Photographing The Unseen

Trevor Paglen is a man on a mission and it is one that reminds us that what makes any work of photography relevant, interesting, important or even significant, are the ideas and intentions that inform it. Anything else is merely gazing at pretty pictures.Paglen has spent the greater part of the last decade photographing, tracking, highlighting and revealing the dark, illegal, horror-ridden underbelly of the great American ‘Global War Against Terror’ (GWAT). Paglen is a 35-year-old artist, geographer, writer, and photographer who holds both a B.A. (religious studies, 1998) and a Ph.D. (geography, 2008) from Cal, as well as an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He’s currently a researcher at Berkeley.

 

A review of his work tells us that:

…his work traces the seam line between the government’s desire for secrecy and the public’s right to know. Besides the spy satellites, which he captures arcing across the night sky in lush art prints, Paglen has photographed classified air bases; tracked down CIA cover names and displayed them on gallery walls; and compiled a book full of patches from Pentagon black-ops units. It’s called I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me. The patches—in some cases, the only evidence that the programs even exist—feature an absurd gallery of aliens, reapers, and wizards along with perverse accompanying mottos. One from the stealth bomber wing reads Gustatus Similis Pullus, Latin for “tastes like chicken.”

Unmarked 737 at "Gold Coast" Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

Unmarked 737 at “Gold Coast” Terminal Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m.

His most recent work, Invisible, (thanks to Conscientious) recently released by Aperture books, is based on his eight year documentation of secret CIA flights and ‘black sites’ that the government does not want us to know about. It reveals the secret military sites, but also, and perhaps most importantly, his works reveal the many who have been ‘disappeared’ in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘our liberties’. In an installation project called ‘Missing Persons’, Paglen lays out the names of the missing. As the exhibition description points out:

Since the mid 1990s, the CIA has spearheaded a covert program to kidnap suspected terrorists from all over the world. These people are then brought to a network of secret CIA-operated prisons, called “black sites,” where they are routinely tortured. The CIA calls this the “extraordinary rendition” program.

People taken to these secret prisons are effectively “disappeared”: there are no public records of their captivity, their identities are kept secret, and they are prohibited from communicating with the outside world. Among CIA operatives, they are called “ghost detainees.”

The locations of these black sites, known by code-names such as “Salt Pit” and “Bright Light,” are some of the CIA’s deepest secrets.

To capture and subsequently transport these ghost detainees, the CIA uses a fleet of unmarked airplanes. These airplanes are owned by intricate networks of front companies whose boards of directors are non-existent people. Missing Persons is a collection of their signatures culled from business records, aircraft registrations, and corporate filings.

He has also documented our ‘black site’ – prisons and torture centers in Afghanistan for example, CIA’s secret flights and also co-authored a book called Torture Taxi: On The Trial Of CIA’s Rendition Flights


You can even track his most recent investigations on his blog.
This is critical work, and it is the work of a man who understands the fundamentals of democratic engagement and dissent. He understands that there are forces that claim to ‘defend’ our republic but are in fact engaged in activities that undermine it. It draws our eyes and mind towards basic structures of power and repression that underpin modern ‘democracies’ and the ‘background noise’ of control and violence that is believed essential for sustaining it.

For me personally, such works do something else very important – they highlight the shallowness of what passes for ‘photojournalism’ in our modern world. They remind us how most photojournalists prefer to pander in the simple, the obvious and the conventional, while never engaging in the complex and crucual. Our newspapers and photographers have, either out of convenience, laziness or sheer careerism, chosen to veil the GWAT behind beautifully rendered and largely distracting projects produced from the confines of embedded positions on the front line.

Conventional photojournalism – with its insistent focus on combat and consequences – has gone a long way towards allowing us to forget that we, the United States of America, is in an illegal and brutal military occupation of two nations whose inhabitants continue to fight and resist our presence there through guns, politics and a large-scale, popular rejection of our legitimacy and relevance. The hundreds of thousands of troops that are needed to maintain these post-occupation pathologies called Iraq and Afghanistan reflect our failure, and the vast chasm that exists between the region’s population and our imagined ideas of our role and impact in the region. These projects bring us to ‘the combat’ – the fireworks, and stun our minds into unthinking simplicities while distracting us from the general un-sustainability, and injustice of the wars themselves. They ensure that the hard political questions, the difficult presumptions and prejudices that assume that we have a right to be there, are not seen or heard. They avoid the ugly realities as they have manifest themselves at home (renditions, tortures, illegal detentions, immigrant sweeps, racial discrimination, xenophobia, impoverishment etc.) and abroad (mass killings, torture, the administration of the occupation, civilian displacement, dispossession, destruction of societies and culture, corruption, drugs, NGO culture of excess etc.)

