Giving a Voice to the Forcibly Muted

In a series combining portraiture, landscapes, and written testimonies, Bangladeshi artist Ashfika Rahman addresses a growing social issue in her native country - that of enforced disappearance.

© Ashfika Rahman, from the series Files of the Disappeared

An International Convention adopted by the United Nations in 2006 ensures that the “perpetrators of enforced disappearance – no matter whether it is a state authority or not - can be tried.” In Bangladesh, however, no criminal laws have yet recognised enforced disappearance as an offense. Worse still, law enforcement authorities deny the arrests, with government officials backing these claims.

Artist Ashfika Rahman tackles this issue in a series of uncanny portraits. Her subjects pose before neutral, yet warm, backgrounds with their faces remaining anonymous - in some photos she has stitched their mouths or faces shut with a golden thread, while in others she has plunged their face in a black shadow.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 90 people had been victims of enforced disappearance in 2016 alone, and legal rights advocacy group Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) counted at least 310 people that disappeared in Bangladesh between 2014 and 2018. Among them, some were found dead, others returned alive or later declared arrested, and some remain “disappeared.” There are allegations of severe torture and ill-treatment while in secret custody. Yet, among those who returned, none is allowed – or able - to speak out. Enforced disappearances instill a great fear and reappeared persons remain “abnormally tight-lipped” about their experiences. Just as if there were sewn.

© Ashfika Rahman, from the series Files of the Disappeared

With care and subtlety, Rahman undertook to break the silence. In an interview for the Daily Star, she explained, “we need to be sensitive and thoughtful about outcomes. Professional psychological counselors, especially Anne Anthonia Baroi, helped me to talk to my protagonists about their pain in a sensitive way.” First, she chose the shooting location with them – usually their own space, “where they feel safe and comfortable”, she writes. Then, she used the photographic process as a therapeutic tool. “I try to take my protagonists through a meditative journey which may allow them to investigate their own anxiety which they kept secret for so long. Illustrating personal emotion in one’s own portrait is a process of healing”, she adds. Under the portraits, a sentence written by the protagonist transcribes their emotions and experience.

Rahman’s series Files of the Disappeared – a name charged with the hope of a proper trial or police consideration, at a time when police do not allow families to file complaints alleging that their relatives have been picked up by law enforcement authorities - comprises another level. That is, landscapes. Dark, at times blurry, they “show the locations where the bodies were found after 'clashes' between the police and so-called criminals”. Dark as the story.

© Ashfika Rahman, from the series Files of the Disappeared

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Ashfika Rahman is a multidisciplinary artist from Dhaka, Bangladesh, who currently lives in Germany. She works with photography, text and alternative printing. Her practice involves extensive research into the structure of power and social issues.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.

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This article is part of our feature series, Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.

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