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with a cultural and ethnic diversity that baffles most, was apparently being fought against a few hundred men with outdated guns and plastic buckets IEDs!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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The Self-Flagellating Native Intellectual And The Quest For The Pleasures Of Empire

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There is a remarkably succinct and clear moment in Gauri Viswanathan’s brilliant work Masks of Conquest: Literary Study And British Rule In India when she points out that colonizer’s self-representation:

…to native Indians through the products of his mental labor removes him from the place of ongoing colonialist activity-of commercial operations, military expansion, and administration of territories-and deactualizes and diffuses his material reality in the process…His material reality as subjugator and alien ruler is dissolved in his mental output; the blurring of the man and his works effectively removes him from history.

The colonized is unable to see the colonizer for his reality, but becomes hypnotized and bamboozled by the self-representation, so much so that the colonized become the vehicle for the perpetuation of the colonizers original self-representation. In the process, the colonized forgets the history, politics, economics and ideology that in fact inform and move the project of empire. Instead, the colonized – the subservient, the intellectually usurped native, looks back into himself and find himself lacking. In himself he sees the lesser actuality and the sordid materiality of his pathetic existence. In the colonizer he sees the ideal, the principled, the inspiring and aspired towards. And in the gap between the colonized self-image of being in a fallen state, and the colonizers exalted state, lies void into which the colonized casts his moral, and intellectual stones in the hope of building a bridge, however rickety, to traverse the distance.

There are some who argue that colonialism has ended. But as Erold Bailey argued in his paper that looked at the education system in Jamaica (see: http://www.tojned.net/pdf/tojnedv01i02-04.pdf)

It is well established that former colonial societies, largely categorized as the Third World, are still affected by negative retentions of their colonial past. The education system in these states is arguably one of the most impacted in this regard…The colonial enterprise has left former colonies suffering from wounds which appear to deepen rather than heal. In virtually every aspect of their lives, former colonized people contend with the repercussions of their encounter with European colonizers.

And so we have this fantastic piece of self-flagellation and self-negation by Pakitani technology wizard Mr. Zeeshan Usmani – a man who has received dozens of awards, grants, and accolades from various institutions and think tanks in the USA, and who is repeatedly found traveling and speaking in the USA. And who, as he himself states, is developing a technology based start-up of some sort of the other.

I have met Mr. Usmani. He is famous for developing statistical and predictive models for suicide bombings in Pakistan. These models were generously received by various American military and State department divisions because I suspect that the models were in fact are based purely on ‘domestic’ predictive factors. That is, they use past data, including local political situation and religious ideology measures, to predict future attacks but are always quiet and oblivious to politics and history. Their algorithms track Islamic fundamentalist activist and terror statements in a form pure and cleansed of any political meaning or relevance. They relegate terrorism to bio-mechanical behavior, and basically, predictable and internally consistent drive towards violence and destruction. The Americans love this stuff because it not only absolves them completely of any political, military, and economic role in the issue, but confirms that racist belief that Islam and radical Muslims are inherently violent and fanatic and that we can find predictive models to determine when, not if, but when they are going to blow themselves up.

Not only is his work in complete and absolute contradiction of the one of the largest, most extensive studies conducted about the root causes of suicide bombings – published as a book by University of Chicago’s Robert Papp called Cutting The Fuse: The Explosion Of Global Suicide Terrorism & How To Stop It,  in which he basically concluded that:

The data show that the best way to reduce suicide bombings in Afghanistan or Iraq is not to condemn Islamic extremism, but to end foreign occupations as quickly as possible.

His work is also the perfect Defence Department wet dream – it forgives/erases American imperial machinations and shenanigans, and assumes / burdens the colonized and his culture as the cause, and reason for the violence. A perfect storm of American intellectual, military, political and pundit acceptance.

