The Most Dangerous Nation

The obsession with things ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ and ‘Al Qaeda” has been turned into a veritable multi-billion dollar industry and this despite the very little concrete and independently verified evidence to suppor the many claims of underground ‘Islamic/Al Qaeda’ cells and networks.

The Pakistanis are of course very much involved in this business, particular many of our journalists, and intellectual writers who find an easy audience amongst the ‘powerful’ in Europe and the USA.  The vast majority of the claims made by these journalists and writers are of course unexamined, unchecked and what is worse, unverifiable.  They are however writing for papers as diverse as The Christian Science Monitor, Asia Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek and others.  And when they are not writing, they are feeding and ‘guiding’ foreign journalists to where these stories can be ‘excavated’ and supported.

I had earlier written a post called ‘Only Interesting If Its Madness’ about how American newspapers and magazines have found that selling stories about the madmen of the Middle East and Islam is big business because it confirms America’s fears and paranoias and nothing sells better than that.

And the Pakistanis are unfortunately thick in the middle of this business, churning out articles, essays, research and what not based on the most species of information and the most biased of sources.  But it reels in dollars, and convinces otherwise intelligent international journalists and intellectuals who are also of course tied into the entire industry of fear.

But perhaps what worries me most is how little journalistic practice is involved in the writing and publishing of these pieces on ‘Al Qaeda’ or ‘Islamic terror’.  No one is asking about the sources, or bothering to confirm facts. It is as if none of the usual standards of journalism apply.  What matters is that we just rush out and print it.  From Carlotta Gall’s shameless piece on the front page of the New York Times simply regurgitating then Pakistan military government’s claim that ‘Al Qaeda’ had killed Benazir Bhutto at a time when the body parts were still lying around on the streets, to more recent piece on Pakistan by David Sanger suggests that we have now suspended our intelligence and common sense just to get our ‘by line’ printed on the pages of publications.  At no point was there a challenge, a questioning of the source, a scepticism that is crucial to the definition of journalism.

When it comes to Pakistan, no one is asking any questions as long as they confirm that it is ‘mad’, that it is ‘on the edge of an Islamic takeover’ and that it is ‘dangerous’.  And sadly, some of our supposedly finest minds are in on this game, sending out stuff that at times is staggering to read.  We are feeding the beast, perhaps seduced by the easy association with those in ‘power’, with their attention and their ability to make us, small post-colonial minds, feel ‘important’ and relevant.

Not a single major Pakistan intellectual, writer, artist or politician has challenged the story of Pakistan that has been constructed in international media.  Not a single person seems to want to say ‘show me your sources’, or investigate where certain stories have emerged from.  We are all just going along for the ride.

And all this despite the complete lack of credibility that is the real reputation of mainstream American journalism today.  Just read Bill Moyer’s talk about it. For after all, all the main newspapers in the USA, the same papers that repeatedly tell us that they are on the front lines of the democracy and the protection of the citizens of the country that they serve the interest of the public (when in fact they are private, profit making enterprises), failed to ask a single sceptical question of the American administration on its rush to war in Iraq.

An entire intelligence community was bent and mutated to serve the needs to go to war.  It is now a well known fact that evidence was falsified, informers were paid, dissenters were silenced, and lies disseminated to newspapers and journalists to build a care for pre-emptive war against a nation that was not a threat to even its neighbors, let alone the USA.

Some more articulate comments on this issue come from the tireless Mark Danner

Iraq: The War of the Imagination

The Secret Way To War

Or Michael Massing’s work more specifically on the failures of American journalism and the shameless pandering to nationalist and patriotic fervor that led them to ignore facts, distort evidence and simply close their minds to doubts they later claimed they had, so that they participate and profit from the mindless march to war and the destruction of millions of lives and a nation.

Now They Tell Us

Unfit To Print

The End of News

And there are many more pieces of analysis of the failure of American’s so-called ‘best’ newspapers and their finest.

And now, despite this stain on their record, despite the fact that the intelligence community is completely discredited and the administration too, the same papers and their editors continue their march, turning their eyes to Pakistan yet again.  Here is a new piece in this weeks New York Times Sunday Magazine by David E. Sanger called ‘Obamas’ Worst Pakistan Nightmare’.

And just a few lines into the piece, we start to get a good idea of the sources of Mr. Sanger’s alarms and worries.  For example, ‘…members of the federally appointed bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism made it clear that for sheer scariness, nothing could compete with what they had heard in a series of high-level intelligence briefings about the dangers of Pakistan’s nuclear technology going awry.’

