Ashfika Rahman
Files of the Disappeared

Over the past few years in Bangladesh, more than 4,000 young people have been arrested at random and tortured while in custody. Anyone who was released was forced to keep silent. Ashfika Rahman shows the places where the bodies of so-called criminals have been found after “clashes” with the police. She also portrays young people who are the victims of injustice. She anonymises their faces with gold embroidery that functions as a symbol of the silence in custody and the time after it. 26-year-old Alif – his name has been changed as well – had been a worker in Dubai. He was arrested after a visit home. He still doesn’t know why. In custody, he was subjected to physical and mental torture. The psychological damage is not immediately apparent; it will reveal itself only after some time. The photographer wants to depict the suffering of her subjects and, with this project, initiate a movement that will confront the state’s politics of fear.

  • Bangladesh
  • Prison
  • Violence
  • Youth
3 Questions
1. The door opener: Can you describe a formative moment in your career as a visual journalist?

Since I began with photography, I’ve been on a journey to find my own voice. Over the years my journey has taken different turns. But I found my voice in photography when I discovered my social-activist mother trying to follow her faith in social work. I began to work on marginal people of Bangladesh, especially about the violence on minor, tribal or ethnic groups of people in remote hills or a village in the peripheries of Bangladesh. In each of my work I try to challenge the mainstream perspective towards these issues.

2. The decisive moment: When did you first encounter your topic and why did you decide to cover it photographically?

A boy called Shuvo (pseudonym), age 18, used to work with me as a fixer, when I was working in remote places. We spent a lot of time together. He was a shy boy, helping his family by random jobs. No particular job to be very specific. Next time when I went there, I heard he was dead by police encounter. I was shocked! Shuttered!

As far as I came to know that young shy boy in the last couple of years, it is a bit complicated to understand his connection with any sorts of crime that may have led him towards that fate. I started digging into it more. I expected it to happen again. It is still going on and becoming a political culture. More than 4,000 people were picked up randomly last year. They were tortured and killed sometimes by a so-called “encounter”. (Note: The term “encounter” stands for killings of people in police encounters.) A practice of fear. I thought of initiating to break the chain through a photography project. I collaborate with a psych counsellor to provide them counselling. Those who got back alive are going through tough trauma of mental and psychical torture. They wrote about their anxiety on their own portrait as a part of healing. This photo project is an initiative to make photography a part of a social movement.

3. The future: What could the visual journalism of the future be like?

I believe we are living in a visual era. The instant access to social media and other such public platforms makes it so much easier to outsource visual elements to the public. This method of storytelling enables readers to better understand complex, sophisticated topics in a shorter amount of time. It is the job of the storyteller to use data to create better stories that are useful, interesting and digestible to a wide audience. On the one hand it looks like there is an end of individual journalism, at the same time this is a time when visual journalists can take it ahead. Visual journalists will not only produce stories but also take initiative to take responsibility to research and come up with possible solutions. It will not be individual but in collaboration with society. It is the visual which will lead the future of the world philosophically, ideally and politically.


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Photographer Ashfika Rahman speaks about her project Files of the Disappeared and finding new ways in documentary storytelling. Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 2020. © Ashfika Rahman

Curated by Emilie Herbst

© for all photos by the photographers
© for all videos Lumix Festival Hanover, if not indicated otherwise.

*1988 in Dhaka, Bangladesh
In her documentary-photographic and artistic work on complex social topics, Ashfika Rahman attempts to elucidate social power relationships. She studied Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at Hanover University of Applied Sciences and Arts as well as at the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, where she is currently active as a teacher. In 2018, she participated in the Joop Swart Masterclass.


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