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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I Lie…

via PressSync

Scratching At My Skin


“I have been stereotyped: my life and lived experiences negated by photo editors in the USA in particular. I am nothing but my ethnicity, a man from my country of my birth 42 years ago. My name marks me as a ‘Muslim’, my ethnicity marks me as a ‘South Asian’, my birth marks me for work within the confines of the geography of the country of my birth. My birth on an unexceptional day in Karachi nearly 42 years ago was of greater interest and relevance than the nearly 18 years I spent studying, working, learning, and becoming in the United States of America (a country of which I am a citizen). I am the ‘Pakistani’ photographer and never allowed to be anything else, or asked to be elsewhere.”

I wrote this back in 2009. It came after my frustration at being told by a Time Magazine editor that she had no interest in giving me assignments in the USA (where I was based and traveling through), because I had no ‘competitive advantage’ in the USA. In Pakistan, where I had last lived over twenty years ago, I spoke the language and knew the culture. But when I reminded her that I also knew the American language, and had in fact lived in the USA for over twenty years, she wasn’t impressed. I never worked for the editor again.

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Math Scares Me But Numbers Sooth Me


At times I can’t tell whether the writers and editors at the New York Times are just plain stupid, or supremely clever. For example, this entire piece is little short of an exercise in obfuscation and political propaganda, misrepresenting data repeatedly to shill for the argument – entirely false, that the economic situation of the average American is getting better, and hence, that Donald Trump is wrong.

Well, looking at the data you can concoct that argument, but it isn’t there in the data. So either Mr. Applebaum does not remember his high-school math, or, that he and his editors, believe that the ordinary New York Times reader is too stupid to remember her high school math.

For example, here is how they define ‘median income’ in the article:

“The median income is the amount that divides households evenly between those that make less and those that make more.”

That is not what median income is.

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My Masculinity Problem


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.

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More men like…

Death Of A Native Son

On the night of October 15, 1987, in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city of Ouagadougo, a group of soldiers arrive by truck, and begin frantically digging in the earth. Their bodies attack the hard ground with shovels, as other men stand at a distance giving them orders in low voices. Hidden by the darkness of a moonless and starless night, the soldiers fight with the ground and against the fear that fills their hearts. There are twelve corpses carelessly tossed in the back of the truck. Some of the bodies are still in their military fatigues, while others are near naked and show signs of beatings. All are riddled with bullets. A couple of soldiers stand at guard near the truck, smoking cigarettes, kicking at the dirt and anxiously waiting for this night to be over. As far as they know, they are alone in this forsaken spot. But they are wrong. Despite the lateness of the hour, the darkness of the night and the desolation of the location, there are eyes that watch them, for in the shanty town that lies on the edges of the cemetery, the people listen, watch and wait.

The corpses are dragged out from the back of the truck, and one by one, thrown into the freshly dug grave. Orders are shouted and the soldiers get

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An Incomplete Triumph

“Don’t shoot, you cannot kill ideas!”
Surrendering Cuban revolutionary, after the failed attack against the Moncada garrison.

Within hours of Thomas Sankara’s assassination, the French government sent messages of congratulations to the coup leadership. But the job was not as yet done. Sankara’s family is harassed, their homes raided and personal belongings removed. His papers and documents disappear from all state archives and government offices. State television and radio stations were ordered to change programming and begin to dragging his name through mud, broadcasting stories about his corruption, and spreading rumors of his siphoning of money from the state exchequer. His social and public works programs are immediately halted. His companions and colleagues are jailed if not killed. His personal history and political ideas are re-written and re-cast, as history itself is employed to remove his presence from the minds and consciousness of the country’s people. Soon, all official evidence of Thomas Sankara, his political imagination, and his social programs are removed. The people who attempt to resist this erasure, they too are silenced: media is repressed, journalists are fired or killed, public discussions and political gatherings outlawed, student groups broken up, activists jailed and in some instances, killed outright. Details »

Who Makes History?


