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     Volume 7 Issue 46 | November 21, 2008 |

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The Dark Night Returns

Nader Rahman

‘Bangladesh is a land of immense natural beauty and unimaginable tragedy', that cliché has been repeated over and over, let’s not go there again, lets just accept the truth of the statement, internalise it and move on. Clichés get bad reputations; often great-wisdom is demoted to the realms of a cliché and in the process the veracity of the statement is lost. The same could be said of Bangladesh, it has lived up to every cliché invented for it and now when they are used, people don't know what to say or believe about them. Last year's cyclone SIDR was one of those unimaginable tragedies that has continued to define our national history, and as with any defining moment someone was there to capture it, unfortunately it wasn't Ziad Islam.

Day 9: November 23, 2007,Live

Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed a sailor passionately kissing a nurse and that image is forever linked to the sense of relief and joy at the end of WW II, John Dominis captured the African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving a black power salute at the podium in the 1968 Olympics and that picture stands a symbol of black resistance. Ziad Islam was not so lucky, his images will not forever be linked to SIDR and its aftermath, I doubt if they will stand the test of time as other iconic pictures have. His exhibition titled 'SIDR Diary, Blackouts and Anniversaries' goes beyond the search for iconic images and the reality of photojournalism. It passes judgement without being judgemental, evokes memories without regurgitating them and speaks poignantly without being melodramatic. Much more than a simple exhibition, it is a sociological experience, which happens to scatter a few insightful pictures with a few well-chosen words.

The fact that the exhibition is at Chobir Haat, opposite the Faculty of Fine Arts offers yet more insight into Islam's mind. What use would it be to put up an exhibition based on SIDR in a stuffy room, to be looked at and judged by those knew nothing of the human sacrifice that went into dealing with the tragedy. Instead the artist chose a public place, a public space where anyone could walk by and have a look. He is seemingly not interested in what the academics and critics have to say about the pictures, he wants to engage and elicit a response from the public, the people who silently suffered as the rest watched on their TV screens. His pictures are not aesthetic masterpieces, they are as ordinary as the people who came to see them and therein lay the beauty of the exhibition. The pictures and words together recreate without replicating the dissonance between those who truly suffered, and those who didn't, those who truly helped and those who didn't, those who felt pain and those who didn't. If anything one can accuse him of over indulgence, but then again this is a personal diary, merely put in a public place.

Day 7: November 21, 2007, Moment of Relief !

The second picture from exhibition is from Dipita's Wedding, her identity is not important, but her story is. Having planned the wedding months in advance, it could not be called off, neither could a photographer be hired for the job. Islam showed up and took pictures of a wedding where the entire event was run by generators, a day after the worst cyclone in nearly two decades. At times, even random acts of nature cannot stop the human will. Looking back at the picture one is tempted to think their decision to continue with the wedding was foolish and naïve, after such death and destruction, surely there could have been a better time to tie the knot. The public nature of the exhibition leaves it open to interpretation.

The third picture is a little more difficult to justify, its from a party called Sirocco which was held two days after the cyclone. Islam quotes from the organisers' message to the guests in his caption, “Amongst all the current confusion in Bangladesh, we the management would just like to point out that: Sirocco is happening...”. The murky picture of people dancing the night away without a care in the world is possibly the most difficult image to swallow. The lines between the have-nots in Bangladesh have never more clearly been defined as the wine flowed like the water people drowned in. The organisers possibly never even though of changing the name of the event as Sirocco is better known as a Mediterranean wind that comes from the Sahara and reaches 'hurricane' speeds in North Africa and Southern Europe. Food for thought if nothing else…

The fourth picture taken on the third day after the storm stands as a reminder of what people put into the relief effort. The picture of a whiteboard with names and numbers showing how much people donated to the effort is heartening, and offers the first glimpse of hope. Before Obama, many said, yes we can, and they did, this picture is for them. The exhibition next shifts to the disaster zone with a picture beautifully titled Stage of Need. It shows hundreds of people lined up "in front of Shoronkhola Press Club to receive VIPs who arrived on helicopters to distribute relief. After a few hundred people were served and the VIPs flew off, the crowds had to be dispersed, sometimes by baton charge," his caption states. The pain and anguish of their longing faces is difficult to deal with, just as the picture of a woman from a diplomatic mission handing out relief material is. As Islam says, "They (the people from the diplomatic missions) checked the situation, within 500 yards of the helipad, and distributed relief material." The matter of fact statement says just as much as the picture and together it creates a sense of distrust that is not easily shaken off.

Day 3: November 17, 2007,The Show Must Go On!

The last picture of the exhibition is of a smiling child and Islam says moments like that give him hope. If only one could say that of the exhibition, it does not offer hope but serves up a dish of moral ambiguity. Careless partying, faking diplomats and suffering people, it all collides on a miniature scale and forces us a rethink our values and the society in which we live. The first picture of the exhibition is the one that ties everything else into place and leaves the most room for discussion. It is a pitch-black picture from the night the lights went out and the darkness hit us in more ways than one. Looking at it from a distance, there is something provocative about it, as it hangs beside other pictures that say so much, so clearly. 15 August 2007 will be remembered for SIDR and with this exhibition and its one black picture, that dark night returns. Ziad Islam did not produce a singular iconic picture that audiences will remember forever, he produced a body of work, which challenged and questioned anyone who stood before it. Sadly in our world of channel surfing attention spans, one, let along nine will probably not be remembered and that is a shame.

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