W. Eugene Smith’s The Jazz Loft Project

Lets face it; when it comes to photojournalism and the photoraphers who most defined its characteristics, attitudes, aspirations, values and language, we would almost always have to begin with W. Eugene Smith. The master photographer, the passionate soul, the determinedly individual and independent, the singularly human, Eugene Smith raised the bar of not only how one worked as a photographer, but also how one ‘drew’ a photograph onto film.

Who can ever forget the beauty of Tomoko Uemura in her bath, and the genius of the photographer who found a way to represent it:

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath Minamata, 1972 Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath Minamata, 1972 Copyright W. Eugene Smith

I do not exaggerate when I saw that this was the photograph that back in 1986 first made me think about becoming a photographer. It has remained etched in my mind and soul since.

So it was with some excitement and pleasure that I discovered Sam Stephenson,of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, website for his book The Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft Project

Stephenson describe’s Smith’s production of this work as ‘…an obsessive achievement’, but clearly, by his own definition, Stephenson too was obsessed for he points out that he:

…made 115 trips to New York City over a span of time that can be measured by telephones and storefronts: I called Robert Frank from a cold, indestructible pay phone at the end of Bleecker, near CBGB; Roy Haynes on a Motorola StarTAC from a brownstone on 9th Street, a few doors from Balducci’s; and, a few weeks ago, Mary Frank on my iPhone from Spoon in Chelsea.

You can read Stephenson’s piece in the new issue of The Paris Review blog where in a piece called The Jazz Loft Project he discussed Eugene Smith’s involvement in this project and the characters and lives that he documented.

This is a wonderfully interesting site, and it is a thrill to see the love, care, attention and detail that has been bestowed on the work of W. Eugene Smith. Stephenson’s inquiries into the life and career of this most amazing of photographers continues as he works on a new biography that will also see him:

… embark on a five-week visit to the Pacific Islands, where Smith made combat photographs during World War II, and to Japan, where he photographed Hitachi City in the early sixties and Minamata a decade later. There are some fifty more people I want to interview as well. The detective work is intoxicating, opening up unexpected worlds outside of Smith’s immediate circle.

W. Eugene Smith was frequently derided in his times, ignored by editors and even fired from his positions at major magazines. But he worked past all of this through the strength of his vision, convictions and self-confidence. His work and his legacy has stood the test of time and remains an inspiration to so many still naively determined to produced beautiful works about beautiful and human issues.

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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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Are We Winning Yet?

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It was just a little over a month ago that ‘important’ journalists were telling us that ‘Pakistan is winning the War against Terrorism’? There was this:

against which I had argued, among other points:

This narrative of ‘good’ mass murder (our Army’s) vs. ‘bad’ mass murder can’t fly. To even use the phrase ‘war on terror’ is a problem because it imposes a foreign framework of thought on what are regional – politically, historically, conflagrations and require local resolutions. You can’t kill a people’s discontent, you can’t repress political voices. Egypt tried this and has failed. The Army is not winning anything other than a war to coerce media messages – such as this piece clearly published in an American mag to satisfy our American patrons, but anyone who works on the ground knows and sees a people’s anger. It is this anger that requires this repressive apparatus against media and criticism. Our journalist are killed or quit and the army launches a massive PR campaign. Anyone who has spent a day in Quetta, or tried to speak to people anywhere near the FATA areas, knows about the massive human rights and common moral and ethical violations that are the footprint of our ‘brave’ military and its generals. What is taking place is mass murder of Pakistani citizens by its own military establishment, which uses selectively murdered ‘bad’ religious types to veil its other larger acts of criminality and violence. From Swat to Baluchistan, what is being sown will soon be reaped.”

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Erasures Of Habit

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Estrin writes an entire piece about ‘domestic violence’ i.e. violence of men against women, without ever once touching, suggesting, implying or overtly labeling this predominantly Christian, and vehemently Christian nation, for having a barbaric, backward, misogynist and anti-modern religion! Here, suddenly, it is ‘patriarchy’ that is to fault, as if ‘patriarchy’ isn’t indicted in faith and its hierarchies of power, interpretation and sanction!

No investigation of the passages of the Bible? No excavation of obscure and ancient quotes of Priests to justify? No bizarre and ahistorical constructions of social history that find an act from the 1st century AD Christian community and draw a straight line from there, to today? No suggestion that Christians and Christianity is incompatible with he tenets of modernity? No calls for a Reformation among the Armenians? No outrage at the ‘horror that women suffer’ under the tutelage of the Bible?