Image: School children at the Nyange massacre site during the Nyange Memorial Day event sponsored by the Chancellery For Heroes, National Orders And Decorations of Honor. March 19, 2015

“Debates about [history] involve not only professional historians but ethnic and religious leaders, political appointees, journalists, and various associations within civil society as well as independent citizens, not all of whom are activists. This variety of narrators is one of the many indications that theories of history have a rather limited view of the field of historical production. They grossly underestimate the size, the relevance, and the complexity of the overlapping sites where history is produced, notably outside of academia.

Most [people] learn their first history lessons through media that have not been subjected to the standards set by peer reviews, university presses, or doctoral committees.

Long before the average citizen reads the historians who set the standards of the day for colleagues and students, they access history through celebrations, site and museum visits, movies, national holidays, and primary school books.

Yet the fact that history is also produced outside of academia has largely been ignored in theories of history. Beyond a broad – and relatively recent – agreement on the situatedness of the professional historian. there is little concrete exploration of the activities that occur elsewhere but impact significantly on the object of study.”

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing The Past: Power And The Production of History

How do citizens learn about history? Why do certain historical narratives become ubiquitous and dominant?

What political, social, cultural and economic factors influence the writing and selection of historical events? Why do certain sites, buildings, memorials and locations become ‘historical’? Who are the people who make these choices, and what factors influence them to select certain events and sites, and ignore others?

These are just some of the key questions this project raises to help us see the contingent, and contested nature of what we call ‘history’. It asks us to rethink the history we see, hear, and learn, and instead begin to understand it as a series of narratives that is constantly reviewed and revisited as new materials, and new political and social realities come to the fore. From school text book boards, management teams at memorial sites, and tourism departments designing historical itineraries, citizens and visitors alike receive a carefully curated and edited version of ‘national history’, one that is influenced as much by the political and social realities of the present, as it is by historical facts. And few places offer a better opportunity to study this process than modern day Rwanda which is in the midst of one of the most well managed efforts in memory and history making in modern times. Bureaucratized and administered by a series of government ministries, designed and designed in collaboration with a number of foreign NGOs, the state of Rwanda is creating a new historical consciousness among the country’s citizens.

From memorials to commemorations, text books to radio and television programming, the state is carefully curating facts and history to fit a specific political idea of itself, and of the country.

Though Rwanda is the first country I examine as part of this investigation, it is hardly unique. These questions I raise here can just as well be applied to any nation. Hence, this is not a project about Rwanda, as much as it is a project about the ways in which nations manufacture the idea of themselves, and put institutional, educational, cultural and social assets to work to create these ideas. This process remains largely invisible to the visitor, and to the casual citizen, but a close examination of the details of it, reveals its design, and its limits.

Acknowledgement: This project emerges out of a conversation over dinner with Erin Elizabeth Mosely, then a PhD candidate at the Department of African And African American Studies at Harvard University. The year was 2013, and Erin was in Kigali conducting her field research. I had recently arrived in the country and was at a loss as to how to produce a body of work that challenged the  dominant narratives of post-genocide Rwanda, and did so without rancor or hysteria. The challenges of producing a critical study in a nation where freedom of speech, expression and action are carefully monitored and managed, was no easy task. It was during a discussion with Erin that a possible way forward offered itself, and produce a work, when closely examined, is a critique of the idea of nation building, and the uses of historical and personal memory for political and nationalist ends.


Why Africa?

The Samadine neighbourhood in Ouagadougo. Mural of Thomas Sankara, a man who remains an inspiration for the people of the country.

The Samadine neighbourhood in Ouagadougo. Mural of Thomas Sankara, a man who remains an inspiration for the people of the country.

“Vico’s The New Science is everywhere a reminder that scholars hide, overlook or mistreat the gross physical evidence of human activity, including their own.”

