WHAT makes a photo iconic? Its news value? Its construction? Its position in history? Often, it’s all of these factors and then something more. It’s that elusive unknown element that often separates an image from many other fine photographs that get lost in history. An image that is open to multiple readings, one that allows a range of viewers to engage with it at a personal level, separates the iconic image from other great images that are not so well remembered. It is not merely a question of the content of a photograph. What the image triggers in a viewer, the weight that it carries, what underlying meaning it has, what emotions it stokes, affects whether an image lingers beyond the moment it is viewed. Whether it goes on to becoming an icon.
When the ‘Century’* book came out at the eve of the new millennium, it claimed to be ‘an attempt to outline the history of the twentieth century as the camera has seen it.’
Inevitably, it was the history as the white western photographer, or photo historian or photo editor had seen it. This photograph, perhaps the best-known image of the Bangladesh War of Liberation– Muktijudhdho, was one of many that were excluded.
One can always have issues with ‘best of’ of anything. One complains because one’s favourites have been left out. However, simply championing one’s favourites has limited utility. We wanted to go a step further.
The photographer Rashid Talukder, was Bangladesh’s best-known photojournalist. The author of a phenomenal body of work spanning epic moments in the history of our land. A master storyteller. But as with many photographers of his time, his work wasn’t organised, indexed, archived. He had been too busy taking pictures to worry about preserving them. It is only now that we have curators and historians and researchers studying photography and photographers that we are able to value his work in a meaningful way.
It was 2007. Rashid Bhai was aging. We were concerned that our history was dying a slow death. His negatives were in a large black bin bag. Only he had the ability to dig out a negative and tell the story surrounding it. We had commissioned Rokshana Islam an ex Pathshala student and later Mainul Hassan, our text editor, to visit Rashid Bhai in his Topkhana Road house and make copious notes, gathering what they could. It wasn’t going well. Great storyteller that he was, Rashid Bhai wasn’t into the 5Ws and one H that journalism students know as their mantra. He wasn’t into keywords and tags. He had been there, lived the moment. We were reducing living history into packable text bites. Rashid Bhai didn’t respond.
We changed tack. Scanning the negatives, we invited him over to Drik, projected the images and kept the video camera rolling as he described the moment. What a transformation it was! It was our methodology that had failed us. In front of that image, six foot by six foot on the projection screen, Rashid Bhai also came alive. We were in that moment. Living that history. Stories, wonderful and human, of the extraordinariness of everyday life. Of stolen moments and historical milestones, rolled out of his tongue as we sat mesmerised by this griot of the East. Rashid Bhai was in his elements. Lucid, witty, reflective and animated. We had boxed him in with our journalistic jargon. Given the freedom to talk in his own language, his words brought to life the images that had been trapped in his bin bag. It was living history, unfolding before our eyes.
It was when it came to this photograph, that Rashid Bhai paused. ‘It was probably the 17th December’ he began. ‘We’d heard of the killings in the brickfields in Rayerbazar. So many bodies, just left there. I began to think of the barbaric forms of justice in Saudi Arabia, where women accused of adultery were buried waist deep and stoned and men beheaded with swords. I began to imagine the moment. How grotesque it was. A brick had been hurled, then another. What had happened to the body? Should I remove the bricks? But I decided against it. You see the beauty of this image. This brick lying against the lips. The eye. The brick at the back, like a backdrop. The brick in front, (the moss on the brick) was almost like a procession or a public gathering. See the faint lettering on the bricks at the back. The letters tell you the name of the manufacturer. How was this woman killed? One brick was hurled, then another, and another. Eventually the body was buried under the bricks. Can we imagine what it was like at the moment of her death? I began to think how cruel it must have been? You could have killed her with a bullet. That would have been it. What would have been there to say? But to die like this, bit by bit, this slow death. I couldn’t take photographs at the beginning. The pain might have weakened me, but when I looked around and saw that had happened, the pain turned me into stone and I began to take photographs. I could have been luckier. How many rolls of film did we carry in those days? Two or three? Had I been using 35 mm, I might have had more frames and done it more justice.’
One can never do justice to people killed in genocide, but it was warriors with the lens, like Rashid Talukder, Aftab Ahmed, Amanul Haque, Mohammad Shafi, Jalaluddin Haider, Abdul Hamid Raihan and so many others, who have preserved the memory of our war, whom we’ve deprived, forgotten and exploited. Their archives have not been preserved, their memories not recorded. Their images used without credit, without payment. They have never been recognised for being Muktijoddhas, the freedom fighters with the lens. Politicians who wax lyrical about their commitment to preserve the values of our liberation war, have failed to honour the ones who have, at great personal risk, kept the only visual records that provide the only visual evidence of the injustice to our people. I salute you Rashid Bhai for the Muktijodhdha that you were.
As to the image being left out of the Century book. I put it down to ignorance, laziness and a myopic view of history. I wouldn’t dwell on it. Our fault lies in allowing western experts to become the sole chroniclers of world history. It is time to reclaim our space and rewrite history. Our history.
*Century is a 1999 coffee table book published by Phaidon Press that is equal parts photography and history. In the words of the author, Century is ‘an attempt to outline the history of the twentieth century as the camera has seen it.’ The book was both conceived and edited by Bruce Bernard (1928–2000), a picture editor for The Sunday Times Magazine
Shahidul Alam is a photographer, writer and curator.
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