The Islamic State’s presence is on the rise in Bangladesh. Photographer Allison Joyce felt compelled to travel there to see what has been happening. She spoke to In Sight about her experiences.
“This is a story that I have been wanting to work on since the liberal ‘atheist’ bloggers started to be attacked in 2013. Things got even worse when in September 2015 an Italian citizen, Caesar Tavello, was shot and killed in what is considered to be one of the safest neighborhoods in Dhaka. The attack was claimed by ISIS, the first attack of its kind in Bangladesh, and it kicked off a series of attacks on foreigners and religious minorities across Bangladesh. Since Sept. 28, 2015, there have been seventeen attacks claimed by ISIS and Islamic extremists and since Feb. 15, 2013, six bloggers have been murdered, and many others injured in attacks.
Visually, this was a difficult story to tell. It felt like we were chasing ghosts across the country. How do you illustrate radical groups who hide in the shadows? In the end, I decided to visit the victims of the attacks, photograph the sites where some of them took place, and visit the madrassa and mosque where the spiritual leader of the radical group, the Ansrullah Bangla Team, used to teach.
One attack (on Hossain Ali) happened in the north of the country while we were in the middle of taking photographs in Dhaka, so we drove through the night and arrived at the site the next day. The trip also gave us a chance to spend time with a few Christian leaders living in the same region, who are living in the shadow of death threats they received from the Islamic State.
Many of the bloggers and Christian leaders I spent time with live in a state of hyper vigilance, with a constant fear hanging over their heads that anywhere and anytime they could be attacked. Even with the option of police protection, many don’t feel safe, and given the fatal Islamic State attack on a police check post in November, that fear seems well-founded.
The one ray of light that shined through during this project came while spending time with the incredible, courageous and brave the Rev. Barnbash, who goes by only one name. He has received multiple death threats from the Islamic State because of the work he does as a Christian priest in northern Bangladesh, but he continues on with his work as he has for the past decade or so, traveling around the district to lead services. We had been following him for half the day and had finally reached this small village after an hour and a half driving through bumpy, unpaved village roads. As soon as we reached the tiny church, the power went out in the village. Kerosene lanterns were lit, and the reverend led the congregation in a short prayer outside, then one by one as they filed into the church he washed all of their feet (a huge gesture in this culture), by candlelight, in a small basin while women sang beautiful, haunting hymns in Bengali. After a challenging week covering death, extremism, pain and suffering, I was moved to tears. His grace, strength and resilience is something that I’ve seen reflected in so many Bangladeshis over the years, and it made me think that just maybe, things will be okay here in Bangladesh in the end, because of people like him.”
Allison Joyce is based between Mumbai and Dhaka, Bangladesh. You can see more of her work here.