Offering Silence To The Oppressed

An exhibition called ‘Beware The Cost Of War’ recently opened in London.

Reading about it in the New York Times ‘Lens’ blog left me deeply disappointed and concerned.

Let me explain.

(Aside: Yoav Galai, the curator, is someone I have called a friend for some time now and I hope that he will forgive me for this very critical review of what is something he clearly put a lot of work in to. It is not personal, but merely a reflection on this propensity in our world to fear speaking, to raise a voice, to add details and specifics where generalizations only confuse, perpetuate injustices and acquit the guilty. I am sorry Yoav. I must say my piece.)

In their book Another Way of Telling photographer Jean Mohr and writer/intellectual John Berger present an experiment where a series of Mohr’s photographs, each with their captions removed, are shown to a number of ordinary strangers and each is asked to explain what they see in the photograph. As Jean Mohr himself explains:

Was it a game, a test, an experiment? All three, and something else too; a photographer’s quest, the desire to know how the images he makes are seen, read, interpreted, perhaps rejected by others. In fact in face of any photo the spectator projects something of her or himself. The image is like a springboard. (page 42)

The result was that each individual described the photograph differently, thereby rending each photograph meaningless, and completely erasing it of history, context, intent and meaning and replacing them with what were little more than randomly created ideas based on fantasies, prejudices, and ignorances. The photos gave nothing to the viewer, the viewer merely imposed their ‘knowledge’ – factual and otherwise, onto the image. The images became springboards indeed, but they also became empty vessels into which the viewer could put anything and make them what s/he wanted. The images offered nothing, taught nothing, revealed nothing and as a result added nothing.

Jean Mohr also collaborated with the writer/intellectual Edward Said to produce what I consider to be one of the finest, most important, book of photojournalism ever – After The Last Sky. This book, about which I have written elsewhere, is a masterful collaboration between a photographer and a writer. It is one of those rare photography books that has managed to lift itself from the fashionable but frivolous shelves of photography books and into the more relevant Middle East History section of a bookstore.

The book grew out of an unusual context; in 1983 Edward Said was a consultant to the United Nations International Conference on the Question of Palestine (ICQP) and he suggested that some of Jean Mohr’s photographs of Palestinians be hung in the entrance hall to the main conference site in Geneva, Switzerland. The official response to this suggestion, as Said himself describes it in the book, was unusual; they would allow the photographs to be hung, but no words could accompany them, and no explanations.

It was then that Said and Mohr came up with the idea of writing about the Palestinians – about adding the words to the photographs. As Said explains:

Let us use photographs and text, we said to each other, to say something that hasn’t been said about Palestinians. (page 4)

But they were aware that the problems they faced was not a lack of text on this matter, but perhaps too much of it. But it was also clear that:

…for all the writing about them, Palestinians remain virtually unknown. Especially in the West, particularly in the United States, Palestinians are not so much a people as a pretext for a call to arms. (page 5)

Confronting this challenge about how to convey the Palestinian experience to a reluctant audience was not going to be easy, and yet it was crucial and clear that text was going to be a fundamental act of resistance, and that its place for a people oppressed was fundamentally important because:

Stateless, dispossessed, de-centered, we [Palestinians] are frequently unable either to speak the ‘truth’ of our experience or to make it heard. We do not usually control the images that represent us; we have been confined to spaces designed to reduce or stunt us; and we have often been distorted by pressures and powers that have been too much for us. (page 6)

“Beware The Cost Of War” is an exhibition of Israeli and Palestinian photographs now being shown in London. In a review written on the New York Times blog ‘Lens’, a review titled Stirring Images, No Names the writers explain that:

“Beware the Cost of War,” a show opening Friday at the Blackall Studios in London, will be conspicuous for many reasons — one of them being what it lacks: captions and credits next to the images, which were taken both by Israeli and Palestinian photographers.

The notion is that, without words, the pictures will be freer to speak for themselves.

In a slide show of some of the images we are shown scenes of grieving Palestinian and Lebanese families and of Israeli families. The curator, Yoav Galai, we are told:

…hoped viewers would discard customary ideological and political preconceptions as they looked at the images, many of which are deeply disturbing…

He is later quoted as saying:

“I realized it’s hard to show what’s really happening,” Mr. Galai said. “Once a photograph is out there, people ascribe whatever they want to it. So I thought, why not take all the pictures and tear them away from their narrative?”

