Caught in eye of the nation
PAVEL RAHMAN speaks to SHAKHAWAT TIPU on the photographic moments that shot Noor Hossain to posthumous fame ensuring a symbolic afterlife for this bare-chested activist inscribed with slogans.
Shakhawat Tipu: Would you please tell us about the pictures of Noor Hossain, how you managed to take them?
Pavel Rahman: That was a day when all the political parties – the seven and the fifteen party coalitions were staging a blockade in Dhaka. All of us media workers were getting ready to take pictures before the rally. I took off before dawn. The place where I took Noor Hossain's picture had been the exact location where the movement was building up. The way the doctors can detect the nerve function by checking the pulse of the patient, I somehow sensed that that was the beating pulse of the whole agitated body. On one side the red flag and the police standing on alert on the other – really, in no time that place turned out to be the epicenter of the agitation.
It was November 10, 1987. I was standing there, taking pictures. Brickbats were hurtling between the police and the activists; the tear gas shells had not exploded yet. The police action is planned in a way so that the tear gas is used as the third line of defence and the activists had not gone to that extreme yet. Right before them, the then leader of the opposition, the present Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was approaching from the direction of the Press Club in a jeep, chanting slogans- she herself had been raising the slogans while thousands of people joined in . So, the procession turned right towards the GPO after passing by the Press Club. Now, the other opposition leader, Khaleda Zia was at the right corner of Baitul Mukarram and had I considered the situation from the point of photo-journalism, I would have followed the two leaders. I didn't follow Sheikh Hasina when she made a turn for the right . I photographed Begum Zia at the North Gate and started back towards Paltan when suddenly, a young man started moving forward, keeping close to my right hand side. Instantly, I noticed the writing on his back – Ganatantra Mukti Paak, – let democracy be liberated. I don't remember how my camera came to be poised for action. Everything happened so fast. It seemed to me that someone else had taken control of me. I framed two pictures, one horizontal and another vertical. Those words, beautifully written in white, stood out on his dark skin - Ganatantra Mukti Paak. My heart beat accelerated as I took the pictures. A shot is synchronized through the combination of your heart, brain, shutter- everything. There were other photographers around, but I felt I must be the only one taking this picture and no one else. It's ridiculous. In an open street anyone can photograph anyone. So, to divert the other photojournalists, I didn't follow him. I had taken two pictures in one second. I wanted the youth (I came to know the name later, Noor Hossain) to be lost in the crowd so that I would find and follow him later. Just within two to three minutes of this incident, a procession was moving towards Paltan. He also was there. I went up to the GPO looking for him but couldn't find him. Suddenly there were sounds of gunshot. The procession was facing the Stadium then. But at the same time we got the news that the police had intercepted Sheikh Hasina in front of Golap Shah's tomb. For a photojournalist, Sheikh Hasina, being the leader of the opposition, was of utmost importance. Then there was the news that there was an attempt to detain Khaleda Zia at the North Gate of Baitul Mukarram. I came towards Golap Shah's tomb and took some pictures of Sheikh Hasina. I didn't know then that someone had been bullet-hit , let alone having been killed. We came to know of this much later. This is the story of photographing Noor Hossain.
How did Noor Hossain turn out to be the photographic subject of a resistance movement against autocracy?
In the field of news photography, once a picture or object is displayed, it cannot be shown again. You have to search for something new. That day I too had been trying to discover something. I never had a glimpse of Noor Hossain's face; the only thing I saw was that writing on his back, Ganatantra Mukti Paak; I hadn't even seen that his chest held the inscription Swairachar Nipaat Jaak – Down with Autocracy. I wanted him to be lost in the crowd so that I would search him out – but I couldn't find him. In my life as a photojournalist, such a thing had never happened. Thus, Noor Hossain occupied my mind and became my subject. It could have been anyone. But, this novelty of a voice printed on the torso held me in its grip and I had to uphold it.
Which aspect of the picture appealed to you more – the body or the slogan?
