Bangladesh: Imaging 71 with Shahidul Alam

Published on: September 19, 2018

How the photographer established the pedagogy of photography in South Asia


Shahidul Islam
Image Courtesy: Al Jazeera

On August 10 I was invited to deliver a lecture to students taking a six-week course on genocide at the Centre for Genocide Studies, in the newly built Bangladesh Liberation War Museum (BLWM) in Agargaon, Dhaka. 

This was just five days after Shahidul Alam -- the nationally and internationally known photographer and teacher -- had been forcibly taken away from his home in Dhaka, and the news was still unfolding of his condition in police remand. 

Rahnuma Ahmed, Shahidul’s partner and a fellow anthropologist, has been a long-term friend of mine. So Shahidul’s news was extremely distressing.

Being invited to give a lecture to students at BLWM was significant as it is also part of the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience, which is the only global network of historic sites, museums, and memory initiatives that connect past struggles to today’s movements for human rights (https://www.sitesofconscience.org/en/home/). 

I had written in an article (Never Again: Aesthetics of “Genocidal” Cosmopolitanism and the Bangladesh Liberation War Museum) that “the BLWM also sees itself as a museum “dedicated to all freedom-loving people and victims of mindless atrocities and destructions committed in the name of religion, ethnicity, and sovereignty.” 

Nonetheless, there was no discussion with the trustees at this “site of conscience” about the detention of Alam and others, and neither about the acts “committed in the name of sovereignty.” 

The lecture seemed to have a lot of resonance among the students, however. They talked about the contestations of the ownership and authorship of history and memory. I also showed the way I have theorized public memory through its circulation and used the illustration of Naibuddin Ahmed’s famous photograph of the birangona (women who were raped by the West Pakistani army and East Pakistani collaborators during the 1971 war) with the hair covering the face of the woman. 

I showed how, in the spring of 2008, this image was presented at a photographic exhibition titled “Bangladesh 1971” (curated by Shahidul Alam, in partnership with London’s Autograph ABP) at the Rivington Place gallery in East London, standing in for the lack of closure of the Bangladesh war. 

In the tea break that followed, the students, apart from sharing the resonance of the lecture with their contemporary ongoing experiences, also thanked me for reminding them about Shahidul’s work on 1971 at a time when he was being slandered on social media as being “against the spirit of 1971.” 

Shahidul’s role in bringing the 2008 exhibition to the UK was significant in making Bangladesh a figure in the timeline of global genocides from which it has been consigned to oblivion.

Given the sizeable repertoire of visual archives that I came across in 1997-1998, during my fieldwork on the birangona, photographs became quite central for me in understanding the way the birangona has acquired a sedimented image in Bangladesh.

Taking inspiration from my PhD supervisor Professor Christopher Pinney’s work on visual anthropology, I found a friend in Shahidul who was happy to teach me and answer my questions about photographs and photographers of 1971. 

We cross-referenced stories and also introduced each other to new archives. Thanks to Shahidul my book on the birangona, Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971, has been enriched by the interviews I could undertake with the photographers Rashid Talukdar, Naibuddin Ahmed (they both passed away before my book was published), and Swapan Parekh’s son. 

Also, when Gayatri Spivak gave me access to her photographic archive on the birangona, I passed on that information to Shahidul so that he could build the photographic archive at Drik which would provide as, what he said a “platform for the seeking of justice, for the trial of the war criminals and collaborators from ‘71.” 

Shahidul also wanted to give Bangladeshi photographers their due respect and protect their copyrights within the remit of Drik. This is noteworthy as the role of photographers was significant in 1971. 

In my book I have discussed how, during 1971, photographers made counterfeit identity cards which enabled East Pakistanis to walk the streets freely. The significance of photographers is well brought out in an image that I found hanging on Rashid Talukdar’s living room of Bangbandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman surrounded by photographers. In another image, Sheikh Mujib explores the camera under Talukdar’s direction. 

In other instances, it was striking the amount of care Shahidul and Drik took in preserving vintage photographs and did not retouch them as the marks on the negatives itself spoke volumes. The belief in the power of photography led to the publication of the annual calendars, and in 1996, the seventh annual Drik calendar printed never-before-seen photographs of Bangladesh’s Liberation War. 

In the introduction, Shahidul wrote: “Though history books carry distortions, the photographs say otherwise. Photographs say, there is evidence, I am the witness.” 

His other works on 1971 included the book Birth Pangs of a Nation (2011) and a film -- all of which have added to the evidence pool of trying the injustices of 1971 and something for which he has worked relentlessly. Above all, Shahidul established the pedagogy of photography in South Asia through Pathshala and Chobi Mela (from 2000).

Given his extensive contribution and passion for the archives of 1971, it was inevitable for me to have my book on the 1971 war have its premiere launch event at Drik in January 2016. 

Shahidul chaired the session and the award-winning photographer Taslima Akhter was a discussant, and what followed was a vibrant discussion. 

As a voice of conscience himself, Shahidul has been able to open up the historical archives and photographs of 1971 and place them in open conversations with the younger generation who are today the sites of conscience.

Nayanika Mookherjee is Professor of Anthropology at Durham University, UK, author of The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 (Duke UP), one of the first critical reviews of Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning (Guardian, 8th June 2011), and recipient of Mahatma Gandhi Pravasi Samman at House of Lords, 2014.

Courtesy: Dhaka Tribune