Yoav Galai is a young photographer. An Israeli who has documented the destruction of the Palestinian social, cultural and physical space in occupied East Jerusalem, he and I have frequently communicated via email and I respect his individual voice and determination.

But sadly I find myself in deep conflict and disagreement with this entire exhibition, and the silencing of the experience, history, and narrative of the Palestinian people already suffering from decades of silencing, marginalization, and erasure. The entire impression of ‘balance’ here is specious, and frankly misrepresents the situation which is simply one of a powerful military occupier systematically repressing and controlling an otherwise unarmed and desperate Palestinian population.

Tearing away the narrative, the history, the context of a photograph is the best way to further enable people to ascribe whatever meaning people want to images, and hence, only confirm and not question their prejudices, hates, ignorances and fears.

That Israeli historians, intellectuals, writers and journalists can clearly speak of this, admitting to the injustices their government has been executing against the Palestinians, only reminds us of the vast gap in intellectual and physical courage that imbues our societies when it comes to the question of the rights of an Arab people.

This exhibition in its current format ends up committing a number of sins against the history of the situation it claims to speak about, and even about the lives of the people involved.

  • The exhibition removes context, so that we never know who is the occupier, and who the occupied. It pretends to suggest that everyone is a victim, when in fact that is not true. Israel is an occupying force, its citizens repeatedly voting into power civilians leaders, most all with deep military track records and connections, based on their ability to ‘handle the Palestinians’. The Palestinians are an unarmed people now trapped in quite possibly the most extensive, professionally administered, rationally planned, efficiently executed occupation regime in history.
  • The exhibition removes chronology, so that we never know whether the act occurred this year e.g. the brutal and unnecessary massacre of nearly 2000 Palestinians of Gaza in early 2009 prompted by Israeli domestic political needs and condemned in the recent UN Goldstone Report vs. the aftermath of a suicide bomb that occurred many years ago and the likes of which have not been repeated in years.
  • The exhibition removes history, so that we never know what it is that violence represents i.e. acts of legitimate violence in order to resist and overthrow and illegal occupation vs. acts of repressive violence meant to occupy, steal, and control.
  • The exhibition removes the ugliest of constant and material facts; the dehumanizing and degrading check points, the summary arrests, the illegal (and yes, please, they are illegal) settlements, the military patrols that enable them, the hideous barbarism of the fundamentalist, fanatical and humanly deviant Jewish settlers, the summary executions, the entire infrastructure – administrative, military, political, under-cover of the occupation regime, the displacements, the senseless closures, and the constant threat of violence that hangs in the air and frequently manifests itself into reality.

The exhibition in fact become a tool of oppression, creating ‘balance’ where there is none, offering the easy consumption of ‘violence’ while ensuring that nothing provokes us to realize the truths that create the violence, the injustices that continue to be perpetrated, and the powers that have to held accountable for what is a clear and simple crime against humanity and massive violation of international law.

As writer Peter Lagerquist comments after hearing and reading about this exhibit:

It’s not only offensive but brutalizing, because it perpetrates another violence on those pictures, and their subjects. They are robbed of meaning, the viewer is robbed of their ability to think critically about violence, rather than merely wringing their hands over it…All that we are left with here is diffuse pathos, the knowledge that violence is bad.  And this simply is not enough; we need to understand something else.

We don’t have to love the Palestinians, but why must we insist on shutting them up? Why must we be so dismissive of values and laws that we with such fanfare created and offered at Nuremburg and enshrined in so many UN charters and Geneva Conventions? Why, when it comes to the ‘lesser’ people, do our voices suddenly find no air, our minds no thoughts, our courage no will and our photographs no captions?

An oppressor wants to erase the voice of the oppressed. ‘Balance’ serves the interests of those exercising disproportionate violence and control over a weaker people and society. A people displaced, dispossessed, ignored, dehumanized, and incarcerated, in flagrant violation of our most valued principles of international law, justice and rights, do not need us to ‘remove’ their context, history and experiences of their suffering. On the contrary, it is precisely words, text, and voice that need to be used to unveil their experience. It is crucial to our responsibilities as reporters, journalists and photojournalists, to speak with courage and clarity and add our voice to those of the weak to counter, and challenge the easily heard and broader disseminated voice of the powerful.