To tell you the truth – yes, a slogan was written there, about liberating democracy. And yes, it was written on a body. But when I tripped the shutter, it wasn't for any of those things in particular. The slogan might have been something different, like Down with Autocracy. It was the uniqueness of the concept, not the symbol that intrigued me - it was the feel of taking a new kind of picture – totally new.
It is a kind of political performance. Does this qualify as art from the photographic perspective?
Firstly, with reference to your phrase, political performance, instead of using that terminology, I would ask you to consider what I could have done if the writing was not done the way it was done – nothing. I couldn't have set up the subject. Had the words been not as powerful as those about liberating our democracy, had the writer scribbled those words instead of using such a beautiful style, what could I do? Nothing. I took two pictures – one in which he was walking normally and in the other, he was passing his hands over his head, moving his fingers like a comb. That move, the taut, sinewy projection of the body radiating energy and force of youth – that was important. That moment transcended all photographic norms; the lines, the image and the lightings transformed it into art. And it didn't even take a second for this to happen. I would say his passing like that and the next moment making that triangular form with his hand – it had been a fortuitous moment, extremely fortunate for me. I think it was alright for me not to have viewed Noor Hossain's face. Later I have seen his face in other amateur photographs- it didn't appeal to me that much, aesthetically. But from the back, his brawny physique and muscular arms stood out in an artistic representation of the spirit of energy. Normally we photojournalists take pictures depicting the energized and slogan-wielding faces of a revolution. But I have no regrets about missing out on Noor Hossain's face. Viewed from the back, he is more vibrant, more artistic. This is how the photograph has transformed from a factual documentation to interpretive art.
Does his death act as the deciding factor in turning the picture into an emblem?
I came to know about the death of Noor Hossain later. I got the information at 7 in the evening of November 10, 1987. He had fallen down on being hit by the bullet at the Stadium, in front of some hotels. His companions were trying to carry him to the hospital. That picture was taken by a photographer of the Inquilab. Later that gentleman went to America and died in an accident. Anyway, in that photograph taken by him, I saw Noor Hossain being taken by some people in a rickshaw. But they couldn't go far. The police grabbed the injured man and hauled him into a van. They took him to the police control room, not to the hospital. There he bled the whole day to death.
In those days I used to work for The New Nation, an English paper of the Ittefaq Group. I was working in the dark room with two others, the famous photographer of the Ittefaq, Rashid Talukdar, and the renowned Mohammed Alam, the personal photographer of Bangabandhu. The papers used the same dark room. There was a lot of work, we had to select from a large number of pictures. Someone knocked at the door. It was a reporter, Tarek – now in America. He said, 'Pavel Bhai, the young man whose picture you took with the writing Ganatantra Mukti Paak on his back has been killed.' That's when Mohammad Alam and Rashid Talukdar also heard the news for the first time and both of them wanted to see the pictures. But you know how possessive I had always felt about those two pictures – they had to be only mine. They were taken exclusively for my paper and wouldn't be my own if the credit was shared with anyone else. I kind of avoided the issue and went to the newsroom. Then I asked Tarek to go back to the dark room to tell them that the youth was not dead. He did and they said, 'O, forget it. It's not important. We already have too many in our hands.' I went back there only after they had left, around 11 PM, printed the pictures and submitted them to The New Nation. A lot of discussion went on between Amanullah Kabir and Barrister Moinul Hossain who were circumspect to print the news including such an image of the revolution at a time when Ershad was in power and agitation against autocracy was in progress. Till midnight the decision remained that the picture would not be printed. But later it was reversed by Barrister Moinul Hossain, who happened to be the proprietor of the paper, and so the next day it came out in print – the only paper with the picture and the slogan on the back. Two situations emerged out of this. On one side were the Barristers involved with this movement along with Barrister Moinul Hossain – Barrister Ishtiaq, Barrister Amirul Islam, Dr Kamal Hossain and others, who held a meeting and decided that the pictures would be distributed all over the country in poster form. They informed me of this and I gave them two more prints which appeared as posters. Conversely, different pro-administration organizations probing into the situation got quite furious with me. They tried to claim that the youth was not dead, that it couldn't have been the city streets, rather a a scene staged indoors. That posed some dangers for me because they were pressurizing me to confess it was an installation. But by that time public opinion had already riveted towards those images, they were dispersed all around the country as posters and the two opposition leaders congratulated me. I realized that the pictures had come to symbolize the very movement of democratic emancipation, as iconic images. They enshrined the sacrifice of Noor Hossain and wouldn't let him be lost like hundreds of others who have made the same sacrifice.
