Time picked Taslima Akhter's celebrated photograph “A Final Embrace” as one of the year's top 10 images and termed it as the “single most haunting photo” taken in 2013. She has spent months trying to learn the names of the victims in the picture. Sadly, Akhter has been unable to identify them. This week the Star sheds some light on the journey of a photographer and activist, who works more on the subaltern life of garment workers.
In a feature published in May last year, the Time magazine said that the image “A Final Embrace” captures Bangladesh's united grief of the Rana Plaza disaster in a single shot. No one knows who these two people are. The relation between them remains unidentified. Perhaps at the last minute of life they were trying to save each other in the deathtrap of Rana Plaza or maybe they were lovers united at last in death.
After the deadliest structural disaster at Savar on April 24 last year, like thousands of other volunteers, Taslima Akhter, a faculty member of Pathshala South Asian Media Academy, rushed to the site. She spent the entire day helping the rescuers working on the site, “At that time, my only intention was to help the rescuers. I was not ready to take photos.”
When she reached the disaster site, Akhter saw residents and neighbours trying to move the debris and break walls, a feverish panic engulfing the atmosphere. After working the entire day, she was exhausted- mentally and physically. The frightened eyes of relatives of the victims, injured garment workers being rescued from the rubble and dead bodies – it was overwhelming. Around 2am, Akther decided to enter the destroyed building. When she walked in, she found numerous muddy dead bodies with flies hovering around, and an overpowering stench engulfing the whole area. She says, “I found a couple lying at the back of the building. They were embracing each other in the rubble. The lower parts of their bodies were stuck under the concrete. A drop of blood from the man's eye ran like a tear.”
“I didn't want to use flash but I had no other option because it was totally dark under the debris,” she says. Akther took a few snaps and came out of the building with a heavy heart. The image was decisively set in her mind and many questions surfaced – she wanted to know more about the couple's identity, their relationship, and the last thought or flicker of hope that may have lingered in their minds to survive the collapse. She tried her best to find out who these two people were and went around the country to find out, but in vain. That poignant moment that she captured reflects the very nature of humanity; in the worst possible times, a human being is wont to save themselves but the instinct is also to save others. The image will not be praised for its technological reproduction of reality but for its portrayal of one of the most beautiful elements of humanity.
Akhter was born in a very traditional family. Just like many women in her family and community, she faced the usual restrictions and prejudice. And the experience made her reconsider her life choices.
In her first year as a student of University of Dhaka, her friends were involved in a leftist organization. Gradually, she too got involved. “Before joining a political party, politics was a dirty game to me but I realised later on that in order to change a society, politics is a necessity and it is seriously not as bad as I had imagined.” Maxim Gorky's book “Mother” influenced her politics. She became a member of the student organization in 1994, and later became the president of the Bangladesh student Federation of Dhaka University. She says, “While I was a student of photojournalism in Pathshala, every year I thought that I would quit photography because I believe activism, serving the society is my true calling. But at the end I could not quit just like that. Now I am involved with women and workers' associations. I believe photography is also a part of my activism and I also believe that there is no innocent and neutral position that any photographer or journalist or individual can take when they encounter injustice.”
Akther devoted her photographic career investigating the life of workers who toil under dangerous conditions. Akhter had photographed four other fires in Bangladeshi garment factories in which scores of workers, mostly women, had died. She says, “I prefer that my photograph tap into the anthropological investigation rather than imagery confusion.” Her inspiration has always been photography's ability to reduce social injustice and to championing the rights of workers. With her camera she tells stories the uncomfortable life of an impoverished worker or the solitary grief of a father who lost his daughter, standing still among the dead bodies in morgue. In each face can be seen the universal struggle for human dignity.
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