Wrapping Photographers Into The Packaging of War

They took the New York Times on a war tour. The Battle For Pakistan it was called when the magazine finally published the photographs their boys had so carefully constructed and bought back. They had all the elements that would suggest valor, fear, desperate battles, the struggle of ‘a state’ against an unseen but clearly fearsome enemy. Though to my eye it appeared to be a lot of pictures of Pakistani soldiers ‘posing’ – the kinds of pictures I know these soldiers often pose for whenever I have had to photograph them. They know the routine – it is a veritable war zone cat walk, Pakistan’s Next Top Soldier! There are ‘buckets’ of IEDs, emptied villages, men behind bars wearing their self incriminating, evidence acceptable in our modern courts of war, skull caps and beards. The Battle For Pakistan, a nation of 170 million, with a cultural and ethnic diversity that baffles most, was apparently being fought against a few hundred men with outdated guns and plastic buckets IEDs!

They also took CNN on one, all expenses paid, luxury jaunt around the Swat ‘war zone’. Their reporter, breathless and in awe of his actually being inside this valley. Pakistan military confronts Taliban in key Swat city is a breathless regurgitation of the voice of the Army, the reporter not even attempting to ask any hard questions. Dressed in the requisite ‘toy soldier’ garb of multi-pocket pants and manly watch, it appears that he is attempting more to celebrate his presence in a ‘hard’ zone than actually doing any reporting. The soldiers languish in the background, looking bored and at ease. Some questioned are raised – but none that would break the ‘spell’ of this great war. Kills are celebrated by some army spokesperson who i am sure off camera is caring father, husband, lover or son.Everything that the dead lying around the valley of Swat are not. A collection of random weapons – most look like they were from the early 20th century are laid out on tables, and some men – less than 5 are paraded in front of the journalists. Who are these men? What is their story? What are their crimes? What are their rights? We do not ask – they are ‘Taliban’ says someone and that is enough. The war looks like it is going well.

What should have been no more than a police action 2 years ago, is now being sold as Pakistan’s great war to protect America! A see-how-we-love you performance piece funded by American dollars and fueled by Pakistani greed.

What has happened in Swat remains largely unknown. The media has been blocked from entering. Refugees streaming out of the region – expelled in fact because they were ordered to leave or feared random slaughter from the Army, speak about there being no war in the valley, and the killing of innocents who are then paraded as ‘Taliban’ fighters.

We will also not know what has happened in Swat because few if any of the foreign journalists working on covering the region have any idea or interest in the social, economic, and political history of the area. These people have no stories. Pakistan is largely covered by journalists who are ill equipped to report on it. They do not speak any of its languages, they have little or no knowledge of its history, they do not understand its ethnic groups, their histories, or even the fundamental political history of the nation since its creation, and definitely not prior to its separation from India. They know little or nothing, other than what they need to know looking down through the telescope of the ‘war against terror’.

Slugging around a few cliches’ mostly picked up in elite living rooms in Islamabad, they venture out in righteous conviction that this is a war against the ‘Taliban’ – a word that today incorporates pretty much any entity we wish to place inside it and hence has no meaning at all! And yet, we are at war against this abstraction, quite like our war against ‘terror’ and that other one against ‘drugs’. In theaters soon – the war against ‘angst’!

The people of Swat, much like the people of Waziristan, or Mohmand, or Bajaur, or Mardan or any other ‘conflict’have no history, no political-economy, no agency, no connections to the wider nation, no memory, no emotions, no love or longings, and no human capacity for creating culture, life, society and values. They are just dead bodies, ‘Taliban’, refugees, that scuttle around as we need them.

I suppose some of them are being ‘professional’ i.e. ‘do your job and shut up!’. It means never asking the editors any questions, returning to challenge assumptions, attempting to offer insights based on their experience, working to alter the ‘angles’ being created in towers in Manhattan. You give them the pictures they want, and the best of them are extremely good at it.

I have to believe however that these photographers are smarter than their works suggest. They have to be. I have to believe that they are just subsuming their intelligence to deliver to the demands of what today are clearly even more exalted jobs; paid positions or contract positions with major magazines whose budgets can only hold a few.

