by BEENA SARWAR on MAY 4, 2012 Latitude News
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.
In the Queens Museum exhibition, which the Bangladeshi government shut down 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.
Latitude News: These photographs are like beautiful, sinister paintings, still life studies absent people. Why this crafted approach, so different from your usual work?
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.
LN: What impact did the show have?
Alam: 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.
LN: Why did you decide to show this work in the US?
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.
LN: What are your thoughts on the ethics of photographing disasters and conflicts?
Alam: 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).Show