Updated: Mar 14
by Sushrita Acharjee.
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War photography disturbs by exhibiting spectacular examples of how war dismembers and shatters bodies and space, breaks apart and eviscerates our familiar world. In 1938, Virginia Woolf wrote in her book-length essay Three Guineas, in the context of the imminent World War II, that ‘not to be pained by these pictures, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish what causes this havoc, this carnage, is a failure of imagination, of empathy.’[i] Author, activist and filmmaker Susan Sontag is of the opinion that in the modern times, war photography makes people aware of other people’s pain from a distance: ‘Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses: a call for peace; a cry for revenge; or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.’[ii] Professor and former journalist, Barbie Zelizer, observes that ‘combining the cool mechanics of the camera with the hot passions of wartime, (war photographs) offer visual statements about circumstances much of the world prefers not to see.’[iii] Apart from these significant contributions, war photography also leads one to reconsider the politics of who the photographer is, what her stance is and what object she is gazing at through the lens and how.
Mohammad D. Hossain speculates how the UK and USA news media, especially the New York Times and The Times London, documented the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War through photographic images. He contends that these news media mostly relied upon official photographs as primary sources and emphasized more on neutral tones than on negative or positive tones.[iv] However, in the context of the Liberation War, how did the native Bangladeshi photographers and photojournalists choose to document the atrocities they were having first-hand experience of? In which ways did their ideological stance and gaze differ from that of the foreign photojournalists? How did the rigorous military curfew and censorship affect their work? Venerated Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam accurately wrote in the introduction to the seventh annual calendar comprising rare photographs of the 1971 Liberation War, published by Drik Art Gallery, Dacca: ‘Though history books carry distortions, the photographs say otherwise. Photographs say, there is evidence, I am the witness.’[v] Photographers such as Shahidul Alam, Naibuddin Ahmed, Rashid Talukder, Sayeeda Khanam, Haroon Habib, Aftab Ahmed and the like weaponised the camera to bear witness to both the cruelties perpetrated by the West Pakistani Army and the brave feats of the Liberation Army in the face of adversity. Some of the photographers even participated in the War themselves. Unlike the foreign photojournalists and news media publishing the photographs, the ideological stance of the Bangladeshi photographers was not neutral. They would often forge identity cards, thereby risking their lives to document the war in a desperate bid to free their country and carry forward the experience of the Bangladeshi people to the people of the world at large.
Naibuddin Ahmed recalls his experience during the war when he was working as a chief research photographer for the East Pakistan Agricultural University. One day, when a Pakistani army officer asked him to repair his camera, Ahmed discreetly took a few photographs of the havoc wreaked by the army upon the settlement as well as of the tortured inhabitants. He persuaded the army officer that he must take the camera home to mend a few things, and by doing so, he kept the reel to himself. Later, he sent the reel to India with the help of a Liberation Army commander. His photographs were printed in various newspapers in India and abroad, putting an end to the West Pakistan Army’s effort to misinform the world about the restoration of so-called normalcy in Bangladesh.[vi] This was merely the beginning of Ahmed’s resistance against the West Pakistani force with the camera. Some of the most haunting images from the refugee camps, war zones and of the aftermath of war were taken by Naibuddin Ahmed. His photographs of vultures preying on the human remains of Bangladeshi people found on the banks of river Brahmaputra at Mymensingh would prevent the onlookers from ever erasing the visual images of the military onslaught from their minds.
Apart from photographs of the genocide, the brutal murder of civilians, especially intellectuals, artists etc., Ahmed also documented the indomitable spirit of the Liberation Army and the courageous resistance of the Bangladeshi front. He primarily devoted his time to the Liberation Army camp of Sector 11 but he also brought together a group of volunteers who aided the Liberation Army training across the border areas of Bangladesh with medicines, money and other provisions.
