A Docufictional Work on Domestic Violence in Bangladesh

In a series that fuses material from a family photo album and a collection of staged images, Bangladeshi photographer Shadman Shahid tackles the theme of domestic abuse and violence against women in his homeland.

© Shadman Shahid, from the series No Quarter

It took nearly four years for Shadman Shahid to complete No Quarter, a docufictional work about domestic violence in his home country of Bangladesh. Through trial and error, the storyline underwent an evolutionary process of clarification: from the broader theme of violence against women, which has a perimeter wider than any city or nation, Shahid narrowed it to the silenced, deeper tragedy of violence within domestic walls, a type of abuse often concealed from the public eye, at the hands of men - cousins, uncles, brothers - against their women.

The title borrows from the military idiom “Give no quarter,” typically used to describe ruthlessness against an enemy, here a loved one - a sense of possession that claims through the harm it inflicts. According to a 2011 Violence Against Women survey conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, domestic violence in Bangladesh impacted 87% of women, a plague inherent to a society that allows it to fester.

It’s a theme that, for Shahid, was personal, having witnessed public harassment: "I saw my immediate family suffering from this for years in a place like Dhaka, where I grew up", he says. "I'd see my mother becoming more and more afraid of going out of the house, my wife harassed in the street. Multiple times [I saw] cousins beaten and abused by their husbands and brothers."

© Shadman Shahid, from the series No Quarter

Shahid first sought an abstract approach that employed visual symbols and metaphors, but found it hard for the larger public to decipher. He then dug deeper for stories and interviews in newspaper articles, staging the reported events and photographing fictionalised re-enactments, but cinematic images of unrelated anecdotes felt disjointed to him and emotionally disconnected.

That’s when a single storyline emerged, the potency of an individual experience speaking the truth of many: "It made it easier for the viewer to empathise with the person portrayed, while also reaching a deeper understanding of the gravity of the situation."

That’s how Alo (not her real name), a relative of Shahid, became the protagonist of No Quarter. At 15, she married a man 15 years her senior; an arranged marriage that gave them two daughters. The verbal and physical violence started soon after the first child was born. Often cursed and beaten, obliged to share a room with her in-laws with no privacy, the trauma deepened when Alo was forced to abort a baby that her husband claimed had been conceived out of wedlock. As the violence persisted, she started drawing her own blood with a syringe and using it to paint the walls red. But the relationship persisted too, despite the abuse. Shahid draws the full arc of Alo’s story through archival photos from family albums, altering images to conceal features, and re-staging photographs based on memories. And we can’t help but wonder, holding a story for many, what keeps certain abusive relationships going, what prevents the violence to stop.

© Shadman Shahid, from the series No Quarter

Shahid was in an ethical quandary about his position and role - because of, or despite, his closeness to the subject. “It was strange,” he admits. “At times, I didn't truly know if it was fair or not to tell the story; at times, it seemed too personal to share with the rest of the world. I had some moral questions.”

But Shahid was motivated by Alo’s willingness to speak. The tragedy of the couple - the severe mental and physical pain of violence, the disillusionment, the power imbalance that spills into sexuality - further reflects a broader picture of Bangladeshi society. Distorted views of religion, tradition and masculinity, at times intertwined, have led to deep-rooted ideological problems, Shahid says.

Still, stories like Alo’s, combined with Shahid’s zeal to bring it to light, can make the difference: “I think most of us in Bangladesh suffer personally from violence against women,” he says. “The motivation behind the work stems from a personal will not to remain passive and wanting to continue the conversation regarding violence against women in Bangladesh.”

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Shadman Shahid is a photographer and filmmaker born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His work is about the precarity of the corporeal and the spiritual human conditions in contemporary society. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a multimedia reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.

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