BY Shahidul Alam  in Opinion | 10 DEC 20

Photographer Shahidul Alam Revisits a Tragedy that Changed Bangladesh Forever

Eight years after the Tazreen Fashions Factory fire in Dhaka, Alam writes about photographing the anti-government protests of the survivors 

BY Shahidul Alam  in Opinion | 10 DEC 20

This article is the second part of a series on contemporary art in South Asia guest edited by Skye Arundhati Thomas. Read the previous entry, ‘“Myself Mona Ahmed”: Revisiting Dayanita Singh’s Landmark Photobook’, here.

I entered the giant graveyard. It was quiet except for my own footsteps but, in my head, I could hear the screams. Rows of blackened sewing machines, still in orderly lines, reinforced the sense that I was looking at tombstones. There were no flowers here, however. No epitaphs. No mourners. 

Shahidul Alam, Tazreen Fashion workers protest, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

A fire had raged through the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Dhaka on 24 November 2012. Workers stationed on the building’s third and fourth floors had rushed to the exits, only to find them locked. This was common practice in many Bangladeshi garment factories. Fires and worker deaths were, sadly, all-too-common. The owners justified the locking of the doors as a ‘security measure’, but workers were effectively prisoners during working hours. As the heat and smoke built up, the panic-stricken labourers, who were unable to break down the iron gates, rushed to the windows and somehow managed to remove the metal grills. It was a long way down, but many jumped. One by one. Some screamed with pain as they fell; others were silent. Each landed with a dull thud, their bodies crumpled on the uneven ground below. Possible death was still a better choice than certain death. And some did survive.

The Tazreen Fashions fire – the deadliest in the nation’s history – appeared in a newsfeed on my connecting flight to Istanbul. Two days later, when I arrived in Dhaka, I drove straight to the factory with my camera. The shell of the building was eerily empty; ghostlike. I recognized the smell of burnt flesh. Turning my camera to vertical mode, I took several overlapping images, panning over the gritty landscape of the burnt-out floor. (The Photoshop technique of auto-stitching, which blends adjacent images into a single seamless panorama, had not yet arrived in Bangladesh, nor had the AI algorithms that would make such stitching easier.) I shot in RAW to ensure I could capture the extreme range of tones created by the charred skeleton of the building, and the sunlight leaking in through the broken windows. The crunch of burnt debris under my shoes echoed across the empty factory as I neared its exit. I walked gingerly down the blackened staircase, unsure if it could carry my weight. Light streamed through the bare openings. That’s when I saw the white scratch marks of those who had tried to escape, where the charcoal had been wiped away. 

Shahidul Alam, Tazreen Fashion building, 2020. Courtesy: the artist 

I wondered if the marks were those of Jorina – one of the survivors I have come to know. She, too, had eventually jumped. The impact of her fall had damaged her spine permanently, but she’d survived – although she often says she might have been better-off dead. In total, 119 people died in the fire and more than 200 were injured. Of those who survived, several have since passed away. 

While court proceedings into the tragedy began on 1 October 2015, the case still drags on. Unbelievable as it may sound, the government has yet to appoint a public prosecutor. On 7 November 2019, the government failed to produce witnesses. On 30 January 2020, the judge was absent. On 31 March, there was a mandatory suspension due to COVID-19. On 15 October, the judge was absent again. The next hearing is scheduled for 13 January 2021. Based on how things have gone over the past eight years, the outcome is unlikely to be different. 

Shahidul Alam, Tazreen Fashion workers protest, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

For more than two months, Jorina and other injured workers, still traumatized from the fire, have been camping out on the pavement outside the National Press Club to demand justice. Over the years, a group of us has sought to offer support to the survivors by providing counselling, legal advice, court representation and photographic documentation. Our aim is to give them hope, without raising false expectations.

I was there on Tuesday 24 November, the eighth anniversary of the disaster, when survivors dressed as ‘living corpses’ marched from their vigil at the National Press Club to Gonobhobon, the Prime Minister’s official residence. They had three demands: lifetime compensation, respectable and realistic rehabilitation, and long-term treatment for injured workers. The police stopped them fewer than 100 metres from where they started their march. Unable to counter the brute force of the law-enforcement officers, the workers lay down in front of their barricade. ‘We’re going to die anyway, so let’s die here,’ I heard someone say. 

Shahidul Alam, Tazreen Fashion building, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

It was then that I spotted one of the ubiquitous stencils of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, or Mujib, considered the father of the nation, whose face peers out from every hoarding and sign. The first Prime Minister of Bangladesh, who served from 1971 until his assassination in 1975, Mujib is presented as a deity by the current regime. Like the rest of us, he had failings, but criticism of him is banned, the official history deemed sacrosanct. Certainly, his love for his people – for which he paid the ultimate price – was beyond question. He was also one of the country’s most accessible leaders. Stories of his stepping out onto the veranda of his house, at Dhanmondi Road 32, in a lungi and vest, might not have been protocol for a head of government meeting the public, but was typical of Mujib. It was this humility that endeared him to the nation. 

Mujib’s image has become propaganda, and to show him disrespect is now considered sedition. Yet, as artists, we have to find ways around such restrictions, and this was a moment I needed to capture: the stencilled face of Mujib watching helplessly as the fascist regime his party has become suppressed injured and impoverished garment workers. It is an image that requires no explanation for a Bangladeshi. The subtext transforms an ordinary photograph of protest into a powerful political statement. And for the authorities to censor this photo would mean them having to acknowledge these implications. 

Shahidul Alam, scratch marks at Tazreen Fashion building, 2020. Courtesy: the artist

Mujib’s daughter now leads the party her father shaped, but it has morphed into a very different entity. A party by the elite, of the elite, for the elite, it pays little heed to workers with legitimate demands. While his stencilled face may have been bound to remain impassive, faced with this sight, the real Mujib would surely have shed many a tear.

Main image: Shahidul Alam, Tazreen Fashion building panorama (detail), 2012. Courtesy: the artist

Shahidul Alam is a photojournalist, teacher and social activist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.