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Islamists threaten world award winning photographer with death 
 

By Alexander Schwabe 

Photographer Akash was honoured with the ‘World Press Photo Award’. Now his life is in danger. He pictured a boy in chains in an Islamic school – Islamists want to kill him for this. Now he is seeking refuge in Germany. 

Hamburg – Dangerous and sometimes deadly situations that war photographers endure are unknown to G.M.B. Akash. Searching for the best picture however has brought the award winning photographer from Bangladesh to within an inch of death. It was a thin wire that nearly cost him his life. Akash was standing on the roof of a moving train to document how poor commuters in his country are getting to work. Suddenly one of the overhead wires hit his head. It threw him on the ground and slid across his forehead. If the wire had hit Akash a few centimetres lower it would have probably killed him.

Since the end of 2005 Akash’s life is in danger again; not some dangerous mission, but a commission that sounded quite harmless at first. He wants to photograph pupils that learn the teaching of the prophet in an Islamic school. He gains the trust of the teachers and gives chocolates to the children.  

But then he focuses on a motif that will become dangerous for him. He photographs a seven year old boy who sits on the floor of an empty room, looking straight and with a hopeful gaze into his lens. An iron chain is wrapped around the boy’s legs, secured with a padlock. The background: The boy had run away twice to his parents who brought him straight back to the school, possibly because the school only demands a small tuition fee.

This one photo, this picture of confinement and the darkest educational theory had consequences for Akash. His friends and his colleagues warned him that the publication of this photo would get him into trouble. The publisher of the glossy Nepalese magazine ‘Himal’ likes the picture, but he too asks the photographer whether he is sure that the photo should be published.  

Akash is sure. The influential magazine that is sold all over Southern Asia publishes the photograph of the boy in chains on its cover page.  

One week later Akash receives threatening phone calls from Islamic fundamentalists. He tries to explain himself. He had published the photo because he wanted to help change the conditions in Islamic schools. On the other end of the line they tell him “If you are doing your job in this way, you’ll be gone.” Akash is sworn at and the Islamists threaten to kill him.

 

“When you are in need, they laugh at you” 

 

A few days after the first telephone call five men appear at the home of Akash’s parents. The photographer is not at home. The parents tell him about the strange visit. “I started to be afraid” said Akash.

At this time a series of bomb attacks by Islamists shake the capital Dhaka. Akash stops going to his office. He keeps silent about his fear. “They threatened to punish me if I said anything.” He didn’t expect any help from the police. “Policemen in Bangladesh are bad people. When you are in need, they laugh at you.” 

For months he lives with the threat. In the end G.M.B. Akash leaves his country because of his fear and he comes to Germany.  

He has been in the country for two weeks now. The Hamburg publisher Gruner und Jahr he worked for helped him. 

The ‘Hamburger Stiftung fuer politisch Verfolgte’(Foundation for the politically persecuted) grants him and his wife a stipend to stay for one year. He is sitting in his flat and talks about his work. ”I want to achieve two things with my photography” he says. “I want to change bad state of affairs and I want that people value the good more.” 

G.M.B. Akash tells how he found his vocation for photography years ago. It was at an exhibition bout AIDS that showed him his new direction in life. Especially one photo fascinated him - a family visiting their son who had AIDS in hospital. The mother dropped tablets into her son’s hand – without touching him. A document of the family’s fear; frightened of infecting themselves if they touched someone with AIDS. Another picture showed about twenty children in a hospital room; small children, all are HIV positive. There is nobody to look after them. Akash: “They are treated like garbage.”

 

Breaking taboos in an Islamic society

 

He had previously studied economics, and attended now a photography course for three years at a private school. Akash sympathises with people at the edge of society, isolated and shunned - because of prejudices and disinterest from the majority. He wants to use the power of pictures to change conditions, to break taboos. Akash’s subjects are embedded in the problem niches of a society that is Islamic, through and through. He has photographed prostitutes to show that they are not amoral people rather that they often are victims of misery and profit-seekers. He has photographed drug addicts to show that their escape into intoxication is linked to the lack of prospects in the country. His has photographed children who work in their millions in factories. One of Akash’s pictures placed third at last year’s ‘World Press Photo Award’. The picture, taken through the open door of a sewing shop shows a boy at a sewing machine. A supervisor is hitting him with a club. The boy lifts his arm shyly to defend against the next hit. The boy had worked too slowly, said the supervisor. Akash published the picture and went afterwards to the man: ”If you hit him one more time I will take you to prison.” The man promised to stop the beating. The power of pictures – this time it did not endanger the photographer, but put pressure on the culprit.

 

Translate from Germany to English by:
Patty Debonitas

Source: Spiegel on line
26. January 2007