Bearing Witness

A photographer’s account of Bangladesh’s extrajudicial killings

01 December 2018
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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.”

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    Shahidul Alam is a Dhaka-based photographer, writer, curator and activist whose work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts, among others. He has received numerous awards, including Shilpakala Padak, the highest national award for Bangladeshi artists.

    Keywords: Bangladesh Chobi Mela Free Speech Digital Security Act Shahidul Alam Drik Pathshala photography Bangladesh Liberation war 1971 War