Michael Massing took on the issue of specious ‘balance’ that today’s media organizations strive for and identified it as one of the major problems with journalism today. In a piece called The Press; The Enemy Within he quoted the writer Ken Silverstein (I am a big fan of Ken’s work!) who was then working on a piece about voting fraud in St. Louis and who found clear evidence of Republic Party manipulation of votes but was not allowed to say it as such and encouraged to ‘balance’ it with comments about similar actions, though far less systematic, by the Democrats:

I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should…attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. “Balanced” is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.

Any easy was to shirk our responsibility to inform readers, and I would add, help them understand the perspectives and principles that are in fact consistently and necessarily defensible. And we are being cowards to not admit that there are principles of law, justice and national behavior and they are enshrined in documents that we love to quote e.g. Sudan, Kosovo, or Kuwait when it suits our needs.

I quote Edward Said from his work Representations of the Intellectual when he points out that:

Universality means taking risks in order to go beyond the easy certainties provided to us by our background, language, nationality, which so often shield us from the reality of others. It also means looking for and trying to uphold a single standard for human behavior when it comes to such matters as foreign and social policy. (page xiv)

My point would be that for the contemporary intellectual [or individual] living at a time that is already confused by the disappearance of what seem to have been objective moral norms and sensible authority, is it unacceptable simply either blindly to support the behavior of one’s own country and overlook its crimes or to say rather supinely “I believe they all do it, and that’s the way of the world?”

To speak consistently is upholding standards of international behavior and the support of human rights is not to look inwards for a guiding light supplied to one by inspiration or prophetic intuition. Most…countries in the world are signatories to a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed in 1948, reaffirmed by every new member state of the UN. There are equally solemn conventions on the rules of war, on treatment of prisoners, on the rights of workers, women, children, immigrants and refugees. None of these documents says anything about ‘disqualified’ or less equal races or peoples. All are entitled to the same freedoms. (page 97)

This exhibition, sadly participated in by Palestinians photographers themselves, further oppresses the Palestinian experience, because it reduces everything to merely violence and sensationalism. This is the legacy of wire photography, and of mainstream photojournalism that chases blood, celebrates murder, and titillates through the tragic.

At a time when more than ever we need to speak with courage and clarity at the systematic dispossession of what little has been left to this blighted people, we have photojournalists and curators participating in a project of silence and obfuscation.

“Beware The Cost Of War’ unfortunately attempts to balance what is so terribly imbalanced. And in that process it misleads. There is nothing to be gained by wringing our hands at the hideousness of blood and flesh torn by bombs. There is nothing to be understood by images of mothers crying. There is no value in the sight of another babies still body. To produce something that can really only provoke pity – a debilitating and cowardly emotion, is to produce nothing at all. (I am reminded of Nietzsche’s argument that… the thirst for pity is a thirst for self-enjoyment, and at the expense of one’s fellow men. It reveals man in the complete inconsideration of his most intimate dear self, but not precisely in his ‘stupidity’.)

As photographers we must demand that the text be returned to us who made the works. Our eye and our text is our intent, our ideas, our values and our risks. We must insist that our images not be exploited or left open to the random violence and fantasies of an indifferent and/or confused viewer. Context matters, history matters, and memory matters. We must insist that our words are not dismissed, that the intents with which we produced our images is not marginalized, and that our images do not become merely ‘illustrations’ but are clear statements of our work and our beliefs.

Our words anchor the image, and give it something that itself does not contain; meaning and intent. The caption is crucial because it is also the photographer’s insistence on controlling the use the image is put to, and to what extent it can be manipulated. In a world overrun with meaningless illustrations, the caption takes on even greater value. Context becomes a powerful weapon against propaganda and obfuscation. And a means towards clarity and understanding. We should not surrender or relinquish this right easily. In a conflict mired in millions of words of propaganda, from both sides of course but certainly largely from the mouths of the powerful who have an unbalanced access to mainstream print, internet, and tv media, the words of those who have witnessed first hand are paramount.

Epilogue: A few days ago a Swedish magazine invited me to publish my portraiture from Gaza in its pages. A highly respected publication, it offered me the choice to submit as many images as I liked, with just one condition – they would not use the words that accompanied the work. They only wanted the pictures. You can see this work, images with words, as it appeared in a recent issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review. I refused to let them publish the work, arguing that erasing the words reduced them to meaningless aesthetics, and silenced the voices of the individuals who sacrificed their time and patience in the most horrifying of conditions so that I may carry to the world their sufferings. As photographers we either forget, or prevented from being complete individuals; thinking, creative individuals with opinions, ideas and realizations. We must defend this completeness, and the sanctity of our individual experiences, understandings and conclusions.

