A Photographer Confronts His World
This essay was written as an introduction to my earliest attempts to produce a photographic work on the victims of America’s wars. Focusing on the communities living on the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) or Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KP) as it is today called, it was a small attempt to speak out against the wars we had manufactured, and the millions of lives we were destroying. It was my first photographic dissent against what was unfolding. Written in the fall of 2011, it accompanied a few grant proposals I put together for this work. And whereas those attempts failed, this work, these communities, remain a part of my more recent and broader project in Pakistan tentatively titled Justice In Pakistan for which I did finally secure some much needed funding.
In July and August 2013, I am bringing bringing this work to the USA. The campaign for the release of the 33 men still imprisoned – without charge and without due process, at the Bagram / Parawan prison in Afghanistan, goes to major cities in Pakistan, and onto Washington D.C. and New York. I will be traveling and proudly speaking on behalf and in support of men who are considered ‘terrorists’ without any evidence, or without recourse to a meaningful legal process where they can defend themselves against these charges. They were rendered to the Americans by the British, Pakistanis and the Afghans, and have been waiting for a fair trial. Many have been there for over 11 years. Some have been released, and we believe more will be if we maintain the pressure, and keep insisting.
I am in the midst of this work now, traveling across Pakistan and into remote villages and urban slums, to collect as many stories as I can. Or am permitted to. Conservative, jaded and left without hope, many of the families no longer believe that any amount of effort can help release their sons, fathers and husbands from the black hole of American imprisonment they have fallen into. I believe otherwise and so do members of The Justice Project Pakistan, whose inspiring leader, lawyer Sarah Belal, has been fighting cases on their behalf. Our goal is to launch the work in late July, and bring the exhibitions to the USA in July and August. There will be a dedicated website for this work and I will post updates once that is ready.
In the mean time, below is the essay I wrote in one sitting, one quiet, late night in Stockholm. I remember I was on the phone with a friend, and after many days of struggling to figure out what to write, this simply fell out in less than a couple of hours. I have since left it unchanged. Details »
We love our demons.
If we can’t find them, we will invent them.
Time Magazine, now pretty much a mouth piece for not just American exceptional-ism, idealism, innocence and purity, but for the ignorance, bigotry, myopia and fear-mongering that fuels and justifies so much that passes for politics and diplomacy in the United States today, has once again produced a rather strange piece of photo-reportage.
With no sense of irony, or self-awareness, the editors at the magazine dispatched their writer and a photographer to go explore the troubled, brutalized, suppressed and oppressed regions of the Russian Caucasus, all in the hope that
…to learn what, if anything, the region’s Islamists had to do with Tsarnaev’s [one of the bomber's] radicalization.
This would be quite fascinating if it wasn’t for the fact that Tsarnaev himself actually told us the answer. Details »
Sitting this morning in Lahore I am dreaming of Africa, of borders, and of other things that distract.
Ben Rawlence’s book Radio Congo: Signals of Hope From Africa’s Deadliest War arrived in the mail today. I had met Ben in New York some weeks ago at a dinner sponsored by the Open Society Institute. Ben is an Open Society Fellow this year and working on a new book about life in the Dadaab refugee camp in Somali. While speaking to him I mentioned that I was now living in Kigali, Rwanda, and was soon on my way to shoot a short assignment in Eastern Congo. Ben graciously offered to send me a copy of this work – a personal journey to the fabled city of Manono in Eastern Congo. The journey by foot, bike, and boat becomes a meditation on the history of the region, colonialism, the post-colonial dreams and the nightmares that replaced them, and about a new world emerging from a history that looks chaotic, but has its own trajectory and logic.