Sounds familiar does it not? A commission appointed by the very administration that lied to us about Iraq is an opening source of Mr. Sanger’s piece!

A few lines down there is more – ‘By now Obama has almost surely been briefed about an alarming stream of intelligence that began circulating early last year to the top tier of George W. Bush’s national-security leadership in Washington.’

Now, if I am not mistaken, isn’t this again the same ‘top tier’ that promised us chemical weapons factories, nuclear sites, and a 45-minute time line to the destruction of the ‘free world’! All of which by the way were proven to be lies.

You would think that a writer working on a piece will try to find then another set of sources for the ‘fears’ and ‘alarmist views’ that underpin this essay.  Well, no.

The next source is ‘one of the most senior officials in the Bush administration, who had read all of the intelligence with care’ !

A senior Bush administration official who had read all of the intelligence with care.  My, how impressive that sounds.  Senior.  Official. Intelligence.  Care.  All the words that offer us authority and ensure that we may not ask the obvious question – was the intelligence concocted? Is the official much like those who fed us these ‘truths’ about Iraq?

But apparently only I am thinking of these things as Mr. Sanger proceeds unheeded and drops in the paragraph that every American editor’s wet dreams; ‘The Osama Bin Ladin’.  We are told about a ‘secret meetings’ (well, how secret could they have been if knew about them!) with mad Pakistani scientists and Osama Bin Laden! The American officials love this ‘smoking gun’ – to somehow create a link that their target ‘met’ with Osama Bin Ladin – that bogeman who pops up everywhere and anywhere, whenever we need him, where ever we want him.  From Iran to Gaza, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, from Iraq to…..North Korea next?

Eerily similar to the arguments about how some Al Qaeda members had ‘traveled’ through Iraq – arguments that have conclusively been shown to be lies, they are used to istill real fear in the minds of the reader – oh no, there is that supernatural beast Al Qaeda again and so it must all be true and real.  And so here, in this piece, because it lacks anything ‘concrete’, any real evidence, any serious investigation i.e. because it lacks journalism Mr. Sanger has to bring in the ‘smoking gun’ statments to further close the readers mind by overwhelming it with fear and scare the intelligence out of her!

Mr Sanger is fed the right ‘details’ of a meeting by some unspecified American intelligence source, but later quotes George Tenet himself saying that the specifics of the meeting were ‘ frustratingly vague’.  That is, they have no idea what the meeting was about for it could as well have been about the weather.  It may never even have happened other than in the minds of those who imagined it.  Some well paid source maybe?

But that does not stop Mr. Sanger saying that someone had a canister of nuclear material at the meeting!

A meeting about which the so-called intelligence organization knew ‘frustratingly vague’ details i.e. not even if it took place, or who was there, or what little was said, is the basis of Mr. Sanger putting in the sensationalist ideas that nuclear material was present, that trigger designs were discussed.  This does not sound ‘frustratingly vague’ to me, but a writer who seems to have more details than even Mr. Tenet!

And this level of sloppy journalism, in fact, clearly irresponsible journalism continues through the article which is burdened one after another with incredible claims.  At no point does Mr Sanger express any doubts, ask any questions, challenge any of his sources.  In fact, he writes to ensure that we realize that the American sources and their statements are ‘true’ and/or carry ‘more weight’, while the Pakistani responses and sources are ‘shifty’ or ‘questionable’.

This idiocy continues and ends at the article, where in the very last paragraph we have this gem: ‘At the end of Bush’s term, his aides handed over to Obama’s transition team a lengthy review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, concluding that in the end, the United States has far more at stake in preventing Pakistan’s collapse than it does in stabilizing Afghanistan or Iraq.’

A Bush aide hands President Obama a review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan! We may now understand how American foreign policy follies continues from one administration to the next! If the Obama Presidency is being briefed by possibly one of the most corrupt, lawless, discredited, criminal, violent, murderous administration in American history, then our hopes are truly over!

The American journalist’s love of rubbing up to power, to be known as someone with access to the ‘inner’ corridors of power, is perhaps its greatest failing at the moment.  Mr. Sanger is spending all his time in the offices of ‘officials’ and eating too much of the fine cuisine available at fine restaurants that I am sure he is dined at.  In Pakistan he is traveling through the living and dining rooms of the small elite – unable to speak the country’s language, ignorant of her history and her cultural diversity, uninterested in confronting it as a complex entity, Mr. Sanger has produced the classical American piece on Pakistan; sensationalist, fear mongering, officially sanctioned, and fed.

