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:

…see the consequences of our actions and of our need to consume. This war [in the DRC] is all about natural resources, natural resources that no Congolese uses. If we did not demand Gold, Coltan, Cassiterite then this would not be happening. We must increasingly see the links between our behavior in the developed world and wars in the developing world and accept the responsibility we all have in creating the conflict and accept the responsibility we all have in trying to make it stop. As a photographer I feel I can supply the tools to the people who have the power to make that happen.

It was because of such a commitment that he was recently selected to participate in the Magnum Foundation / Open Society Institute’s ‘Photography Expanded: Rethinking Engagement And Impact’ conference. According to the official statement of the conference, it was designed to:

…explore how to use technology and new media to expand the reach of [a photojournalist's] images in order to maximize their impact and help effect social change.

Marcus Bleasdale, in collaboration with the British digital games developer nDreams, is producing a video game called Zero Hour: Congo. His reasoning, offered in an interview on the Photography Expanded conference website, is that:

Grassroots users of electronic products (smart phones, tablets, laptops, cameras, and game consoles) are largely unaware that they are involved [in the DRC conflict because of their use of electronics equipment that relies on raw materials from the DRC]. Developing a game that could entertain and at the same time guide people to increased awareness seemed to be the right direction to follow. We increasingly see youth today not engaging in mainstream news. If they are not coming to traditional platforms for information, I figured I would bring mainstream news to them.

In the same interview, when asked how he intended to ‘…connect that audience to ongoing advocacy or conversations about what’s happening in DRC?’ Marcus replied:

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.

Further adding that the ‘character’ of the journalist / photojournalist will be to act as:

…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.” 

Photography Expanded wants to be at the cutting edge of photography, technology and advocacy, exploring ways in which new media and the creative possibilities offered by the medium can help photographers gain wider audiences, and more effective strategies for achieving change in society. And Marcus Bleasdale’s idea for a video game that educates a younger generation about the connection between their consumer habits and the forces that fuel the war appeared, was featured during the conference as an example of some of the most interesting thinking in this regard.

Suffice it to say, all this provoked a lot of questions and concerns, and gave rise to this rather long and detailed exploration of the assumptions and ideas that underpin the idea and how they fail to reflect the world that we today operate it. There were many problematic statements here and I think many of us may already know what is to follow. Regardless, this is a critique of a world view in general that seems to continue to influence how we work as photojournalists ie. how we frame our stories, how we see the world, and how we perceive our place in it. 

I believe that it is an important critique and though people may disagree with the specifics of my criticism I hope that they can at least understand the need to engage in it. The photojournalism industry – its editors, photographers, curators, critics and hangers-on, seem very reluctant to allow serious and important issues of method, structure, assumptions and intellectual frameworks to be discussed in open and honest exchange. There is an obsessive focus on technology, technical innovation and aesthetics of the digital darkroom, but a near complete silence about the fundamental intellectual and structural platforms informing it. I believe this silence comes from simply being unaware of the need to examine some of the social, cultural, and power assumptions that underpin Western photojournalism. As a photographer working from outside this self-affirming world, these assumptions are perhaps more obvious to me and the short-comings of the entrenched methods more visible.

This is a small attempt to provoke this conversation.

Let me begin by quickly pointing out that there are are a number of questionable idea behind a video game as advocacy approach. I want to dispense with a few that came immediately to mind because I will not be concentrating on addressing the, but merely listing them here for consideration. For example:

  • Whether a game based on a rather cartoonish world-view – doctors, nurses, aid workers, journalists, photographers, child soldiers, can be expected to transform real world behavior of a younger generation of European / Western technology product users who will clearly not be exposed to the real issues driving the conflict, nor the complexities of Congolese history, politics, colonial legacies and the myriads of ethnic, political and other conflicts that are key drivers of the conflict?

  • How a product that can only be used on the very technologies the photographer claims are fueling the conflict – coltan and other such minerals, expected to then argue for a reduction in the use of such technologies? What happens if the game is a runaway success, and the sales of game consoles, hand-held devices, and associated accessories goes through the roof? Pity the Congolese then!

  • Why we, despite there being absolutely no evidence of a causal link between video game playing and social behavioral change, believe that this is even something worth considering? On what basis is this even being attempted when it is not even clear that it has any ability to raise awareness? Violent video games are played by kids all over the world, and yet we do not believe that this reduces their opposition to war or violence.

  • How can we expect a virtual world experience that actually disconnects the users from the real world – a feature that may be one of the reasons why people love video games in the first place, to translate itself into a greater awareness of perhaps one of the most intractable conflicts in modern history?

