Bengali “Crossfire” reaches U.S.

This is a slightly longer version of my interview of Bangladeshi photographer-activist Shahidul Alam published in Latitude News, May 4, 2012, with reference to his exhibition at Queen’s Museum in New York. The exhibition is an attempt to internationalise the issue of extra-judicial killings. Thousands have been killed in such ‘crossfire’, allegedly at the hands of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) that the U.S. and UK governments have been training and providing arms to.

In “Crossfire,” an exhibition of photographs at the Queens Museum of Art in New York that closes on Sunday the 6th, acclaimed Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam chronicles the extra-judicial killings allegedly committed by Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB.Over a thousand victims have been ‘cross-fired,’ or executed by police without trial, in the last four years in the South Asian country, human rights activists claim. Many more people, perhaps thousands in total, have suffered similar fates, they say.

Shahidul Alam at Central Park, New York. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Alam, the founder of the multimedia Drik Picture Library and the nonprofit photo agency Majority World, Alam combines art, advocacy and teaching to draw attention to human rights abuses.

In the Queens Museum exhibition, which the Bangladeshi government shut down on its opening day in Dhaka in 2010, Alam said he hopes to draw attention to a problem not just in Bangladesh but anywhere authorities ignore the rule of law with impunity.

The director of public events at the Queens Museum, Prerana Reddy, said the show dovetailed with the museum’s mission of reaching out to the local community. The Borough of Queens in New York City is home to the largest Bengali population in the United States.

“We want to create a space outside of our regular curatorial space, highlight campaigns and activities that are relevant to the community in this area,” said Reddy. “This is not just a space where we hang photos.”

Beena Sarwar spoke with Alam for Latitude News when he visited New York for the exhibition’s launch.

Alam chose to photograph in the very locations where so-called ‘crossfire’ killings took place. The absence of the people in the photos denotes the presence of a tragedy, he said. (Shahidul Alam)

These photographs are like beautiful, sinister paintings, still life studies absent people. Why this crafted approach, so different from your usual work?

A ‘gamcha,’ or sarong, Bangladeshi police might have used in alleged strangling of victims. (Shahidul Alam)

As a journalist, the best you can do is to unearth information and bring it to the public. If that still doesn’t do what you hoped, you need to re-think the strategy. In the case of crossfire killings, simply providing information is clearly not enough. A research team looked at every known case of crossfire death. The photographs are visual metaphors without necessarily being physical representations. Every picture is banal by itself, but based on a case study. Every one is taken in the middle of the night and all the pictures are lit by torchlight, because that’s how survivors and victims’ families recall the incidents. Captions are usually very important to my work, but I deliberately left them out, so viewers have to work out the references for themselves [Editor’s note: Except for the first photo, we have included captions because readers of this story will not have the context provided at the exhibition]. After the government sent riot police to shut the show down, I asked the policemen what they thought. They provided an entire contextualization. They knew exactly what each picture symbolized — like the gamcha [sarong] in one of the photos. “This can be used to strangle or suffocate a man,” they said.

(Viewers can see the policemen’s responses in the sub-titled video on a loop at the exhibition. “You use the word ‘crossfire’ with the picture of a paddy field at night and everyone knows that’s where it happened,” says one. “The image gives the impression of a place we may take them to do our work.”) 

What impact did the show have?

Well, right afterwards there was a very rapid decline in crossfire killings. Then the government changed strategy. They started disappearing people. Now both disappearances and killings have gone up. But the show did have an impact even though it was shut down, because of our pre-publicity. We knew the government was going to stop it, so we didn’t let word get out in Bangladesh beforehand, but we let people in North America know. When the show opened [in Dhaka], we live streamed it, so when the police came to shut us down, all that was being filmed.

Photos were taken at night, when the crimes occurred, as recalled by victims’ friends and families. (Shahidul Alam)

Why did you decide to show this body of work in the US?

A representation of water boarding from the victim’s perspective. (Shahidul Alam)

Well, we’ve learned that the U.S. and UK governments have been training RAB. Water boarding was new to us. They’ve also been providing arms. The prime minister in the UK has had to answer questions about this in Parliament, but the issue hasn’t been raised in the U.S. We’re hoping that this show will engage with the diaspora here.

How did you fund the show?

We got a grant from the Open Society Institute to hold the show in Bangladesh and in the U.S.A. The funding also included money to make posters that we hoped human rights organisations in Bangladesh would exhibit, but they all backed out at the last minute.

How do you, and Drik, manage to withstand the threats and pressure?

Drik is in a position to make such statements because we’re financially independent. We’re not funded, so we don’t have to renew licenses every year like the NGOs in Bangladesh. Also, Drik is a media organisation with a huge public popularity. And we’re risk takers!

What are your thoughts on the ethics of photographing disasters and conflicts?

I’m a storyteller. I try to tell stories sensitively, humanely. You have to ask yourself what your motives are. Are you doing what you’re doing to inform people, to bring about change? Or is your primary goal to win awards and sensationalize? When picture-taking becomes part of a voyeuristic exercise and commodity, then it is a problem. When people fly into another country thousands of miles away, take photos and leave, it’s a problem. They don’t know enough about the language, the political and cultural sensibilities, and often there’s a pre-determined editorial point of view that the photographer is only supporting, unlike a local photographer, who is answerable to the community. The farmer in the paddy field knows the most about the situation. The local photographer knows something about the situation. The person who knows the least is the picture editor in New York. But the photo editor gets the most say, and the farmer has zero say, in how the story is told.

Interview of passersby as well as the police who shut down Crossfire exhibition from Shahidul Alam on Vimeo (includes English subtitles).

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