Mr. Usmani is pleads to be let in to the civilization he so considers to be better and more civilized:

I don’t mind anymore when someone takes me out for “special screening” at the airports as the probability of picking me “Randomly” is 100%. I don’t mind offensive comments or questions, and I forget when was the last time when I felt sorry for being stereotyped. I know, I have a long way to go, I have a long way to prove myself, I have a long way to earn my lost respect, and I have a long way to regain the trust, and show the world how beneficial I can be, and what the world would look like without Muslims.

He begs. He pleads. Be racist. Be bigoted. Be reductive. Inflict upon me the worst of of prejudices and deviant thought. I am not even worthy of this and deserve to be humiliated. I accept your perspective. You are right to think as you do. On his knees he asks for forgiveness for being a ‘bad’ Muslim, but promises that he is working hard to make himself worthy of the tolerance and acceptance of the superior West within which he wishes to start his technology startup. But asks for the master’s forgiveness for his moral and intellectual failings, and begs:

Be patient; give us some time; a second chance; to reflect upon what we have done, who was at fault, how we got manipulated, what we have missed, and how to improve. Once we learn that, we all have a better world for us, for you and for everyone.

We are back in Mill’s waiting room of history where the colonized are relegated because we – something called ‘The Muslims’ are not ready. As Dipesh Chakrabarty argued in his work ‘Provincializing Europe':

Historicism – and even the modern, European idea of history – one might say, came to the non-European peoples in the nineteenth century as somebody’s way of saying ‘not yet’ to somebody else. Consider the classic liberal but historicist essays by John Stuart Mill, ‘On Liberty’ and ‘On Representative Government’, both of which proclaimed self-rule as the highest form of government and yet argued against giving Indian or African self-rule on grounds that were indeed historicist. According to Mill, Indians or Africans were not yet civilized enough to rule themselves…Mill’s historicist argument thus consigned Indians, Africans and other ‘rude’ nations to an imaginary waiting room of history..”

The colonized needs affirmation and acceptance. He struggles to stand as an equal, and acquires the trinkets that he believes will give him that affirmation and acceptance. Mr. Usmani is proud to tell us about his integration and immersion on the perfection of the American way to live:

US provided me Masters and PhD through Fulbright scholarship, and then raised my expectations from life and to this world through Eisenhower fellowship. I learned English watching SitComs – “Friends” and “Sex and the City” to be specific and grew my beard in US after going through Identity Loss in a melting pot.

I am you. I want to be you Mr. Usmani pleads. You fed me and nurtured me, and now I am at your mercy. He offers his credentials…’Sex and the City’, and his beard a marker of his ‘identity loss in a melting pot’ (Mr. Usmani may not be aware of history or politics, but seems to have picked up on the key themes of a lot of South Asian immigrant literature. He writes not as a Pakistani, and he certainly doesn’t write as a man of his faith. Those he is clear he wants to discard. He writes as a man who wants to escape his sordid past, the one that has tainted him with the stain of backwardness. But perhaps most tragically, he writes as a man desperate to appease power, and the powerful – whether those who finance is ventures and research, or those who welcome him into their corridors and convince him that he words and statements are ‘important’ to the future of our world.

He presents himself as a real Muslim, from Pakistan, a real native, one of ‘them, and speaking as one of ‘them’ who has seen the light. The one who will work with power, the one who understands, the one who should be forgiven, and the one who will work hard to cleanse the wayward ways of his fellow religious and political peers. As Hamid Dabashi pointed out:

In providing her services to the predatory empire, the comprador intellectual does her or his share to normalise the imperial centre and cast its peripheral boundaries as odd, abnormal, and grotesque….To sustain the legitimacy of the predatory empire, the comprador intellectual must also do her or his share in re- accrediting the hitherto discredited ideologues of the imperial project. The comprador intellectual speaks with the voice of authenticity, nativity, Orientalised oddity. He is from “there,” and she “knows what she is talking about,” and thus their voices carry the authority of a native informer.

Mr. Usmani has a great career ahead of him. I believe that not only will he receive many more grants and fellowships, but his suicide bombing research, and his start-up will receive further financing. Much like the financial and commercial success of all interlocutors who have come before him – those who promise us that they will receive our tanks with roses, and that they are too unworthy of our largesse and liberal concern, he too will reap the benefits of an ahistorical and anti-intellectual mind. He too will be garlanded with accolades and awards, and told that he is the truth, and that he is the one. And like all good colonized minds, he will not really know whether to believe it, but he will also not know why he should not.