I am reminded of something that Paolo Pellegrin admitted to after his coverage of the evacuation of the settlers from Gaza. His statement revealed a large gap between the theatricality and emotions that were created in the images – a necessity to support the master narrative of that ‘pull out’. That is, the wrenching decision that Israel had to make and the incredible concessions she was prepared to offer, and the suffering she was prepared to inflict on her own citizens, for the sake of ‘peace’ with the Palestinians. The photographs repeatedly show determined, pious, righteous, resisting settlers as Israeli police ‘fight’ to evict them from their homes. The world watch with a mixture of pity and awe and the photographers delivered the images that captured these scenes. Many went on to win major photo awards that also showed the ‘innocent’ settlers even single handedly resisting the determination of the Israeli forces. A heroic strugle, a heroic people, a grand national sacrifice, a nation torn, a people wounded, families destroyed, lives interuppted, all for peace.

And yet, while narrating his work, Paolo offered this incredible insight on his Magnum In Motion piece about the Gaza evacuations called The Evacuation – you can hear his words by clicking on Image #18 that shows Israeli police dragging a settler onto a waiting bus:

This obviously actually happened, and these [the images] are documents of real moments. But you felt that it was also a theater. The event was at some level orchestrated and in some cases the arrangement that was made was that the settlers in a particular community or settlement decided that they could not walk away from the settlement on their own feet because that was not the way that they wanted to leave. So they decided [that] they were going to be dragged away. That it was a decision. And that was an element in this story, the fact that obviously this was happening, but at the same time it was also the result of two parts (parties?) coming together and each with their own agenda.

There is a gap, between the intelligence and awareness of the photographer, and the photographs he returns with to fulfil the story he has been asked to deliver. Even the Magnum In Motion piece maintains the emotional and pathos atmosphere of the piece, at no time allowing any suggestion that this entire event or certainly major portions of it was also political theater. The piece ends with the heroic and lament ridden music of the Israeli national anthem the Hatikva - a shockingly poor choice given that the settlers were being pulled out from occupied territories! The designers of the piece remain true to the story that is being packaged, the emotions that are being sold, the angle that is accepted, agreed to and acceptable to the world. And certainly not be coincidence, the angle that the Israeli government, its think tanks, lobbyists and pundits defined for us.

Photojournalism and photography too easily depoliticizes what it documents, elevating the visible act that is otherwise mired in various forces outside of the photograph, to being seen as ‘complete’ and ‘true’ in and of itself.

The photographer’s mind and body can sense that he is part of something more than just ‘real’ events, that he has become part of a performance, and within that performance, complete with its pathos and sorrow, he has to continue to work and shoot the ‘right’ angles, the right emotions, the right ‘feel’ so as to not ruin the whole thing for the rest of the audience – the editors, the readers in the papers the following morning. Besides Paolo, who obviously realized that he was playing a part in a script that someone else had written for him, there were hundreds of other photographers. The same hundreds by the way that are repeatedly prevented from access to Gaza, or Jenin or any number of other sites in the occupied territories.

When They take us somewhere, we should ask ourselves why!

Which is precisely what the embedded journalists now touring the ‘war’ zone with the Pakistani army ought to be doing. Why are they being taken? Where are they being taken? Why now and not before or after? A modicum of skepticism would be useful even when producing what are clearly ‘filler’ mutli-media pieces to feed the ravenous hunger of the 24-7, multi-channel needs of our the business of modern news.

Kamran Asdar Ali,  acting director of the South Asia Institute and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin, has written a valuable piece called Pakistan’s Troubled “Paradise on Earth” in the Middle East Research & Information Project (MERIP). He points out again that:

The Taliban have plainly appealed to smoldering anti-feudal resentments in the Swat valley in recruiting their cadre. A handful of families own the fruit orchards and cow pastures that are the main sources of livelihood in the valley, and their agreements with tenant farmers are often honored in the breach. Wages for rural labor are low. The large landlords (khans) are also likely to hold the concessions for the timber forests and the contracts to operate the gemstone mines that also employ the working class of Swat. “Paradise on earth” or not, the Swat valley has seen a large percentage of its able-bodied men out-migrate since the 1950s.

Until 1969, Swat was run as a princely state under an autocratic wali, in a continuation of the administrative structure set up under the British. Though he is remembered as benevolent and forward-looking in his social policies, the wali held a complete monopoly over taxation and the exploitation of natural and mineral resources. Revenue collection rights were given to elites and every household was taxed at a high rate to fill the state’s coffers. The princely state had its own laws and also the privilege of raising an army; indeed, the wali had a personal guard, a cavalry unit and heavy artillery. The Taliban’s desire for autonomy has a precedent.