He now steps into the small footsteps of the likes of Carlotta Gall, David Rohde and others who have looked at Pakistan not through their own intelligence, but through the reports and supplied statements of ‘American officials’ or ‘Pakistani Government spokesperson’ or, left largely unsaid, the local journalists and fixers they pay large wads of cash to come back with stories about the mad men with nuclear weapons sitting in mountain caves and breathing the destruction of America with each breath.

None speak the language of the country.  None know the history of the country.  None understand the historical and cultural ties that still connect us to issues and matters in India.  None have traveled outside the sanctioned corridors to report on the nation.  They are blind, deaf and mute, and need others – American officials, Pakistani officials, translators and fixers (official and otherwise) to give them what they need.  And since they are unable to understand the very nation and its dynamics they are supposed to be reporting on, they simply feed the editors what the editors want – the stories to confirm the stories the editors are hearing from the ‘officials’ in Washington d.c..

Children create monsters to help deal with their evolving emotions and fears.

It seems that we are all still children.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

The Most Dangerous Nation

The obsession with things ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ and ‘Al Qaeda” has been turned into a veritable multi-billion dollar industry and this despite the very little concrete and independently verified evidence to suppor the many claims of underground ‘Islamic/Al Qaeda’ cells and networks. Details »

New York City Experiments

I arrive in New York in a few days to try out a new experiment. It has been a few years in the making, and it has taken a few months of find funding for it. But now it is ready to be performed. The Polis Project‘s first Un/Do-Photography workshop will start in New  York on November 13th, 2019. And it represents the latest version of a practice of photographic teaching that I have been working on since 2013 when I first tried a new pedagogic practice at CounterFoto in Dhaka, Bangladesh. These workshops are unique because they are less about the practice, craft and mechanics of operating photography technology and primarily about deconstructing social, political and economic assumptions and myths that underlie so much of today’s mainstream photojournalism and photography practice. The Polis Project Un/Do-Photography workshops specifically engage the students on questions of Eurocentrism, imperialism/colonialism, capitalism, commodity fetishism, femo/homo-nationalism, the ‘gaze’ and power, the myths of Western liberalism, technology utopianism, humanitarian racism among other topics. Our goal, unlike any other workshop out there, is to produce critically aware, and intellectually outspoken photographers producing complex, multimedia projects that refuse the easy comforts of mainstream corporate owned media, and pursue complex projects that challenge us to see deeper and clearly. 

 

Details »

The First Un / Do-Photography Workshop Announced

We at The Polis Project are conducting our first ‘Decolonise Photography’ workshop in New York, from 19th to 23rd November, 2019.

You can learn more about them by going to the link shown above, or here

The workshops are open to all. And they are completely free. 

Over the course of five intensive days of presentations, seminars, discussion groups and project design sessions, participants will be encouraged to think about some of the most critical questions facing our communities. Less a workshop about aesthetics or the technology of the camera, this workshop instead concentrates on developing ways of thinking, researching and designing complex and multi-layer projects that reveal social, political, economic, corporate and other structural factors that create inequality, injustice, repression and violence. In sum, we will work to design and develop visual media projects that do justice to the lived realities, struggles and collective resistance of our most marginalised and silenced communities. 

Join us.

American The Beautiful And The Dreams of Pakistani Liberals

We have become accustomed to certain ways of seeing and speaking about the world. The Pakistani liberal – a caste that has been educated and nurtured on Western educational, political and cultural ideologies absorbed during years abroad at college, or careers, and through popular Western visual and literary media (fiction, non-fiction books), offers a particularly stark lesson in how certain forms of speaking, expressing and justifying arguments remain unchanged by thought, critical inquiry or self-doubt. The thoughtless regurgitation of American / European universalism, exceptionalism, and social sophistication  – all of which mind you are as much myths as anything, is an excellent example of this.

Details »

A Man In The Sun

This is an essay without reason. It emerges as a result of recent discussions with a friend and colleague about decolonialisation–what it means, how does it apply to various areas of human knowledge, and what can it mean for photography. Actually, this essay without reason emerges as a result of discussions at The Polis Project as we design a “Decolonise Photography” workshop series. Our discussions have led us to think about what new and different ways of seeing and doing could emerge in a documentary and photographic practice that recognises that “…the target of epistemic de-colonisation is the hidden complicity between the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality,” and is based on a need to learn to “unlearn” [See Walter Mignolo, Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of De-Coloniality, Cultural Studies, Volume 21, 2007].

