Photojournalism, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 2: Angel Of Mercy, Have Mercy!

Please read my introduction post Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism: An Introduction before continuing reading the post here.

Part 1 of this 5-part series is here: Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 1: There Is No Other But Us

Angel Of Mercy, Have Mercy!

[I am]…against portraying aid agencies as unmitigated agents of good. They play a complicated role: sometimes important but we shouldn’t set them up as stock characters who are ‘goodies’

Ben Rawlence, author of Radio Congo: Signals of Hope In Africa’s Deadliest War, in a personal email exchange discussing the video game Zero Hour: Congo. 21/04/2013


Aid is a very emotional thing and it’s very difficult to be rational if you are confronted with those pictures of starving children. There’s always this micro picture of this one human life saved, but there’s also a macro picture that we don’t often get presented about damage that aid can do and about the political and military agendas behind aid operations and behind donors. Aid is not necessarily choosing the weakest and the poorest on this earth. Most of the time it is sort of an our own agendas, and I believe it is the duty of journalists to expose that and to make it known to the public.

Linda Polman, in a radio interview with Marco Werman, October 2011

There is a strange modern phenomenon where advocates of new technology innovations often continue to rely on some very old fashioned models of thought. This can be clearly seen in these discussions about the video game Zero Hour: Congo – it is positioned as a cutting edge and innovative attempt at advocacy, and yet retains within in some rather conventional, populist ideas about how the world works.

Humanitarian and aid organizations have come under some severe scrutiny recently. This fact seems to have escaped many photojournalists who continue to speak about and represent such organizations in the most naive, and un-informed way. The scrutiny of the operations, behavior and influence of the massive industry called international humanitarian aid is absolutely crucial, and people are slowly beginning to bring a much needed critical eye to these organizations. There is no doubt that the sheer financial scale and political influence of humanitarian organizations makes is critical for us to understand and scrutinize how they drive policy, affect society and determine popular public perception about their works and about the regions they operate in. The recent criticism and push-back against Amnesty International’s campaign in support of the NATO occupation of Afghanistan was an example of how the inner workings of the organization were bought to the public and the closer relationship of its current leadership to the American political establishment was revealed. It was a clear reminder that journalists can’t just get into bed with aid and humanitarian organizations, but must act as watchdogs against their practices and prejudices. Details »

Photojournalism, Advocacy And Eurocentrism – Part 1: There Is No Other But Us

Please read my introduction post Photojournaliam, Advocacy And Eurocentrism: An Introduction before continuing reading the post here.

There Is No Other But Us

The Congolese is missing. The world created in the video game Zero Hour: Congo is based around a very clear and specific set of actors, none of which are Congolese unless they are ‘victims’. As Marcus explains:

The characters in the game would be based on people in the field: doctors, nurses, aid workers, journalists, photographers, child soldiers.

There is an surprising absence of ‘the other’ – the Congolese as an agent, an actor, and as responsible and engaged. This is now a comon argument, and one that I too have written about before (see one example here), but the fact that this erasure continues requires that I begin by addressing it again. There are no Congolese who are writers of their own history, agents of their own politics, definers of their own futures. It seems somewhat irresponsible to produce a product to educate a market segment called ‘Grassroots Electronic Users’ (I wonder what MBA came up with this one?), and not even have them deal with a reality more complicated than found in a typical comic book. In fact, this limited but popular world view is right out of Hollywood movies like Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener, or any number of other features that show us the European as the agent of change, and action, and the force that allows the African (or some ‘Other’) to ‘discover’, ‘find’, ‘achieve’, and ‘become’. Details »

Photojournalism, Advocacy & Eurocentrism: An Introduction Or A Post With 17,000 Words Is Mercifully Broken Up Into Smaller Pieces

…Since 1945, the decolonization of Asia and Africa, plus the sharply accentuated political consciousness of the non-European world everywhere, has affected the world of knowledge just as much as it has affected the politics of the world-system. One major such difference, today and indeed for some thirty years now at least, is that the “Eurocentrism” of social science has been under attack, severe attack. The attack is of course fundamentally justified, and there is no question that, if social science is to make any progress in the twenty-first century, it must overcome the Eurocentric heritage which has distorted its analyses and its capacity to deal with the problems of the contemporary world.

(I Wallerstein, Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science New Left Review, Issue 226, November-December 1997

Around the colonized there has grown a whole vocabulary of phrases, each in its own way reinforcing the dreadful secondariness of people who, in V.S. Naipaul’s derisive characterization, are condemned only to use a telephone, never to invent it. Thus the status of colonized people has been fixed in zones of dependency and peripherality, stigmatized in the designation of underdeveloped, less-developed, developing states, ruled by a superior, developed, or metropolitan colonized who was theoretically posited as a categorically antithetical overlord.…Thus to be one of the colonized is potentially to be a great many different, but inferior, things, in many different places, at many different times.