The mind of the colonized knows no limits to obsequiousness and self-blame. Unable to think independently, it takes for granted the epitemology and frameworks of discourse that he takes from the colonizer. It is Partha Chatterjee’s ‘derivative discourse’ at its worst and Mr. Usmani a colonial creation at its best.

Uncomfortable Realities, Disappointing Complexities And The Comforts Of Suburban Bourgeois Therapy – A Photographer Finds A Way To Cope

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But geopolitical reality was much messier than he’d assumed. It ignited a bleak cynicism in his worldview…In addition to learning about the difficult prospects for weak, independent states, he also discovered how such countries are populated: It often included ethnic cleansing and forced deportations…While Mr. Mahon is glad to be getting his work recognized, which was his original motivation, his perspective on these issues has shifted significantly. In a world of increased globalization, and the potential marginalization of the idea of the nation-state, he came to believe that the war, poverty and isolation experienced in these countries was not worth the trouble.

Not worth the trouble. And with those three words Mr. Mahon, a photojournalist wearing the respectability of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant, dismisses the political, economic, and social histories and struggles of the people that he apparently spent nearly 8 years trying to document and represent. And one is left with the question, which perhaps may never have occurred to Mr. Mahon, if he bothered to ask the people who are in fact fighting for something – rightly or wrongly, if they believed it was worth the trouble, the sacrifices and the severe consequences? One is left to wonder with what arrogance, narcissism and disdain does a man travel to document the societies that clearly live under tremendous political, military and economic threat and fragility, and then proceed to simply erase all these broader realities and judge them lacking? Details »

Thinking Inside The Box And Throwing Away The Key

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The solution to both problems was found in the wholesale concoction of a brand new terror threat that was branded “The Khorasan Group.” After spending weeks depicting ISIS as an unprecedented threat – too radical even for Al Qaeda! – administration officials suddenly began spoon-feeding their favorite media organizations and national security journalists tales of a secret group that was even scarier and more threatening than ISIS, one that posed a direct and immediate threat to the American Homeland. Seemingly out of nowhere, a new terror group was created in media lore.

And so we learn something we had suspected – that ‘terror’ threats are being manufactured, and justifications for more wars being created in the corridors of the White House and the Pentagon.

I was reminded of something that one of George W. Bush’s aides once said:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re [journalists / photojournalists] studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

In fact, I would go one step further: it isn’t a ‘reality’ but a staged performance that they create, and the journalists / photojournalists – unable to think or remember history, largely uninformed and critically weak, merely document. And sell it to the citizens of the Republic.

I have to write more about this phenomenon, particularly as it exists in the field of photojournalism. Nothing amputates history and compartmentalizes and a situation more effectively than a powerful photograph. One of the most effective uses of photography is the way in which is obscures broader political, social, economic and historical facts, and seduces the viewer into believing that only which is presented as a spectacle is what matters. It is the equivalent of a ‘sleight of hand’ that a magician uses to distract the viewer while using her other hand to set up the subterfuge that makes us believe we have just experienced something magical. The ability to compartmentalize, to reduce life, to just a tiny moment, is a propagandists wet dream – it freezes all else and highlights only that which is being shown. But what is insidious is that not only does the viewer get fooled (and curators and photography critics it appears!), but the photojournalists herself gets fooled. Instructed to capture a ‘humanitarian crisis’ – a neat ‘compartmentalization of a complex social and political reality, she ends up believing in the theatre she is performing in.

This compartmentalization was precisely the underlying foolishness that led to the rather embarrassing situation at Visa Pour L’image this year where photographer Yunghi Kim attempted to defend her misrepresentation of the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ which was was sent to cover. Taken to task by a journalists for suggesting that the Hutus in refugee camps where there only as a humanitarian situation and not genocidiares fleeing in the face of a defeat.