  • Would a private corporation investing hundreds of thousands of dollars n the design, development, testing, production, and marketing of this game commit itself to the priorities of social change, or to the priorities of turning a profit? And what happens when there is a severe conflict of interest between those two ends?

These are some of the unanswered question and unverified assumptions behind this idea which on the surface appeared very cutting edge and innovative. I am sure that there are more, but this is what came to mind immediately. And even if I accept that all this would be effective – that people could learn by playing a video game, and change their consumerist behavior as a result, there were other, perhaps more serious, problems.

For what lies behind this entire idea, and the markets it was aimed at, was a deep Euro-centric prejudice about not only how to speak about the world, but whom to speak to.This model continues to influence how we as photographers and photojournalists go about attempting to change the pathologies we witness, and how we speak about the subjects we assume the right to speak for.

I spell out some of my concerns in more detail in the following sections as it is the main concern of this essay.

Western photojournalism remain deeply trapped in an Euro-centric worldview. This rather limited way of seeing and understanding the world not only limits the kinds of stories that are produced, but more seriously, cripple the photographer’s understanding of her role, her ability to affect social change, and the kinds of advocacy campaigns she engages in.

The first of these issues- the limited kinds of stories produced, and the rather limited issues and topics photojournalists tend to focus on, was addressed in at least two earlier posts – see Digressions On Photojournalism Or Why I Argue What I Argue and The Limits of Photojournalism And Things More Worthwhile.

In this post I want to address the second of the two concerns – the Euro-centric world view of Western photojournalists producing works about the world outside their Western markets, and some of the unspoken assumptions that underpin their attempts at social change and advocacy.

But what do I mean by an Euro-centric world view? Specifically, the set of assumptions that:

  • The European / Western actor in the field (whether a NGOs, aid organizations or individual) are the most meaningful if not the only interesting and effective actors, and that local activists, organizations, and other actors are simply marginal, if not completely irrelevant.

  • The attention and ‘awareness’ of the European / Western audience in the photographer’s markets is what really matters as far as genuine acts of advocacy and pressure for social change action is concerned

  • The Western journalist is a neutral ‘eye’ to the world, unaffected by bias of her history, political understanding, and the structure and priorities of the media industry she works within.

  • The world is ‘looked down’ from the heights of a civilized European cultural and political space, where the assumption of the right to intervene and act on the lives of ‘the other’ is a given.

Now, before people get all upset and start accusing me of reverse bigotry and what have you, let me clarify something before I continue. Euro-centricity is not about ethnicity, but about a world view. It does not refer to the white-man so to speak, but to a certain way of seeing. For example, there are many Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani photographers who are extremely Euro-centric in the way they document and produce their works – the assumptions about their society, culture, its history, agency and the actions required or even the issues identified reflect a deep affinity and absorption of ‘a distant’ eye. They have become accustomed – through education, life experiences, market sales possibilities and other influences, to seeing their own world through the eyes and agency of The West. So this is not about ethnicity, or being an indigenous photographer, but about a certain way of looking at the world, and understanding how it operates, that I wish to discuss. As an aside, I believe that one of the best archive of Pakistani photographs belongs to a German photographer who has spent the last 15 years working in the country.

This Euro-centricity carries within it a number of ideas that are hang-overs from an earlier world. But in an industry which remains very reluctant to build a culture of critical, and intellectual thought, the presumptions and prejudices continue to color so much of today’s photojournalism. It could be argued that it has only gotten worse in the post-9/11 world, where an entire host of orientalist and bigoted ideas about a large swath of humanity began to become mainstream journalistic, political and cultural currency. (For example, see some of my recent critiques of works features on Time Magazines and its LightBox photography blog site here, here and here). Rather than progress with the times, and arrive into a more inter-connected, articulate, and egalitarian world, photojournalists remain determined to ignore modernity and its developments and continue to document societies in way that echo works from twenty, or thirty years earlier.

Mainstream photojournalism appears to be immune to some of the radical changes that have affected so many other fields of human creativity and inquiry. I had argued in my post Digressions On Photojournalism Or Why I Argue What I Argue :

Photojournalism (photographers and photo editors) has been oddly immune to transformations that have affected other fields. The subaltern has spoken, in a language of his/her own, and can finally be heard. An entire literature has broken through from world’s previously silenced. New histories are being revealed, and counter narratives to debilitating colonial histories being offered. The voice of the [previously] marginalized now reside alongside those once considered the ‘canon’ and do so by integration and expanding out understanding of our own pluralist heritage and history. In American alone the voices of women, African Americans, the indigenous and so many others can no longer be ignored and have enhanced and illuminated our understanding of ourselves and the experiences of history.

