The boy in Gaforgaon
|Photo: Shahidul Alam|
It was September 1988, and we had had the worst floods in a century. These people at Gaforgaon had not eaten for three days. A torn sari strung across the beams of an abandoned warehouse created the only semblance of a shelter. Their homes had been washed away. Family members had died. Yet the children had surrounded me. They wanted a picture.
It was dark in that damp, deserted warehouse, but the broken walls let in wonderful monsoon light, and they jostled for position near the opening. It was as I was pressing the shutter that I realised that the boy in the middle was blind. He had pushed himself into the centre, and though he was not tall he stood straight with a beaming smile.
I have never seen that boy again, and today I question the fact that I do not know his name. But he has never left my thoughts, and often I have wondered why it was so important for that blind boy to be photographed. It has happened elsewhere. In boat crossings at the river bank. In paddy fields heavy with grain, and in busy marketplaces. In these and other situations, a shangbadik (literally, a journalist, but in practice any person with a half-decent camera) is hugely in demand. They refuse to take the fare from me at the ferry ghat. They open up their hearts and tell me their most personal stories. Confide their secrets, share their hopes. Why did being photographed mean so much to that blind child? The stakeholders of Southasian newspapers are the urban elite. Consequently, stories from the village are about the exotic and the grotesque. Village people exist only as numbers and caricatures, generally when plagued by some disaster and only when figures are substantial. A photograph in a newspaper, regardless of how token the gesture, is the only time a villager exists as a person. A picture on a printed page would have lifted that blind boy from his anonymity. A photograph has value, even to the child who cannot see. That humbling thought stays with me whenever I am feted as a shangbadik in some small village. I receive their gift of trust gently, careful not to break the delicate contents.
~ Shahidul Alam is a media activist, journalist and Director of the Drik photo agency, based in Dhaka.