A boy

I met a boy this morning. He told me his name of Akhtar Mohammed. When I first saw him he was sitting crouched on the street, holding his head, as blood streamed down his hands. Someone had thrown a stone at him and seriously hurt him. From a distance he looked like a piece of discarded cloth – a small, black bundle sitting there, rolling to-and-fro gently as he tried to bear the pain of the injury. He was crying, and he was alone. His garbage collection bag lay some distance down the street – he had left it there as he looked around for suitable trash to scavenge and take home. Before I could move towards him to see what had happened, a man appeared, carrying dirt in his hand. He crouched over the boy and, without touching his head, tried to spread it over the wound. I ran towards them, and stopped him immediately – the danger of an infection, the germs of the dirt just did not seem the right response to the large open, blood filled wound on this child’s head. As I stepped closed to them, pushing the man back and informing him that we will take him to the hospital for a proper dressing, I finally saw the child more clearly.

the boy

He could have been no more than four years old. His entire body was covered with a thick layer of black dirt. His face – smeared with blood, dust, dirt and snot, revealed two sharp and bright eyes. His small hands – nails caked with dirt, the skin wrinkled like that of an old man, scraped at his skull. His entire body convulsed from his crying. His bare feet – black, wrinkled, deformed kept scraping at the dirt as if he was trying to grasp it to reduce his pain. A four-year old child, alone, sent out by his parents in the early hours of the morning to search and scavenge for recyclable trash. A crucial contributor to a desperate family.

I knelt next to him and bought him closer to me – I am not sure why I did this. I have never done anything like this before. But in that instance, at that moment, this child become for me a symbol of something else, something larger than that particular injury, that particular accident. I felt, and saw in him, the failure of our society, one in which small children had to forego a childhood to earn money for their families. In that instant, this boy Akhtar Mohammed, represented all that we had failed to achieve, all that we had failed to rectify. To most this reaction will of course sound rather over-wrought. But it does have a history.

Some years ago I wrote a small essay as part of a grant proposal where I found myself recalling a particular incident in my life. This is what I wrote:

…while walking back from the local market, I saw two small children, no older than five perhaps, holding hands and sifting through offal outside a butcher’s shop looking for something to eat. None paid them any attention, suggesting that it was a fairly common occurrence. I too had probably walked past here dozens of times and never bothered to see anything unusual. But on that day what once could easily be ignored became impossible to turn away from. The shock was profound, the sense of awareness even more so.

My eyes became stereopticons, noticing details. The sister’s gentle clasp of her smaller brother’s hand, their uncertain steps, their dirt covered skin, their hair of a color that suggested something other than natural, their eyes that cast a look that cut through the veneer of civility and sophistication constructed by a middle class society living in complete indifference amongst such deprivation, their cautious but determined steps as they sorted through discarded entrails to see what could be taken as food. I stopped. I looked. I stared. I remember a feeling of discomfort at being the only one stopping to stare. And then, the act of cowardice that scared me for life; I moved on.

That was over 20 years ago but, as Faiz said ‘I can’t help but look back when I return from those alleys – what should one do?’, those two children have never left me. It is because of them that I began to see the world more clearly, to understand my place in it, to question it and examine the makings of it. Perhaps most importantly, those two children, discarded dregs of Pakistan’s false modernity, made me understand a country that I had until then loved unconditionally and defended thoughtlessly.

It is a true story. I have carried that moment with me since. This morning I was reminded of it in the shape of Akhtar Mohammed. I was reminded of the state of a nation that cannot offer a child a childhood, that can bray and brag about its nuclear weapons, its crucial role in the war against terror, its pretensions to power and relevance, and yet cannot offer a small child and his family a decent living, some food. It cannot put shoes on the feet of this small child. Like the tens of thousands of others that it has betrayed and abandoned.

I was reminded of the fact that our politics, our government, and even our ideas of the priorities of our nation, are a long way away from this small child’s life. Centered around a borrowed language of ‘development’, an empty rhetoric of ‘democracy’, and a retarded obsession with weapons and violence, an obsession with ethnic allegiances, a craving for class status, and a celebration of empty and useless achievements (the world largest human flag, for goodness sake!!!). For all our nuclear weapons, our American made killing machines, our American fed economic models, our borrowed / purchased modernity in the form of toys and trinkets, our mindless mimicing of the behaviors and pretensions of those who mock and disdain us, we are still unable to care for this four-year-old child.