Our embedded photographers and journalists – many celebrated with awards and celebrity screenings at major film festivals, keep coming back to convince us that they have ‘seen’ the war, and that it has been ‘reported’ it. Some seem so determined to convince us the that the ’embedded’ program is without constraints that their protests are starting to sound a bit too desperate, a bit too defensive and frankly a bit too insulting. These photographer – award winners, movie makers and celebrities, are working too hard to hide from us the fact that ’embedding’ no matter how ‘free’ and ‘friendly’ hides the truth, obfuscates the horrors and does not allow you to call yourself a ‘reporter. I don’t care how many Sundance Awards they bring back, they are merely propagandist because they challenge nothing, question nothing, confront nothing and resist nothing. It is not physical courage the defines journalism, but moral and intellectual courage.

And the real measure of the ‘propaganda’ nature of such works is the fact that the Afghan and the Iraqi has been completely erased from our minds and eye. What is worse, they have been erased from our moral equation. They do not exist. The injustices inflicted on them are not worthy of consideration. Their dead are not counted. Their humiliations irrelevant. Their blood does not run. They are merely objects upon which we act and not humans struggling to regain control of their own lives and futures. And resisting. We obfuscate their motives and humanity behind words like ‘Taliban’ and ‘Al-Qaeda’ so as to make it easier for us to justify indiscriminate killings and murder. Front page stories about the ‘liberation of their women’ act as justifications for acts of mass murder, bombing of civilians, pre-emptive killings, summary arrests, terrorizing of civilian populations in order to control them, construction of barriers/walls, torture and injustice that we carry out with impunity. Our righteousness needs to be fed, and our photographers and journalists have been happily doing that. We are constantly being shown as ‘saving’, ‘helping’, ‘aiding’, ‘educating’, ‘liberating’  the Afghan or the Iraqi and its all done with the same desperation with which the dark side is erased. Its not as if they are not confronting, resisting, speaking, challenging, rejecting, fighting, demanding, and defending. It is we who are not listening, or simply not allowing their voices and acts to be represented to others like us.

But it’s not just the embedded works. Another set of photographers have focused on the ‘aftermath’ of those suffering from the violence of combat. Most all of these works act as quiet ‘memorials’ to the sacrifices of ‘our boys and girls’. These reveal the individual soldiers and their post-conflict trauma and take us into the world of those who are physically or emotionally maimed, or whose families are dealing with loss. As important as these works are, what concerns me is the sheer one-sidedness that has now emerged as a result of not a single American or European or other photographer producing similar works about the other victims of our conflicts. Most all the projects concentrate on American soldiers, – with parallel works being produced in the UK, Germany, Sweden or elsewhere from the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries, and assiduously avoid any revelation of anything called an Iraqi or an Afghani.

The fact remains that hundreds if not thousands of Afghani civilians are dying each year in our war. Hundreds of thousands died as a direct result of our invasion of Iraq. To say nothing of the near million who may have died as a result of our sanctions against the country. The erasures of these people are reflected in the ridiculous ‘outrage’ that has been unleashed because of the leaking of CIA Afghan logs. The Afghan War Logs reveal the thousands of civilians that have been killed in our war there but rather than be outraged by this horror, we are outraged that people now know! We are outraged at the leak, not the realities and brutalities the leaks reveal.

The same misguided outrage has been targeted against WikiLeaks that has been quietly revealing the realities we so wish to forget. Few things were amusing (facetious comment, people!) than Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Islamabad (they have one!) and current CIA counter-terror director, writing for Al-Jazeera a piece called “US Needs Lesson in ‘Secret-Keeping'”. I can ask what a CIA director is doing writing for this network, but I will ask why he felt he had to make such an effort to suggest that the logs reveal nothing. He is wrong; they reveal the incompetence and sheer callous disregard for the civilians that is the base idea of this military operation in Afghanistan, and it reveals the failure of the American military machine to make any real progress anywhere within the country. They reveal a military occupation over a resistant population in progress. They reveal us as jackboot occupiers and in cohort with those who are considered corrupt, unjust, illegitimate and venal. It reveals how we have reduced our finest to acts of low repression and military violence. They reveal how after nine years we are still struggling, fighting, retreating, and blaming each other while the nation remains mired in corruption, violence and a movement that may be retrograde and violent but has been allowed to position itself as nationalist and anti-occupation. Yes, the appeal of the resistance comes not from any particular message of ‘Islam’ or ‘Global Jihad’, but from simply pointing out the inequities and injustices prevalent in the country under our watch.

But all this is entirely missing from the works being produced at the moment. The wars that exist in the documents of the CIA is nothing like the war that is offered to us by our reporters and photographers. The latter is a vision from Dante’s Inferno, the former a cleansed Hollywood production complete with acceptable rending of ‘violence’ so that can are not ‘disturbed’ from our morning coffee.