Since her editors told her it was a humanitarian situation, she went and created the images, and the intellectual belief, that it was. That was the assignment, and she produced it. Those were the parameters, and she delivered to it. We have hundreds of examples of such ‘professionalism’ where photographers simply follow the requirements laid our for her, and deliver without really going past the mandate. The problem isn’t that Kim got the story wrong, or that her editors used it incorrectly, but the fact that despite knowing what the situation really was, and perhaps even seeing evidence of it on the ground, she chose to simply and without protest or insight, deliver it as it was needed. But for me, the problem lies elsewhere, and touches on the argument of manufactured realities.

What is perhaps shockingly egregious about the Kim situation is that despite the 20 years that have passed since that event, Kim never updated her understanding of the situation but merely repeated age old argument in her defense – even the captions were never updated. It was as if the photographer was intellectually frozen by the photographs and unable to update and mature her views. Or, that she never felt the need to since her work was celebrated, featured repeatedly, even given a New York Times stamp of approval i.e. it was labelled as the historical truth and then left at that. There was no need or necessity to think further than the double-page spreads and the editorial pat-on-the-back, as strong an affirmation of right and truth as most photojournalists seem to want to get. I will write more about this Visa / Kim fiasco at a later date. It encapsulates so much of what is wrong in the way photo stories are constructed, and produced. And what is missing in the photojournalists idea of herself. And lets be clear, there are plenty of ‘world class’ photojournalists who even now continue this myopic, compartmentalized work – recently demonstrated by many covering the Yazidi situation for example.

In the mean time, lets enjoy the fine, award winning work that will now flow from our ‘finest’ and ‘world class’ photojournalists shilling for the American propaganda machine and gleefully repeating non-facts, and non-reality for the public. But damn those photos are going to look incredibly amazing.

Do You Speak Pakistanian?

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People keep asking me how I speak Hindi, and I keep telling them that it is because I am Indian – in the historical sense of course. And that Hindi / Urdu are the same language given two names. However, never is this discussion about Urdu / Hindi more irritating and frustrating when carried out with Pakistanis who in their infinite ignorance are convinced that Urdu and Hindi are two entirely different languages and worse, that somehow Urdu is ‘Islamic’! I am often left bereft at the idiocy of these Ivy League graduates, and the tremendous closed-mindedness that permits them to carry along their prejudices despite being surrounded, at these great universities, with all the resources to help them open their eyes. So, since the library will not do, here is a wonderful piece about the beautiful, creative and deeply entwined relationship between Hindi and Urdu.

Kumar sums up his argument rather nicely when he points out:

What was once a shared common language of people of India stretching from Peshawar to the borders of Bengal split into two languages, Urdu and Hindi, towards the end of the 19th century. As a result, there arose two artificially separated literary cultures, each harking back to a different literary past due to the chauvinistic attitudes both of Hindus and Muslims. This cultural chauvinism was to subsequently embroil them in a practice of divisive politics, and each language became a marker of religious identity. With the passage of time the differences between the two sides became so irreconcilable that it led to the creation of a separate homeland for Muslims.

Worth a read.

(Thanks to my friend Sibte Hassan for pointing me to the phrase ‘Pakistanian’)

Hey Dude, Where Is My Neighbourhood?

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Gentrification confuses people. And to so many of my ‘cool’ friends, it confuses them most. They all speak about themselves as pioneers, the risk takers, edgy, and ‘down to earth’, as they trawl for real-estate on the edges of the more developed neighborhoods in New York. What is odd about their self-image is that it is completely belied by their actual lived lives, and their clearly stated aspirations. The language of finance capital, of asset accumulation, the fear of ‘crime’, the celebration of any symbol of ‘normalization’ e.g. starbucks, or a no-name bar with lots of bearded patrons, elicits glees and claims of being ‘so proud of my neighborhood’. And within earshot, and eyesight, they sit and witness the eviction of their neighbours – the black ones, the poorer ones, the ones who live in the ‘squalid’ brownstone next door but that is now marked for ‘renovation’. The listen to the threats of the land lords, backed by the bright lights of a police car parked outside. They listen to the pleas, and the protests. The listen to the anger. And then they turn back to their record players, and spin another Decemberists records to help them imbibe their wines. As Mueller points out:

The repression of urban class struggle can never be total, and it weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the liberal gentry, surfacing again and again in hand-wringing op-eds.