Update: The No Captions Needed site, authored by two professors, one from Indiana University and the other from Northwestern University and described by them as ‘…a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society.” also discussed the ‘no caption’ approach at this exhibit which you can read here: Visual Ironies

Personal Note: This post was edited to ensure that it is understood that it does not claim that the curator(s) intended to oppress the voices or remove context, but simply that the current format inadvertently ends up doing that. This is a criticism of the format, not of the individuals involved, all of whom I am more than sure have the most determined and committed intentions to raise awareness of the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

The Most Dangerous Nation

The obsession with things ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ and ‘Al Qaeda” has been turned into a veritable multi-billion dollar industry and this despite the very little concrete and independently verified evidence to suppor the many claims of underground ‘Islamic/Al Qaeda’ cells and networks. Details »

New York City Experiments

I arrive in New York in a few days to try out a new experiment. It has been a few years in the making, and it has taken a few months of find funding for it. But now it is ready to be performed. The Polis Project‘s first Un/Do-Photography workshop will start in New  York on November 13th, 2019. And it represents the latest version of a practice of photographic teaching that I have been working on since 2013 when I first tried a new pedagogic practice at CounterFoto in Dhaka, Bangladesh. These workshops are unique because they are less about the practice, craft and mechanics of operating photography technology and primarily about deconstructing social, political and economic assumptions and myths that underlie so much of today’s mainstream photojournalism and photography practice. The Polis Project Un/Do-Photography workshops specifically engage the students on questions of Eurocentrism, imperialism/colonialism, capitalism, commodity fetishism, femo/homo-nationalism, the ‘gaze’ and power, the myths of Western liberalism, technology utopianism, humanitarian racism among other topics. Our goal, unlike any other workshop out there, is to produce critically aware, and intellectually outspoken photographers producing complex, multimedia projects that refuse the easy comforts of mainstream corporate owned media, and pursue complex projects that challenge us to see deeper and clearly. 


Details »

The First Un / Do-Photography Workshop Announced

We at The Polis Project are conducting our first ‘Decolonise Photography’ workshop in New York, from 19th to 23rd November, 2019.

You can learn more about them by going to the link shown above, or here

The workshops are open to all. And they are completely free. 

Over the course of five intensive days of presentations, seminars, discussion groups and project design sessions, participants will be encouraged to think about some of the most critical questions facing our communities. Less a workshop about aesthetics or the technology of the camera, this workshop instead concentrates on developing ways of thinking, researching and designing complex and multi-layer projects that reveal social, political, economic, corporate and other structural factors that create inequality, injustice, repression and violence. In sum, we will work to design and develop visual media projects that do justice to the lived realities, struggles and collective resistance of our most marginalised and silenced communities. 

Join us.

American The Beautiful And The Dreams of Pakistani Liberals

We have become accustomed to certain ways of seeing and speaking about the world. The Pakistani liberal – a caste that has been educated and nurtured on Western educational, political and cultural ideologies absorbed during years abroad at college, or careers, and through popular Western visual and literary media (fiction, non-fiction books), offers a particularly stark lesson in how certain forms of speaking, expressing and justifying arguments remain unchanged by thought, critical inquiry or self-doubt. The thoughtless regurgitation of American / European universalism, exceptionalism, and social sophistication  – all of which mind you are as much myths as anything, is an excellent example of this.

Details »

A Man In The Sun

This is an essay without reason. It emerges as a result of recent discussions with a friend and colleague about decolonialisation–what it means, how does it apply to various areas of human knowledge, and what can it mean for photography. Actually, this essay without reason emerges as a result of discussions at The Polis Project as we design a “Decolonise Photography” workshop series. Our discussions have led us to think about what new and different ways of seeing and doing could emerge in a documentary and photographic practice that recognises that “…the target of epistemic de-colonisation is the hidden complicity between the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality,” and is based on a need to learn to “unlearn” [See Walter Mignolo, Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of De-Coloniality, Cultural Studies, Volume 21, 2007].

