The Role of Photography in Human Rights Advocacy

crossfire-poster-300x300Bangladeshi photographer and human rights activist Shahidul Alam’s Crossfire exhibition opened in the Partnership Gallery at the Queens Museum of Art on 15th April, 2012. The exhibition aims to gather international support for a campaign to end extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh by state forces, usually called “crossfire.”

In 2004, responding to a perceived law and order “crisis” the Bangladesh government created a new, armed enforcement agency, called Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). The agency was formed by taking officers from the Bangladesh Police, Army, Navy and Air Force. Over time, the agency’s budget and power grew until today it is one of the largest and most feared groups inside Bangladesh. From the very early days, RAB became notorious for killing people it was trying to capture, often during gun battles, which the government always claims is due to “crossfire.”

RAB has been the subject of repeated condemnation by international human rights activists, including Human Rights Watch, starting with their 2006 report Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Torture and Extrajudicial Killings by Bangladesh’s Elite Security Force. Activists have also insisted that Bangladesh’s continued participation in UN Peacekeeping Forces be made subject to the government ending the practice of torture and extra-judicial killings by RAB.

Shahidul Alam’s Crossfire project was first shown in Bangladesh in 2010 to draw attention to extra-judicial killings by RAB. The government responded by shutting down the show. Eventually, a court ruled in favor of Alam, and the show was reopened. Now Queens Museum of Art is bringing the project to New York for the first time. The project includes photographs that recreate, through metaphoric images, extra-judicial killings by RAB; videos about the controversy over the show; and a live Google map that pinpoints locations for numerous extrajudicial killings.

Crossfire attempts to reach out at an emotional level where a fragment of the story has been used to suggest the whole. According to Shahidul Alam, “My intention was to get under the skin. I walked those cold streets; heard the cries; sat quietly with the family besides a cold corpse. The show is a quiet metaphor for the screaming truth.”

In conjunction with this show, events are planned in Bangladesh, where posters about abuses committed by RAB will be distributed nationwide, informing and educating local people of their rights, through new data and facts.

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