Memory is myth. And one of the most powerful myths that I constructed about my life was about the moment when I realized that I had become stuck in New York, and that my life was simply drifting along without my really being aware of how or why. Don’t get me wrong – New York was and remains my favorite city. There wasn’t a moment in the day that I wasn’t busy either with work or friends or exploring its different neighborhoods and possibilities. I loved it for its unpredictability, its complexity and its infinite surprises. I felt more alive and involved while living there than anywhere else. But it wasn’t until the moment that I read Benjamin Kunkel’s first novel Indecision that I realized that I had gotten it so wrong. Its actually not even a great novel, but nevertheless, it was a fun read. I read for distraction, and remember basically getting bored of the work somewhere half way through. Regardless, it was funny, incisive and deliciously celebratory of the delinquent lifestyle. It was one of the first of many novels I was to read where the protagonist is simply rebelling against his assigned responsibilities in life and choosing instead to waste his days and ambitions lounging around, getting high, and contemplating nothing. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s hilarious English, August remains one of my favorite in this particular genre of literature. Details »
I am enjoying this new series that Al-Jazeera is running – Artscape: The New African Photographers. Its not just it is a sheer pleasure to hear new and different voices in photography – the European and American obsession with a few handful of the same old voices, largely selected by bored editors from agencies such as Magnun, VII or Noor etc, becoming quite tiresome and banal. It was simply lovely to hear Osodi talk about his work, about how he began it, and how he sees and understands the issues that he is trying to represent.
They buried her and sent a message to Ranjha saying, ‘The hour of destiny has arrived. We had hoped otherwise but no one can escape the destiny of death. Even as it is written in the Holy Quran, ‘Everything is mortal save only God.’
They sent a messenger with the letter and he left Jhang and arrived at Hazara, and he entered the house of Ranjha and wept as he handed the letter. Ranjha asked him, ‘Why this dejected air? Why are you sobbing? Is my beloved ill? Is my property safe?’
The messenger sighed and said, ‘That dacoit death from whom no one can escape has looted your property. Heer has been dead for the last eight watches. They bathed her body and buried her yesterday and as soon as they began the last funeral rites, they sent me to give you the news.’
On hearing these words Ranjha heaved a sigh and the breath of life forsook him.
Thus both lovers passed away from this mortal world and entered into the halls of eternity. Both remained firm in love and passed away steadfast in true love. Death comes to all.
The world is but a play and fields and forests all will melt away in the final day of dissolution. Only the poet’s poetry remains in everlasting remembrance. for no one has written such a beautiful Heer.
I am tired of myself.
I have been tired of myself and the constant need to confront, challenge, critique, analyze, study and evaluate the works of others.
I am tired my instinct to constantly be alert against reductive histories and banal simplicities that seem to pervade what passes for the photojournliasm industry. Details »
Photojournalism remains a deeply subjective craft – the act, the craft, the technique, the entire business enterprise (from stories selected, assigned, produced, photographed, published, produced, awarded etc.) relies on a series of subjective choices and prioritization. That is, photojournalism, much like any journalism, is fundamentally a human act of exploration, investigation, articulation, documentation, explanation, argumentation, and presentation (not necessarily in that order) and carries within it, as in all human enterprises, a series of human choices, selections, eliminations and and prioritization. And hence, carries within it the fundamental characteristics of all human and humanistic knowledge and endeavors, and that as Edward Said argued:, we can:.
…acquire philosophy and knowledge, it is true, but the basic unsatisfactory fallibility of the human mind persists nonetheless. So there is always something radically incomplete, insufficient, provisional, and arguable about humanistic knowledge that…gives the whole idea of humanism a tragic flaw that is constitutive to it and cannot be removed.
(Said, Edward Humanism And Democratic Criticism, Page 11-12)
Every serious, responsible photojournalist who steps into the world to report and say something about it works to mitigate the problem of human fallibility by proceeding with a determination to report issue fairly, and to document and communicate their findings honestly, comprehensively and ethically. That is, the only thing that allows us to take any photojournalism project seriously is the belief that the reporter has carried out her task with a dedication to these principles. It is also one of the reasons why mainstream news outlets remain so critical to the process – they offer the reputation and trust that allows us to take any reporting from the field seriously.
Ironically, this is the one aspect of photojournalism that news photography and photojournalism contests do not focus on. In fact, there is a near absolute focus on the aesthetics of an image, and little or no focus on evaluating the veracity, accuracy, reliability, and rigor of a photojournalism story. Most of the controversies that emerge during the photo competition season tend to center around issues of aesthetics, as when a number of people voiced concern that Paul Hansen’s World Press Photo competition winning image was over manipulated or adjusted differently for the competition than from when it first ran in the newspaper. Each year, at the end of the major photojournalism competition season, we see a whole host of these complaints and concerns being expressed, with many people expressing outrage at the level of image processing, and adjustment in various winning images. In fact, the only reason an ethics controversy occurred this year was because of a group of bloggers and researchers directly and indirectly invovled with the story produced by Paolo Pellegrin cried foul. Details »
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