Details »

msnbc

How Not To Critique A Photographer

Image Manipulation: A Manipulated And Confusing Debate

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 13.04.10

Photojournalists are once again being asked to offer perspectives and opinions on the apparently growing problem of image manipulation, staging and ‘truth’ in photography. The New York Times Lens Blog ran a piece a few days ago inviting a group of highly experienced photojournalists to speak about the issue. I say ‘apparent’ because there is obviously no objective way of measuring the suspicion that photographers today are more guilty of manipulating their images than photojournalists in the past. It may be a lot easier to carry out post-processing manipulations in Photoshop today, but that hardly confirms the fact that photographers did not do this in the past.

Anyone who has closely studied the works of one of the greatest photojournalists ever, Eugene Smith, would know well that image manipulation and staging were critical parts of his method. A number of his most famous and iconic images were either staged, had elements removed and added to them, or heavily processed in the darkroom to a degree that the final image had no resemblance to the negative. It has been argued that Eugene Smith got away with all this because he was Eugene Smith. As Cosgrove argues:

The sort of tinkering Smith engaged in with that one, iconic Schweitzer photograph might be frowned upon today. Any contemporary photojournalist who admitted to such behaviour would probably be excoriated by his or her peers, as well as by the general public.

W. Eugene Smith, on the other hand, has largely escaped such censure for one reason, and one reason only: he was W. Eugene Smith, and for better or worse, when it comes to aesthetics — and even, to some extent, when it comes to ethics — genius has always played by, and been judged by, a different set of rules than those that govern the rest of us.

One of the icons of the craft, and most likely, many more, engaged in what we would call ‘authorship’ – the right of the photographer to tell a story. In fact, of all the photographers invited to offer their opinion in this New York Times Lens Blog discussion, on Donald Weber gets right down to it, and demands that the photographer’s authorship be considered as something real, meaningful and important. He argues that:

Today, there are no limits, so our struggle is to liberate our reliance on technical capabilities and place our faith in the voice of the story and the author.

There can be no one way of doing anything, and a code of ethics should not hinder the aims of photography. In fact, it must work to liberate the story from stultifying confines, and help the photojournalist to engage an audience. How do we begin the transformation?

Weber can see that what is being argued and demanded can only lead to the erasure of the photographer as a voice, a point-of-voice and a creative. What is being asked is that photojournalists reduce themselves to simply button pushers on location, attempting to capture to the nearest degree possible, all the colour values, situational reality, and immediately unfolding event, as it happened at the moment of pressing the shutter. That their only role is recording the obvious, and that they are closest to the ‘truth’ when they are entirely absent intellectually, creatively, and visibly i.e. not influencing the situation around them. Such a posture of course is the mythical and imagined ideal of photojournalism. I call it mythical because most of the people who argue for it ignore the fundamental fact that even what is being recorded / documented / photographed, is based on human choice, prioritisation and opinion. That is, you cannot erase the human from behind the machine. Who asked the photographer to be at the location? Why did the photographer press the shutter when she did? What compelled her to aim it towards a certain group vs. another group? Why was even that particular unfolding situation important? In the end, authorship imposes itself on any form of documentary and editorial work.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

What I want to point out here in this post is the fact that these discussions, opinions, statements and arguments, lack a structure and a discipline. Photographers are speaking about a number of different things, and referring to a number of different situations and problems and calling all of them ‘manipulation. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the entire discussion ignores or avoids perhaps one of the most important influences that leads to manipulations and staging – the role of the editor in setting expectations and the struggle to delivery work to those expectations.

We can get a grasp of the different arenas of manipulation if we look at the entire production chain of photojournalism. We have to do this because photographers, and photojournalism work, is part of a chain of activities, and does not stand alone, and apart. To understand the way it is produced, and the issues of manipulation or staging that may be adopted at times, we have to place it in its industry and see the photographers and their responses from this wider perspective.There are four key and distinct forms of image manipulation that we have to deal with, and often argue about. It is critical to be clear which of these forms are the focus of our concern, and to make sure that we are not conflating one form with the other.

Why is this important? Well, first, because these are interrelated and influence each other. For example, a certain form of post-processing manipulation e.g. darkness a bombardment cloud, or cropping an edge of an image to make it more relevant to the editor, can be driven by a photographers need to make the image fit the editorial mandate.