Edward Said, “Reflections On Exile”, page 86

“…In the progress of nations, negroes have shown less capacity for self-government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary whenever they have been left to their own devices they have shown an instant tendency to lapse into barbarism.”

President Andrew Johnson, from Amy Kaplan’s “The Anarchy of Empire In The Making Of U.S. Culture”, page 83

In the course of the coming weeks, I will post work from two projects I began work on in 2015; The first in Rwanda, and the other in Burkina Faso. Each project engages with the people, history and politics of a region I have long felt has been choked under our wish to ‘represent’ or ‘give voice to’. These projects do neither – they do not represent Africa or Africans, and nor do they give ‘voice’ to them. What they do is engage with modern African politics, history and society, and see them as the result of ordinary human beings dealing with the same challenges and coping with the same prejudices as those in other states. They shun the exotic, and the colonial classic ideas and images of Africa we continue to see today. They avoid reducing complex social and political realities to cultural and genetic essences. They reject judgements of  ‘backwardness’, or ‘barbarism’ or ‘moral inhumanity’ as something innate, but instead look at the historical and economic roots of a place, a people and a politics. They refuse the  decades of colonial visual cliches and social prejudices that have come down to us over the years, and that continue to influence so much of visual work done in and about the African continent. Even some of the most ‘enlightened’ attempts to cut past the reductive and inhumane ideas about the people of the continent, still stay mired in efforts to change ‘representations’, as if to undo what has been done to the continent is simply a new public relations campaign. What is required, and what is reflected here in these new works, is a quiet but serious engagement with the continents modern political and social history, and an acknowledgement of the economic and cultural chains it remains trapped in. It is from this material base that we can begin to hear and see the continent for its lived reality, and possibly understand a way to work in it.

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The Long Arms Of Islamohysteria™

The [New York Times] article attempts to provide insight into how modern-day racists negotiate the contemporary racial terrain. But this is hard to do, given that the Times along with other establishment media outlets are a crucial part of that terrain.

Take the article’s observations about America’s shifting racial scapegoats. Confessore writes:

“While open racism against blacks remains among the most powerful taboos in American politics, Americans feel more free expressing worries about illegal immigrants and dislike of Islam, survey research shows.”

But why is it that white Americans feel more free to express Islamophobia and xenophobia than anti-black bigotry? Surely this has much to do with the fact that in recent years powerful media outlets have done much to legitimize the former biases.

FAIR Blog, “NYT Looks at the Political Exploitation of White Supremacism–but Not Too Hard”, July 14, 2016

To say that the New York Times these days is into Islamohysteria™ would not be an under-statement. Islamohysteria™ is a little known area of academic study, but one that has a long pedigree and reams of evidence. It is the habit of taking a handful of statements by officials, intelligence operatives, neo-conservative pundits and government provided ‘defectors’ and ‘informers’, and producing articles that use words like ‘global’, ‘nuclear’, ‘mushroom cloud’ and more. The New York Times has offered a masterclass in manufacturing Islamohysteria™, relentlessly publishing poorly investigated, anonymous and state / intelligence sourced articles that pretend to be journalism, but are really little more than stenography.

And where  once the likes of Judith Miller would run around the globe interviewing officials, defectors and intelligence operatives, and simply regurgitate their claims and statements as facts, and then construct wild and fantastic fantasies of global domination and nuclear annihilation by our enemies, we seem to have found a new set of recruits that are experts at the same game. There was Carlotta Gall of course, and David Sanger of the infamous ‘nuclear triggers for Osama Bin Ladin’ lie, Mark Mazzetti with his insider notes sent directly to the CIA to reveal what his colleague was about to file, or the shameless way New York Times Michael Gordon met with the State Department to ask for their help to ‘vet’ the Iraq Logs or completely bury them that were about to be published. There is a long, long history of sordid collusion with powerful state and intelligence actors here to 1) spread lies, 2) concoct evidence, 3) spread fear ad hysteria, and 4) manufacture enemies particularly ‘Islamic’ one. Details »

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