Bearing Witness

A photographer’s account of Bangladesh’s extrajudicial killings

Paddy field. 17 November 2009.
Paddy field. 17 November 2009.
01 December, 2018

AT FIRST GLANCE, a series of images of spaces—a lush green paddy field, a rickshaw parked next to a steel shed, a wall with Bangla writing on it—may not seem particularly sinister. But, when interspersed with pictures of bank notes, a body covered with a shroud, or a towel folded neatly on the floor, the images acquire a different significance.

These photographs are part of a conceptual series by the Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam, called Crossfire. The title refers to the term used in official accounts of extrajudicial killings carried out by the Rapid Action Batallion—a paramilitary force established in 2004 to “curb corruption in Bangladesh”—in alleged encounters with criminals in their custody. Over the past decade, several independent reports by human-rights groups have accused the RAB of several enforced disappearances and fake encounters.

The images in the series were created based on in-depth research of case studies of victims of these killings. “The facts behind ‘crossfire’ are known,” Shahidul wrote. “The intention of this exhibit was not, therefore, to merely submit documentary evidence. There was plenty of that around and it had failed.” The images—consciously supplemented with very minimal caption information—were meant to “evoke rather than inform,” forcing the viewer to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The series serves as a haunting reminder of these deaths, and how little is known about them. In an interview in 2010, Alam said the objective was to leave the audience “to meditate upon the silence of the dead.”

Distinct from Alam’s earlier practice—rooted in traditional documentary form—the work relies on metaphorical readings of the images to allude to elements of the encounters. Some images gesture towards discrepancies in the near-identical official accounts “with only names and locations changed.” Others “try to imagine what the victims might have seen, or been thinking moments before their death.” Still others signify more abstract messages—the large amount of money changing hands in a system where the police and judiciary are both corrupt, waterboarding as a possible tool of torture or the morgue where bodies often end up. In the exhibition, Alam supplemented this interpretative approach with an interactive Google Map, which highlighted over 350 cases of extrajudicial killings that had taken place in Bangladesh. The map allowed the audience to supplement the material on display with any personal experiences or information that they might have in relation to these deaths.

In 2009, Sahara Khatun, the then home minister of Bangladesh, claimed that “there is no crossfire in the country. It has never happened.” Next year, on the day of the exhibition, a caricature of the minister with these words was juxtaposed with newspaper clippings of various reports of extrajudicial killings, in a collage displayed at the gallery. The Bangladeshi authorities attempted to ban the exhibition, with the police cordoning off the building. It was only when Alam petitioned the Dhaka high court that the show was allowed to reopen for one day.

In August this year, Alam was picked up by security forces from his home in what seemed dangerously close to an attempted disappearance. (The details are reported in Kaamil Ahmed’s piece, “The Man Who Saw Too Much,” in this issue.) Although the Awami League-led government took strong measures to silence its critics, including those calling for Alam’s release, the international artistic community expressed its solidarity in various ways. In October, the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera held an impromptu exhibition of “Crossfire” at London’s Tate museum to draw attention to Alam’s arrest. The photographer was kept in custody for 107 days, before being released on bail in late November. His case is ongoing.