Odd.

Here are all the fashionable categories that the West loves to apply to the exotic ‘other’ – “honor killings”, “dowry death”, and what not, could be found, but of course are never suggested. Here, the faith becomes invisible, and suddenly ‘cultural’ structures are being sought, and of course, Christian realities entirely erased. The double standards are amusing to see. Inderpal Grewal’s fabulous essay ‘Outsourcing Patriarchy: Feminist Encounters: Transnational Mediations and the Crime of ‘Honor Killings’  could have been written in response to this piece alone. Or, you can also read a post I wrote earlier about this habit of manufacturing a ‘unique’ ‘Muslim/Islamic’ criminality here.

A Violent Language

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The language, and sentence structure, are critical to observe, in this piece. Towards the middle of this small news item, we find these sentences. Though they may be unthinkingly cut and pasted from earlier pieces or some standard al-Jazeera copy, it is nevertheless interesting to see how they were written:

“Baloch rebel fighters have waged war against the central Pakistan government for more than a decade seeking autonomy.”

This is a definitive statement, offered as ‘fact’. There are no qualifiers so that the reader knows for sure that these attacks are happening. But watch what happens in the next sentence.

” Locals accuse the government of exploiting their resources without providing adequate compensation.”

Suddenly, ‘locals accuse’ is dropped in when the position of the state as seen by those living under its burden are concerned. And this pattern repeats itself. In the very next paragraph, we read another definitive statement, followed by a qualified statement that yet against absolves the state of ‘factual’ crimes, and suggests that people saying such things are ‘alleging’ or ‘claiming’.

“Attacks on security personnel by separatist fighters are common – as are retaliatory operations by Pakistani forces, who rights group allege have abducted and extra-judicially killed hundreds of Baloch political activists.”

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Our ‘Honor’ But Their ‘Passion’

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This was a strong piece about ‘domestic violence’ that appeared in The New York Times, but as I read it I could not help but connect it to the recently celebrated question of ‘honor crimes’ in Pakistan, against which our feminist government and our liberal class, are determined to wage an all out war against. It is the construction of this category – “honor crimes”, and the way it has become a means to suggest something unique, specific, and original to Islam / Muslims, that I want to question. and this article is just the way to do it. More importantly, it is the way in which Western liberal feminists and ‘native’ feminist/activists (of a certain upper or middle class mind you – class is a critical factor in these campaigns) find reason to create ‘activism’, or ’emergency campaigns’ around these unique category of crimes, while remaining silent about the crimes against women within their own ‘civilized’ society where no such campaigns are organised, and no ‘human rights’ discourse is applied. In the West, the brutality of its patriarchy, the misogyny of its society, are almost always swept under the carpet of ‘individual trauma’ or complex ‘individual’ histories, thereby exonerating society, culture, politics, genetics, religion. That is, the very explanatory factors almost always offered to explain or analyze crimes against women in the Muslim / Islamic spaces. Details »

The Purity Of The Secular Imagination Or The Fantastic Liberal Imagination

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I am not sure how ‘gender equality’, ‘human rights’ and ‘civil liberties’ became associated with being ‘secular’. If we keep in mind the construction of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ – both entirely European constructions, we see how in the concept of secular has a long history of European gender inequality, racial segregation and slavery, colonial repression and genocide, all of which remained happy travelers with the Enlightened. That is, despite post-Enlightenment Europe’s real history of racism, colonialism, genocidal violence, slavery and more, the idea that ‘secularism’ or the separation of ‘state’ and ‘church’ is a necessary precondition for peace and tolerance, justice and liberty, is frankly, quite bizarre. In fact, so much so, given the scale of violence inflicted by European nations on the rest of the world, and the gifts of racial violence, the Holocaust, and other general intolerance towards ‘minorities’ and the blacker people, it seems entire one of the greatest propaganda feats in human history. So much has been written about ‘secularisms’ dark legacy, that I do still find it strange when these easy dichotomies are created. But then again, American media has been a bastion of the anachronistic, out-dated and classically colonial mindset for many decades now. And this is the same media that can cheer lead towards multiple wars, the deaths of millions, the displacement of millions more, and continue to speak as if its ‘secular’ credentials and these ‘secular’ nations are where peace and liberty are found, and that it is religion in fact, that is the cause of violence and fundamentalism. This myopia if of course what allows hacks like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Alan Dershovitz, or so many of their fellow travelers to get away with the theoretical and rhetorical murder that they do. Yet, it is with amusement and bemusement to read articles such as this where a simple dichotomy is created.

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