photography politics

‘Crossfire’ censored: the power of documentary photography

If we wanted a clear pointer to the political power of documentary photography, and a stark lesson in how pictures that pose difficult questions can provoke authorities, we need look no further than the vital work of Shahidul Alam and the Drik Gallery in Bangladesh.

Photo credit: Shahidul Alam/Drik

Shahidul’s new exhibition “Crossfire” examines extra judicial killings and torture allegedly carried out by the Rapid Action Battalion in Bangladesh. According to the exhibition,

“Human rights groups maintain that over 1000 people have been killed by RAB since its inception. All such deaths have been attributed to gunfights between RAB and criminals where the people in RAB custody were caught in crossfire. No member of RAB has yet been killed in crossfire.”

The New York Times Lens blog reviewed the exhibition’s photographs noting that,

“Instead of a literal document of the killings, Mr. Alam created a series of large images that are evocative of the places where the victims were murdered or discovered — a still-life film noir in Technicolor. With the help of researchers, he examined cases to point out inconsistent details in the official accounts…A field [see above] that was supposedly the scene of a shootout is portrayed undisturbed, suggesting the corpse had only been dumped there.”

When Rob Godden of The Rights Exposure Project wrote about “Crossfire” a couple of weeks ago he concluded with the prescient observation that we should “spread the word, [because] this one may get shut down before it even opens.”

So it came to pass. On Monday of this week police cordoned off the gallery just prior to its opening, leading to a siege of the exhibition (see the New York Times coverage here). This has led to protests outside the gallery, and condemnation from some newspapers in Dhaka and Amnesty International in London.

It is insufficient, but from a distance we can do little more than applaud Shahidul and the Drik community for their commitment, and let both them and the Bangladeshi authorities that we are vigilantly watching their actions. Drik has a long record of photographic activism drawing official censure (evident earlier this year in the Chinese opposition to their Tibet show), and we can learn a lot from their work.


4 replies on “‘Crossfire’ censored: the power of documentary photography”

Similar action by police against a human rights photography exhibition occurred in Zimbabwe this week. On Wednesday 24 March The Guardian reported:

“Zimbabwean police today returned graphic photos of human rights violations under President Robert Mugabe to an art gallery they had raided 24 hours earlier.

Yesterday officers seized all 66 images from the Gallery Delta in Harare and arrested the head of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Organisation, known as ZimRights, which organised the exhibition.

Police said the images were not fit for display because they showed nudity and injuries, and because the show’s organisers could not prove they had consent from all the subjects.

But human rights activists won a high court ruling to have the pictures sent back for the exhibition’s opening, which was to be attended by the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, and foreign diplomats.”

Let’s hope the courts in Bangladesh can uphold principles like the High Court in Zimbabwe.

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