Details »


How Not To Critique A Photographer

Image Manipulation: A Manipulated And Confusing Debate

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 13.04.10

Photojournalists are once again being asked to offer perspectives and opinions on the apparently growing problem of image manipulation, staging and ‘truth’ in photography. The New York Times Lens Blog ran a piece a few days ago inviting a group of highly experienced photojournalists to speak about the issue. I say ‘apparent’ because there is obviously no objective way of measuring the suspicion that photographers today are more guilty of manipulating their images than photojournalists in the past. It may be a lot easier to carry out post-processing manipulations in Photoshop today, but that hardly confirms the fact that photographers did not do this in the past.

Anyone who has closely studied the works of one of the greatest photojournalists ever, Eugene Smith, would know well that image manipulation and staging were critical parts of his method. A number of his most famous and iconic images were either staged, had elements removed and added to them, or heavily processed in the darkroom to a degree that the final image had no resemblance to the negative. It has been argued that Eugene Smith got away with all this because he was Eugene Smith. As Cosgrove argues:

The sort of tinkering Smith engaged in with that one, iconic Schweitzer photograph might be frowned upon today. Any contemporary photojournalist who admitted to such behaviour would probably be excoriated by his or her peers, as well as by the general public.

W. Eugene Smith, on the other hand, has largely escaped such censure for one reason, and one reason only: he was W. Eugene Smith, and for better or worse, when it comes to aesthetics — and even, to some extent, when it comes to ethics — genius has always played by, and been judged by, a different set of rules than those that govern the rest of us.

One of the icons of the craft, and most likely, many more, engaged in what we would call ‘authorship’ – the right of the photographer to tell a story. In fact, of all the photographers invited to offer their opinion in this New York Times Lens Blog discussion, on Donald Weber gets right down to it, and demands that the photographer’s authorship be considered as something real, meaningful and important. He argues that:

Today, there are no limits, so our struggle is to liberate our reliance on technical capabilities and place our faith in the voice of the story and the author.

There can be no one way of doing anything, and a code of ethics should not hinder the aims of photography. In fact, it must work to liberate the story from stultifying confines, and help the photojournalist to engage an audience. How do we begin the transformation?

Weber can see that what is being argued and demanded can only lead to the erasure of the photographer as a voice, a point-of-voice and a creative. What is being asked is that photojournalists reduce themselves to simply button pushers on location, attempting to capture to the nearest degree possible, all the colour values, situational reality, and immediately unfolding event, as it happened at the moment of pressing the shutter. That their only role is recording the obvious, and that they are closest to the ‘truth’ when they are entirely absent intellectually, creatively, and visibly i.e. not influencing the situation around them. Such a posture of course is the mythical and imagined ideal of photojournalism. I call it mythical because most of the people who argue for it ignore the fundamental fact that even what is being recorded / documented / photographed, is based on human choice, prioritisation and opinion. That is, you cannot erase the human from behind the machine. Who asked the photographer to be at the location? Why did the photographer press the shutter when she did? What compelled her to aim it towards a certain group vs. another group? Why was even that particular unfolding situation important? In the end, authorship imposes itself on any form of documentary and editorial work.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

What I want to point out here in this post is the fact that these discussions, opinions, statements and arguments, lack a structure and a discipline. Photographers are speaking about a number of different things, and referring to a number of different situations and problems and calling all of them ‘manipulation. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the entire discussion ignores or avoids perhaps one of the most important influences that leads to manipulations and staging – the role of the editor in setting expectations and the struggle to delivery work to those expectations.

We can get a grasp of the different arenas of manipulation if we look at the entire production chain of photojournalism. We have to do this because photographers, and photojournalism work, is part of a chain of activities, and does not stand alone, and apart. To understand the way it is produced, and the issues of manipulation or staging that may be adopted at times, we have to place it in its industry and see the photographers and their responses from this wider perspective.There are four key and distinct forms of image manipulation that we have to deal with, and often argue about. It is critical to be clear which of these forms are the focus of our concern, and to make sure that we are not conflating one form with the other.

Why is this important? Well, first, because these are interrelated and influence each other. For example, a certain form of post-processing manipulation e.g. darkness a bombardment cloud, or cropping an edge of an image to make it more relevant to the editor, can be driven by a photographers need to make the image fit the editorial mandate.

