A Photographer Confronts His World
But geopolitical reality was much messier than he’d assumed. It ignited a bleak cynicism in his worldview…In addition to learning about the difficult prospects for weak, independent states, he also discovered how such countries are populated: It often included ethnic cleansing and forced deportations…While Mr. Mahon is glad to be getting his work recognized, which was his original motivation, his perspective on these issues has shifted significantly. In a world of increased globalization, and the potential marginalization of the idea of the nation-state, he came to believe that the war, poverty and isolation experienced in these countries was not worth the trouble.
Not worth the trouble. And with those three words Mr. Mahon, a photojournalist wearing the respectability of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant, dismisses the political, economic, and social histories and struggles of the people that he apparently spent nearly 8 years trying to document and represent. And one is left with the question, which perhaps may never have occurred to Mr. Mahon, if he bothered to ask the people who are in fact fighting for something – rightly or wrongly, if they believed it was worth the trouble, the sacrifices and the severe consequences? One is left to wonder with what arrogance, narcissism and disdain does a man travel to document the societies that clearly live under tremendous political, military and economic threat and fragility, and then proceed to simply erase all these broader realities and judge them lacking? Details »
The solution to both problems was found in the wholesale concoction of a brand new terror threat that was branded “The Khorasan Group.” After spending weeks depicting ISIS as an unprecedented threat – too radical even for Al Qaeda! – administration officials suddenly began spoon-feeding their favorite media organizations and national security journalists tales of a secret group that was even scarier and more threatening than ISIS, one that posed a direct and immediate threat to the American Homeland. Seemingly out of nowhere, a new terror group was created in media lore.
And so we learn something we had suspected – that ‘terror’ threats are being manufactured, and justifications for more wars being created in the corridors of the White House and the Pentagon.
I was reminded of something that one of George W. Bush’s aides once said:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re [journalists / photojournalists] studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
In fact, I would go one step further: it isn’t a ‘reality’ but a staged performance that they create, and the journalists / photojournalists – unable to think or remember history, largely uninformed and critically weak, merely document. And sell it to the citizens of the Republic.
I have to write more about this phenomenon, particularly as it exists in the field of photojournalism. Nothing amputates history and compartmentalizes and a situation more effectively than a powerful photograph. One of the most effective uses of photography is the way in which is obscures broader political, social, economic and historical facts, and seduces the viewer into believing that only which is presented as a spectacle is what matters. It is the equivalent of a ‘sleight of hand’ that a magician uses to distract the viewer while using her other hand to set up the subterfuge that makes us believe we have just experienced something magical. The ability to compartmentalize, to reduce life, to just a tiny moment, is a propagandists wet dream – it freezes all else and highlights only that which is being shown. But what is insidious is that not only does the viewer get fooled (and curators and photography critics it appears!), but the photojournalists herself gets fooled. Instructed to capture a ‘humanitarian crisis’ – a neat ‘compartmentalization of a complex social and political reality, she ends up believing in the theatre she is performing in.
This compartmentalization was precisely the underlying foolishness that led to the rather embarrassing situation at Visa Pour L’image this year where photographer Yunghi Kim attempted to defend her misrepresentation of the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ which was was sent to cover. Taken to task by a journalists for suggesting that the Hutus in refugee camps where there only as a humanitarian situation and not genocidiares fleeing in the face of a defeat.
Since her editors told her it was a humanitarian situation, she went and created the images, and the intellectual belief, that it was. That was the assignment, and she produced it. Those were the parameters, and she delivered to it. We have hundreds of examples of such ‘professionalism’ where photographers simply follow the requirements laid our for her, and deliver without really going past the mandate. The problem isn’t that Kim got the story wrong, or that her editors used it incorrectly, but the fact that despite knowing what the situation really was, and perhaps even seeing evidence of it on the ground, she chose to simply and without protest or insight, deliver it as it was needed. But for me, the problem lies elsewhere, and touches on the argument of manufactured realities.
What is perhaps shockingly egregious about the Kim situation is that despite the 20 years that have passed since that event, Kim never updated her understanding of the situation but merely repeated age old argument in her defense – even the captions were never updated. It was as if the photographer was intellectually frozen by the photographs and unable to update and mature her views. Or, that she never felt the need to since her work was celebrated, featured repeatedly, even given a New York Times stamp of approval i.e. it was labelled as the historical truth and then left at that. There was no need or necessity to think further than the double-page spreads and the editorial pat-on-the-back, as strong an affirmation of right and truth as most photojournalists seem to want to get. I will write more about this Visa / Kim fiasco at a later date. It encapsulates so much of what is wrong in the way photo stories are constructed, and produced. And what is missing in the photojournalists idea of herself. And lets be clear, there are plenty of ‘world class’ photojournalists who even now continue this myopic, compartmentalized work – recently demonstrated by many covering the Yazidi situation for example.
