Protest on the Grid
by Jahnabi Mitra
Supported by MurthyNAYAK Foundation/PhotoSouthAsia First published on Critical Collective, 2022.
In 2017, the word “Rohingya” started flooding our collective consciousness when the Burmese military carried out the systematic persecution and killing of the Rohingya community in Myanmar. The Rohingyas are a Muslim ethnic group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, representing about 1 million out of Myanmar’s total population of 55 million. The first ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas started in the year 1991, with the state’s “Clean and Beautiful Nation” campaign, which resulted in 250,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.  The most recent persecution was carried out in two phases—first between October 2016 to January 2017, and the second in August 2017.  About 745,000 Muslim ethnic minorities were displaced or forced to flee by foot and via the sea to Bangladesh as a result of this wave of persecution. The Bangladesh government authorities prepared a list of 4,000 Rohingya refugees to be relocated, beginning with transfers on December 3, 2020.  In December 2020, Bangladesh started relocating Rohingyas from the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp to Bhasan Char, a port city of Chattogram. This relocation of Rohingyas to Bhasan Char was criticized as many called it a warehousing of migrants. 
The Bhasan Char move was also criticized by UNHCR due to the island’s vulnerability to natural disasters.  Beyond being ecologically unviable and uninhabitable due to the temporality of its soil, chars (floating islands) have been used officially and unofficially as settlements by the stateless and as spaces for the legislative punishment of the ‘other’. A similar situation is visible in Assam, where its Char Chapori areas are occupied as temporary habitats by the Miyas, i.e. Bengali Muslim fishermen originally from Bangladesh. In a literal sense, it is a forceful pushing away of certain vulnerable communities through systemic means. These forms of segregation of the so-called ‘pollutants’ and the ‘unwanted’ leaves open wounds of generational trauma and humiliation.
This relocation as well as the everyday life in Rohingya Refugee camp in Kutupalong—one of the largest refugee camps in the world—has been followed closely for years by the photographer Abul Kalam.
Recording “one of the most discriminated people” 
Abul Kalam is one of the few photographers who helped put a face to the question “Who are the Rohingyas?” A resident of Kutupalong, Kalam records these lives through an insider’s lens.
The photographer crossed into Bangladesh from Borgozbil, Maungdaw, Myanmar in 1996 as a twelve-year-old. He met his guide, Saiful Huq Omi, while volunteering for UNHCR. A photographer himself, Omi helped Kalam develop his love for photography. Later, Kalam studied at the Dhaka Counter Foto School for photography and, in 2008, he began his career as a freelance photographer/photojournalist. Twenty years after arriving in Bangladesh, he was reunited with his family in Cox’s Bazar, at a time when a lot of other Rohingya immigrants came to the country to seek refuge.
On December 30, 2020, Kalam was arrested for photographing refugees being forcefully shifted from the Kutupalong camp to Bhasan Char. He was detained for more than 60 hours for violating the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.  However, because of his limited fame, he was later released on bail based on an appeal by prominent personalities including photographer Shahidul Alam and Prof. Penny Green, founder of the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University, London.
I came across Kalam’s photographs on Instagram a few months after his arrest, in 2021, and was struck their honesty. On July 7, 2022, Kalam reached out to me through Instagram’s direct message. One of his first messages said, “I am a very helpless photographer… I am in the refugee camp… I hope you will help me with my work. I want to show people. You know how to show my work?” 
Instagram as Site for Protest
With the changing parameters of Instagram engagement and an increased growth of video formats on the platform, we need to question where Kalam’s photography truly stands in terms of audience engagement. Instagram constantly sees a rising number of fashion,
beauty and food content creators. Two years back however, during the pandemic, the concept of doomscrolling, or an increased engagement with negative news and content, evolved. But it was a temporal phenomenon where our interest in negative information increased with increased level of anxieties that Covid engendered. It triggered a survival mechanism where we all wanted to comprehend the situation in order to feel a sense of control over the catastrophe.
Kalam’s photography too could be considered as a form of doomscrooling content, while simultaneously being a memorial site on Instagram. It may be considered analogous to the war memorials of martyrs, which function as a site of recognition and repair, where both the perpetrator and the victim perform a momentary act of recognition. While it is true that the Rohingya crisis has lost public interest, his photos serve as reminder of the persistence of the problem.
On being questioned about why he puts up his life’s work on Instagram instead of approaching galleries and saving the first access for portfolios or grants, the artist is honest about his lack of knowledge regarding these institutional protocols. He responds in writing, “I want to make the world aware about the current situation of the Rohingya community in Bangladesh. They should not forget that the crisis is not over yet. Also, I want to inspire the fellow Rohingya photographers to capture more photographs every day. Posting photographs on social media helps me stay connected with the photography community. Sometimes I submit my photos for amateur photography competitions.” He added, “I am not aware of how the photography grants work. So, I have never applied” 
What Kalam has attempted to create, I believe, is a memorial of the Rohingya refugee camp through his page. As the most accessible medium, Instagram becomes his platform for public remembering, yet it creates an opportunity for collective mourning. The lack of need for high-brow projection in Instagram makes it the most accessible site for resistance as well as public mourning.
