There is a wall running along a street. The writing on it is fragmented and cannot quite be made sense of. The image was taken in the middle of the night and a yellow glare was allowed to invade the site, as the wall slipped away at an angle. A shadowy presence barely registered on the shot. This urban setting, one is tempted to say, could be nothing but the scene of a crime. The sinister, uneasy beauty of this work by Shahidul Alam informs other images that are part of his new series, again and again. Others are eerie, otherworldly; and others still, seem familiar yet are anguished, as if the common ground for existence was being subtracted from the picture altogether.
Photography is usually taken at face value and recognized as the construction of a factual world, and celebrated as such, for facts possess a no-nonsense value – or so we would like to believe – that will hopefully help us to get things crystal-clear in the mind. The printed image is envisaged and expected, by the many who support this view, to be self-evident, and self-explanatory, too.
To transform photography into the art of tracing an absence is not a method that is self-evident, and yet a case can be made for it: the print, which is an image on its physical support, is one more object added to the world and is often made to stand for what once was, never to be fixed or grasped in the same manner again. But in the images of this series, what is it we are missing that fills us with anxiety of some kind or another? When acutely perceived, an absence stops us in our speech, it wracks and unnerves us; it unsettles the mind. Absence, as a matter of fact, can be identified, can be lingered on and felt, but cannot be quantified and any attempts at giving a qualified description of the feelings involved are bound to fail.
Whatever one is led to believe should be expected of contemporary photographic work in the documentary mode, this series challenges starkly. Artificial lighting has been used throughout and its effect is not just strange but painful. The series offers no narrative to behold but the images hold together, perhaps because their author finds different ways to remind us that we will not find a place to rest our heads in them. These are nocturnal viewings in a sleepless night.