In the mean time, lets enjoy the fine, award winning work that will now flow from our ‘finest’ and ‘world class’ photojournalists shilling for the American propaganda machine and gleefully repeating non-facts, and non-reality for the public. But damn those photos are going to look incredibly amazing.
People keep asking me how I speak Hindi, and I keep telling them that it is because I am Indian – in the historical sense of course. And that Hindi / Urdu are the same language given two names. However, never is this discussion about Urdu / Hindi more irritating and frustrating when carried out with Pakistanis who in their infinite ignorance are convinced that Urdu and Hindi are two entirely different languages and worse, that somehow Urdu is ‘Islamic’! I am often left bereft at the idiocy of these Ivy League graduates, and the tremendous closed-mindedness that permits them to carry along their prejudices despite being surrounded, at these great universities, with all the resources to help them open their eyes. So, since the library will not do, here is a wonderful piece about the beautiful, creative and deeply entwined relationship between Hindi and Urdu.
Kumar sums up his argument rather nicely when he points out:
What was once a shared common language of people of India stretching from Peshawar to the borders of Bengal split into two languages, Urdu and Hindi, towards the end of the 19th century. As a result, there arose two artificially separated literary cultures, each harking back to a different literary past due to the chauvinistic attitudes both of Hindus and Muslims. This cultural chauvinism was to subsequently embroil them in a practice of divisive politics, and each language became a marker of religious identity. With the passage of time the differences between the two sides became so irreconcilable that it led to the creation of a separate homeland for Muslims.
Worth a read.
(Thanks to my friend Sibte Hassan for pointing me to the phrase ‘Pakistanian’)
Gentrification confuses people. And to so many of my ‘cool’ friends, it confuses them most. They all speak about themselves as pioneers, the risk takers, edgy, and ‘down to earth’, as they trawl for real-estate on the edges of the more developed neighborhoods in New York. What is odd about their self-image is that it is completely belied by their actual lived lives, and their clearly stated aspirations. The language of finance capital, of asset accumulation, the fear of ‘crime’, the celebration of any symbol of ‘normalization’ e.g. starbucks, or a no-name bar with lots of bearded patrons, elicits glees and claims of being ‘so proud of my neighborhood’. And within earshot, and eyesight, they sit and witness the eviction of their neighbours – the black ones, the poorer ones, the ones who live in the ‘squalid’ brownstone next door but that is now marked for ‘renovation’. The listen to the threats of the land lords, backed by the bright lights of a police car parked outside. They listen to the pleas, and the protests. The listen to the anger. And then they turn back to their record players, and spin another Decemberists records to help them imbibe their wines. As Mueller points out:
The repression of urban class struggle can never be total, and it weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the liberal gentry, surfacing again and again in hand-wringing op-eds.
“What choice do I have?” ask the liberal gentrifiers, if you press them a bit. “This is the only place I can afford to live!” This sums everything up perfectly, puncturing the bubble of individual choices that make up liberal politics.
You have no choice; everything’s been decided ahead of time. If you want the American dream of a middle-class life with a home you own in the city in which you work, you have few other choices than to join the shock troops of the onslaught against the urban poor. Align with big capital and the repressive state in the conquest of the city, and maybe you’ll have enough equity to send your kids to college.”
The urban poor – the blight. Actually, the ones who have been abandoned by the state, had their services cut, their mortages stolen, their pay checks reduced or never adjusted to inflation, their pensions siphoned off, their health care practically erased, their school funds and benefits cut, their futures bogged down in hiring policies riddled with bigotry and prejudice. Ok, sounds quite bleak, but this is just my personal experience of New York neighborhoods and particularly in the super-shiny streets of ‘to hip to be whole’ of Brooklyn. And yet the myth persists, and the ‘kids’ – most all corporate creatives holding down high paying jobs in generic corporations across the river, continue to pretend that we are living in the 1960s and it is the Bowery all over again. Again, Mueller:
Today, government-abetted gentrification has trickled down to small home buyers. Forget your fairy tales of urban pioneers bravely staking out territory in the urban hinterlands — at every point, this has been a takeover planned by large business interests who fund their projects with tax abatements
Tough times indeed. Even the desperately cool can’t get a break from history!
What are America’s wars about?