Yet another question that arises is that does witnessing these photographs—as a memorial of violence—create a sense of repair in the psyche of the victims? W. Eugene Smith talks about the sentiment provoked by his images from World War II, saying, “If my photographs
could cause compassionate horror within the viewer, they might also prod the conscience of that viewer into taking action.”  While ‘compassionate horror’ is one possible emotional response to Kalam’s images, there could also be ‘compassion fatigue’.
Recognition and witnessing as repair
The 2017 Rohingya massacre in Myanmar was described by United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and the United States formally declared it as a “genocide”. For the past five years, the Rohingyas have been demanding recognition for the atrocities against them. Naomi Kikoler, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide says “For many Rohingya, they feel that this prolonged period of time has enhanced their suffering and enhanced the risks that they have faced.” 
Jessica Benjamin in her book Beyond Doer and Done to: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third writes about recognition theory. She argues that the recognition of atrocities by the oppressor leads to a place of repair where the violator-violated position can be evaded.  In this case, a possible acknowledgement by Myanmar of their crimes
committed might have led to psychological release in the Rohingya. Disavowing of crimes committed leaves no opportunity of repair between the persecutor and victim.
If one looks carefully at Kalam’s photographs, there is an urgency in his works. Beyond the creation of history, such photography is an open call to the world to testify to their experience. Seeing, watching, looking creates witness and we need witnesses to our traumas. Witnessing oppression is part of the process of healing. Instagram, for many like him, remains a site of protest; a public album perhaps—sometimes not even serving as a “platform” to bigger things, but an end in itself.
Photographing as an insider
Minority identities and migrant bodies have always been subjected to feelings of abjection. Very often these experiences of abjection are held onto by the unconscious. Kalam’s
Imagery of his own abjection is projected through the camera. There is a change in the perspective one photographs with when one is commissioned to photograph refugees as against when it is one’s own reality. The lens changes from ‘look at them’ to ‘look at us.’ As a reminder, Kalam was not commissioned to photograph Rohingya refugee camps. Adding to his refocused way of changing the refugee narrative, his photos have a sharpness and yellowed tonality, sometimes even heightening the otherworldly appearance of his portraits.
Kalam’s images do not look distraught. Unlike many refugees or migrants’ photographs— which depict faces painted in agony of not knowing where one belongs or faces scrunched up by the fatality of the citizenship laws—his images look for life. They break the rule of how we look at the ‘other’. To the eye attuned to visuals of the broken refugee, this may be disturbing and almost unnerving. Why is the other smiling? Why is the dislocated, the stateless playing, eating, living and breathing?
Kalam’s photography also has a repetitiveness and monotony to it. Many of his photographs look similar to each other. These re-appearing narratives can overpower the audience, allowing them to enter his world in a subliminal sense. In a brief conversation with the artist, he reiterates, “Look at the conditions in which we are living.”  Repetition in Kalam’s imagery reflects the creator’s need to re-emphasize to his audience ardently the felt ‘otherness’, as it forces us to consider our own position.
- Alexandra Sharp and Robbie Gramer, “The U.S. has recognized Myanmar’s genocide. but is that enough?” Foreign Policy (March 24, 2022). https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/24/myanmar-genocide-rohingya-us-recognition/
- Katie Hunt, “Rohingya crisis: How we got here”, CNN (November 13, 2017).
- “Bangladesh: Halt Rohingya Relocations to Remote Island.” Human Rights Watch (December 4, 2020). https://hrw.org/news/2020/12/03/bangladesh-halt-rohingya- relocations-remote-island
- Nguyen, Hanh, and Themba Lewis. “Bhasan Char and Refugee ‘Warehousing’.” – The Diplomat, For The Diplomat, 9 Feb. 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/02/bhasan-char- and-refugee-warehousing/.
- BBC Staff, “Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know about the Crisis.” BBC News (January 23, 2020) https://bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561.
- Mizzima Staff, “Call on Bangladesh Authorities to Release Rohingya Photographer Abul ” Mizzima Myanmar News and Insight (August 5, 2022). www.mizzima.com/article/call-bangladesh-authorities-release-rohingya-photographer-abul- kalam.
- Abul Kalam, Instagram message to author, July 7,
- Personal conversation with the
- Michael Edelson, “Preface” In Cornell Cappa (Ed.), The Concerned Photographer 2. New York: Grossman (1972).
- Alexandra Sharp and Robbie Gramer, “The U.S. has recognized Myanmar’s genocide. but is that enough?”, ibid.
- Jessica Benjamin, Beyond Doer and Done To: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third. New York: Routledge (2018).
- Personal conversation with
All links accessed in July 2022.
All images courtesy and copyright Abul Kalam.