Edward Said, ‘Representing The Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors’, Reflections On Exile: And Other Essays, Page 294

The characters in the game would be based on people in the field: doctors, nurses, aid workers, journalists, photographers, child soldiers. NGOs would be involved in the game’s design so that the user is educated as well as entertained. These organizations could also benefit from revenues generated by the players, which could aid real world projects in specific places.

The photojournalist will hopefully be the link between the aid/NGO world and the people who are impacted by the conflict. They will be able to go behind rebel lines to see the use of child soldiers and to report on the violence, displacement, and desperate health situation. In this way, the photojournalist will be the eyes for the game “world.”

(The photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale, talking about his new video game venture Zero Hour: Congo, described as ‘…an immersive game based on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo’)

Marcus Bleasdale is perhaps amongst the world’s most well known photojournalists. His near twelve year work on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has won him international recognition, awards from most all photojournalism competition of note and various foundation grants. A member of the famous VII photo agency, he represents for many, the finest in the tradition of concerned photography. Marcus has dedicated the better part of his career to the conflict in the DRC, and has extended his work with an extensive set of engagements with both human rights organizations, international media and international bodies such as the United Nations. As he describes it himself, his aim has been to make people: Details »

Documentary Photography As Voice: First Pakistan Workshop: June 23rd to 27th 2013

Workshop Poster (small)

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Proudly Speaking Out On Behalf Of ‘Terrorists’ Or The Forever War And Its Silences

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.

The video is grainy, and difficult to view on the small mobile phone screen its being played on. There is a man being interviewed by a BBC correspondent – she is questioning him about Osama Bin Ladin and about Al-Qaeda. I can’t make out the details of the interview, and I can’t see the man’s face – he is turned away from the camera but I can see his bearded profile. “That is my father” Abubabakar Hayat says pointing to bearded figure in the screen. I continue to watch closely – the scene in the video cuts to one where a group of men, handcuffed and blindfolded, are being loaded into the back of a Pakistan Police vehicle. As the last man is pushed in – wearing an orange blindfold, dressed in a dark brown shalwar kameez, Abubakar’s excited voice cuts in..”There – that is my father Shokat Hayat. This is the last view I have of him.” The other children are sitting quietly around me, looking at me. I am not sure how many times they have seen this video before, but clearly they are more interested in my reactions. Their father disappeared on 15th March 2009, picked up by the Pakistani ISI and the Police, and was never heard from again. Now, this poor quality video, is there only evidence of him alive. I want to ask questions about his involvement with the conflicts in Afghanistan, with the regime of the Taliban or whether he was involved in activities against the American presence in the country. I have been told that he was involved with groups speaking out against the Musharraf regime and the American war in Afghanistan. That he had been in Afghanistan and collaborated with the Taliban regime. But I stop myself. It’s not his guilt that I have come to establish, but the legality of his disappearance and the unconstitutionality of his arrest. I remind myself that whether he is gulty of crimes or not, or whether he is religiously fundamentalist or not, the issue here is of law and the right to due process. It is the fact that Pakistani citizen’s rights – a commodity of no importance to the very people responsible for upholding then, were violated. There is nothing more to say. 

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 »

The Waltz Or The New York Times Lens Blog Offers The Israeli Government A Dance

Israeli Report Casting New Doubts on Shooting in Gaza - NYTimes.com_20130520-172359

It is a rather strange piece of reporting. It is also a rather strange story to have run on what is The New York Times’ photography blog, Lens. I am seriously confused as to what the editors of both the newspaper, and this blog, were thinking they were doing when they ran this piece.

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Searching For Love In All The Wrong Places Or Time Magazine Goes In Search Of Muslim Ghosts

What Tsarnaev Saw_Dagestan by Dmitry Kostyukov - LightBox_20130520-151914

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 »

Ideas, Inspirations and Still A Time For Dreaming


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.

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Against Whispering

Simon Norfolk.

I was so confident that I had written about his work on this blog that I even suggested to some of the students working with me on my Justice In Pakistan project to do a search on this, The Spinning Head, blog and take a look at his work. When they came back a few days later and pointed out that their search yielded no results I was surprised, and embarrassed. It was inconceivable that I have never discussed Norfolk’s work in all the years that I have been writing this blog. It was later that I realized that I had planned on writing about him, in particular his recent work in Afghanistan, and had decided to wait until after I had reviewed his latest project. And then I never got around to it. I want to fix this terribly oversight and write about his work now.

About two years ago I received an email from Simon that said:

I’m a big fan of your blog and in particular your thoughts about embedding in Afghanistan. Which was why I went and embedded in Afghanistan! I’d like to show you the results, it’s following in the footsteps of John Burke, a photographer who was there in 1880; can I mail you a copy of my book? Can you send me an address? I’d love to hear your thoughts, good or bad.

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Towards Other Possibilities…

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 »