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with a cultural and ethnic diversity that baffles most, was apparently being fought against a few hundred men with outdated guns and plastic buckets IEDs!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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Still Speaking For The Others, But At Least Doing It Honestly

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I remember Ben Ehrenreich. He was the writer who wrote perhaps one of the best pieces about the Palestinian resistance struggle in the town of Bilin in the West Bank against Israel’s hideous and inhumane apartheid wall. He was also the guy I quoted in a piece I wrote on Western photojournalism’s obsessive Eurocentricism when it comes to reporting on Brown and Black societies. It was in the context of speaking about the need for ‘White’ interlocutors that I quoted Ehrenreich, and wrote:

“The West’s desperation for ‘white’ interlocutors and the silence of the other – was very strongly bought to the fore by Ben Ehrenreich of The New York Times, the writer of a powerful and rather unusual for the magazine, piece of reportage on the Palestinian resistance to Israeli military rule and occupation in the West Bank. The article, This Is Where The Third Intifada Will Start was a powerful piece and rare in the voices of the Palestinians it allowed to come through. In an interview he gave afterwards he was asked a very pertinent and powerful question which touched on this very issue – the constant representation of the other by an European – and his response was powerful and clear. The question that was posed to him was this:

Let’s talk about the Jewish narrator. In 2006 the Times published a very important essay by Tony Judt in support of Walt and Mearsheimer’s LRB piece on the Israel lobby, and Judt later said that they asked him to insert in there, I’m Jewish. Judt told the story because he knew that Jews were privileged, and that the Times needed to send this signal to its readers. As the NYRB does by publishing David Shulman when it’s critical of Israel, as the New Yorker does when David Remnick is the authority. As Mondoweiss does by stating, we’re a progressive Jewish site at root. As JVP does. It’s a racket, we’re all in on it, and my question is, When do Palestinians get to hold the microphone. Aren’t you and I to blame too? Because if they were holding the microphone, a basic human rights issue like the right to resist that is so core to your piece would have been noncontroversial many many years ago. As it is, Americans have to warm up to the idea, and a Jew has to bring them this news. Comment?

And Ehrenreich’s response was unequivocal and clear. He responded:

I’m glad you asked that question, and yeah, it’s super-problematic. It’s a specific instance of a bigger problem, that black and brown people’s stories can generally only be told in this society via the authority of a white narrator, that we–white people, in this case of Jewish ancestry–are tasked with the representation of black and brown and in this case Palestinian people, who in this dynamic are stuck in the passive role of being represented and are not allowed to interpret their own realities. So certainly we are complicit, and I don’t see any way out of that complicity except to use what privilege I have to tell stories that tear holes in the broader narratives which allow this arrangement to continue. And to do so with scrupulous attention to my own role in it, to the power differentials at play. (My emphasis)”

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Keep Your Eye On The Right Hand!

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European / Western wish for innocence, for purity of spirit, takes tens of millions of dollars to keep up. All sorts of bizarre, racist, programs have to be designed, and all sorts of institutions – scientific, civic, policing, political, social and cultural, are unleashed onto the unthinking citizenry, to seduce and numb them back to their place of quiet subservience and obedience. Here, the French yet again prove their determine war against truth and history. Just as before they spent tens of millions erasing their colonial legacy, their Algerian nightmare, their massacres on the streets, and their social and economic discrimination of a large percentage of their citizens, they are now aiming at any remembrance, or evidence, of the fact that France has been a nation at war in the Middle East, and West Africa, for over a decade now.

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A Rainbow Prohibition

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It is striking how in this entire piece about a lack of diversity in mainstream Western / European photojournalism, the idea ‘lack of representation’ is defined only as ethnic, nationalist, or gender. What is completely left out is politics. That is, the idea of a diversity of political views and perspectives that face, criticize, and dissent against the mainstream European / Western mainstream liberal discourse. And by not acknowledging the ‘manufacturing of consent’ element of mainstream Western media – a fact that has now been written about in countless books, articles and blog sites, it falls prey to simple, and yet again, ‘liberal’ ideas about what ‘diversity’ means and ought to be.

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You Talking To Me? Or Amnesia As A Choice

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This is one of the most beautifully produced pieces of Western propaganda I have seen in a long time. There is no doubt that MSNBC spent a lot of time, money and design effort, in collaboration with the ‘great’ Magnum Photo agency, to put this together. But there is also no doubt, that this entire body of work, with all its fancy graphics, its large-scale photographic presentations, its sophisticated digital presentation structure, is entirely meant to do three things:

– Create the impression that a flood of zombie-like brown skin ‘refugees’ are flocking to our clean, White shores for reasons that have nothing to do with our illegal wars, occupations and invasions, and consistent support for dictatorships (Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq for example)

– Create the impression that ‘Europe’ is under threat, and its ‘cultural’ values drowning and in danger of dilution from these ‘refugee’s who come from the ‘other world

– The pain and strain of the European / Western, as she grapples with her inner morality and humanity, and the economic pressures and demands of these ‘beggars’ and ‘usurpers’.

