Abysmal silence and impressions of darkly drenched landscapes and faces sewn over by gold, Ashfika Rahman’s photographs in Files of the Disappeared piece together stories of erasure. In recent years, more than 4,000 young people have been taken by police force in borderlands in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia , without reason or justification. Their lives after confinement and torture are hushed and silent.

“I want to forget that incident. Still it is like bad dream alive. I feel a bad headache often. That incident let me down in front of my family. I was studying architectural engineering. That was during my vacation, when I was home. I never got back to study after that.” From the series “File of The Disappeared” © Ashfika Rahman

The presence of physical torture is hinted at but the dark scenes resonate with silence. Her subjects are half visible, lurking or emerging from isolation. Mouths sewn over by gold thread and handwritten notes reach to tell the viewer what the voice can no longer speak. The weight of gold is symbolic, prioritizing the law over the voice of the individuals that have suffered.

“I am stuck in a dark corner. Calling Samina (my wife) loud, she cannot see me. I see this dream so often. I feel thirsty. This dream follows me everywhere.” From the series “File of The Disappeared” © Ashfika Rahman

Trauma psychology requires people to tell their story to heal. The landscape depicted in Files of the Disappeared whispers with somber desperation to tell these stories. The photographs of the landscapes where the altercations took place transform what could otherwise be cinematic, nostalgic landscapes into sinister spaces. The allure of imagining crossing the swaths of grass, rice paddies, foggy twilights, wind-whipped nature, is averted by a chromatic treatment turning the depicted terrains into places without refuge. Rahman depicts these foreboding landscapes as spaces where voices echo and become lost to the land, yet the permanence of the deeply haunting narratives remain etched on the faces of the people she photographs.

From the series “File of The Disappeared” © Ashfika Rahman

Rahman does not treat the image as a sacred object, and often draws on top of them or uses chemical processes, pigmentation and printing techniques to draw together gaps between the present and memory, through inevitable processes of decay. This experimentation is rooted in her background: she began as a dancer—performance still features in her practice—and has since lived and studied business and photography in Bangladesh and Germany. Her work has gathered recognition in publications, prizes, and exhibitions bringing a critical lens to business, politics, administration where power and the structures that enable erasure and dehumanization are made visible.

“It was Eid Festival (the Muslim religious festival) and some of my friends visited me. Police were suspecting us, they took me. I came back after two days. I was injured. My parents sent me far away. I live far away from home now.” From the series “File of The Disappeared” © Ashfika Rahman

In several of her projects, the photograph is a site of alienation and alteration. The bold visual gestures represent a fervent step towards judicial and moral confrontation. Rahman’s projects become situated as documents that contain a painfully poetic plea to make hidden emotional scars visible by using every means but the voice itself. Her work could read as a private look into the journals of humans who sought to find light and life while trapped in psychological prisons.

—Rachel Wolfe