We often complain that Bangladesh only makes the international news when the news is bad–floods, coups, political violence, disease. The ‘Third World’ no longer has a monopoly on such horrors, yet it sometimes seems the rest of the world only hears these stories about us. Bangladesh had one of the fastest growing economies in 2020 despite COVID-19, outpaces its South Asian neighbours on social progress, and shows the world how to adapt to the permanent disaster of climate change.Yet these stories rarely reach an international audience. Bangladeshis still often depicted as if in the post-war 1970s, a place of unremitting poverty and few prospects.
So it makes sense that Bangladeshis are particularly sensitive about how Bangladesh is depicted. The government seems particularly hostile to photographers. The acclaimed pioneering photographer and teacher Dr Shahidul Alam - a person who had done more to enrich photography in Bangladesh than anyone else - was arrested in 2018 for saying something the government did not like, drawing international eyes to the very spectacle the government sought to conceal. The Rohingya refugee photographer Abul Kalam was arrested in December 2020, after he shared pictures of refugees being moved to an island, in a controversial move by the Bangladesh government struggling to manage the crisis created by the genocidal attack by Myanmar on its own people. Again, Kalam’s pictures got far wider attention thanks to his arrest.
While censorship is a fact of life in 2021 Bangladesh, both of us, Ismail as a photojournalist, and Naomi as a researcher, have also faced questions and criticism about why our work so often focuses on disasters, exploitation, and human pain. Why not show the good things, the wealth and progress, we are asked?
It is a good question. For both of us, the answer is the same: that these things are important and need to be recorded and understood. Hiding poverty and downplaying disasters only makes them worse and more likely to recur: we need to see problems clearly if we hope to change them. Ismail sees the hostility he has faced as ‘false nationalism’ – a desire to pretend that progress has eradicated poverty and devastation, that there are no losers from globalization, that growth is all golden. But nobody, at home or abroad, is fooled by heavy-handed efforts to control the narrative. People know when they are being sold a lie, when what they are told to look at does not fit with their experience of reality. This is why censorship of artists, writers and researchers always rebounds in a loss of trust - in the censor.
But we also know that poverty and devastation are not our whole truth. Outsiders or the uninformed may reach for lazy tropes of ‘poverty porn’ or dramatic disasters. But when people tell their own stories, they can show the complexity and richness. When Ismail photographs and I write about Bangladesh, we try to help explain why poverty and disaster persist, not treat them as natural conditions of a naturally poor country. Our work raises questions about the role of the wider world in such horrors, and helps us to think through the solutions we adopt.
We had the chance to think about these things when we collaborated on an essay about the photography of Rana Plaza. Ismail had won awards for his images of the disaster (be warned, these are deeply upsetting pictures). He followed this up with photo essays of survivors and the families of victims. In our essay, we wanted to think about the difference this photography had made.
We see bravery, solidarity, and incredible kindness, amid the pain and suffering. The world rarely sees Bangladesh like this, and it is vital that these essential national qualities are seen, because these are qualities that have always stood us in good stead
The pictures are painful – but then the event was extraordinarily painful, a national trauma that persisted long after the rubble had been cleared. In thinking about what such photographs meant, we realized several things. One was that these pictures showed how big international brands were at the top of a global value chain that pushed workers’ rights to the bottom. (Bangladeshi) factory owners often bear the brunt of criticism for an exploitative system that left workers exposed to a collapsing building. This lets big international firms off the hook. But the images of Rana Plaza showed connections between international brands like The Childrens Place (profits in 2013, the year of the Tana Plaza disaster, of USD 655 million). The pictures asked: did 1,134 Bangladeshis die because international brands pushed suppliers for ever tighter turnaround times and cheaper production costs?
Ismail’s pictures show us each casualty as a vast human tragedy. In seeing the faces of the parents and children and husbands and sisters left behind, we see that every Bangladeshi life matters
The pictures also showed the resilience and resourcefulness of Bangladeshis facing a crisis. Ismail depicted scenes of ordinary passersby and volunteers, everyday heroes who rushed into help when their fellow citizens needed them most. We see bravery, solidarity, and incredible kindness, amid the pain and suffering. The world rarely sees Bangladesh like this, and it is vital that these essential national qualities are seen, because these are qualities that have always stood us in good stead.
Above all, Ismail’s pictures show us each casualty as a vast human tragedy. In seeing the faces of the parents and children and husbands and sisters left behind, we see that every Bangladeshi life matters. That was not always clear in the past: in a society rich in people more than anything else, there has often been an official and social discounting of human deaths, a sense that in such a populous place, some suffering is the necessary side-effect of rapid economic development. Some people still take this gruesomely utilitarian view of their fellow citizens. But Ismail’s picture series ‘After Rana Plaza’ refuses such a calculation. More than pictures of grand buildings or fancy cars or fancy lifestyles, it is the fact that we can picture Bangladeshis as lives that matter that tells us how far we have come as a nation.
* Ismail Ferdous is an award-winning photojournalist from Bangladesh now based in New York. His workcovers social and humanitarian issues. Ismail photographs for National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg News, MSNBC Photo, and Associated Press. Ismail’s work can be viewed here: https://iferdous and his project After Rana Plaza can be viewed here: https://www.instagram.com/afterranaplaza/.
* Naomi Hossain is a Bangladeshi-Irish political sociologist based at the Accountability Research Center at American University in Washington DC. Her research focuses on the political economy of development and she has published numerous books and articles about Bangladesh. Her work can be found here: https://nomhossain.com/ and here: https://www.becomingbangladesh.net/.