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A Toast To A Man To Remember

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Laughing From The Wrong Side

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It was a relief to finally read something that reminds us that comedy is not dissent. This piece by Sugarman echoes a critique I wrote some months ago – and for which I was summarily mocked, about John Oliver and his treatment of the issue of state surveillance of American citizens, and later, on his rather bizarre and right-wing interview of Snowden.

In the first piece I had argued that:

“Comedy denudes issues of urgency and the human will to act. It finds a way to make us laugh at torture, social deprivation, racism, war and murder. It makes acceptable what ought to be intolerable and seduced us into a place where we come to believe that describing and articulating something as a joke is an act. and it lets us feel that having laughed, we have somehow done and acted. for after all, we laughed st the fools and that sets us apart from them.

Comedy has become the anesthesia our capitalist societies are given so that we can accept the unacceptable. So that we can indulge in inaction while thinking we are acting. Comedy is the posture we adopt when critical thinking and critical engagement are lost.”

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Clueless Liberalism

France political and security responses are a good case study of how popular Islamophobia spreads in a nation. If the State acts in such a targeted, and sweeping fashion, and its spokes persons define so clearly and explicitly the ‘enemy’ they are going after, the citizenry can’t really be expected to remain immune from its constructions and framing of how to evaluate and judge a situation, and whom to blame for it. So when the state so publicly demonstrates its resolve, so to speak, and the ordinary, over-worked and under-engaged citizen watches all this, it isn’t all too surprising that the pathology spreads.

“Backed by the new powers, authorities have carried out about 3,400 raids on mosques, homes, and businesses with more than 300 people placed under house arrest.”

Of course, add to this the near daily media discourse and framing of wars in various countries where the construction of the ‘enemy’ is almost always on religious or cultural grounds, with all political and historical facts and legacies distorted and modified to create further evidence of ‘the enemies’ deviant and inhuman thought process and strategies.

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The Troubles With History

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Keep this paragraph in mind the next time you see a ‘great’ story about Honduras in National Geographic, or Time or The New York Times, because it will not be included in it:

“Instead of condemning the figures behind the uprising, suspending support to the illegitimate government of Zelaya’s successor, Roberto Micheletti, and demanding a restoration of the democratically elected Zelaya, Secretary Clinton decided to move on. In her memoir “Hard Choices,” Clinton wrote that after the coup, she went about hatching a plan with other leaders in the region “to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” The United States pushed for elections, and in November 2009, despite a boycott by opposition leaders and international observers, elections were orchestrated by the same figures behind Zelaya’s ouster.

Since the coup, violence and assassinations, as well as persecutions of journalists and social justice advocates, have skyrocketed in Honduras. Last week’s high-profile murder of the Goldman prize-winning indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Caceres is yet another tragic example of the abhorrent human rights record in Honduras under the government that came to power via the 2009 coup. Between 2010 and 2014, 101 environmental activists have been killed in Honduras, according to Global Witness. Clinton’s camp has said that allegations about her role in the 2009 coup are “nonsense.”

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Eradicating Politics Or How Technology Can Help Keep Annoyances Away!

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How do you respond to an article that carries the seeds of its own negation? Blakemore is excited, but it seems the excitement comes from spending too much time with people with technology tools and a story to sell.

This entire article read like a promotional brochure because:

– the GPS mapping companies with a vested interest in promoting their projects and products are repeatedly mentioned in the article.

– the owners / employees of those companies are the only voices we get to hear.

– the technology is placed at center stage, manufacturing that most perfect of TED-elusions i.e that technology overcomes politics, policies, interests, governance, history and the agency of people itself.

This latter point is critical: what the article veils is the ordinary and lets-get-our-hands-dirty work that people who need to confront the local government, demand action and change, and improve their lives, still have to do. the GIS products mentioned here actually only enable them to do this better, but they do not create their ability to do it at all. In fact, that the local communities are in fact engaged in demanding rights and services from the city, state and federal governments is nothing new, and in fact, had the writer bothered to look carefully, one of the most obvious things that she would have seen in such deprived and marginalised areas. there are dozens of groups and community activists fighting to improve conditions, and to push back an exploitative and indifferent city government. this is true across slums around the globe. Details »

The End Of The ’60s

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“Let us remember that Zionism and anti-Zionism have been part of Jewish life for more than a century, that debates about Zionism have broken up many a Jewish dinner table and constituted a matter of ongoing dispute within the Jewish community. Jewish internationalists, communists, and those who favor binational or federated forms of government for Israel and Palestine, and many orthodox Jews have openly opposed some version of Zionism – do we no longer count that as part of Jewish history? Even the respected Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, sponsors debates for and against Zionism. What grounds, then, do we have for censoring such debates on the UC campus? Our mission at the university is to consider all points of view and make informed decisions and grounded judgments on the basis of what we hear and read. We do not censor viewpoints from the start. That leaves us ignorant and ill-equipped to interpret our complex world. Rather than produce an instrument for censorship and limit the activities of students, staff, and faculty, ban meetings and debates, and demean scholarship that represents a range of views about Palestine and Israel, we should instead be safeguarding this most important task of the university as one of the few places where conflictual issues such as these can be articulated, debated, and understood over time. Let us not betray this most important public task of the university.”

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