Images of Independence, Finally Free

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By JAMES ESTRIN New York Times Lens Blog

The photographs were shockingly graphic, detailing the torture and execution of men suspected of collaborating with pro-Pakistani militias during Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence. Featured on front pages and magazine covers around the world, they provoked outrage and won awards, including World Press Photo and a Pulitzer — both shared by Horst Faas and Michel Laurent.

Members of Kadiria Bahini – a guerilla independence militia – bayoneted a collaborator of the Pakistani Army, in Dhaka after the Liberation War. 18th December 1971.

Only three Western photographers were on the scene of the executions: Mr. Faas, Mr. Laurent and Christian Simonpietri. The Magnum photographer Marc Riboud left the scene minutes before and later said he did so because his presence was only encouraging the brutality.

But there was another photojournalist there, whom the others didn’t know: Rashid Talukder, who worked for a Bangladeshi newspaper. Though he also made dramatic images, he did not publish them. He couldn’t. Mr. Talukder knew that — unlike the foreign photographers — he would not leave Bangladesh and dash to the next overseas hot spot. He would be staying. And the men behind the executions were among the most powerful in the country.

Instead, he kept the images to himself for more than 20 years.

“Rashid publishing this picture would have been equivalent to him signing his own death warrant,” said Shahidul Alam, founder of the Drik Picture Agency in Dhaka.

Mr. Talukder’s photo (Slide 2) remained stashed away until 1993 when Mr. Alam convinced him that there was no longer extreme danger in publishing the images in Bangladesh. It was published in The Daily Star along with an article by Mr. Alam. They were later exhibited publicly by Mr. Alam in Dhaka in 2000.

Thousands flee from the Pakistani military to India. Comilla. April 1971

A decapitated head in a Rayer Bazaar brick field, where pro-liberation were murdered by the Pakistani army. 16 December 1971.

Durbar Hall or Governor House (now Bangabhaban the official residence of the president of Bangladesh) after Indian airstrikes December 14 1871. The Liberation War, between West Pakistan and East Pakistan ended officially two days later with the creation of the nation of Bangladesh.

A parade of armed women from the Awami Students League not long before the conflict began between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. March 1971

Protesters burned a government bus in Dhaka.

Dhaka University students trained at the Ahsanullah Engineering College, now Bangladeshi University of Engineering and Technology, in preparation for war. 1970.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned from a 10 month detention in Pakistan. Jan. 10. 1972. A founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib was the first president of Bangladesh and later its prime minister. He was assassinated in a military coup on Aug 15. 1975.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with a pigeon at the opening of the Awami League Students League in Dhaka. 1973.

The Pakistani military dispersed a crowd of protesters. 1971.

 

While Mr. Talukder is virtually unknown outside of Bangladesh, he was one of the foremost chroniclers of the struggle for independence, photographing its origins in the language movement of the 1950s and continuing through the war’s aftermath.

Now hailed as a founding father of Bangladeshi photojournalism, Mr. Talukder made some of the most important images of the war, which by some estimates claimed one million lives and turned 10 million of his countrymen into refugees. He also documented everyday life in Bangladesh during his 46-year career, during which he worked for the newspapers The Daily Sangbad and The Daily Ittefaq.

Geese crossed a street in Dhaka.

A family in a village in Tangail. Dhaka District. 1960s.

A Hindu priest feeds an infant during a religious ceremony in Demra. Dhaka District. 1960s.

A self-taught photographer with a strong sense of humor, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Chobi Mela international photography festival in Dhaka, in 2006.

When Mr. Talukder died in October of last year, at the age of 72, Mr. Alam described him as “quick-witted, fast on his feet, streetwise, gregarious, loud and completely disarming.”

At times it was hazardous being a photojournalist in Bangladesh, both before and after independence. There have been many military coups and little freedom of the press. Mr. Talukder himself was once beaten severely by a police officer — a man whom he recalled having rescued from an angry mob a few years earlier.

When he was shooting news with his medium-format Rolleiflex, he was looking down into the camera and getting quite close to his subjects — even in volatile situations. His pictures are direct, simple and often quite raw.

“He was working right in the middle of things because he had to be,” Mr. Alam said. “There wasn’t any security. And for many of the pictures, he was right in the thick of the conflict. He got injured several times.”

Mr. Alam and his colleagues at Drik are trying to restore Mr. Talukder’s archives, sorting through negatives that were mostly stored in garbage bags in no specific order. Decades of exposure to Dhaka’s humidity and monsoons have badly deteriorated some of the negatives and prints.

A boy with a calf. Uttara. Dhaka. 1960s

To mark the 40th anniversary of the war for independence, Mr. Alam, with the help of Robert Pledge of Contact Press Images,  published an award-winning book of photographs from the 1971 conflict, “The Birth Pangs of a Nation.”  Financed by the United Nations, it features many of the finest photographers of the time: Donald McCullin, Mary Ellen Mark, Bruno Barbey, David Burnett, Abbas as well as Mr. Haas, Mr. Laurent and Mr. Riboud.

Amid that celebrated group is one more name: Rashid Talukder.

A turtle crossed a road. Rashid Talukder/Drik

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This entry was posted in Arts, Bangladesh, culture, Military, Occupation, Pakistan, Photography, Photojournalism, South Asia and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Images of Independence, Finally Free

  1. Tanvir Ahmed Kabir says:

    (Slide 2)…. I am 32 and I never new such incidents ever happened, my mind can not accept what is going on in the picture; how a
    life is being taken (I keep thinking of the mother who is about to lose his son, the same mother who’s land has been freed)
    ….the people who are cheering to the incident, its heinous, I feel disgusted to think the same people were 
    praised as the liberation hero.
     
    A nation built in absence of mercy; their peace can not last for long, I think we are already
    witnessing that. 

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