“What choice do I have?” ask the liberal gentrifiers, if you press them a bit. “This is the only place I can afford to live!” This sums everything up perfectly, puncturing the bubble of individual choices that make up liberal politics.

You have no choice; everything’s been decided ahead of time. If you want the American dream of a middle-class life with a home you own in the city in which you work, you have few other choices than to join the shock troops of the onslaught against the urban poor. Align with big capital and the repressive state in the conquest of the city, and maybe you’ll have enough equity to send your kids to college.”

The urban poor – the blight. Actually, the ones who have been abandoned by the state, had their services cut, their mortages stolen, their pay checks reduced or never adjusted to inflation, their pensions siphoned off, their health care practically erased, their school funds and benefits cut, their futures bogged down in hiring policies riddled with bigotry and prejudice. Ok, sounds quite bleak, but this is just my personal experience of New York neighborhoods and particularly in the super-shiny streets of ‘to hip to be whole’ of Brooklyn. And yet the myth persists, and the ‘kids’ – most all corporate creatives holding down high paying jobs in generic corporations across the river, continue to pretend that we are living in the 1960s and it is the Bowery all over again. Again, Mueller:

Today, government-abetted gentrification has trickled down to small home buyers. Forget your fairy tales of urban pioneers bravely staking out territory in the urban hinterlands — at every point, this has been a takeover planned by large business interests who fund their projects with tax abatements

Tough times indeed. Even the desperately cool can’t get a break from history!

Captain My Captain Or Our New Man In Kabul

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What are America’s wars about?

A friend recently asked me this question, and I can only offer a partial answer with a reference to this piece by The Guardian’s fine stenographer Emma Graham-Harrison. I am sure she is a lovely person in person, but her piece about the newly anointed president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, is truly a masterpiece of propaganda and obfuscation.

This article is an excellent example of how journalists are married to the project of American and European empire, and how the use of certain efficaciously placed words can bamboozled us and help transform what was most likely a sordid, behind-the-scene, bribery and threat ridden process of political transition into appearing like a viable, normal, political process. To say nothing about converting AshrafGhani – this one-trick tool of capital – a man whose head is so far up capitalism’s ass they he began his hilariously ahistorical and anti-intellectual TED talk with the heading ‘Mobilizing Capitals For State Building, into…and I must quote her here because it is priceless:

An impressive intellectual who is as comfortable in a village meeting as an international boardroom, he has been a professor and World Bank technocrat, finance minister and top security official, and was once in the running to head the UN.

So what are America’s wars about? Well, the answer lies in this man’s training, education, experience and resume fillers. Note the comfortable and seemingly natural way in which the writer describes this ‘impressive intellectual: 1) ‘Finance Minister’ 2) ‘Security official’,’Professor’ and *World Bank technocrat’. Could the Americans have dreamed up a better native son to serve their interests? Could they have found a bigger native stooge to American empire, and to its underlying presumptions of neoliberal capitalism, and the American way or war and profit? I think not.

In fact, the irony of the writer’s description selling Ghani to us as if he is some benign professor of finance who will lead this blighted nation to modernity and civilisation – a troupe that she returns to when in a classic reliance of orientalist racism she raises the question of whether he will unveil his wife (yes, our concerns are always for the women, you see!), we are also told, and with any note of surprise of questioning that:

Spurred by that defeat [in his previous attempt at power] into a dramatic transformation, he emerged this year as a ruthless and highly effective politician. Top vote-getter in a fraud-riddled election, he steered through months of fraught negotiations to emerge as president of a unity government formed with his main rival.

