Friday, 29 September, 2023

The Stories That Pictures Tell

  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • 18th September, 2023 07:58:39 PM
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Pictures may not change history. But they certainly leave a mark on history.

They say a picture speaks a thousand words. There is a point to that. A picture or an image often arouses much more of emotion in us than does a paragraph or essay in black and white. Images of Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin walking on the moon have become embedded in the human memory, for they take us back to a time that lives forever in the soul.

In recent days, there has been much comment on the selfies of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with US President Joe Biden in Delhi during the G-20 summit. Thousands of people have been enthused by the picture, for it shows both leaders in an informal, affable mood, untouched by anything remotely formal or official. Add to that the endearing image of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, on one of his knees, engaged in happy conversation with Sheikh Hasina, who is clearly seated on a sofa. Sunak is obviously demonstrating his respect for the Bangladesh leader, again in an informal way.

Images of political leaders and statesmen in modern times have been as much a commentary on history as on the naturalness of men and women who have happened to speak for their nations in circumstances often fraught with risks and tension. That 1970 image of Willy Brandt, chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, spontaneously kneeling before a memorial to holocaust victims in Warsaw remains a poignant expression of contrition on the part of a man whose nation, under the Nazis, committed some of the worst crimes in recorded history.

In November 1963, the image of the very young son of the assassinated President Kennedy saluting his father’s casket drew tears in people around the world. Here was this child beside his young mother and sister, saying farewell to a parent felled in the prime of life. John Jr was years later to die when the light aircraft he was piloting fell into the Atlantic. His sister Caroline is today US ambassador to Australia. And, yes, the image of the eternal flame on Kennedy’s grave in Arlington, lit by Jacqueline Kennedy after the President’s burial, remains iconic.

Images of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in pictures are reflections on the history of Bangladesh. The picture of British Prime Minister Edward Heath opening the door of the car that will take him back to Claridges from Downing Street in January 1972 is redolent of a decisive period in our lives. In similar fashion, the picture of Bangabandhu and Harold Wilson both lighting their pipes at Claridges in that season of happiness are part of history. Walk back to February 1969.

A newly freed-from-prison Bangabandhu, a smile playing on his lips, shakes hands with his long-time tormentor, President Ayub Khan, at the round table conference in Rawalpindi. There is meaning in that picture. A tired, waning Ayub Khan appears limp before a supremely confident Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who exudes an image of the future being his to mould.

Pictures have a language of their own. They speak of happy times as also periods of unmitigated tragedy. The image of a haggard, worn-down Zulfikar Ali Bhutto walking to the court trying him for murder is heart-breaking for any Pakistani who recalls the outrage that was the Ziaul Haq regime. Or look back at the image of an aged Nelson Mandela, having gone to prison twenty-seven years earlier as a young man, emerging into freedom in February 1990. In that picture is the hope of a country embodied. It is a mature, sober and statesman-like Mandela in that image.

At the Geneva summit in 1985 between new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan, it is a young, confident Gorbachev who steps up, hand outstretched, to greet his American counterpart. The image is refreshing since it is for the first time that a Soviet leader, without a dour expression and out of the straitjacket of near senility, who informs the world that a more confident Soviet Union has arrived. Speaking of handshakes, the image of President Nixon stretching his hand out to Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai at Beijing airport in February 1972 is history that changed the world.

Does anyone recall that vibrant image of Jawaharlal Nehru breaking into laughter, bent over as he does so, as Lord Mountbatten and Edwina Mountbatten stand beside him? It is Nehru at his most human, most unpolitical. Juxtapose that image with the one of Mountbatten, Jinnah and Nehru, along with their aides, working out plans for the partition of India in June 1947. All these men are busily engaged in striking down the ages-old heritage of India on the basis of communal politics that will leave millions dead and many more millions displaced. Pictures often relate the saddest tales of civilisation.

A significant image is one of Pakistan President Ayub Khan and Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin drawing the cortege carrying the remains of Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri at Tashkent airport hours after the Indian leader died of a heart attack following the signing of a peace deal between Delhi and Islamabad. The unpredictability of life comes alive in the photograph. Place that beside the funeral procession of a slain Indira Gandhi in 1984. The pain gains in dark intensity.

Images of Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague in August 1968, of a lone Chinese young protestor standing before a tank in Tienanmen Square in 1989, of rickshaw pullers sprawled dead on their vehicles after they were gunned down by Pakistan’s soldiers in Dhaka on 25 March 1971 point to some of the hideous actions of men whose sense of history, of morality was warped to say the least.

The unforgettable image of Philippine politician Benigno Aquino dead on the tarmac at Manila airport moments after he returned home from exile in 1983, to be murdered, arouses in us the sort of revulsion we felt when a Saigon police chief, in the mid-1960s, shot a captured and bound Vietcong guerrilla in plain sight of the camera.

That revolutionary image of Che Guevara emblazoned on tee-shirts, on posters, on book covers, on mugs reminds us of the inevitability of revolution. Contrast that with the image of a murdered Guevara, done to death in a Bolivian village in October 1967 --- eyes open, body stretched on a wooden plank, a beatific Christ-like appearance --- that will be part of historical eternity.

A powerful image, in the larger historical perspective for us in Bangladesh, is of Sheikh Hasina sitting at the foot of the stairs at 32 Dhanmondi, engaged in mourning and in deep prayer. For that is where the Father of the Nation fell when his assassins emptied their guns on him on what will always be the saddest, darkest day in Bangladesh’s history.


(The writer is a journalist)

Source: Sun Editorial