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with a cultural and ethnic diversity that baffles most, was apparently being fought against a few hundred men with outdated guns and plastic buckets IEDs!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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Nothing Left To Do But The Selling Or Pakistan’s Tryst With The Public Relations Campaign

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It is important and necessary to critique foreign coverage of Pakistan. But this video isn’t it.

There is a conviction amongst a certain class of Pakistanis that what Pakistan suffers from is an image problem. this is very much like a certain class of Israeli who feels the same. they are convinced that it is portrayals that are the problem, not the problems that are portrayed. for this class, what is demanded is simply a different portrayal. a desire frequently backed by the sponsoring – quite often through international corporate and development funds, cultural events of limited and specific scope and access. If we can only show the world ‘we’ – this class that seems to be most concerned about ‘portrayals’, are sophisticated, well read and urbane, perhaps we will not be so ashamed of the issues we know are real, but have no inclination, courage or imagination to face them and speak about them. 

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Old Wounds

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Every single magazine we submitted our Haiti work to refused to publish it. In fact, they spent more time mocking our efforts to reveal a mostly unspoken aspect of the toppling and kidnapping of the democratically elected Haitian leader Jean-Bertrande Aristide in 1994. So it was with some pleasure to read this piece in The Public Archive that in fact echos so much of what we had been trying to argue and reveal.

As Jemima Pierre writes:

The second occupation began June 2004 and was established under the pretext of “stabilizing” Haiti after the U.S.-sponsored ouster of the country’s democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide. During the 2003 “Ottawa Initiative on Haiti” France, Canada, and the US hatched a plot to overthrow Aristide. The following February their plan was implemented. Aristide was kidnapped by US marines and sent to a military base in the Central African Republic. US President George W. Bush announced afterwards that he was sending US forces to Haiti to “help stabilize the country.” As Peter Hallward documents, the invading “Franco-American” force targeted and killed Aristide supporters, installed a puppet Prime Minister, and enabled the formation of a paramilitary force that organized anti-Aristide death squads. The United Nations, then led by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, then cleaned up. According to Hallward, UN Security Council voted unanimously on April 29, 2003 to send, “an 8,300-strong UN Stabilization Force from 1 June, under the leadership of Lula’s Brazil.”

Writer Malcolm Garcia and I had travelled – at our own expense and based on our own research, to Port Au Prince to document the targeting and killing of Lavalas activists and Aristided supporters under cover of a UN mission, and with the support and collusion of the USA and France. Details »

We Wanted To See A Train Wreck. We Saw A Train Wreck.

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Bruce Gilden’s shallow, narcissistic work and methods, thankfully come into the limelight. I respect Stacy Kranitz’s self-awareness and self-confidence to have written about it:

The past few days have been hard,” wrote Kranitz on Instagram on June 7th. “I have been on assignment with another photographer, Bruce Gilden. He and I are at odds with the way we make our work. I watched him make portraits and aggressively enter my shot to get his own, while telling me ‘this is my shoot, you are just here’ I listened as he said disparaging things about people, I listened to his dissatisfaction with people being to [sic] ‘plain’ and late last night I could no longer stand by and continue to feel good about being bullied. He humiliated me in front of a group of church goers and I feel that I may have taken a stand at the wrong moment. That I was not being considerate or mindful of my surroundings either. I don’t hate Bruce or his work but I think turning people into what you want them to be, turning people into ‘self-portraits’ of yourself is complicated and dangerous especially in a place with a history of extraction.

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History Is Another Planet

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Eliza Griswold pens an entirely farcical and ahistorical piece for – of course, the New York Times. And though it is now becoming tiresome to point out how ridiculously, amateurish this newspaper has become a shill for war and propaganda, it still remains critical to continue to point it out. There are still too many people who take this publication seriously, and repeat its arguments thoughtlessly. This in fact was the key point that Glenn Greenwald made in a critical take-down of The New York Times recent, stenographic piece on the Edward Snowden leaks. Details »

Mazen Maarouf & The Continuing Legacies Of The Nakba

The Idea Of India…Finally

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The Geography Of Poverty USA

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A already complex, determined work gets more complex, and more determined. Matt Black once again sets a high standard of commitment and focus, bringing his sharp, searing eye to our hard, crippling reality.

The Panama Deception

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 By the end of the week, they had appeared on the covers of Newsweek, Time and US News & World Report. It was the first time in many years that one photographer had enjoyed such an honour.

Debate started to grow over what the US response should be. But it was only when George H.W. Bush, the then US president, announced an invasion and offered the events captured by my photographs as a justification, that I understood just what role photojournalism can play in such a conversation.

Ron Haviv, Al-Jazeera Magazine

All things are in the grip of inadequate causation; namely, they are partially determined to act by other, external things. The individualistic ethos, which is the continuation of the metaphysics of subjectivity, refuses to the last to consider such an idea. True, at stake is nothing less than its outright dissolution, and a habit of thinking and relating to oneself that is by now so entrenched will not easily give way. Except by the violence of a kind of conversion, the idea of full determination cannot readily defeat the deeply engrained belief in the faculty of self-determination on which individuals rest their identities as ‘subjects’. Yet…Spinoza discloses the genetic principle of this idea, that is, the mechanism of its begetting in the imagination: ‘men are deceived in thinking themselves free, a belief that consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.’

Frederic Lordon, Willing Slaves of Capital; Spinoza And Marx on Desire

It’s remarkable that after all these years, and all the revelations to the media lies and propaganda that fed the build up and prosecution of this unjust, and unnecessary invasion of Panama, that a photojournalist like Ron Haviv can still brag about this work, and discuss it as if it ‘made a difference’. It is odd that he doesn’t realise that the US media, with its unquestioning repetition of government propaganda, instigated an invasion that cost the lives of many innocents! What surprises and dismays me about his statements – so entirely ahistorical, is his refusal to understand that his photo was used by the state, by the government propaganda machine, to serve a purpose that the state had already developed. His picture became a weapon of pre-emptive and planned war! Details »

The Silences Of The Crusader

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You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its

flavour, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing,

but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men.

Matthew 5:13

Wim Wenders is a classic example of a man of bourgeois privilege blinds – possibly intentionally, to the violence and exploitation that creates his privilege. And as all such men & women, he is illiterate to the the idea of – one that Gambatista Vico so fabulously gifted mankind, that man makes the world and to understand it we must examine, with honesty and truth, man’s actions and decisions in it.

From handing prizes to embedded photojournalist James Nachtwey (yes, he does make amazing photos, but lets just also look at the interests and ideas that informs his politics shall we? I am working on a critique of Nachtwey’s life’s work that maps his ‘projects’ to the political ‘ethos’ of the time, looking to examine his close collusion with American imperial interests and the angles adopted in his Time magazine funded stories), to this white-wash of Salgado’s collusions with mining interests and his continued refusal to speak honestly about the devastating impact of unchecked capitalism, share-holder returns, outright corporate thievery and corruption, political bribery and ‘development’ and ‘growth’ addictions, Wenders embodies many of the presumptions of his class. As Laura Jaramillo points out:

Wenders is careful to shape Salgado’s interviews into a meditation on the human condition palatable for the international art-film market, not a meditation on the destructive effects of globalised capitalism. “Everyone should see these images to see how deadly our species is,” Salgado says over one particularly grisly set. Each event that feeds into his illustrious career is, not coincidentally, one of the greatest atrocities of the latter half of the 20th-century. Each is curiously disconnected from the last, presented without historical context.

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A Stubborn Refusal

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My continued disdain dismissal of most all photojournalists working on ‘immigration’ stories begins with this simple fact outlined in this excellent article titled The Story Behind The Stories, where author Rodney Benson argues that:

The complexity of the international causes of migration cannot be easily expressed as a melodrama. And mentioning them is ideologically sensitive: it suggests there could be something wrong about an economic system that most politicians — and journalists — take for granted. From the early 1970s to the mid-2000s — a time of neoliberal globalisation and bloody conflicts in Central America manipulated by the US — immigration stories that mentioned international causes fell from 30% to 12% in leading US papers. To their credit, French newspapers in the 2000s, just as in the 1970s, mentioned the global angle in 33% of their immigration news stories, mostly because of the greater prominence of anti-globalisation sentiment in French intellectual and political culture. Yet, too often, both French and US media fail to give the full picture on immigration. Their focus on emotion, and on individual stories, diverts attention from the fundamental political issues, and leaves the way open for the simplistic “solutions” advocated by the far right.

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