A ruthless politician is the modern-day euphemism for criminally driven. He was the ‘top vote getter’ in a ‘fraud-riddled’ election. I wonder where that leaves him. What does it mean that a man I am being told is an intellectual is then being revealed as a calculating, ruthless politician who participated in a fraudulent election and was foisted into power by the Americans.

As a World Bank and finance professional, and a man completely sold to absolutely outdated ideas about neoliberalism, what is being created here is the wholesale sale of the country of Afghanistan to American corporations. What will follow will be neoliberal policies where markets are opened to American goods, where public assets, what ever is left, will be sold to American corporations, where politics will be ethnicized and sectarianlzed, where private corporations will be allowed to run amok to use and extract resources and of course the super-cheap Afghani labor pool which will provide the sweatshop and field labor for the wealth that will be siphoned off to the West.

Lets remember, this is a man who is so immune to reality and so married to the tiresome and false doctrines of neoliberalism that even 5 years after the complete collapse of the global economy, the hollowing out of any pretense of American ‘free market economy’, the mass nationalization of banks and corporations, the public bail outs etc. he can stand in 2013 at the TED talk and utter absolute nonsense that:

  1. In a tactic so out-dated I had to look it up again, he conflate capitalism and democracy
  2. Believes that the world has reach full consensus that capitalism is the only way
  3. That there is no other option, and we can now only talk how capitalism should be exercised and what variations to democracy can be practiced.

The above is from slide 1 from his talk if you do not believe m. See here:

The entire talk is a fraud. It panders to the worst prejudices of his crowd, while aggrandizing the, and letting them hear what they want to hear: that they, the technologists and entrepreneurs, are the master-of-the-universe and can save the day if only they would send over a few billion dollars to the backward people of Afghanistan and teach them now to be American.

It is ideology masquerading as meaningful insight. He talks about the world consensus on capitalism at the very moment in history when that consensus has disappeared and lost all credibility! Has he not heard of the movements against capitalism that have marked almost every country in the world? Is he not away of the depression that we have been trapped in since 2008? What is this consensus he is talking about? It is a fraud that he is constructing. Because from that opening in the talk he then begins to make the classic neoliberal set of arguments: that state building is nothing more than allowing foreign investment, privatization, labor movement, loser labor laws, reduction in taxes etc. The tired old lies that got us into this mess, that have created massive economic inequalities around the globe, that have locked tens of millions of the most exploitative and abusive labor arrangements, and that continue to fuel and fund wars across the globe. And there is more: he conflates capitalism with rights and justice. In a page right out of the 1980s Reagan era propaganda, Ashraf baits and switches in practically every sentence. He begins with capitalism, and suddenly he is talking about justice. He begins with democracy, and suddenly he is talking about state repression. (as if that doesn’t exist under many a democracy!)

And in the midst of this nonsense he has the gall to exploit Western sense of being victimized (carefully constructed by media)  and bow to the victims of 9/11 and 7/7 is just magnificent to listen to. By 2013 tens of thousands of his people in Afghanistan had died in America’s war there, but they did not warrant an acknowledgement. He talks about the Soviet, he talks about the Taliban, but carefully erases the Americans, and completely jumps over the near 14 year military occupation and all those who died. In fact, his entire talk compartmentalized ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the freedom loving, mall shopping, car driving us who are good, and civilized, and the repressive, brutal, dirt-eating them who can only be redeemed if they become more like us, and there you have it: his entire idea of nation building. Give us technical and design solutions, and I will give you democracy in Afghanistan. It’s really just that simple. And we love to swallow this tripe!

Ashraf is a tool. As he placed into his throne by the American occupation force, he, like a good native comprador son, stands and speaks to the West the language that aggrandizes the West. He tells them what they want to hear, and he uses an imaginary idea of capitalism, out-dated if not completely discredited concepts of modernist development, and completely specious and empty rhetoric of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights to appease us. And the media swallow it all up. If he walks like us, talks like us, and lies like us, he must be one of us! His carefully, ruthlessly craft image – self-made and PR firm financed, is a cover for the same brutal, calculated imperial project that has continued in Afghanistan since the tragic invasion. He is just the most recent butcher to the block upon which surrounding nations are lining up to slice and dice their share of the Afghan carcass.