At a very high level, a rather simple framework would allow us to define it as follows:

  1. The Issue Itself: Here I include editorial selection of stories to cover, stories to not cover, perspectives to show, and those to ignore, what to highlight and what to downplay. photojournalists do not work independent of editorial direction and discussion. many work alongside writers and closely with editors who advise them on what they are looking for. with growing influence of corporate and advertising money, and collaborations with the government, this area is a critical arena of manipulation and determines what photojournalists cover and what they ignore.
  2. Execution: Here I am referring to photographers staging and arranging photos, influencing the situation to get a photo they need, hiring people to perform a situation and then claim it for real, goading or encouraging people at the scene to create a situation that will get them the picture, or placing or setting up situations or objects to get the necessary images.
  3. Post-Processing: This is the most obvious – the use of post-processing image tools to conduct image editing, colour correction, erasing / adding of elements and so on.
  4. Publishing / Editing: This is the process where once the work in the field is done, editors and writers and photographers begin the process of editing, selecting, arranging, captioning, layouts and placements inside articles such that their meaning and idea is defined and determined.

Our discussions to date, as reflected again in this recent New York Times dialogue, focus on Execution and Post-Processing arenas. Editorial and Publishing manipulations are rarely if ever discussed. Stanley Greene talks mostly about 2 & 3. So does Santiago Lyon, McNally talks largely about 2, so does Sim Chi Yin and Darcy Padilla. In fact, categories 2 and 3 are the ones most everyone will talk about and discuss, to the exclusion of 1 and 4. Everyone argues that what is missing is some sort of bizarre ‘ethical’ standard, an honor code among professionals that would apparently go a long way towards reducing these ‘breaches. This is very much like the argument against doping in sports – it focuses on the athletes, demands greater ‘ethical’ standards, but ignores the fundamental market and profit pressures that are placed on the individuals and teams, and which often compel people to do whatever it takes to win. And which often provide the chemists, doctors, physiotherapists and other technicians to help enable the doping. Because winning is all that really matters in the end and in photography, getting the image is all that matters and to do this requires the involvement and collaboration of many people. Not the least, that of the editor.

It is only if we broaden the discussion that we can begin to understand not just why photojournalists may make unethical choices, but also what the impact and relevance of these choices are. It is critical to discuss the entire cycle because editorial demands, expectations, discussions, and decisions, play a powerful role in what a photographer does on the ground, and how s/he goes about getting the images that are necessary. I am not suggesting that editors compel photographers to manipulate – though that has been known to happen, but what I am arguing is that photographers face pressure and can be influenced by these pressures to manipulate things.

And there are times when that pressure comes from the growing demands of 24/7 media, the high stakes game of advertisement dollars and the need to be ‘first to the scene’, and the cut-throat nature of the craft where just ‘getting the picture’ is the only demand – ethical or otherwise, being placed on the photojournalist. These pressures come before the photographer even steps into the field, and we have to consider their role in how photographers end up working. We are in a world where more of us are being asked to do more, for less – less time, less money, less publishing space, and less voice. With more and more competition – from professionals and amateurs, and fewer and fewer assignments that allow a photographer the time and patience to produce necessary work, we should not be surprised that people will cut corner, make adjustments, set things up, just simply to get the job done. This is not a justification for manipulation, but simply to point out that we should not be so ‘shocked’ and certainly not be naive about the fact that the industry has increasingly veered towards

In fact, it is with some amusement that I read Michele McNally’s rather thoughtlessly offered comment – given that the New York Times has always used embedded photojournalism which is definitely perhaps one of the most egregious examples of Execution Manipulation, and passed it off as ‘truth’, that:

There are many societies where photographers work without accepted ethical guidelines, but with a long history of producing propaganda disguised as “news.”

Indeed, it would appear that the USA is right there among these ‘societies’ though I suspect she is not referring to her own country, or even to her own publication which has repeatedly crossed ‘ethical’ guidelines in its coverage of America’s wars, or Israel’s occupation and even its cheerleading of the build up to the invasion of Iraq. But we will not get into all that in this post as I have frequently written on that issue in previous posts. By not being aware of the complete cycle of photojournalism, McNally not only ignores her publication’s own ethical breaches, but she entirely leaves out the role of editors in creating these breaches in the first place.

What is striking about the framework outlined above is this: that it is easy for people to understand the necessity of choices and points-of-view when it comes to Issue Selection and Publishing / Editing, but not when it comes to Execution and Post-Processing. But given that a

My Struggles With Masculinity

It’s fascinating to see the return of so many mid- 18th century Orientalist troupes and obsessions : this bizarre and needling determination to categorize and then – as if the categories created are genuine and natural, to analyze. The French are of course persistent and unrepentant Orientalists, and the more educated the worse. And so this gaze that first categorizes – ‘Arab masculinity’, and then pretends to analyze it.