At a very high level, a rather simple framework would allow us to define it as follows:

  1. The Issue Itself: Here I include editorial selection of stories to cover, stories to not cover, perspectives to show, and those to ignore, what to highlight and what to downplay. photojournalists do not work independent of editorial direction and discussion. many work alongside writers and closely with editors who advise them on what they are looking for. with growing influence of corporate and advertising money, and collaborations with the government, this area is a critical arena of manipulation and determines what photojournalists cover and what they ignore.
  2. Execution: Here I am referring to photographers staging and arranging photos, influencing the situation to get a photo they need, hiring people to perform a situation and then claim it for real, goading or encouraging people at the scene to create a situation that will get them the picture, or placing or setting up situations or objects to get the necessary images.
  3. Post-Processing: This is the most obvious – the use of post-processing image tools to conduct image editing, colour correction, erasing / adding of elements and so on.
  4. Publishing / Editing: This is the process where once the work in the field is done, editors and writers and photographers begin the process of editing, selecting, arranging, captioning, layouts and placements inside articles such that their meaning and idea is defined and determined.

Our discussions to date, as reflected again in this recent New York Times dialogue, focus on Execution and Post-Processing arenas. Editorial and Publishing manipulations are rarely if ever discussed. Stanley Greene talks mostly about 2 & 3. So does Santiago Lyon, McNally talks largely about 2, so does Sim Chi Yin and Darcy Padilla. In fact, categories 2 and 3 are the ones most everyone will talk about and discuss, to the exclusion of 1 and 4. Everyone argues that what is missing is some sort of bizarre ‘ethical’ standard, an honor code among professionals that would apparently go a long way towards reducing these ‘breaches. This is very much like the argument against doping in sports – it focuses on the athletes, demands greater ‘ethical’ standards, but ignores the fundamental market and profit pressures that are placed on the individuals and teams, and which often compel people to do whatever it takes to win. And which often provide the chemists, doctors, physiotherapists and other technicians to help enable the doping. Because winning is all that really matters in the end and in photography, getting the image is all that matters and to do this requires the involvement and collaboration of many people. Not the least, that of the editor.

It is only if we broaden the discussion that we can begin to understand not just why photojournalists may make unethical choices, but also what the impact and relevance of these choices are. It is critical to discuss the entire cycle because editorial demands, expectations, discussions, and decisions, play a powerful role in what a photographer does on the ground, and how s/he goes about getting the images that are necessary. I am not suggesting that editors compel photographers to manipulate – though that has been known to happen, but what I am arguing is that photographers face pressure and can be influenced by these pressures to manipulate things.

And there are times when that pressure comes from the growing demands of 24/7 media, the high stakes game of advertisement dollars and the need to be ‘first to the scene’, and the cut-throat nature of the craft where just ‘getting the picture’ is the only demand – ethical or otherwise, being placed on the photojournalist. These pressures come before the photographer even steps into the field, and we have to consider their role in how photographers end up working. We are in a world where more of us are being asked to do more, for less – less time, less money, less publishing space, and less voice. With more and more competition – from professionals and amateurs, and fewer and fewer assignments that allow a photographer the time and patience to produce necessary work, we should not be surprised that people will cut corner, make adjustments, set things up, just simply to get the job done. This is not a justification for manipulation, but simply to point out that we should not be so ‘shocked’ and certainly not be naive about the fact that the industry has increasingly veered towards

In fact, it is with some amusement that I read Michele McNally’s rather thoughtlessly offered comment – given that the New York Times has always used embedded photojournalism which is definitely perhaps one of the most egregious examples of Execution Manipulation, and passed it off as ‘truth’, that:

There are many societies where photographers work without accepted ethical guidelines, but with a long history of producing propaganda disguised as “news.”

Indeed, it would appear that the USA is right there among these ‘societies’ though I suspect she is not referring to her own country, or even to her own publication which has repeatedly crossed ‘ethical’ guidelines in its coverage of America’s wars, or Israel’s occupation and even its cheerleading of the build up to the invasion of Iraq. But we will not get into all that in this post as I have frequently written on that issue in previous posts. By not being aware of the complete cycle of photojournalism, McNally not only ignores her publication’s own ethical breaches, but she entirely leaves out the role of editors in creating these breaches in the first place.

What is striking about the framework outlined above is this: that it is easy for people to understand the necessity of choices and points-of-view when it comes to Issue Selection and Publishing / Editing, but not when it comes to Execution and Post-Processing. But given that a

My Struggles With Masculinity

It’s fascinating to see the return of so many mid- 18th century Orientalist troupes and obsessions : this bizarre and needling determination to categorize and then – as if the categories created are genuine and natural, to analyze. The French are of course persistent and unrepentant Orientalists, and the more educated the worse. And so this gaze that first categorizes – ‘Arab masculinity’, and then pretends to analyze it.