So, his slogan etched torso became a photographic art. But what was the overall frame of reference that was created through this?
I had started working for the AP at that time. Something about AP I didn't like – a system of which Noor Hossain became the first casualty. What I didn't like was the compulsory submission within a week of the negative of any picture taken. It was very frustrating for me for I couldn't preserve the negatives of many pictures that I would wish to cherish. There was no repository for setting aside these negatives. I might have kept the prints but I didn't. Some kind of obstinacy made me keep these two pictures away from AP, in order to hold on to my rights to them at the cost of depriving them of a wider world circulation. I knew releasing them to AP would mean the negatives would be lost forever. Often there are ten to twelve frames of a picture out of which we select two or three and the rest stay with me. But Noor Hossain's Ganatantra Mukti Paak was in only two 35 mm frames, one horizontal, another vertical, and so I couldn't part with them and thus, I myself lagged behind internationally and the pictures couldn't gain the wider appreciation that was due them. Yes, a kind of willfulness on my part worked there. After Ershad's fall, when I went to America, I heard not only Bangladeshi expatriates, but foreigners also talking about the pictures. Many asked for them and requested permission to put them up in their homes. And so, without even coming out in newspapers, the pictures decorated many American parlours , here was the virtual image of that struggle and sacrifice for democracy that they had heard the story of.
Would you say that the person's being from the middle class has compartmentalized it into an emblem of the democratic movement of the middle class people?
I would never see it like this. It didn't matter whatever section of the society he emerged from. The man's social or cultural status would never have mattered in erecting the significant symbol he stood for. The class is not a factor here.
What was the emblematic message that the body canvas of Noor Hossain held?
If I think of the picture as a political installation, I know it couldn't have created any impact on the viewer. The multitudinous humanity around, out of focus and yet offsetting the body language of the central image, strengthened its message and therefore, was also an important part of the canvas. In response to the allegations from different government agencies, including the then autocratic ruler, Ershad, I would like to know if they had ever known any fabricated work leaving the kind of impact this one left on the mind of people. Then again, was it also part of the plan that this role playing actor would be shot and killed and that too at the hands of the government force? So, the Ganatantra Mukti Paak slogan, the death, the situation – altogether conveyed the message of the youth's sacrifice at the altar of freedom in defiance of autocratic repression, turning it into a paradigm for all freedom seeking humanity.
Would you categorize the picture as an art or a documentation of history?
To take a comprehensive view, the situation was not ordinary; the historic background, the photograph, the death and the date, November 10, 1987, everything got recorded in the picture. In that sense it is a historical art. If I consider his body language, it becomes a performance art. It is different from news photography in the sense that news photography is basically caption dependent. When we take pictures of natural and other calamities, we want to show the impact of those catastrophes on human life; we show human reactions to those situations and for lack of sound, the messages are enhanced through captions. I personally don't wish to be caption-dependent rather I want my pictures to speak for themselves, so that the viewers react to the message spontaneously. So, while in news photography, facial expressions get prominence, Noor Hossain's faceless body is a powerhouse of energy manifest. It's true that the body carried the written message, but when you look at the picture, the pumped up muscles, the stride, the shaggy hair and the shirt tied round the waist- all become meaningful parts of the message. As he takes his hands to his head, the body muscles' altered performance creates a new geometric dimension -- the faceless individual speaks out to you.
Translated by SITARA A JABEEN