Fabricated Histories, Celebrated Photographers And A New Frontier For The Embedded Photographer

Time Magazine’s Lightbox photography blog had a rather bizarre story earlier today. Titled Real Photographer, Fake War: Jonathan Olley and Zero Dark Thirty, it focused on the film studio photography work of photographer Jonathan Olley who once also happened to have worked as a news photographer in some conflict zones. What seemed to have attracted the Lightbox photo editor’s interest was the easy parallel between the fact that Mr. Olley had once covered real conflict and today covered staged conflicts for Hollywood directors.

What however caught my interest was this statement:

The film, from Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, traces the hunt for Osama bin Laden through the career of one female American intelligence officer, played by Jessica Chastain. While the film has received criticism —from politicians and the military, not to mention historians who challenge the film portrayal of events— the virulence of the critiques may fairly reflect how realistic the movie is presented.

Those of you who read my posts know that I have criticized the editors of Time Magazine in the past. It is a publication that has been on the frontline of America’s war propaganda machinery, and staffed with writers who express opinions that are abhorrent, and immoral. But what has also intrigued me is the way in which its speaks about photography, and uses the voices of photographers, to decontextualize, confuse and at times befuddle the reader.

For example, in the statement above that the criticism against the film Zero Dark Thirty are virulent because of ‘…how realistic the movie is presented’, is not only wrong, but simply irresponsible. In fact, anyone who has read even a few items of the statements made against this film will know that the criticisms center on 1) the film’s suggestion, completely wrong and unsubstantiated, that the use of torture led to the discovery of Osama Bin Ladin’s hideout, and 2) that torture is an effective and essential tool in America’s wars against terror.

Glenn Greenwald was vehement in his criticism of the film and summarized its odious message as follows:

This film presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America. There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists. No matter how you slice it, no matter how upset it makes progressive commentators to watch people being waterboarded, that – whether intended or not – is the film’s glorification of torture.

Peter Mass, writing in The Atlantic, penned a piece called Don’t Trust Zero Dark Thirty went further and and argued that there was an even more insidious problem with the film – that Zero Dark Thirty was a new achievement in government embedded film making:

…what’s far more important and troubling about a film that seems destined for blockbuster and Academy Award status. Zero Dark Thirty represents a new genre of embedded filmmaking that is the problematic offspring of the worrisome endeavor known as embedded journalism.

You would not know any of this of course from the Time Lightbox post, or from the statements made by the photographer himself. In fact, to create a completely specious parallel between real wars and staged ones for the box-office, the Time Lightbox editors quoted the Katherine Bigelow, the director of the film, who claimed that:

“What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film,” Bigelow told the The New Yorker in an interview about the movie last December. Who better to photograph a movie about a war, than a photojournalist who had seen one up close.

What they left out was that this same director, when confronted and challenged on the false connection between torture and the finding of Bin Ladin, backtracked and hid behind an ‘art’ argument and jettisoned her ‘journalistic approach to film’ defence. Zero Dark Thirty has been criticized for being an overt act of government propaganda, offering fabrications and justifications for some of the most immoral, and illegal practices our governments adopted in the wake of September 11th, 2001.

As Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote in her piece Zero Conscience in Zero Dark Thirty:

…what is so unsettling about ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it. In addition to excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden. But this claim has been debunked, repeatedly, by reliable sources with access to the facts. . . .

But you would not know any of this from the editors of Time Lightbox who present the film as a giddy, sensational, exciting jaunt through America’s ‘war’, one fit to be photographed by someone who covered a ‘real’ war. It takes a tremendous amount of ignorance to claim that these criticisms are so vehement because of ‘.. how realistic the movie is presented’ when in fact what they are about it is how much a lie and fabrication it actually is.

In fact, this entire piece reads like an unthinking hagiography of a film that has been resoundly criticzied for being a work of propaganda. To offer such a thoughtlessly celebratory piece can only suggest a willful intent to mislead the many who read the magazine and the blog, or a determined effort to continue to remain apace of the American war machine’s obfuscations of its wars and repressive measures.

The editors also don’t seem to notice that Jonathan Olley’s three Hollywood stage shoots have been for The Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty – all films that have variously been criticized for their uncritical, ahistorical representations of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and its various illegal, repressive measures. (Aside: I don’t know Mr. Olley and do not suggest I know his motivations and aspirations as a photographer. I also do not begrudge his right to shoot as he wishes and for whom he wishes. I am more interested in asking questions whose answers can provide us some interesting insights).

At one point the desperate parallels being created get near giddy and silly:

…with three films under his belt, Olley says his commercial photography work on Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty, requires the same skill and attention to detail as covering any war.

I wonder if this was written simply because it sounds good, when in fact, a close examination would reveal that it sounds completely nonsensical. Producing public relations stills from a Hollywood set could hardly require the same skills as working as a reporter / photojournalist covering a conflict. Unless of course what the Time Lightbox editors mean is covering war as an embedded photographer in which case I can certainly see the parallels. You just wait until you get permission to come ‘on to the set’, and are then directed to shoot what they allow you to shoot.

Perhaps in the end what most concerned me was the easy way the editors of Time Ligbtbox chose to conflate reporting real conflicts with filming staged ones. The close juxtaposition of Mr. Olley’s images from Sarajevo and other conflict zones below the main slide show of his Hollywood stills offered greater gravity, and ‘journalistic’ credibility to the scenes offered in the films. This is completely specious and concocted. In fact, as you read the text of the post, you realize that the reason why a ‘conflict photographer’ was chosen to shoot the stills was to precisely blur the lines between photojournalism as reportage and photojournalism as propaganda. As the post informs us:

What follows is a stunningly efficient raid — carefully choreographed…Through it all, photographer Jonathan Olley was there.

But these bullets and bombs were mere props. The soldiers: actors instead. The drama: cinematic climate written and directed by the movie industry’s best. But in the world of Hollywood, Jonathan Olley’s photographs are almost too real.

Perhaps the editors themselves do not understand the role that they are playing and how they are helping ‘normalize’ what is otherwise a seriously problematic, if not outright dangerous, Hollywood fabrication. They are helping ‘normalize’ a film that has been roundly criticized for celebrating an illegal, immoral, and inhumane practice that we once would have been ashamed to be associated it, and still ought to be ashamed about. Its not just a movie. Its not just about a pretty picture. You cannot remove the subject, and simply celebrate the aesthetics. As Peter Va Buren has warned:

Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. As an act, it is all about pain, but even more about degradation and humiliation. It destroys its victims, but also demeans those who perpetrate it.

If the editors still cannot understand why they can’t speak so blithely about a subject so vile, then perhaps they should re-read Mark Danner to broaden their understanding. They can find some of his writings on this question here, here, here and here. And there is a lot more. For otherwise it appears as if the editors have been tricked into a role not quite unlike that which Bigelow has been accused of playing –  garlanding Hollywood fabrications with the credibility of journalism, all in the service of a state’s continuing efforts to mask its crimes. It becomes, as Peter Mas pointed out, perhaps a new level of government embedding.





As the writers of the post tell us:

Today, with three films under his belt, Olley says his commercial photography work on Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty, requires the same skill and attention to detail as covering any war.



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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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