When I met with Maulana Fazalullah in early 2008 he was considered a ‘dangerous’ man. While the army patrolled the highways and mountain tops attempting to control the so-called Taliban, I was able to walk in to Maulana Fazalullah’s compound at the Imam Dehri center and sit down with him for tea. We spent a couple of hours during which he insistently talked about the corruption and brutalization of the people of the valley of Swat. The men sitting around him echoed his stories with those of their own; the corruption and venality of the police, the exploitation of their forests and water ways, the destruction of their way of life and values at the hands of property speculators and hotel owners, the continued struggle to find a decent life under the boots of the feudasl who decided everything on a whim. Fazalullah never spoke about the Americans, Afghanistan, the ‘war against terror’ or such. He just spoke about Swat, about the areas near and around his village. As we sat there nearly 400 volunteers from villages all over the valley had come down to help construct his new madrassa. They had bought their own food and supplies and were working 24 hours a day to construct the center. And money as well. The army sat on the mountaintops and watched. I am sure they could see that dozens of armed men milling about the compound as well. But it was the highways that they wanted to patrol, the local people they wanted to harass, and the foreign photographers they wanted to take to their ‘posts’ and ‘command centers’.

It does not take a lot of intelligence to see that you are part of a game whose rules are being defined beyond the headlines and journalist pieces.

Ali Eteraz wrote a fascinating piece about the Islamization of Pakistan’s constitution under the direction of Zulfiwar Ali Bhutto. He describes in a piece called Pakistan Is Already An Islamic State, that foreign media’s penchant to see everything in Pakistan exclusively through the distorting prism of ‘the war against terror':

…these views, rooted in the “war on terror” frame of thinking, diagnose Pakistan’s relationship with Islam incorrectly. The real issue in Pakistan is not that from time to time a group of militants, while demanding the implementation of sharia, begins attacking civilians. This, while deplorable and painful, is a consequence of Pakistan’s constitution. The essential problem in Pakistan is its flawed constitutional framework, which forces every citizen to refer to their idiosyncratic and personal views on life through the lens of “Islam.” Such a state of affairs has the effect of concealing every political, material and economic demand behind theological verbiage, and that situation ultimately favors religious hard-liners and militants who are willing to use violence.

Further pointing out that:

Most people in the world, including some Pakistanis, live under the illusion that the country is secular and just happens to have been overrun by extremists. This is false. Pakistan became an Islamic state in 1973 when the new constitution made Islam the state religion. Under the earlier 1956 constitution Islam had been merely the “official” religion. Nineteen-seventy-three, in other words, represents Pakistan’s “Iran moment“—when the government made itself beholden to religious law. Most western observers missed the radical change because the leader of Pakistan at the time was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a whiskey-drinking, pseudo-socialist from a Westernized family. Those that did notice the transformation ignored it because the country was reeling from a massive military defeat in 1971, which led to half the nation becoming Bangladesh.

And that this had devastating consequences for how the people of the country had to use Islamic idioms to demand even the most essential and basics of needs from a government now drowning under the Islamization programs of the self-styled prophet General Zia-Ul-Haq. Even Nawaz Sharif, now desperately attempting to pull on democratic underpants, once attempted to draw up legislation that would have him titled Amir-Ul-Momineen – The Great Leader Of The Believers. Pakistanis do have a wonderful penchant for shallow grandiosity and empty bombast!

And finally, Tariq Ali has recently written a Diary for London Review of Books piece that reminds us of the venality and corruption that is Asif Ali Zardari, and the pathetic state of a nation that is increasingly convinced that in fact it was he who simply murdered his wife, the highly popular, democratic myth known as Benazir Bhutto!

Of course these nuances, particularly those raised by Ali Eteraz and Asdar Ali are difficult to catch in our morning internet read. Pakistan does not really exist, other than as a pawn in a chess game being played in Washington D.C. The people dying on the frontiers of Afghanistan are not real people. President Obama was shedding tears for the killed Iranian activist Neda the same day that his drones slaughtered 60 people in the tribal areas. The cynical exploitation of ‘human concern’ in one instant, and the callous, calculated, inhuman, purely barbaric and cannibalistic indifference to the erasure of another speaks poorly of the popular belief that modernity and morality go hand in hand. The Pakistani government (it should be called the Pakistani Cabal), now in the hands of a rank criminal, is a pawn that can only move in two or three preordained directions. And our reporters arrive in it and report on it with those ‘rules of engagement’ subliminally and explicitly defined.

Let the wars begin!

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