Larry Towell is looking for money for a new project in Afghanistan and has placed his request on Kickstarter. This would all have been fine had it not been for the fact that he is doing the wrong project. Larry Towell has been an inspiration, one of the first photographers whose works compelled me to come to photography. So it is with great disappointment that I read his description of what he intends to do in Afghanistan.
The opening sentence from his project description, a project called Crisis In Afghanistan, left me stunned:
For 30 years, Afghanistan has known only civil war.
No Larry, it has not. For the last ten years at least it has known a brutal, violent, devastating, and illegal American military occupation and war. For the last ten years it has known torture, tens of thousands of civilian deaths, the installation of a corrupt and illegal political administration, torture centers and sites, drone warfare, a flourishing drug trade, a venal political and international aid agency class and a dismemberment of any and all civil administration that may have once existed.
This is not a crisis it is an American war and an American military occupation, one that is using an unpopular, illegitimate and corrupt local elite to maintain a facade of a ‘political administration’.
For the last ten years Afghanistan has known American violence and venality. If we were outraged at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan then it is sheer hypocrisy to accept our pillaging and occupation of Afghanistan today. It is unbelievable the ease with which we, citizens of a democratic republic, have adopted the lies and obfuscations of our governments, and the obsequiousness with which we have become collaborators and apologists for its misguided military adventures and violence.
I find it shocking that we cannot admit or accept that we are occupiers and collaborators in a hideous military and political adventure in the country and today principally responsible for the daily horrors, violence, bloodshed, brutality, criminality and venality that infests it. I find it laughable that we will not accept that today we are ‘the Evil Empire’, a place that once the Soviet’s held. I am dismayed, angered even, that photographers of Larry Towell’s intelligence and courage must resort to an outdated language, to bygone military adventures and histories and skip past the most current and pressing pathology plaguing the nation of Afghanistan.
How long are we going to pretend that we do not have anything to do with Afghanistan’s current devastation, mutilation, corruption, and mass dispossession? How many more embedded perspective do we need to keep ourselves from accepting what we are doing there, and how we are seen there?
Here is Larry telling us what he will cover in his project;
…landmine victims, male and female drug addicts, political detainees in Puli-Charki prison, ex-Russian soldiers, and veterans.
My goodness, what temerity to ask for funds for a project that offers nothing new, and for subjects that have been done to death. To say nothing about the fact that they say nothing of the current reality and horrors plaguing the country.
Russian soldiers? Pul-i-Charki prison?
Larry, what about drone attack victims, illegal detainees at Bagram, those tortured and left mentally deranged, what about the millions living in refugee camps displaced by American and NATO military operations, or the families whose men have disappeared into prisons and never heard from again, what about the families of those killed by the dozens each month because of our bombs and our indiscriminate aerial strikes?
I feel that such projects and their associated language are selling us a time machine, one that takes us to an Afghanistan horror story more palatable, more acceptable to our gentle American sensibilities. We want to hear about the errors from another period, when our participation in Afghanistan was heroic, moral and based on a rhetoric of freedom and liberation. Yes, the days back when the Islamic fundamentalists were labeled ‘freedom fighters’, invited to dine at the White House, and we could not stop having ourselves photographed with. The same people who today we have had to re-cast as ‘the bad guys’, but were once our allies, and the recipients of billions of dollars of American tax-payers money. All for an imagined great war of liberation, the one we all rushed to cover and then to garland ourselves with later.
This need to fly past our modern-day pathologies and back towards a period of imagined righteousness was also on display during the recent International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award ceremony where the photographer Reza was handed ICP’s highest award for his work in Afghnistan covering the Soviet invasion and its aftermath.
Did any in that room full of luminaries and glitterati feel any irony when Reza opened his acceptance speech with the following words:
“Once upon a time there was an unequal battle; that of a giant and murderous Empire, which was trying all the way to subdue a defenceless but rebellious people who had repelled all foreign invasions.
Once upon a time there was the Russian Empire against Afghanistan. It was thirty years ago. As a young photojournalist, I was covering that unequal conflict and the resistance of a handful of men led by Commander Massoud. Russian fire was heavy, with helicopters, tanks, bombers, leaving no relief and little chance of escaping certain death. The massacred people was suffering. The resistance Afghan fought for the freedom of their country.
Did anyone in that grand ballroom feel a tinge of anxiety when Reza said:
Empires, tyrants and their desire of conquest are but little things in front of passing Time and the will of a people marching towards freedom.
Did anyone notice the irony and the hypocrisy of an American institution handing out awards to a photographer who once covered an illegal military occupation of Afghanistan when at that very moment America’s own military is mired in an illegal military occupation of that very same country? I doubt it. We prefer not to be bothered by such niceties for it ruins the flavor of the champagne.
(Aside: I take nothing away from Reza who has also been an inspiration to me. His work from Afghanistan remains unique and reflects his passion and dedication to the story and the situation back in the 1970s and 1980s. My comments reflect my disappointment with ICP and an American cultural space that wants to contribute towards obfuscations to help hide the fact that we are and remain at war and as oppressors of another people.)
I have written extensively about the situation in Afghanistan in a number of earlier posts. Most recently in response to the cynical and hypocritical exploitation of Afghani women by Time Magazine (and later by National Geographic Magazine as well). But you can ignore my blather if you wish and at least listen to those doing independent i.e un-embedded work in the country and understand what is going on there.
