A Photographer Confronts His World
It was the 24th anniversary of the attack on and destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on December 6th, 1998. Click on the image above to go to a selection of essays about and/or related to Ayodhya.
My project on India began in Ayodhya. In fact, when I arrived in Ayodha in the Fall of 2009, I wasn’t even sure what the project was going to be. It was after staying in Faizabad – Ayodhya’s sister city some 30 minutes rickshaw ride away, for some weeks, and spending time walking and talking to people in Ayodhya itself, that the shape and structure of the work finally emerged. The Idea of India is a very personal engagement with complex histories, and my first attempt to break away from the suffocating definitions, rules, constrictions and limits of what passes for photojournalism. I did not want to have anything to do with it. It was during this work that I discovered why I went out into the world with cameras and a notebook, and what it was that I wanted to do with them. And though there were many mistakes along the way, and though the work remains intentionally ‘incomplete’ – what is this bizarre obsession people have with completing a project? No one completes a project, you merely abandon it!, because the questions I began to ask, the spaces I began to seek, and the inquiries I began to make, are still with me. And I am grateful for it. The curiosity, the excitement, the joy of producing this work remains, and since I can abandon the project at any time – the entire work has over 250 final selected images and dozens of essays, I have chosen not to. I do not want to give it up, nor do I want to feel that I am done with it. Perhaps it isn’t a personal choice anyways – the issues plaguing the region: the xenophobia, the sectarianism, and what Eqbal Ahmed called ‘distorted histories’, stay and are perhaps more extreme today than when I began working on the project. Perhaps I feel that now would be a good time to return, to re-start, to add more to the work if for no other reason than to keep up what was always an act of resistance and personal refusal to accept official and state historical narratives. It can still happen. After all, the project isn’t ‘complete’.
If we carry courage, and our determined resistance, then we do so because of the example that you, and so many of your travelling companions in our post-colonial aftermath, set for us.
Long live the Revolution. Long remain our resolve.
Vas Bien Fidel.
CounterFoto is celebrating 4 years. I will be attending some of the events this year, and giving a few talks. The topics will always be provocative and focused on things we rarely talk about as photographers. I will also do portfolio reviews. It’s exciting to return to Dhaka, and to re-connect what is frankly one of the most enthusiastic and exciting photography community I know! Details »
“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.
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.
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.
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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