This is a country where a democratic leader, the former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, when challenged by a CNN reporter to explain why so many Pakistani’s want to leave the country – ostensibly because of a lack of a future, safety and security, responded by saying  Why don’t they just leave then. Like a dear caught in the headlights, he added, as if invited the car to run him over Who’s stopping them?. I was reminded of the Chief Minister of Baluchistan, when confronted with the deaths of 40 Hazara’s, callously commented I will send a truckload of tissue papers to the bereaved families. I’d send tobacco if I weren’t a politician. A degraded polity, a crass mentality, a sickened public rhetoric, an irresponsible and immoral outlook on the very people they are entrusted to serve.

I took Akhtar to the hospital. I sat with him while they cleaned and dressed his wounds. I watch him from a distance – alone, far from home, lost in a large hospital, surrounded by strangers, scared and in pain. I thought about my daughter, Sofia, and whether she would be able to handle this situation. I thought about the fear that must be piercing through Akhtar’s body at this moment. I caught his eye…they were blank.

Later I drove him to his home. It was about two kilometers away and we had to walk the last half a kilometer that led to center of a collection of mud-home on a hilltop that he lived in. Dust rose all around us – a barren, dirt landscape from which rose single-storied homes built from the same dirt. There was a beauty to it – a cruel beauty, but nevertheless one that I could not help but admire. There was a cohesiveness to the homes – they belonged to that landscape in a way that no modern, cement home, could.

the landscape

As we walked through the narrow lanes, raising huge clouds of dust in our wake, I watched Akhtar as he made his way home – determined, anxious, and now, with a clean bandage and a pain that was greatly reduced, slightly more playful and excited. He looked like a child again and seemed, in a strange way to be proud of going back home. As other children rushed towards him – or perhaps they were curious to see Akhtar returning home in the company of someone who looked completely alien to the community, he carried himself with a greater confidence and a leap in his gait. At one point he grabbed my hands to turn me into an alley, and I could not help but smile. I realized that I was perhaps getting more out of this little adventure then he, but he seemed to be happy to take me home.

This was his world. And one alien to me – these mud homes, these dusty, curious children, their sharp laughter, this dust that we breathed, the harsh sun, the barren ground, the garbage, the stench of sewage, the sounds of sheep from inside the houses, the curious, suspicious eyes peering out from behind burlap curtains and around street corners, the surly looking men sitting on their haunched looking at us from under arms shielding their eyes from the hard sunlight. It was all unfamiliar to me. And I was completely out of place.

We finally arrived at his home. The twenty minutes it took for us to weave through seemingly endless corners and turns had me concerned that Akhtar had lost his way. But he had not. Once we arrived at his door, he ran into a room at the back and disappeared. I did not see him again. I waited outside to see if anyone from his family would emerge, and after about five minutes, I saw his father comingout from the room at the back, has face covered with a look of great concern and fear. He stretched out his hand towards me, his eyes imploring to know what had happened to his child. Tell me that he will be ok. It was his first question. I slowly explained to him what had happened, and how it was not a serious injury, but that they must keep the bandages on him for at least a few days, and to keep them clean (and how was he going to achieve that here in this place? I remember thinking) His face carried his concern and I wanted to say more to allay his fears, but we were now surrounded by at least twenty children, and a handful of curious adults who had arrived at the door and I thought it best to leave. I repeated my instructions, told him not to worry and that his son was fine, and asked him to stop by the house the next day to pick up the things the child had left on the streets – the garbage collection bag. He smiled, and said there wasn’t anything valuable in that.

I wanted to say more. I wanted to give him some money to buy his son some shoes. I wanted to suggest that we could wash his clothes at the house. I wanted to say that I could perhaps use some of my own money to pay for the child to go to school rather than trawl the streets looking for rubbish. I wanted to say a lot more, but the situation seemed wrong. Standing there in front of Akhtar’s father I realized that he was the patriarch of the family, the care taker of his children, and that I may have overstepped my place and could even be close to humiliating him in front of his neighbors. He shook my hand. My assurances seemed to have worked, but I do not know. Perhaps I just told that to myself. As I turned around and began walking back to my car I could not help but feel an incredible sense of failure. Perhaps even a sense of abandonment and irresponsibility. But perhaps I was simply avoiding accepting the fact that I had not done enough. But what would that have been, I was not sure. I just knew, and still feel, that I had not done enough.

I am glad that I met Akhtar.  I am glad that I felt all that I did – the anger at his condition, the shame of belonging to a society where a child is allowed to live as Akhtar does, the desire to scream at nothing in particular when I first saw him sitting there crying, alone as people simply walked by, the rather fatherly affection I felt for him as I watched him being attended to in the hospital, the guardianship I experienced accompanying him home to the safety of his family, and the respect and admiration I carry for this small child asked to brave a world he barely understands, and do it in conditions that are unworthy of a human being, and in a society that I feel has not earned the right to call itself that. I prayed for him later that night. It was the only thing I had the courage to ask for.

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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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