There is Jeremy Scahill who has been featured on this blog a few times, most recently in a piece called What It Looks Like When You Leave The Embed Or Thank Goodness Some Remember The Basics. You can listen to Scahill here:
There is also Nir Rosen, a freelance journalist and scholar, who had done some remarkable reporting from the regions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
You can listen to Rosen talk with Amy Goodman about the situation in Afghanistan here
In an interview with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald Rosen makes specific reference to the issue of how our elites (cultural, creative, artistic, intellectual, political etc.) represent our wars. As Glenn Greenwald points out:
…there is between how American elites talk about our wars and the reality of those wars and the things that you actually see by being there and in an unembedded function, and there’s this interesting speech that I’ve written about a few times by Ashleigh Banfield, who at the time was an MSNBC war reporter who was sort of the rising star of the MSNBC and NBC news and she was relatively new to covering wars, and she had come back from Iraq and she gave this speech at Kansas State University and she talked about the huge disparity between how television conveys wars to the American people and the reality of wars and all the things that embedding does in terms of distortions and this sliver of reality that ends up being conveyed.
The attitude, the distance we have maintained from those we today oppress are clearly discussed by Rosen as well when he points out that:
And I too often also found that Americans keep on going back to the same books, the same orientalist books which are used to justify empire, that Arabs only understand force, they are tribal, they are Bedouin. I’ve seen very little progress actually in the Americans’ ability to grasp the cultures in the Muslim world and they refer to a handful of academics who are far outside the mainstream of academics trying to understand the Middle East of Afghanistan, but who have been used to justify various wars and occupations.
So they still will talk about tribal societies and Bedouin societies as if they are some kind of cultural secrets, and if you just unlock these secrets, if it’s Pashtunwali in Afghanistan or Islamic code or Bedouin code, or Koranic society—you heard these weird terms often—if you just unlock these codes, you can understand the people and manipulate them and control them…you often hear American soldiers talking about if you, as if it’s the Sopranos…as if the primary motivator for people fighting occupation is money and not what it really is, issues of dignity, of freedom, of nationalism, of ideology. It’s almost as if Americans aren’t able to understand those concepts and they think that Taliban are fighting for $10 a day.
But I guess if the Americans were able to understand that, then that would make us seem like we were the bad guys, and we don’t want to feel like we’re the bad guys, we don’t want to feel like we’re the British in Braveheart fighting locals who are nationalists and freedom fighters. So I guess we have to try to understand their motives as being more financial whereas in reality I think they’re much more deeply ideological and nationalistic.
Indeed, it is perhaps impossible to raise funds on Kickstarter if you simple argue that you want to produce a project that explores and documents the horrors of the American occupation and a people’s resistance to it. I suppose it’s not palatable to present your work as documenting the new Empire and its oppressions. And herein lies another issue with these ‘alternative’ models of funding.
There has been a rather naive celebration of crowd sourced journalism projects and how it may be the solution to journalism and photojournalism’s woes. Perhaps another round of desperate attempts to avoid facing the economic realities of mainstream journalism, driven as they are by profit over reporting. When I hear a new crowd sourcing venture argue that the allure and sexiness of photojournalism will be a major selling angle, something pointed out in a piece called Photojournalism Site Emphas.is Wants To Leverage The Crowd Through The Romanticism Of Its Craft, I begin to wonder where we are heading. I quote from the piece above:
Photojournalists, particularly war photographers, have a certain allure, one Ben Khelifa hopes is the basis for a business model. “We have a romanticism around our profession,” he says. “We realized that our work isn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.”
Are you serious? Do photojournalists really think like this? Not only is a very specious argument for a business model but it is a terrible place to arrive as a person and a professional.
However, there is a larger concern as demonstrated by Larry Towell’s proposal where, a photographer who I am sure knows well what is really going on in Afghanistan, has chosen to ‘soften’ his words to appeal to ‘the market’. Perhaps, though I will never know. Crowd sourcing requires that we adopt a populist angle to a project, it may force reporters and photographers to avoid self-critical and uncomfortable subjects and demand that we pitch our stories for the widest sell rather than for the deepest truths. It’s not inevitable, but it is likely. I will add that outlets like Kickstarter and Emphas.is may in fact be best suited for highly controversial, critical projects as audiences look to find photographers and reporters taking risks to tell the stories our mainstream media is too constrained to tell. It could be that Larry Towell is missing an opportunity here!
I want to support Larry’s work. His has been a very important career for my own. But I find myself unable to do so as the project stands at the moment. For no other reason than the fact that such obfuscations and veils continue to eat away at the body politic and society of my country. America is weaker for not confronting her government and its pathologically misguided adventures. Our wars are weakening us, and making us more insecure. They are also destroying the liberties that we enjoy as citizens and increasing the intrusive and oppressive presence of the intelligence and security apparatus into our lives. As an American citizen of Muslim background – the only facet about my identity that seems to matter to people these days and the one that colors and overwhelms whatever else I am and have worked to become as an individual, I am already completely vulnerable to powers of the state with little or no recourse to her avenues of justice and rights.
The greatest danger of a military occupation is that inevitably the paranoia fueled security-oriented political and administrative decision-making procedures required to sustain an occupation eventually come home and undermine and weaken the occupier’s political system. And if that political system is a participatory democracy, the consequences are even more devastating. You can’t claim liberty at home and repression abroad because the decisions to maintain the repression abroad are eventually made and sanctioned by the same political and bureaucratic individuals and institutions that sanction the horizons of liberty at home. The values that inform the occupation inevitably begin to inform the liberties as the divide between the ‘there’ and the ‘here’ become blurred and danger lurk all around and every thing becomes a source of fear and worry. The French have seen this from their experience in Algeria, the Israelis from their occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the Indians from in Kashmir and now in the Eastern provinces and there are many more examples.
If not for the Afghanis, then for ourselves we have to adopt an honest and clear language about what is happening in our wars, and what we are doing out ‘there’. A project to tell the story of what we have done in Afghanistan, and the devastation and inhumanity we are facilitating, is a must and I would support it with all that I can afford to.