What is ‘Arab masculinity’? Need we ask? Dare we ask where this object of study even comes from? Is it even real? Is there a unique Arab conception and manifestation of ‘masculinity’? Do a dozen stylized, fashion-shoot type set-up images of men who happen to be Arab provide enough material to explain not only the category, but its real existence? Do these men live in cages, isolated from the world and its influences? Do they experience whatever we may think are pure ‘Arab’ experiences, and not any spilling across geographical, intellectual, cultural, emotional and physical boundaries? An ‘Arab’ is an ‘Arab’ is an ‘Arab’, and damn is s/he is anything but a pure representation of an easily isolated and studied species.

And what of the claim of reversals ie the female looking at the male as a change from the male gaze on the female? Is this even a thing? Is this not a discursive distraction from the fundamental question of power which yet again is not addressed directly? The Orientalist gaze was a possessive gaze, and a dispossessing one. It possessed the power to represent, and define, and dispossessed the subject of voice and history.

And so, when Marianne Roux of On Orient describes this work as:

“Mectoub is fascinating because of this unveiling, made possible because the photographer is both female and a foreigner. It plunges us deep into our representations and overturns them. Scarlett Coten holds up these copies for us to see, Homo Orientalis specimens of the new generation, in an unfiltered way, just as they are.”

…one is left feeling a little quesy at the crassly familiar phrasing and erasing. The use of words such as ‘unveiling’ or ‘Homo Orientalis’ are in amateurish poor taste, but the suggestion ‘in an unfiltered way…’ a profoundly troubling reminder of classical Orientalisms conviction of simply offering facts unaffected by power, politics, prejudice or personal ambition.

Arab masculinity. African masculinity. (I wrote about this in an earlier post:

http://www.asimrafiqui.com/…/rethinking-africa-or-how-not-…/

Gender. We construct categories but then forget that we constructed them. Foucault can scream till hell freezes over, but in a decade where Orientalism’s reductive and debilitating simplicities are back in style, I must say that I am not surprised that this body of work is taken unquestioningly seriously, but am also disappointed that it is.

We need to question Coten’s constructions, despite the claims to overturn representations, and see the ways in which they belong to a long tradition of colonial photography that wants to capture individuals, sans individual histories and social, cultural, intellectual and psychological interconnections, and offer them up as general representations of a unique, manufactured category. Today more than ever – with travel, education, the internet, magazines, television and big-screen media, social media and more, it is untenable to argue or justify the existence of isolated and insulated social ‘categories’.

In a world that is as integrated, inter-connected, and intermingled as it ever was, where influences from around the globe and the digital globe, from travel, from readings, from relationships, from education and knowledge, from experiences that transcend a local culture or geography and then influence the construction of the self, ideas of identity, style, voice, intellectual development and even emotional expressions, its near impossible to speak of ‘Arab masculinity’. But of course, when it comes to ‘Arab’ – as the Orientalists once did and now as we are once again reaching for these debilitating categories and reductive generalizations, these ideas are being given new currency by European institutions if not European / Western photographers. If it’s not the ‘hijab’, or ‘women’s liberation’ or other some such tiresome and idiotic arena of focus, it’s simply a continuation of the use of gender and sexuality to cage and label. It is an act of cultural and intellectual violence to castrate these subjects from their many relationships and broad influences, and pen them into a construction that suggests that they represent something entirely ‘Arab’ – whatever that is, and something entirely ‘masculine’, whatever that is too.

Note: Hester Keijser reminded me that I need to differentiate the way this project was depicted by the Oskar Barnack Award committee and the goals and intentions of the photographer. She is correct to point out that institutions can run away with the work and give it an entirely new voice. She also pointed out that Coten herself has a difficult and complex relationship with this work, one that she continues to work through. I respect the photographer’s perspective and would love to have a discussion. My comments above are based on the public statements about this work, both from the Oskar Barnack announcement and from Coten’s own website. I look forward to, and hope, that Coten will some day pen a concise and clear argument, where she isn’t  afraid to express her process but also her doubts and self-questioning, as we all do about the works we pursue. The convention of ‘bombast’ and ‘confidence’ required of photographers, where they speak of their works without ever revealing their own struggles and self-questioning, has to end.