A friend recently asked me this question, and I can only offer a partial answer with a reference to this piece by The Guardian’s fine stenographer Emma Graham-Harrison. I am sure she is a lovely person in person, but her piece about the newly anointed president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, is truly a masterpiece of propaganda and obfuscation.
This article is an excellent example of how journalists are married to the project of American and European empire, and how the use of certain efficaciously placed words can bamboozled us and help transform what was most likely a sordid, behind-the-scene, bribery and threat ridden process of political transition into appearing like a viable, normal, political process. To say nothing about converting AshrafGhani – this one-trick tool of capital – a man whose head is so far up capitalism’s ass they he began his hilariously ahistorical and anti-intellectual TED talk with the heading ‘Mobilizing Capitals For State Building, into…and I must quote her here because it is priceless:
An impressive intellectual who is as comfortable in a village meeting as an international boardroom, he has been a professor and World Bank technocrat, finance minister and top security official, and was once in the running to head the UN.
So what are America’s wars about? Well, the answer lies in this man’s training, education, experience and resume fillers. Note the comfortable and seemingly natural way in which the writer describes this ‘impressive intellectual: 1) ‘Finance Minister’ 2) ‘Security official’,’Professor’ and *World Bank technocrat’. Could the Americans have dreamed up a better native son to serve their interests? Could they have found a bigger native stooge to American empire, and to its underlying presumptions of neoliberal capitalism, and the American way or war and profit? I think not.
In fact, the irony of the writer’s description selling Ghani to us as if he is some benign professor of finance who will lead this blighted nation to modernity and civilisation – a troupe that she returns to when in a classic reliance of orientalist racism she raises the question of whether he will unveil his wife (yes, our concerns are always for the women, you see!), we are also told, and with any note of surprise of questioning that:
Spurred by that defeat [in his previous attempt at power] into a dramatic transformation, he emerged this year as a ruthless and highly effective politician. Top vote-getter in a fraud-riddled election, he steered through months of fraught negotiations to emerge as president of a unity government formed with his main rival.
A ruthless politician is the modern-day euphemism for criminally driven. He was the ‘top vote getter’ in a ‘fraud-riddled’ election. I wonder where that leaves him. What does it mean that a man I am being told is an intellectual is then being revealed as a calculating, ruthless politician who participated in a fraudulent election and was foisted into power by the Americans.
As a World Bank and finance professional, and a man completely sold to absolutely outdated ideas about neoliberalism, what is being created here is the wholesale sale of the country of Afghanistan to American corporations. What will follow will be neoliberal policies where markets are opened to American goods, where public assets, what ever is left, will be sold to American corporations, where politics will be ethnicized and sectarianlzed, where private corporations will be allowed to run amok to use and extract resources and of course the super-cheap Afghani labor pool which will provide the sweatshop and field labor for the wealth that will be siphoned off to the West.
Lets remember, this is a man who is so immune to reality and so married to the tiresome and false doctrines of neoliberalism that even 5 years after the complete collapse of the global economy, the hollowing out of any pretense of American ‘free market economy’, the mass nationalization of banks and corporations, the public bail outs etc. he can stand in 2013 at the TED talk and utter absolute nonsense that:
The above is from slide 1 from his talk if you do not believe m. See here:
The entire talk is a fraud. It panders to the worst prejudices of his crowd, while aggrandizing the, and letting them hear what they want to hear: that they, the technologists and entrepreneurs, are the master-of-the-universe and can save the day if only they would send over a few billion dollars to the backward people of Afghanistan and teach them now to be American.
It is ideology masquerading as meaningful insight. He talks about the world consensus on capitalism at the very moment in history when that consensus has disappeared and lost all credibility! Has he not heard of the movements against capitalism that have marked almost every country in the world? Is he not away of the depression that we have been trapped in since 2008? What is this consensus he is talking about? It is a fraud that he is constructing. Because from that opening in the talk he then begins to make the classic neoliberal set of arguments: that state building is nothing more than allowing foreign investment, privatization, labor movement, loser labor laws, reduction in taxes etc. The tired old lies that got us into this mess, that have created massive economic inequalities around the globe, that have locked tens of millions of the most exploitative and abusive labor arrangements, and that continue to fuel and fund wars across the globe. And there is more: he conflates capitalism with rights and justice. In a page right out of the 1980s Reagan era propaganda, Ashraf baits and switches in practically every sentence. He begins with capitalism, and suddenly he is talking about justice. He begins with democracy, and suddenly he is talking about state repression. (as if that doesn’t exist under many a democracy!)
