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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Are The Animals The Ones Looking In?

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Human zoos. Someone actually thought this is a good idea, and a whole host of others concurred and celebrated it. The Edindurgh Festival certainly thinks so.

Apparently we just can’t get enough of this stuff. I wrote about it some months ago in a piece for Warscapes Magazine when something similar first appeared in Norway and was widely celebrated. There is something fabulously vile and callous about a bunch of white people going about recreating these criminal enterprises under the pretense of ‘education’ or ‘experience’ or even ‘art’. The very fact that they can re-create these displays reflects the vast differentials of political, economic and cultural power that still scars our engagement with Africa and other people of ‘the lesser kind’. Read my piece below.

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False Pearls For Real Swine

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This is the sort of cultural-whitewash that the West desperately clings to, and the appeasing ‘others’ desperately offer. The entire concocted narrative of ‘cultural understanding’ and ‘cultural exchange’ carefully elides the hard and obvious ugliness of crass political, economic and military reality that has defined the relationship of the Middle East to European colonial powers and more recently American imperial control. The Aga Khan would do better than to offer sops to a discourse that serves in fact the interest of political power, and continues to negate the struggles of people have been trampled with impunity and with extreme violence at the hands of this so-called ‘Western world’

The Aga Khan is quoted as saying:

One of the lessons we have learned in recent years is that the world of Islam and the Western world need to work together much more effectively at building mutual understanding – especially as these cultures interact and intermingle more actively,” commented His Highness Aga Khan. “We hope that this museum will contribute to a better understanding of the peoples of Islam in all of their religious, ethnic, linguistic and social diversity.

We have to question this ‘clash of culture’ nonsense. In particular, those confronting the so-called ‘West’ have to do so with intellectual and moral courage, and not with mealy-mouthed niceties about ‘mutual understanding’. Asking the occupied, the displaced, the invaded to create ‘mutual understanding’ with their oppressors is to strengthen the hand of the oppressor, and to erase the history, politics and sensibility of the oppressed.

These fraudulent ‘cultural’ events and institutions are part and parcel of a process of erasure of the politics of ‘the other’. They are a close partner in the structure of thought want to bifurcate a human political force in to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ muslims – a false construction that reduces people into either ‘collaborator’ or ‘terrorist’ dichotomies and negates any possibility of complex political and other engagement. The Aga Khan is walking the wrong path, and in fact, strengthening the hand of those who are determined to wage war, to steal, to use violence for base, material political and economic goals.

These institutions are also a clear reflection of the weakness of those who wish desperately to be invited to the dining room of power – a need to bend over and beg for crumbs by pleasing the masters, and offering them soft, pointless, depoliticized trinkets that will somehow convince them that ‘we’ are worthy. From a discourse about ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ (who gives a shit if it is or not ? why is that never asked about any other faith, including capitalist secularism? how is this even relevant in the face of the dogs of war unleashed in the region for decades?), to these over blown museums desperate to show that ‘we’ are worthy and that ‘we’ are ‘civilized’…as if somehow the wars, and the violence is nothing more than a ‘misunderstanding’!

Ridiculous!

This is a moment of hard, clear, measured and honest political engagement and confrontation. This is a moment to speak truths to power. To confront it not with apologetics, but with evidence, with rights, with demands, with law and with strength. This is not about ‘mutual understanding’ – go ask that to of family whose sons were tortured and raped to death in Abu Gharaib, or a child whose family was torn to shred by a wayward drone, or to any of the millions affected by our invasions in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia etc, or even any one of the families whose sons and husbands were entrapped in fake terrorism cases and had their lives torn apart. Ask them for ‘mutual understanding’ and to bring their trinkets of civilisation to the fine and peace loving people of the West to convince them that they are worthy of not being killed. Then see how inane and irrelevant all this sounds.

These projects simply entrench arrogance, and repeat – as Partha Chatterjee as argued, a derivative discourse of imperial power. The elide political facts and military realities. They avoid asking the hard questions and offering the clear evidence. They prefer to dwell into ‘culturalist’ narratives, somethign that suits those who in fact make their decisions on specific power and political goals. They never accuse, they never question, they never critique, they never refuse, and they never dissent. This sort of game cannot continue. A political dissent is needed if we are even pretend we are in spaces that are democratic and open. In fact, a radical political dissent, as writer Arun Kundnani has commented in a recent interview:

I think terrorism is the product of closing down political space, political engagement and political participation,” he says “So, think about the end of 19th century when you had anarchist bombers. All of them were veterans of Paris communes. A moment of political defeat gives rise to terrorism, such as the IRA in Northern Ireland. They start to get involved in violence when the civil rights movement, non-violent movement are suppressed, right? Similarly, the African National Congress turned to campaign of bombing and sabotage once the peaceful attempt to fight apartheid was suppressed. So this is the pattern you see. If that is right then creating opportunities for people to advance their political agendas through non-violent means is actually the best way of reducing the risk of terrorism.

We need not museums to imagined histories or ‘past’ civility, but podiums to express our radical political voices and fulfill our participation and our rights as citizens of our societies.

