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Research notes: atrocities and allegory

The following notes are made after reading Shahidul Alam’s essay “Crossfire” as published in the book “Picturing Atrocity” (Alam, 2014).

Alam’s article is about the practice of extra-judicial killings carried by the Rapid Action Battalion (“RAB”), a special security force made up by police and military officers in Bangladesh, were victims are euphemistically referred to as being caught in “Crossfire” by officials involved. The practice has become engrained in popular culture, with Alam’s essay referring to people asking for it to be applied to a common mugger arrested by the police, and has proven to be difficult to eradicate, with the government resisting attempts by the judiciary to scrutinise the actions of the RAB.

In the essay, Alam talks about his strategy to document this through photography, which he attempts to do by photographing places and objects that are related to the events after careful consideration and research. The strategy here differs from that of direct reportage, which the artist believes has been tried before and failed, and instead uses “a fragment of the story…to suggest the whole. A quiet metaphor for the screaming ” in an “attempt to reach out at an emotional level” (Alam, 2014, p 130). Some of the pictures in this project can be seen here. Different from the captioning approach followed by Maiselas in her work on Nicaragua (see my comments here), in Crossfire the context is provided separate from the images, which are simply captioned by their title, often a single descriptive word, and one has to work out the connection between the images and the events. This approach affords more freedom to the viewer to interpret and attain that connection that Alam seeks at an allegorical level, but carries the inherent risk of resulting in an aestheticised response, given that some of the photographs are particularly serene (see for instance this).

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Alam, S. (2014). Crossfire. In: G. Batchen, M. Gidley, N. Miller and J. Prosser, eds., Picturing Atrocity. London: Reaktion Books, pp.123–131.‌

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