And in the midst of this nonsense he has the gall to exploit Western sense of being victimized (carefully constructed by media) and bow to the victims of 9/11 and 7/7 is just magnificent to listen to. By 2013 tens of thousands of his people in Afghanistan had died in America’s war there, but they did not warrant an acknowledgement. He talks about the Soviet, he talks about the Taliban, but carefully erases the Americans, and completely jumps over the near 14 year military occupation and all those who died. In fact, his entire talk compartmentalized ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the freedom loving, mall shopping, car driving us who are good, and civilized, and the repressive, brutal, dirt-eating them who can only be redeemed if they become more like us, and there you have it: his entire idea of nation building. Give us technical and design solutions, and I will give you democracy in Afghanistan. It’s really just that simple. And we love to swallow this tripe!
Ashraf is a tool. As he placed into his throne by the American occupation force, he, like a good native comprador son, stands and speaks to the West the language that aggrandizes the West. He tells them what they want to hear, and he uses an imaginary idea of capitalism, out-dated if not completely discredited concepts of modernist development, and completely specious and empty rhetoric of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights to appease us. And the media swallow it all up. If he walks like us, talks like us, and lies like us, he must be one of us! His carefully, ruthlessly craft image – self-made and PR firm financed, is a cover for the same brutal, calculated imperial project that has continued in Afghanistan since the tragic invasion. He is just the most recent butcher to the block upon which surrounding nations are lining up to slice and dice their share of the Afghan carcass.
He sells us the America we want to see, and he sells us a classic TED tactic: there is no politics, there is just planning and technical solutions. He tells us that they, the brown / black, are stupid and barbaric, and in plain language says ‘we need you’ – you being the West, the sophisticated, the ones that he absolves of their role in destroying the very country that he now wants to say can only be saved if ‘they’ come with their dollars and their Dunkin Donuts. Why does America go to war? The answer lies right here, and in the lives of men who are installed in these invaded, pillaged and destroyed nations – in the great tradition of imperialists of the pasts. They serve capital, prey open souls and geographies, and act as a mirror in which we are the most beautiful people in the world
Emma has done a wonderful job re-painting this man into a solid, Western-centric, intellectual. As if Afghanistan is a corporation just bringing on board a new CEO. Contradicting her own writing – corruption led elections of a ruthless politician but she gives us instead an intellectual with a modern ‘wife’. But perhaps that is really what it is: the foisting to power of a man who will ensure capitalist discipline and ‘transparency’ all in the service of Western corporate and military interests, and do so with the precision and clarity of vision that only a World Bank training could have provided him. So lets see what comes next. Frankly, I would not hold my breath for any surprises.
So what are these wars about? The answer remains the oldest one in the book.
Bruce Gilden does a ‘photo review’. As I watched this video I could not help but wonder whether Gilden realizes that the producers of Vice are excitedly setting him up to perform a Gilden-pantomine act: boorish, rude, obnoxious, mocking, denigrating, dismissive as only Gilden can be. And as if on cue, Gilden delivers. Certainly one of the signs of the death of a person, or an artist, is when s/he ends up simply performing her/himself. We love a spectacle, as much as we love looking at an accident, and Gilden delivers.
I find listening to Gilden tiresome. As I watched this video (thanks to A Photo Editor blog), I had to fight back thoughts about his sexist and misogynist comments and instead think more about the sheer structure and framework for this ridiculous parody of a what should have been a review. As he droned on and on – combining his pointless and knee-jerk opinions with a combination of generalizations about Arabs/ Rocks, oral sex, demeaning statements about women’s bodies and other nonsense (Aside: Shelby and Fernando’s point out in their piece Short Skirts And Niqab Ban: On Sexuality And The Secular Body that: ‘Man hails woman into being: “Feminine identity depend[s] on male desire; male desire depend[s] on visual stimulation.” Seduction and the male gaze are therefore key to subjectivation: the visual appreciation of women’s faces and bodies brings women into being as women, just as the ability to see women’s faces and bodies brings men into being as men.’), I was reminded of Nietzsche’s mocking of Kant’s definition of the beautiful.
In his work The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche point out that:
…I wish to underline is that Kant, like all philosophers, instead of envisaging the aesthetic problem from the point of view of the artist (the creator), considered art and the beautiful purely from that of the ‘spectator’ and unconsciously introduced the ‘spectator’ into the concept ‘beautiful’. It would not have been so bad if this ‘spectator’ had at least been sufficiently familiar to the philosophers of beauty – namely as a great personal fact and experience, as an abundance of vivid authentic experiences, desires, surprises and delights in the realm of the beautiful! But I fear that the reverse has always been the case; and so they have offered us, from the beginning, definitions in which, as in Kant’s famous definition of the beautiful, a lack of any refined first-hand experiences reposes in the shape of a fat worm of error.!