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Please Don’t Say That Because You Sound Like A Bigot Or Fondation Carmignac’s Colonial Discourse

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The theme for this year’s grant proposal call is described as follows:

The theme selected for the sixth edition is “Lawless areas in France”. This year, once again, the Carmignac Foundation wishes to support and promote an investigative photography project in territories away from the media spotlight by focusing on France and specifically on areas becoming so-called “lawless areas” – political, legal or socio-economic no man’s land subject to deregulation – where the authority of the French Republic is challenged.

Is this the new discourse around marginalized and ostracized communities in France? Is this wording for the award this year a massive collection of euphemisms about African, Muslim, Algerian, poor, immigrant, and migrant communities in France? Details »

Is The Modern War Correspondent A Legitimate Target Of War?

War reporters are being killed. It should not come as a surprise given that mainstream journalists have been close participants in these wars. This is a harsh statement to make confronted as I am with the hideous acts being carried out against journalists. But I can’t help but see that those speaking about these killings – of American / European journalists, are carefully 1) avoiding speaking about how reporters and their embedded reporting were central to the American war machine, and 2) how media outlets are today the most important propaganda machinery for war, whether American, Israeli, French, Russian, Pakistani, and of course, ISIS.

We live in a world where media strategies are created alongside military strategies. Anyone who things otherwise is either intentionally ignorant or deliberately deflecting facts. No major military – and not even the Taliban, or ISIS or any non-state actor, ignores the centrality of media, and the role of journalists and photojournalists, in communicating and selling wars. And when for decades Western reporters continue to embed with American and British invasion forces, they leave themselves open to being targeted as genuine and legitimate targets of violence. Details »

The Photojournalist As A Victim Of Ideology

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The New York Times Sunday Magazine joins the game of re-writing the war. The New York Times efforts – through the use of its correspondents and pundits, to obfuscate and outright distort this latest Israeli initiated and unnecessary mass slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza (with over 550 documented deaths of children alone, a war crime for which the entire Israeli political establishment should be held accountable and prosecuted if something such as ‘international law’ was real and concrete), are well-known and well document. (See http://www.fair.org/blog/2014/08/22/how-the-new-york-times-twists-gaza/ and more).

Now the magazine also gets into the game, sending two talented by voiceless photographers to the region, to create an absolutely false ‘balance’ between 2000 actual dead, 100,000 or more actually displaced, entire neighborhoods erased, infrastructure destroyed and the ‘..tension, sorrow and, at moments, great alarm.’ of the Israelis.

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Till Palestine

The Palestinian Mohammad Assaf wins the Arab Idol content. Details »

The Shahrazade/El-Madani Studio Collection At New Museum, New York City

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I walked into the New Museum’s Here And Elsewhere exhibit recently. A major presentation of contemporary art from the Middle East. Much of it is quite predictable, some of it is downright amateurish, a few terribly is derivative and horribly scarred by the pretensions of modern Western contemporary art discourse. Some was quite disappointing as it desperately attempted to, as pointed out by one critic, that it “..takes our attention away from the political subject and draws it toward the artist’s techniques.” – a statement that I would use as a criticism of a work of art, but in fact was offered by way of praise by the writer. There are however moments of it that are luminous. For example, the gorgeous set of studio photography works from Hashem El-Madani.

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Making Baldwin Boring

 

Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” – The New Yorker.

I am confused about Teju Cole. This is possibly one of the most boring pieces I have read in a long time. A rambling, pointless journey to a small Swiss town in the footsteps of James Baldwin echoes a tried and true magazine concept piece. Fair enough. But if you are going to write about Baldwin, then really write about him. And write about what it was that he was speaking out against. Do it with a voice and a passion that at least mirrors Baldwin’s. If you claim to be like him, in his body and in his footsteps, then try to find a way to be in his disappointment, anger, sense of betrayal and determination to fight. Details »

Asian American Writers’ Workshop – Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, and Moral Courage

A wonderful meditation on the lives of two artists and intellectuals, and the different paths they took in the aftermath of 9/11. Salman Rushdie, as Pankaj Mishra so angrily pointed out, was amongst the European intellectuals who lost their moral courage in the shadow of that terrible event. Speaking about Amis, Mishra argued that:

It is a depressing spectacle – talented writers nibbling on cliches picked to the bone by tabloid hacks. But, as Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, the “men of culture”, with their developed faculty of reasoning, tend to “give the hysterias of war and the imbecilities of national politics more plausible excuses than the average man is capable of inventing”.

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The Militarization of U.S. Police: Finally Dragged Into the Light by the Horrors of Ferguson – The Intercept

Glenn Greewald’s piece about the growing militarization of the national police makes for uncomfortable reading. He argues, as others have that:

Ultimately, police militarization is part of a broader and truly dangerous trend: the importation of War on Terror tactics from foreign war zones onto American soil. American surveillance drones went from Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia into American cities, and it’s impossible to imagine that they won’t be followed by weaponized ones. The inhumane and oppressive conditions that prevailed at Guantanamo are matched, or exceeded, by the super-max hellholes and “Communications Management Units” now in the American prison system. And the “collect-it-all” mentality that drives NSA domestic surveillance was pioneered by Gen. Keith Alexander in Baghdad and by other generals in Afghanistan, aimed at enemy war populations.

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