How We Refused To Embed With Britney Spears!

I woke up this morning and read the following piece of news:

“Sweden’s four national newspapers, Aftonbladet, Expressen, Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet boycotting Britney Spears concert at the Globe July 13. The organizer needs to press photographers must sign a contract that gives her the copyright to the images, and the right to decide which images may be published. ‘If they do not tear the contract we will not shoot,’ says DN’s image manager Roger Turesson.”

And I soon wafted into a day-dream that took me back to the world in late 2002 as the final touches were being put on the US military journalist embed program, and this announcement hit the front pages of a oh-so-imaginary-but-courageous New York Times:

“America’s four national newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribue are boycotting George Bush’s  Gulf War to be held in 2003. The organizers of this event demand that press photographers sign a contract that gives them [the organizers] the right to decide which images may be published and what, if anything, they will be allowed to document. ‘If they do not tear the contract we will not shoot,’ says New York Times photo editor Jane ‘battlefield” Schmoe.”

I have been accused of naivete, and stupidity by those in positions of ‘power’ at magazines and newspapers for constantly harping on this.

Today, with memories that do not go beyond the 24 hour news cycle, editors justify their decisions to continue to ’embed’ their reporters with the arguments like ‘there is no other way to do it – its too dangerous otherwise’. They fail to realize that this is precisely what the embed program hoped to achieve beyond its simple control of the ‘image’ of the war.

We live in the very house we built!

(UPDATE: 25th July 2009: NBC’s new prime-time titilation is called The Wanted that unites ‘special operations’ operatives with self-declared ‘journalists’ to hunt down what they describe – without evidence, right to defense, process of law, right to counsel, a fair trial and a full hearing of course, are the world’s most dangerous ‘terrorists’. Where they get this list is easily guessed at. But, my point is underlined by such lunatic programming – our ‘journalists’, our ‘military’, our ‘intelligence’ and our ‘government’ continue to conflate. and continue to loose credibility. we are not even pretending any more!)

By getting in to bed with one of the belligerents we asked our journalists and photojournalists to participate in acts of war. The Iraqi and Afghani has been dehumanized but can we for a moment imagine what it must look like from the hell they are standing and looking from?

Dressed as toy soldiers in camouflage our reporters/photographers are seen strutting around in US military camps, sitting inside US army Humvees during patrols, chatting it up with US army personnel as civilian bodies lay shredded all around, sharing meals with those who break through doors and threaten families, walking away with soldiers as they humiliate and drag men to prisons, sharing sleeping quarters with those who torture them, and speaking fluently the language of the pillager and occupier.

That is, as pure and simple collaborators with what are illegal, and brutal wars of occupation and pillage.

Is it any wonder then that it is ‘too dangerous’ to cover it from outside the embed?

I will add that real reporters have covered the war in Iraq from outside the ‘voice over’ of the US military. Urban Hamid and Dahr Jamal come to mind, and also the group of young photographers who took considerable risks to produce independent stories from the country and the war and horror that was bestowed on her by our leaders.

I will also add that there are those who did embed, and came back with stories and images that spoke beyond what they were intended to do. Chris Hondros comes to mind, Zoriah and also Ashley Gilbertson to name a few. But these are exceptions that reveal ways that individuals have attempted to get something more out of a bad situation. They are all unique characters, not easily usurped by others and their work beyond Iraq continues to confirm this. I am sure that there are others, but again, these are people working ‘against’ the strictures of the embed program and allowing themselves to think beyond what is being shown.

And perhaps in a great irony, I remember an Iraq photojournalist telling me that it was the ordinary soldiers that were most keen on helping him see the things the Army did not want us to see – they helped him and encouraged him to photograph the insanity of war perhaps in the hope that the images could stop their involvement in this madness!

It can be done, it has been done by more and it is the only and the right way to report these wars. But it takes commitment and a willingness to understand why we are ‘reporters’ and ‘photojournalists’ in the first place.

It can still be done.

The newspapers can still come together and finally refuse to participate in the embed program and possibly even pool their financial resources to allay costs. Imagine if tomorrow all reporters simply refused, announced that they were going to arrive independent of military cover and start to work to establish an independent presence inside Iraq and Afghanistan and make the investments to rebuild trust and credibility with them, and with us here in the USA.

We need to rebuild our commitment to journalism and in particular in the eyes and minds of the people who are dying for ‘our protection’ and our supposedly sacrosanct ‘way of life’!

Newspapers and news agencies around the world have in fact organized boycotts on a number of occasions.  A little research shows however that they mostly tend to be aimed at pop stars, and sporting organizers. There was a slightly annoying incident with the National Football League some years ago, another with the Indian IPL cricket leage and then another with the football World Cup, and another with the Australian Cricket Board. I believe that the band ColdPlay was also the target of a threat of an organized boycott.

If we can confront the power of Britney, why not then the US military?

UPDATES: Some pieces that I came across that highlight the situation in Afghanistan a little better include Escalation Scam by Norman Soloman and a review by Ann Jones of the HBO film Fixer called Everything That Happens in Afghanistan Is Based on Lies or Illusions. I also found the hilarious but vividly revealing blog site for freelance reporter P.J.Tobia who is reporting the daily realities of Kabul and other places he visits.

NOTE: I realize that this boycott, like any against a pop star or a sports league, is less about ethics and standards and more about money. Rights to images determines of who gets the financial benefits of the images. However, the same argument can also be made for why American newspapers so eagerly jumped into bed with the US military; there was just more money to be made. It is easier to give people what they want than to adhere to the ethical obligations of your profession. Journalism is not just a business but, much like health care, also a public good. It is why profiteering by medical insurance companies or health care companies, so repulses us. Remember the Hippocratic Oath? We believe in the sanctity of the profession and its ethics reflect the ethics of our society; we care for all and it is just. It is what defines a civilized and developed society. Journalism is similarly – a public good and has priorities and responsibilities that go beyond money making. It has to balance profits with professional responsibility to serve the public. So yes, of course, embedding was easy and profitable and every one was doing it and it was going to be a huge seller since the nation was drunk of mindless patriotism that demanded blood and soon. We wanted pictures of heroes and liberators, not questions about the immorality and illegality of the wars, the fake intelligence reports, the lies at the UN or about ‘yellow’ cake and so on and so forth. I know all this. I still remain naive, and stupid, and idealistic and believe that regardless of the market share value improvement, it was the wrong decision and one that continues to hurt the newspapers and us as a society and a now-struggling democracy.)

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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