Only Interesting If It’s Madness

Read: Edward Said’s “Covering Islam: How The Media And The Experts Determine How We See The Rest Of The World”

I have been stereotyped: my life and lived experiences negated by photo editors in the USA in particular.  I am nothing but my ethnicity, a man from my country of my birth 42 years ago.  My name marks me as a ‘Muslim’, my ethnicity marks me as a ‘South Asian’, my birth marks me for work within the confines of the geography of the country of my birth. My birth on an unexceptional day in Karachi nearly 42 years ago was of greater interest and relevance than the nearly 18 years I spent studying, working, learning, and becoming in the United States of America (a country of which I am a citizen).  I am the ‘Pakistani’ photographer and never allowed to be anything else, or asked to be elsewhere.

(Aside: I have in fact managed to produce work in places as diverse as Iraq, Haiti, USA, Japan and India thanks to editors in Europe and a few more open minded ones in the USA itself)

As a result I have done extensive work in Pakistan, particularly in the tribal areas and on the subject of religious fundamentalism in that country.  From 2001 (post 9/11) until as recently as 2007, the only subjects that any American news magazine or news paper ever asked me to cover was directly related to issues of religious extremism and ‘Islamic’ radicalism.  There was nothing else that interested them, nothing else about the social, political, economic or cultural dynamics of the country that was of interest.  Not even if it perhaps helped explain the violent and fundamentalist phenomenon they were in fact interested in.  And it was not just me, but a number of my colleagues in other countries of largely muslim citizens also complained about the narrow minded determination to view any and all their nation through the prism of ‘religion’ and/or ‘religious fundamentalism’.

In fact, a recent, cursory review of The New York Times Sunday Magazine revealed an extremely disturbing trend; that any and every story that had anything to do with people of a Muslim heritage had to be covered from the angle of ‘fundamentalism’ and/or ‘extremism’ within and about those people and their country.  Take a look for yourself:

“The Next Islamist Revolution”, January 2005

“Next Gen Taliban”, January 2008

“In The Land Of The Taliban”, October 2006

“Islam On The Outskirts Of The Welfare State”, February 2006

“A Dishonorable Affair”, September 2007

“Where Boys Grow Up To Be Jihadis”, November 2007

“Islam, Terror And The Second Nuclear Age”, October 2006

“Hizbollah’s Other War”, August 2006

“Iraq’s Jordanian Jihadis”, February 2006

“The African Front”, December 2007

“Whose Iran?”, January 2007

“Policing Terrorism”, July 2007

This is a quick search and I continue to add to this list.  Its incomplete, but it reveals a trend.  I can’t imagine that further research will prove this trend wrong, though i do believe that it will only strengthen the blinkered focus.  Here is a major, American newspaper/magazine of record, that has consistently and single-mindedly revealed to us broad swaths of the world and its real diversity only through the frightening filters of ‘radicalism’, ‘extremism’ and a perceived hatred that is directed against ‘our way of life’.  And it is all about Muslims and about this religion that perplexes and confuses most American editor, journalist, commentator, op-ed writer or pundit. Islam and Muslims have been reduced to an ‘essence’ believed to be within their ethnic makeup and one that they can’t but follow mindlessly and without any individual moral judgement or choice.  Their social, political and economic histories largely erased, their acts of violence seen as somehow inherent to the ideology and teachings of the religion itself and not as acts carried out within specific historical, political, geo-strategic and human circumstances.

It is perhaps no surprise that so many of today’s major photographers and photojournalists proceed into the world Islamic and return with pictures that simply evoke fear.  For example, Magnum’s brilliant Paolo Pellegrin who found such beauty and dignity amongst the mourners at Pope John Paul’s funeral, or at a fashion show in New York, yet could not help but depict Egyptian’s protesting against their American supported dictatorship as demonic figures that could only inspire fear and perhaps even loathing

I can think of so many others; Bertrand Meunier, Jehad Nga, Ziyah Gafic, Ben Lowy, Alex Majoli – photographer’s whose works have been inspirations for me, who show such tremendous sensitivity and insight on so many of their subjects and yet fall right back to the cliches and fearsome depictions of anything that comes close to being of Muslim and/or Islamic heritage.

I generalize too much, admittedly, about these photographers and their works.  I also accept that in the end the choices of which pictures to run are made by editors, not photographers.  And as I have learned from personal experience, American editors put a lot of pressure on you to come back with images that are more ‘menacing’, and carry a greater message or ‘impending violence’ or ‘threat’ when it comes to illustrating stories from regions Muslim.

Its only interesting if its madness.

Many of my images that show something close to common humanity lie unused in my archives.  But I continue to make them, and will continue to do so.  This paranoid, abhorrent obsession too will pass.

ADDENDUM: My friend and photojournalist Miguel Ribeiro Fernandes gently reminded me that such stereotyping affects many other regions and people’s of the world, that my work itself has carried cliches from Muslim/Islamic regions and peoples, and that most photographers, regardless of their backgrounds and personal idiosyncracies, face some form of stereotyping from editors looking to categorize them for possible assignment work based on their perceived strenghts.  All true and all points I acknowledge.

UPDATES: I will add further links from the New York Times Magazines & its determination for things Islamic/Terrorist as I come across them:

Comments are disabled for this post