No I have actually never had a conversation with the great Peter Marlow. I have never even met him. But he wrote a blog post back in 2007 to which I responded with some comments.
I am posting these comments here now because I realize that these comments, made back in July 2007, contain within them the seeds for what eventually has become my ‘The Idea of India’ project I am currently working on. It surprises me to see the continuity of thought that I was able to sustain – something I can’t claim I have ever achieved before – and that eventually, nearly 12 months later was expressed as this new project.
Peter’s original post explored how the Balkan conflict was ‘officially’ represented in Serbia, and that even today it is best referred to as ‘NATO aggression’. As an American visiting Serbia for a series of exhibitions Peter found himself in a slightly uncomfortable position and had to carefully negotiate what is still clearly a very sensitive issue in the country. While giving a talk at a workshop that he held for Serbia photojournalists, Peter explains that he..
…showed a press card created by our New York office, bizarrely for the ID photograph they used a shot of me wearing anti-flash goggles on the deck of the aircraft carrier. As many of the people in the room had shot the story from the ‘receiving end’ I could feel a strong reaction as soon as I mentioned the ‘Kosovo Crisis’ and my own coverage of it. I asked the audience if this was the right terminology, and was told rather sharply by one photographer that the correct expression was “The NATO Aggression”.
I was reminded of a recent experience I had had in Japan while on assignment there for National Geographic (France) magazine and decided to write a response to Peter’s post which read something like this:
your experience with the serbian photojournalists reminded me of a recent experience i had with some japanese manga artists. while on assignment in japan i had the opportunity to speak to a couple manga artists famous for their works depicting the horrors of the aftermath of the hiroshima bombings. i was moved by the power of their work and by the immediacy of their memories of the terribly day of the bombing. their work powerfully depicted the sufferings, and later the humiliating abandonment of the victims by their own fellow japanese.
however, i was also very perplexed when i realized that throughout our conversations we avoided any discussions about the broader, historical context of the event. no one mentioned that japan at that time was a nation at war, that millions had died in countries in asia resisting her expansionism, that her occupations iin south-east asia and south asia were brutal and resulted in unmentionable atrocities and so on and so forth. we only talked about hiroshima decontextualized from wider events.
the issue of history, japan’s role in WWII, her occupations and war crimes of course remain controversial issues even today and her history books continue to face criticism for their avoidance of specific facts.
these are painful issues and not easily resolved. and i am not suggesting that the war justified the hiroshima bombings. i am merely suggesting that ignoring facts is an act of will, a choice that one makes perhaps because one is determined to hold on to one’s prejudices or beliefs. or simply that playing the role of a victim takes less effort!
calling the war in kosovo merely ‘NATO aggression’ is neither historically correct nor a defensible position. it is an act of transforming oneself into ‘a victim’, hence excused from broader moral issues. it encourages us to simply not make an effort beyond our current beliefs. it is a prejudice that suggests a determination to not examine or give a hearing to the wider issues at play in the conflict, including human manufacturing of history, the use of propaganda, the cold lies and manipulations of politicians, the atrocities and injustices carried out ‘in the name of the nation’ and other abstract, little examined assumptions.
your suggestion for a series of workshops in serbia is a fabulous idea. i do believe however that photography can avoid falling into the trap of pandering to any one side ‘of the same story’, but to use photography’ to develop an awareness of the broader story, to help a nation question her prejudices, to encourage citizens to confront uncomfortable truths and view points and use photography as a way to raise awareness, change ideas, and develop new dialogues where previously only rhetoric may have existed.
kosovo and serbia have continued to hold on to their rigid myths with little or no effort to develop a new dialogue that may spare them further wars and further suffering of their people. prejudice, hate, and self confirming and aggrandizing beliefs still fill the air in both regions. photography may never convince people to change their ideas, but it can certainly begin the process by encouraging them to step into uncomfortable situations and confronting those we may have previously dismissed or disliked.
i am sorry that this is so poorly written. i am still waking up here in sweden.
today we are told that photography has no role to play in bringing forth the truth, and that it is merely to be reduced to illustration or art. but i disagree. photography is not just the pictures, but also the research and act of stepping out to take the pictures. these intellectual and physical elements also differentiate one photographer from another. some are better at it than others in clearly measurable ways!
and they are perhaps the most important elements in helping us learn, grow and change – we have to read, and we have to step out into new world, confront people there, and actually engage and deal with them. this is where photography outdoes literature, poetry, paintings etc. because it is the only creative endeavor that forces us to create and maintain a dialogue with our subjects. other endeavors allow this dialogue, but do not necessarily demand it (i will say nothing about works by people like jeff wall etc.)
imagine, a group of serbian photographers having to do personal stories about life in kosovo, or on the edges of divided cities like mitrojvica! i can see the workshop going far beyond the banality of aesthetics, exposure control, RAW processing or frame filling! it steps into a whole new world where perhaps we can once again begin to discover the reasons why man picked up the camera in the first place and started to bring pictures back home – to amaze us with the incredible things we saw in the world, and to surprise us with what we had never expected!
Asim (July 24th, 2007)