedom fighters would smuggle grenades in baskets covered with water hyacinth.” Scenes like this were common during the independence movement: many young women were given informal military training; in the villages, especially among the Adivasi hill people, women smuggled arms to the front lines of the resistance. Bringing these images to light in this setting challenges our notions of women’s political participation in a country like Bangladesh. And as Londoners walk past Rivington Place, perhaps they will find a new window into the history of their neighbours on Brick Lane, a visual testament to the trauma and hope of independence. Bangladesh 1971 is at Rivington Place, London EC2A 3BA, until May 31. Info: +44 (0)20-7749 1240.
In pictures: the Bangladesh 1971 Gallery
A gentle trickle
A surging river
A gentle plain
Four long years
Three thousand kilometres
Cormorants, sea gulls
Sparrows at dusk
A flurry of wings
La brume matinale
Boats bathed in twilight red
In narrow paths
A banyan tree
Tall strong shady
A forlorn reed
In amber garb
Reaching for the sky
Arching along the water
Betwixt the land and the sea
A river rests, a delta speaks
Older than the mountains, it is a river that forces its way across the towering Himalayas. The Tibetans know it as the Yarlung Tsang Po (the purifier). In India it is known as the Brahmaputra. In Bangladesh it is also known as the Jamuna, the Padma and finally the Meghna before it opens into the sea. No one is known to have traversed the entire run of the river. We take you on this journey, across the millenium, across three nations, through Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. From the icy trickle in the glaciers. Along Pei in China, where the river narrows into a rapid-filled gorge reaching phenomenal depths and amazing cascades. Through the crystal clear waters in Arunachal Pradesh. Across the We take you sailing along the Brahmaputra.
The Brahmaputra Diary. An exhibition based on my journey along this majestic Asian river opens at the Sutra Gallery in Kuala Lumpur tonight (Sunday the 7th September) at 8:00 pm.
Sun Sep 7, 2003 Multimedia version with video in Zonezero.com