Eminent Bangladeshi photographer, Shahidul Alam, was only a teenager during the Liberation War but he contributed largely to curating a rich archive of war photographs in collaboration with Drik Picture Library. His book Birth Pangs of a Nation also comprises a large collection of rare photographs of the 1971 War. At Drik, he preserved many vintage photographs of the war without even retouching them. In collaboration with London’s Autograph ABP, Alam curated an exhibition in London titled Bangladesh 1971 where some of the most appalling images of the war were exhibited, for instance, Naibuddin Ahmed’s photograph of one woman among the quarter million who were sexually violated during the war. [vii]
Chhobi Mela International Festival of Photography, arranged by Shahidul Alam and his associates biennially, has exhibited over the years a large number of war photographs. In the 10th edition, several striking photographs taken by Rashid Talukder were displayed; one of those was the photograph of a dismembered human head in the Royer Bazar brick field where Bangladeshi intellectuals were murdered by the West Pakistani Army in an onslaught. Talukder, who was a founder of the Bangladesh Photojournalists’ Association, was working with the newspaper The Daily Ittefaq during 1971.
Notwithstanding severe restriction of press freedom, Talukder showed exceptional courage in travelling to many war-ravaged areas to take photographs. Not only did he take photographs of the death and destruction caused by the Pakistani Army and the irreparable damage, trauma and pain inflicted on the land and its people, he documented their moments of glory too. Talukder’s achievement, however, rests in documenting the plight of the millions of dispossessed, uprooted Bangladeshi people fleeing the West Pakistani Army and migrating to India. His photographs immortalize their predicament and give them visibility even half a century later.
Among acclaimed Bangladeshi photographers who contributed greatly to the corpus of Liberation War photography, Sayeeda Khanom plays an indispensable role. Being the first professional female photographer of Bangladesh, she broke the barriers of gender roles in the male-governed field of photojournalism and documented many significant moments from the 1971 War. She visited training camps and shot the activities of the Liberation army’s female wings on her camera. In her photographs, the brave feats of women warriors in the war are eternalized.
Many such photographers, running around the country defying military curfew and censorship on press, not only fought with the camera but with firearms too. Photojournalists such as Haroon Habib participated in the War as a guerilla fighter and simultaneously worked as a war correspondent for Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. Some photojournalists who did not fight in the war volunteered in collecting and disseminating monetary funds, food, medicines and other provisions for the dispossessed migrants and wounded warriors. Their body of work, thus, has a visceral, intimate quality to it which can only be achieved through close association with the Liberation Army and by experiencing the war from immediate vicinity. The single unit of a photograph, according to Sontag, functions as a memory freeze-frame emphasizing what war does and how it ruins, mangles and destroys.[viii] Therefore, most importantly, the contribution of these photojournalists extends beyond their times, as the photographs taken by them provide an effective way of apprehending the 1971 War and suggest a compact form for memorizing it.
[i] Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1938), as cited in Susan Sontag, ‘Looking at War’, The New Yorker (9 Dec 2002) (available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/09/looking-at-war; last accessed on 20 March 2021). [ii] Susan Sontag, ‘Looking at War’, The New Yorker (9 Dec 2002) (available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/12/09/looking-at-war; last accessed on 20 March 2021). [iii] Barbie Zelizer, ‘When War is reduced to a Photograph’ in Stuart Allen and Barbie Zelizer (eds), Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime (UK: Routledge, 2004); pp.115–135. [iv] Mohammad D. Hossain, ‘Manufacturing consent: Framing the liberation war of Bangladesh in the US and UK media’, Journalism 16(4) (24 March 2015) (available at: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1464884914524516; last accessed on 20 March 2021).
[v] Nayanika Mookherjee, ‘Imaging 71 with Shahidul Alam’, Dhaka Tribune ( 18 September 2018) (available at https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2018/09/18/imaging-71-with-shahidul-alam; last accessed on 20 March 2021). [vi] Cultural correspondent, ‘A photographer looks back at 1971: In conversation with Naibuddin Ahmed’, The Daily Star (1 December 2008) (available at: https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-65606; last accessed on 20 March 2021). [vii] Mookherjee, ‘Imaging 71’. [viii] Sontag, ‘Looking at War’.