What is ‘Arab masculinity’? Need we ask? Dare we ask where this object of study even comes from? Is it even real? Is there a unique Arab conception and manifestation of ‘masculinity’? Do a dozen stylized, fashion-shoot type set-up images of men who happen to be Arab provide enough material to explain not only the category, but its real existence? Do these men live in cages, isolated from the world and its influences? Do they experience whatever we may think are pure ‘Arab’ experiences, and not any spilling across geographical, intellectual, cultural, emotional and physical boundaries? An ‘Arab’ is an ‘Arab’ is an ‘Arab’, and damn is s/he is anything but a pure representation of an easily isolated and studied species.

And what of the claim of reversals ie the female looking at the male as a change from the male gaze on the female? Is this even a thing? Is this not a discursive distraction from the fundamental question of power which yet again is not addressed directly? The Orientalist gaze was a possessive gaze, and a dispossessing one. It possessed the power to represent, and define, and dispossessed the subject of voice and history.

And so, when Marianne Roux of On Orient describes this work as:

“Mectoub is fascinating because of this unveiling, made possible because the photographer is both female and a foreigner. It plunges us deep into our representations and overturns them. Scarlett Coten holds up these copies for us to see, Homo Orientalis specimens of the new generation, in an unfiltered way, just as they are.”

…one is left feeling a little quesy at the crassly familiar phrasing and erasing. The use of words such as ‘unveiling’ or ‘Homo Orientalis’ are in amateurish poor taste, but the suggestion ‘in an unfiltered way…’ a profoundly troubling reminder of classical Orientalisms conviction of simply offering facts unaffected by power, politics, prejudice or personal ambition.

Arab masculinity. African masculinity. (I wrote about this in an earlier post:…/rethinking-africa-or-how-not-…/

Gender. We construct categories but then forget that we constructed them. Foucault can scream till hell freezes over, but in a decade where Orientalism’s reductive and debilitating simplicities are back in style, I must say that I am not surprised that this body of work is taken unquestioningly seriously, but am also disappointed that it is.

We need to question Coten’s constructions, despite the claims to overturn representations, and see the ways in which they belong to a long tradition of colonial photography that wants to capture individuals, sans individual histories and social, cultural, intellectual and psychological interconnections, and offer them up as general representations of a unique, manufactured category. Today more than ever – with travel, education, the internet, magazines, television and big-screen media, social media and more, it is untenable to argue or justify the existence of isolated and insulated social ‘categories’.

In a world that is as integrated, inter-connected, and intermingled as it ever was, where influences from around the globe and the digital globe, from travel, from readings, from relationships, from education and knowledge, from experiences that transcend a local culture or geography and then influence the construction of the self, ideas of identity, style, voice, intellectual development and even emotional expressions, its near impossible to speak of ‘Arab masculinity’. But of course, when it comes to ‘Arab’ – as the Orientalists once did and now as we are once again reaching for these debilitating categories and reductive generalizations, these ideas are being given new currency by European institutions if not European / Western photographers. If it’s not the ‘hijab’, or ‘women’s liberation’ or other some such tiresome and idiotic arena of focus, it’s simply a continuation of the use of gender and sexuality to cage and label. It is an act of cultural and intellectual violence to castrate these subjects from their many relationships and broad influences, and pen them into a construction that suggests that they represent something entirely ‘Arab’ – whatever that is, and something entirely ‘masculine’, whatever that is too.

Note: Hester Keijser reminded me that I need to differentiate the way this project was depicted by the Oskar Barnack Award committee and the goals and intentions of the photographer. She is correct to point out that institutions can run away with the work and give it an entirely new voice. She also pointed out that Coten herself has a difficult and complex relationship with this work, one that she continues to work through. I respect the photographer’s perspective and would love to have a discussion. My comments above are based on the public statements about this work, both from the Oskar Barnack announcement and from Coten’s own website. I look forward to, and hope, that Coten will some day pen a concise and clear argument, where she isn’t  afraid to express her process but also her doubts and self-questioning, as we all do about the works we pursue. The convention of ‘bombast’ and ‘confidence’ required of photographers, where they speak of their works without ever revealing their own struggles and self-questioning, has to end.

%d bloggers like this: