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Tuesday, 4 September 2018


Welcome back from the summer. The sad news was the arrest of Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh for exercising his right to freedom of expression (which essentially mounted to saying something that everybody knows on live TV).

The idea of the photographer as witness is flawed. But it's better to have a flawed witness than no witness at all. And Shahidul Alam is an example of this.

This is from Amnesty's Urgent Action Campaign to release Shahidul Alam. 

Shahidul Alam, photographer and outspoken social activist, has been charged under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act after giving an interview to Al-Jazeera on the current wave of school student protests in Bangladesh. Detained and charged solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression, Shahidul Alam must be immediately and unconditionally released.

And this is a call to write to the Bangladeshi authorities wherever you are. And letter-writing really makes a difference in so many ways even though it's just a small thing.

Please write immediately in English or Bangla or in your own language urging the authorities to: • Immediately and unconditionally release Shahidul Alam, who is a prisoner of conscience, and drop all charges as he has been detained solely for peacefully exercising his human right to freedom of expression; • Ensure that activists, human rights defenders, journalists, academics and members of the political opposition and other members of the public are able to peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.


Minister of Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal Bangladesh Secretariat Dhaka Bangladesh

 Mobile: +880 1 71 154 1569 Tel: +880 2 957 4800 Fax: +880 2 913 3498 Email: minister@mha.gov.bd Salutation: Honourable Home Minister 

nspector General of Police Mohammad Javed Patwary Police Headquarters Dhaka Bangladesh Tel: +880 2 951 4444; +880 2 951 4445 Fax: +880 2 712 5840 Email: ig@police.gov.bd Salutation: Dear Inspector General 

And copies to: Political Affairs Advisor to Bangladesh Prime Minister H.T. Imam Prime Minister’s Office Dhaka Bangladesh Tel: +880 2 912 9997 E-mail: advimam@pmo.gov.bd; htimam55@gmail.com 

Also send copies to diplomatic representatives accredited to your country. 

Essentially, Shahidul Alam got called out for vocalising the anger so many Bangladeshis feel at the wholesale injustice, corruption, theiving, torture, rape and murder taking place in the country with no recourse to justice or accountability whatsoever. He was saying what everyone knows. But still, you're not allowed to say it. You will be arrested, be tortured, and subjected to a potential 14 year jail sentence.

If you're interested, is the Amnesty country profile and there are a whole

The images above are from a fantastic series of projections mounted in Kathmandu for a summit of Asian leaders, including the Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina.

It's a reminder of how much people don't like seeing their actions laid bare to the world. Corrupt people don't like being told they are corrupt. It's almost as though they feel a little shame, though shame is probably not the right word.. It's also a reminder of how powerful photography still can be, how stating the obvious (in Shahidul Alam's case) or photographing the obvious (in this case) is so feared by the brutal and the corrupt.

I'm always very doubtful about the idea of the photographer as witness, but when you have an enforced absence of photography on a global scale, when photographers are shot, beaten, imprisoned, tortured, abused, it does give the idea that photography still does have some kind of strange evidential power.

Images also matter in journalism with the two Reuters journalists' Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo arrested for their reporting of the Inn Din massacre  during the Rohingya ethnic cleansing/genocide in Myanmar. You see them living, and lined up, and then you see them dead, throats cut, undeniably murdered as the photo of the bodies provided to Reuters by a Buddhist elder shows.

The Myanmar military couldn't deny the massacre - because of the pictures basically - but they could present it as an isolated example, as rogue elements working within the military. That's what militaries do when they get caught with blood on their hands. That's one kind of denial.

Coupled with that denial is the faking of history as this report shows, with images used to whitewash both the massacres of Rohingya and present an orderly return as a reality that is nothing near the truth, truth which this article in Guardian with pictures by Abbie Trayler Smith gives a good overview of.

It is astonishing how few images of the Rohingya ethnic cleansing exist. I might be missing something but where are they? Photographs matter, and there is a bearing of witness in some ways, albeit an imperfect one that is less predictible in its effect than people imagine.

So though we may criticise photographers for their representation of this, that and the other, the absence of images shines a light on the power photography has to frame an event, or a series of events. The Cultural Revolution in China has powerful resonances for us because of the pictures and film footage that were presented to the world. It's used as a kind of template for the brutality of Mao's China with theatrical ranks of little-red-book waving Red Guards weeping tears of either love or hatred defining the extremes of the times.

But head back a few years to and you get to the Great Leap Forward, a famine manufactured by the incompetence and venality of Mao and the communist party in which 40 million people died. And there are no images of that famine. Well, no images? There might be one. In the book Picturing Atrocity, DJ Clark wrote an essay titled A Single Image of Famine. It focusses on a Li Feng image of poor peasants and how images were censored, how photography became something simply to serve the state. Forty million people died in the most man made, cadre led famine ever, there was the most horrific brutality - and no photos. None. Certainly you have oral testimony and histories such as Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine, but photographs cut an emotional short circuit that operates on quite a different level to text.

Given the prevalence of smartphones and the idea that everyone is a photographer, you'd think that images would be all over the place of injustice in the world. But you get the same visual gap in the representation of contemporary state oppression all over China but especially in Xinjiang, a place that in the last year has been

...turned into an Orwellian police state and hundreds of thousands of Uighurs were gradually locked away in concentration camps for what the state calls “transformation through education”. Others have been thrown in prison or “disappeared”. Witness reports of life inside the camps and detention centres have told not only of unhealthy living conditions, but also of regular violence, torture and brainwashing. Writing in the New York Times in February, James A Millward, a scholar who has researched Xinjiang for three decades, argued that the “state repression in Xinjiang has never been as severe as it has become since early 2017”

Again, it might be (and probably is) that there are images in the private sphere or on specific sites somewhere but at the same time something is missing when there are no photographs in the public sphere. The guilty feel like they've got away with something when there is no visual evidence. That's why oppressive governments, secretive organisations, and corrupt individuals don't like photographers. Is it because they are witnesses? I think that's not quite right. But at the same time, I'd much rather go with the idea of photographers being witnesses to history, human rights violations and injustice than the converse. There are many important things to be said about the impotence of photography, the deception at its heart, its unreliability as a tool of evidence, but I think if you do that to the exclusion of its more revelatory possibilities and its ability to strike at least some kind of fear and shame into the Bangladeshi, Chinese, Cambodian, Saudi Israeli, Turkish, Chinese, Nazi, British, American, corporate authorities, then you are rather doing the world a disservice. They don't like it up 'em, and if photography has some kind of power to do that in some way, then so be it.

Indian artist's petition for Shahidul Alam here

Kathmandu Post profile on Shahidul Alam by Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati here

Guardian report on British artists supporting Shahidul Alam here.

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