He sells us the America we want to see, and he sells us a classic TED tactic: there is no politics, there is just planning and technical solutions. He tells us that they, the brown / black, are stupid and barbaric, and in plain language says ‘we need you’ – you being the West, the sophisticated, the ones that he absolves of their role in destroying the very country that he now wants to say can only be saved if ‘they’ come with their dollars and their Dunkin Donuts. Why does America go to war? The answer lies right here, and in the lives of men who are installed in these invaded, pillaged and destroyed nations – in the great tradition of imperialists of the pasts. They serve capital, prey open souls and geographies, and act as a mirror in which we are the most beautiful people in the world

Emma has done a wonderful job re-painting this man into a solid, Western-centric, intellectual. As if Afghanistan is a corporation just bringing on board a new CEO. Contradicting her own writing – corruption led elections of a ruthless politician but she gives us instead an intellectual with a modern ‘wife’. But perhaps that is really what it is: the foisting to power of a man who will ensure capitalist discipline and ‘transparency’ all in the service of Western corporate and military interests, and do so with the precision and clarity of vision that only a World Bank training could have provided him. So lets see what comes next. Frankly, I would not hold my breath for any surprises.

So what are these wars about? The answer remains the oldest one in the book.

We Reserve The Right To Be Boorish And Bombastic And You Have The Right To Stand Up And Walk Away

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Bruce Gilden does a ‘photo review’. As I watched this video I could not help but wonder whether Gilden realizes that the producers of Vice are excitedly setting him up to perform a Gilden-pantomine act: boorish, rude, obnoxious, mocking, denigrating, dismissive as only Gilden can be. And as if on cue, Gilden delivers. Certainly one of the signs of the death of a person, or an artist, is when s/he ends up simply performing her/himself. We love a spectacle, as much as we love looking at an accident, and Gilden delivers.

I find listening to Gilden tiresome. As I watched this video (thanks to A Photo Editor blog), I had to fight back thoughts about his sexist and misogynist comments and instead think more about the sheer structure and framework for this ridiculous parody of a what should have been a review. As he droned on and on – combining his pointless and knee-jerk opinions with a combination of generalizations about Arabs/ Rocks, oral sex, demeaning statements about women’s bodies and other nonsense (Aside: Shelby and Fernando’s point out in their piece Short Skirts And Niqab Ban: On Sexuality And The Secular Body that: ‘Man hails woman into being: “Feminine identity depend[s] on male desire; male desire depend[s] on visual stimulation.” Seduction and the male gaze are therefore key to subjectivation: the visual appreciation of women’s faces and bodies brings women into being as women, just as the ability to see women’s faces and bodies brings men into being as men.’), I was reminded of Nietzsche’s mocking of Kant’s definition of the beautiful.

In his work The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche point out that:

…I wish to underline is that Kant, like all philosophers, instead of envisaging the aesthetic problem from the point of view of the artist (the creator), considered art and the beautiful purely from that of the ‘spectator’ and unconsciously introduced the ‘spectator’ into the concept ‘beautiful’. It would not have been so bad if this ‘spectator’ had at least been sufficiently familiar to the philosophers of beauty – namely as a great personal fact and experience, as an abundance of vivid authentic experiences, desires, surprises and delights in the realm of the beautiful! But I fear that the reverse has always been the case; and so they have offered us, from the beginning, definitions in which, as in Kant’s famous definition of the beautiful, a lack of any refined first-hand experiences reposes in the shape of a fat worm of error.!

(From Genealogy of Morals)

As Agamben goes on to elaborate:

The experience of art that is described in these words (above) is in no way an aesthetic for Nietzsche. On the contrary: the point is precisely to purify the concept of ‘beauty’ by filtering out the sensory involvement of the spectator, and thus to consider art from the point of view of its creator. This purification takes place as a reversal of the traditional perspective on the work of art: the aesthetic dimension – the sensible apprehension of the beautiful object on the part of the spectator – is replaced by a creative experience of the artists who sees in his work only the promise of happiness.

