The war of 1971 produced warriors on many fronts, though we mostly discuss the fighters. There were many non-violent warriors -- the women who sustained the family over nine months, hiding young children and themselves as raiders arrived, those who tilled the fields or scraped together a meagre living off odd jobs, those who helped others, and those who prayed and never betrayed.
If the worst beast among us was exposed in 1971, so was the best angel. Something clicked inside the Bangladeshi heart, and that click has gone on to produce many other Bangladeshis.It was not just reporting on 1971 that created the space, but the realisation that a war is fought on many fronts. One such front was photography.
Talukder’s dismembered head
Talukder’s photo of a dismembered head of a slain intellectual, framed by bricks and their sharp shadows, is one of the most powerful images of the 20th century which instills a sense of horror and brutality.
Talukder, Mohammad Shafi, Jalaluddin Haider, Aftab Ahmed, and Abdul Hamid Rayhan were amongst the press photographers who documented some of the everyday events of 1971.
But photography also created images and counter-images, supporting creation of history, and also contested the mainstream history.
But not all images tell stories, and so the missing parts of the images become tales as well.
During the Liberation War, capturing of images was the preservation of the moment that mirrored birth pangs. It was not subjective judgments about the incidence; it was more about the objectivity of the moment. It was authentic history
Many images, like the one of unarmed Biharis/Pakistanis being bayoneted to death, also contested the simple straight line narrative of a Liberation War.
In the black-and-white domain of the history of a victorious people, the black-and-white image asked too many questions. But that is what photography slowly matured into in Bangladesh.
During the Liberation War, capturing of images was the preservation of the moment that mirrored birth pangs. It was not subjective judgments about the incidence; it was more about the objectivity of the moment. It was authentic history.
Some of the finest photojournalists in the world visited Bangladesh in 1971 and took pictures that shook the world.
But the trend continued even after the war was over, and it goes on even now. Poverty, famine, and disaster have remained the sole representation of Bangladesh in international media. It was Western liberal “orientalism” at its full-blown best.
But photography has had a long history, even if an inadequate one, in this muddy land. It goes all the way back to the seminal efforts of Abul Kashem Daddy and his glass plates.
Drik and the Bangladeshi photographer
MA Beg of Begart Institute worked to train several professionals and many Sunday photographers much before independence. The images produced were mostly simple ones: The innocent, the pristine, and the “pure,” portraying or searching for a never-never land of imagined serenity.
In the asymmetric struggle to establish a visual space, the Bangladeshi photographer, on its own, stood little chance to counter the Western surge through framed images alone. And there was no contest in the fight.
The large-scale entry of Western photographers further enhanced the stereotype, however well meaning that entry was. Photography alone couldn’t fight the good fight. It’s at this juncture that Shahidul Alam stepped into the world of Bangladeshi photography.
Having worked with international agencies, Alam felt a photo agency made up of Bangladeshi photographers could tell a story that was more of their own.
After three terms as president of the BPS, he set up Drik, the first picture library in the country. Photography was no longer just about images, it was also about activism.
‘Let Democracy be Freed’
The imaged domain began to mature as politics found power in pictures. The iconic image of Noor Hossain, with “Let Democracy be Freed” painted on his back, was a turning point in the political struggle against Ershad, a ruler once of the military, and universally dubbed a “dictator.”
Photographers were the witnesses of the people, and when the General fell, an impromptu exhibition of photos of the movement caused near riots as people stormed the gallery to get a glimpse.
It was their own images of their own hard-earned victory. The photographer, the crowd, and the cause were all becoming one, even if for a few iconic moments.
In 1989, the region’s first photo library, Drik, and the Bangladesh Photographic Institute were set up.
Photographers began to develop their own narrative style, and, in that process, the international representation of Bangladesh also began to change. It was not just the market where the footsteps were being heard, but the setting up of Drik’s education wing, Pathshala, that made it concrete.
Some of the finest photojournalists in the world visited Bangladesh in 1971 and took pictures that shook the world. But the trend continued even after the war was over, and it goes on even now
The real transformation began to take place. The World Press Photo (WPP) show reached Bangladesh for the first time in 1993 and soon Pathshala took off. This was a watershed in Bangladeshi photography, which has influenced subsequent progress the most.
It began to institutionalise the system. “Since taking Bangladeshi students to global festivals was not an option, bringing the world to Bangladesh had to be the answer.” Drik teamed up with Contact Press Images to put together an exhibition of largely unseen photographs by many great professionals on Bangladesh 1971.
There was strong public interest in the exhibition, but the government attempted to censor the show too, which led Drik to mount it in its own gallery. And it’s this interaction that began to extend the Drik-Pathshala photography spaces even more wide.
Chobi Mela and beyond
The festival, Chobi Mela (picture festival), which began in 2000, has been a great success. A diverse range of photographers kept flowing in from across the globe, and Chobi Mela made it a point to create space for ground-breaking work, deliberately shifting from documentary and news photographs to include conceptual and fine-art practice.
Chobi Mela not only provided curatorial opportunities for photographers but also brought peers together from Western Europe, North America, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and numerous other parts of Asia.
Shahidul Alam, who leads the photo conglomerate, was himself exploring other imagistic vocabularies, and his intensely political work blended in well with the new languages he was seeking out. The “Crossfire” show, while closed down by the government, received global acclaim, making its way to major museums such as the Tate Modern.
And his most recent work on the abduction of an indigenous activist Kalpana Chakma, using laser etchings on straw, has opened up new possibilities for photographic expression. But it was not just the external world that was focused on, but internal Bangladesh as well.
Drik/Pathshala also initiated the Rural Visual Journalism Network (RVJN), which has become one of the best sources of citizen journalism in Bangladesh. Its image source, “Focus Bangla,” provides high-volume and low-cost photography products. RVJN also provides multimedia content, but while the international agency Deutsche Welle regularly broadcasts RVJN content, the national media is still waiting to be convinced.
What has happened is the rise of photography as both art and profession. Not only has it achieved greater status in every space, but it exists as a distinct form of social expression much beyond the image. It’s an integral part of activism, social events, and documentation of history.
This multiplicity of roles didn’t happen accidentally, but through the organised contribution of many. Just as it includes many famous and unknown clickers, the part played by Drik, Pathshala, and its leader Shahidul Alam must all be considered critical.
Together they have organised and uplifted photography from a hobby and subaltern profession to that of a fully-recognised one, in which Bangladesh has done extremely well.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.