In fact, there is nothing that one can turn to and understand the broader consequences of our wars. And yet we continue to produce a whole host of works that concentrate on the trauma of our ‘boys and girls’. I do not mean to dismiss the suffering of the American soldiers injured or those of the American families suffering from loss. Far from it. But I am in fact dismayed that as Americans at war we can be so ignorant, dismissive and blind to the vast sufferings that are being inflicted on others who are also human, but happen not to be American (or British, or Swedish etc.). I am ashamed at the silence in the face of the murders being committed, the horrors being inflicted, the injustices raining upon the heads of a poor, impoverished nation whose people are today rising up in revolt against our presence there and the hideous, murderous, greedy and callous ‘democrats’ we have foisted on the people. The sheer shame of the illegal and illegitimate Karzai government – supported purely and only because of our money, is perhaps just too much to take!

They, the ‘other’, is completely missing in this discussion. The one-sidedness is difficult to accept. The attention is absolutely and exclusively on ‘us’ and ‘ourselves’, which is what these projects are about in the end. What I fear is that these projects on post-war scars – as wonderful as so many of them are e.g. Nina Berman‘s work, or AshlyGilbertson’s or Eugene Richard’s to name just a few, are helping the rest of us forget the real innocent victims, and the real crimes committed here. They are distracting us from our willed and ‘democratically’ supported acts of warfare, terror, repression, torture, occupation, control, murder and devastation. They help repaint us a ‘good’ and ‘noble’, as involved in ‘defensive’ actions against ‘evil’, as simply honorable knights that have failed defending the faith, in innocence and purity.  They claim to be ‘anti-war’ but they in fact do quite the opposite. They create a sense of ‘us’ being wronged, as victims and innocent and fuel our ‘righteous’ belief for the need to continue their wars. They invert the situation in front of us, allowing us to think that we are the ‘objects’ of violence, the focus of ‘evil’ while helping us forget that we are in fact the aggressor, the occupier, and the oppressor. They help us wear the garbs of ‘honor’ and ‘courage’ and ‘dignity’ while we carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice and inhumanity. Rather than provoke a larger discussion – one that has yet to take place, about how we have entangled ourselves in this mess, and how our democratic ideals and the foundations of our republic have been weakened, we are using such projects to garland ourselves with righteousness and the self-pity of victims. And this is particularly obvious when there is little or scant attention being paid to those who are suffering, dying, being tortured, detained, displaced, deprived and devastated by our actions in their lands.

 Victims' families tell their stories following Nato airstrike in Afghanistan  'I took some flesh home and called it my son.' The Guardian interviews 11 villagers      * Reddit     * Buzz up     * Share on facebook (361)     * Tweet this (48)      * Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Kunduz     * The Guardian, Saturday 12 September 2009     * Article history  Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Fazel Muhamad Fazel Muhamad, 48, holding pictures of family members who were killed in the attack. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Of course, we have a long history of turning our acts of brutality and genocide into comforting victimhood. The Vietnam conflict still awaits a memorial to the millions of Vietnamese who died under our bombs, the millions maimed and scarred for life, and the tens of thousands who continue to suffer the consequences of Agent Orange and other chemicals. To say nothing about war crimes tribunals and criminal indictments.

The Afghanistan War Logs, much like Paglen’s work, reveals the shocking shallowness of our photojournalistic coverage. They lift the covers over the very things we wish not to see or confront – the darker aspects of ourselves and our actions in the world. They remind us how much, how most of it, has just been left unsaid. It reminds us how redundant, and limited, our photographic works are and how desperately most photographers just seem to want to copy and imitate. Not think and challenge.  The surface distracts while the depth confuses.

The entire corpus of mainstream photojournalism pales in comparison to the efforts of real reporters and individuals confronting the complex set of administrative, military, covert, civic and political shenanigans and injustices required to maintain our posture in the GWAT.

It is in moments like this that I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s challenge to us:

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

David was trying to remind us to hold on the things that matter, and to not get distracted by the ‘fire and glory’, the empty rhetoric, the debilitating and restrictive legal and judicial measures that will only reduce us as citizens while doing little to confront our enemies. Tim Paglen reminds me that at least some have heard his call.

As citizens of this nation, as Americans, perhaps our greatest challenge today, perhaps one of our most important acts of freedom, is to question what we see, hear and read. To look and hear past the slickly produced photo essays, reportage, movies and documentaries, and explore their methods of creation, their sponsors, their producers, their restrictions and their prejudices.

In a world increasingly obsessed with ‘packaging’ and ‘presentation’, in a world where an iPad application is being suggested as something ‘interesting’, it is becoming crucial to examine the underlying ‘method’. Trevor Paglen has a method – individual, determined and dissenting, which informs his works and productions. And the truths that he reveals. It is ‘method’ that most scares our mainstream press and it is ‘method’ that will determine and define meaningful journalism vs. simply slick business news production. As bureaus close, as the media markets consolidate, as wires take over foreign reporting, as ‘collaborations’ with NGOs are sought as substitute for independent investigative, questioning journalism, as we ‘cut corners’ and ‘make efficient’, it is ‘method’ that becomes the key differentiator. All else will simply be ‘production’.

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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. 

 

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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.

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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].

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How Not To Critique A Photographer

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Image Manipulation: A Manipulated And Confusing Debate

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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:

http://www.asimrafiqui.com/…/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.

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