(From The Man Without Content, from which the above Nietzsche quote is taken)

The complete primacy of the spectator’s measure of the aesthetic, and the absolute negation of the creator. This is photography critique in summary. These sorts of photo reviews were par-for-the-course at Visa Pour L’image and one of the reasons why I stopped going. The sheer narcissism, arrogance, obnoxiousness and very often uncouth rudeness of ‘reviewers’ was dismaying to witness. I remember dozens of occasions overhearing the insanely ridiculous and humiliating comments being made by ‘famous’ photographers and editors to young photographers who had come to them for feedback and advice. Instead, what they got was humiliation and abuse. It was as if insecure and egotistical editors and photographers – basking in their self-generated spotlights, unable to find meaning or value in their own jobs, took it out on the young photographers who were too sacred or too weak to respond. I would listen to editors mock them for their personality, humiliate them for their mistakes, laugh in their faces, carelessly throw prints around, rudely cut them off if they tried to explain, and always offer what has today become the most nonsensical, anti-intellectual statement in photography – ‘the photograph must speak for itself’.

The latter is basically nothing other than a way for an editor to dominate the photographer – her voice, her vision, her goals, her ideas, and her perspectives. It is a way for an editor to negate the authorship of the creator of a work, and impose upon it his / her own impression, however ignorant they may be. It is an act of violence against the creator of the work, and an essential tool in establishing the hierarchy of power that all editors wish to maintain against the photographer. It leads the hilariously illogical and embarrassing situation where a basically little read, little traveled and careerist editor sits and lectures a photographer – one who has been in the field and actually has the real-world experience of a situation, to lambasted and critique.

There are few, if any editors, who have the confidence and the sheer intelligence to see a photographer’s work, and to explore its motivations and authorship before offering perspectives, critiques and comments. Magdalena Herrera (then at National Geographic France, now at GEO France) was perhaps one of three editors I can name who actually engaged with a photographer’s work – intellectually, politically, creatively and structurally, and were able to speak in intelligent and generous ways. But they remain few and far between. Most often what we get is this mocking, dismissive, denigrating and demeaning (Gilden throws in sexism, and cultural essentialist to further establish his generally boorish credentials even further), discussions that often leave people simply confused and distraught.

I don’t see the point of it at all. A useless video other than to be reminded what is so wrong with this entire industry and how it refuses to get its head out of its a** and evolve a better, more intelligent and more inspiring way to speak about work and about the photographers who risk it all to go out and produce stories – however good or bad – and deserve a respectful and meaningful engagement around their work.

Photographers should refuse to be subjected to this. Please just stand up and walk out. No matter what, no matter how inexperienced or experience, a photographer you are, you do not deserve this mocking, humiliating treatment. There are plenty of amazing, talented and brilliant photographers and editors who will give you critical and much needed feedback while also respecting your dignity and authorship. Stand up and walk away.

A Coalition, A War, And The Gift That Keeps On Giving

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In what can only be called a ‘coalition of the bought’, one that includes some of the best military dictatorships and some of the most retrograde societies in the Middle East, we have launched into yet another illegal, unauthorized war in the region.

The US has launched, with the support of perhaps one of the most vile coalitions put together – filled with nations that behead people as a form of ‘law’ – to go after a group that beheads people as a form of military tactic. To say nothing about the fact that the UN has been reduced to a mouthpiece uttering nonsense about ‘humanitarian crisis’ as a way to hide its collusion and its complete abandonment of its charter and responsibility. No resolution has been even considered to sanction this entire ridiculous, ultimately useless campaign. No debate. No discussion. Not even an attempt at a fake ‘consensus’. Of course, the pusillanimous US Congress was entirely by-passed – such an inconvenience this bloody democratic structure of our Republic that it is best avoided completely, and is sucking on green-colored lollipops given to it by the corporations. Details »

Like Cowards They Act In The Dark Of Night And Law

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Parons MFA Series: #4


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