In April I worked on this story with Ellen Barry about the effect of the barbaric political violence on ordinary Bangladeshis and the garment industry. Having lived in Dhaka for almost two years, through the severe 2013 violence, this quote stuck out at me;
“I saw the agonies of the burned people, their maimed bodies, the smell of burning flesh,” acknowledged Mahbubur Rahman, a retired army general and member of the B.N.P.’s national standing committee. “But what we say is that the government is not allowing us to talk. Not allowing us to assemble. Not allowing us to protest, to make our news. In this situation, where the democratic rights are denied, what else can we do?”
For years we’ve all been seeing the front pages here with the photos of the hartal victims, but nothing could have prepared me for stepping foot inside the burn unit. As we pulled up to the hospital there was a woman collapsed on the ground outside, wailing. Her husband had just succumbed to his injuries from a firebomb attack on a truck he was driving. Upstairs almost every bed in the unit was full. All the men had the same stories, they were just trying to make a living, support their families. Some were so badly burnt, bandages covering almost their entire bodies, I wasn’t sure if they were still alive. How can a human being throw a petrol bomb inside a truck and murder innocent, hardworking people in the name of politics? It’s beyond my understanding.
Read the story, with a slideshow of my images, here
We also worked on a story about the transgender woman who caught the suspected killers of blogger Oyasiqur Rhaman. After three days of searching, literally going door to door in a run-down Dhaka neighborhood, and dozens of phone calls, the reporter and I were ready to give up. He had been on the phone the night before with the head “guru” of the Hijra group, gently explaining to her that the brave woman who caught the attackers didn’t have to show her face in the pictures or reveal her last name, that this was an incredible thing that she did. But they were scared, and rightly so. It was 1:00 in the afternoon, “I don’t think this is going to happen. At least we gave it a shot” I said. He agreed. Not more than 5 minutes later he got the call from the Guru to come to her house and meet them at 4:00. We were ecstatic.
So a few hours later, a box of sweets to gift in hand, we passed through the bustling chicken and meat market into their tiny alleyway, up a few flights of dusty, unfinished stairs and into the Guru’s home. She greeted us with giant hugs and offers of tea, and told us that she chose to give interviews with us because the reporter, Manik, was so genuine and sincere with her. She also told me that as an American, I am a guest in Bangladesh, and she wanted to show me the same hospitality that she would like if she were to visit my country. That was so touching to hear.
As other Hijras came into the room they silently greeted her and sat on the floor facing her. It was a really interesting dynamic to see. Their community is so marginalized, and when they come out to their families as Hijras they are generally cast out, so they form little communities of their own, with a Guru as the head.
Over an hour later Labannya arrived. I hurried, with a looming deadline and fading light to make her portrait. As I led her into the previously empty room where I planned one of the shots, I found it was full of dozens of Hijra, sleeping, smoking cigarettes, gossiping and doing each others hair. Apparently they meet there for a meeting with Guru every night, to talk and divide up the days wages. I improvised and photographed her in the corner of the room, on the stairway, roof, a few other places, trying to find a creative way to conceal her identity with her scarf, the light, and her hands.
The reporter finished up the interview and we tried to rush out to file, we were way past deadline at the point with Labannya arriving so late. But we were blocked by the Hijra, “Guru-ma says your can’t leave until the meeting is finished.” The common space was still occupied by around 25 Hijra sitting in the circle around Guru, talking animatedly with her disciples. 30 minutes later we were released, and I thought the reporter would have a heart attack as he blasted down the street, trying to find a rickshaw and talking notes over the phone to the bureau chief, trying to make deadline.
This was such a special assignment, it was fascinating to catch a glimpse into the life of Dhaka’s Hijra community, and I really hope that Labannya’s brave and courageous act can help change the public perception of the Hijra.
Read the story here