(From Genealogy of Morals)
As Agamben goes on to elaborate:
The experience of art that is described in these words (above) is in no way an aesthetic for Nietzsche. On the contrary: the point is precisely to purify the concept of ‘beauty’ by filtering out the sensory involvement of the spectator, and thus to consider art from the point of view of its creator. This purification takes place as a reversal of the traditional perspective on the work of art: the aesthetic dimension – the sensible apprehension of the beautiful object on the part of the spectator – is replaced by a creative experience of the artists who sees in his work only the promise of happiness.
(From The Man Without Content, from which the above Nietzsche quote is taken)
The complete primacy of the spectator’s measure of the aesthetic, and the absolute negation of the creator. This is photography critique in summary. These sorts of photo reviews were par-for-the-course at Visa Pour L’image and one of the reasons why I stopped going. The sheer narcissism, arrogance, obnoxiousness and very often uncouth rudeness of ‘reviewers’ was dismaying to witness. I remember dozens of occasions overhearing the insanely ridiculous and humiliating comments being made by ‘famous’ photographers and editors to young photographers who had come to them for feedback and advice. Instead, what they got was humiliation and abuse. It was as if insecure and egotistical editors and photographers – basking in their self-generated spotlights, unable to find meaning or value in their own jobs, took it out on the young photographers who were too sacred or too weak to respond. I would listen to editors mock them for their personality, humiliate them for their mistakes, laugh in their faces, carelessly throw prints around, rudely cut them off if they tried to explain, and always offer what has today become the most nonsensical, anti-intellectual statement in photography – ‘the photograph must speak for itself’.
The latter is basically nothing other than a way for an editor to dominate the photographer – her voice, her vision, her goals, her ideas, and her perspectives. It is a way for an editor to negate the authorship of the creator of a work, and impose upon it his / her own impression, however ignorant they may be. It is an act of violence against the creator of the work, and an essential tool in establishing the hierarchy of power that all editors wish to maintain against the photographer. It leads the hilariously illogical and embarrassing situation where a basically little read, little traveled and careerist editor sits and lectures a photographer – one who has been in the field and actually has the real-world experience of a situation, to lambasted and critique.
There are few, if any editors, who have the confidence and the sheer intelligence to see a photographer’s work, and to explore its motivations and authorship before offering perspectives, critiques and comments. Magdalena Herrera (then at National Geographic France, now at GEO France) was perhaps one of three editors I can name who actually engaged with a photographer’s work – intellectually, politically, creatively and structurally, and were able to speak in intelligent and generous ways. But they remain few and far between. Most often what we get is this mocking, dismissive, denigrating and demeaning (Gilden throws in sexism, and cultural essentialist to further establish his generally boorish credentials even further), discussions that often leave people simply confused and distraught.
I don’t see the point of it at all. A useless video other than to be reminded what is so wrong with this entire industry and how it refuses to get its head out of its a** and evolve a better, more intelligent and more inspiring way to speak about work and about the photographers who risk it all to go out and produce stories – however good or bad – and deserve a respectful and meaningful engagement around their work.
Photographers should refuse to be subjected to this. Please just stand up and walk out. No matter what, no matter how inexperienced or experience, a photographer you are, you do not deserve this mocking, humiliating treatment. There are plenty of amazing, talented and brilliant photographers and editors who will give you critical and much needed feedback while also respecting your dignity and authorship. Stand up and walk away.
In what can only be called a ‘coalition of the bought’, one that includes some of the best military dictatorships and some of the most retrograde societies in the Middle East, we have launched into yet another illegal, unauthorized war in the region.
The US has launched, with the support of perhaps one of the most vile coalitions put together – filled with nations that behead people as a form of ‘law’ – to go after a group that beheads people as a form of military tactic. To say nothing about the fact that the UN has been reduced to a mouthpiece uttering nonsense about ‘humanitarian crisis’ as a way to hide its collusion and its complete abandonment of its charter and responsibility. No resolution has been even considered to sanction this entire ridiculous, ultimately useless campaign. No debate. No discussion. Not even an attempt at a fake ‘consensus’. Of course, the pusillanimous US Congress was entirely by-passed – such an inconvenience this bloody democratic structure of our Republic that it is best avoided completely, and is sucking on green-colored lollipops given to it by the corporations. Details »
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