The changes that have taken place in so many other fields seem largely absent from the craft of mainstream photojournalism which still remains largely about silencing the other, and reconstructing their worlds and lives as defined by pathos, victim hood and hopelessness. Photographers still transgress into the worlds ‘other’ with an impunity and indifference that can leave one shocked if not outright dismayed. They return with stories right out the works of Joseph Conrad, revealing the ‘darkest’ Africa, the direst of Asiatic ‘despotisms’. And unlike other fields – literature, arts, politics, there seem to be few … counter voices that challenge these simplistic representations. And if they are, then they fail to make it to the pages of our finest magazines or the podium of our finest awards.

Some clarifications are in order. I realize that these questions will provoke people, and I will do my best to be specific in order to avoid confusion and encourage an engagement with this essay rather than a rejection and simply refutation:

First, I will be using the terms ‘Europe’ and ‘Western’ not as spatial categories, but more as a set of cultural, historical and political assumptions. The term ‘Western’ refers to Europe and North America. My use of the term ‘photojournalist’ refers to documentary photographers, news photographers and other photographers working on issues of social and human concern.

Second, this is not in defense of some alternative -centrism. I am not advocating the supplanting of an Euro-centric world view with an Afrocentric or Islamocentric or some other equally invalid, ethnically particularist perspective.

Third: This is also not a criticism of individual European / Western photographers, but a criticism of a series of prejudices, assumptions and perspectives that inform the work of photographers from across the globe. European and American photojournalists continue to dominate the industry in terms of creativity, courage, determination, ambition and financial and publishing support. It is about a way of seeing and understanding the world that remains deeply colored by some specific attitudes, presumptions and imaginations. There is no doubt that Western photojournalist remain at the peak of the craft (though an argument can be made that the Bangladeshis have really raised the bar, but that is a different post!) , and that their works, perspectives and methods influence photographers around the globe.

No one can deny that Western photojournalists are frequently emulated. It is the well-justified global influence of the European / Western photojournalist that compels me to speak about their work, and the ideas that inform and define it because they are now seriously crippling a more nuanced, intelligent and creative engagement with societies that have previously been dependent, dispossessed and distanced by narratives about their history, agency and capacity.

This post – broken up into five parts – will focus on these key areas:

  1. Part 1: There Is No Other But Us: I begin by looking at how the very people photojournalists claim to be speaking on behalf of are missing from their works and appear only as victims. There is a long legacy for such erasures, and I attempt to highlight this.

  2. Part 2: Angel Of Mercy, Have Mercy! Here I discuss the long held assumption that NGOs, international aid and humanitarian organizations are neutral, apolitical and doers only of good. Their influence – political and other, within the regions they work is now coming under critical scrutiny and criticism and this has yet to make it to the photojournalism world.

  3. Part 3: A World Really Small: Here I examine at how the European / Western consumer / audience becomes the principal focus of all advocacy appeals, and how issues that would matter to this market become the goal of advocacy. This has disastrous consequences for the people photojournalists are trying to help, but also reduces all advocacy to nice sound bites, and charity give aways, exacerbating the situation on the ground and avoiding the harder, more complicated work required.

  4. Part 4: Witness To The World: In this piece I look at the continued depiction of the photojournalist as ‘eyes to the world’ and carrying about her work without political, economic and cultural baggage. It questions the assumption that journalism is a neutral, eye-witness only craft, and tries to highlight how journalists are complicit in power relationships and political hierarchies.

  5. Part 5: The Burden Of Proof: Here I summarize my previous pieces and discuss the constant pressure photojournalism feels to justify its existence by having to indulge in advocacy, and socially conscious actions.

Part 1 will follow in a few days. In the mean time I hope that this introduction is provocative enough to get us to start to think about some of these issues.

 

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The Self-Flagellating Native Intellectual And The Quest For The Pleasures Of Empire

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There is a remarkably succinct and clear moment in Gauri Viswanathan’s brilliant work Masks of Conquest: Literary Study And British Rule In India when she points out that colonizer’s self-representation:

…to native Indians through the products of his mental labor removes him from the place of ongoing colonialist activity-of commercial operations, military expansion, and administration of territories-and deactualizes and diffuses his material reality in the process…His material reality as subjugator and alien ruler is dissolved in his mental output; the blurring of the man and his works effectively removes him from history.

The colonized is unable to see the colonizer for his reality, but becomes hypnotized and bamboozled by the self-representation, so much so that the colonized become the vehicle for the perpetuation of the colonizers original self-representation. In the process, the colonized forgets the history, politics, economics and ideology that in fact inform and move the project of empire. Instead, the colonized – the subservient, the intellectually usurped native, looks back into himself and find himself lacking. In himself he sees the lesser actuality and the sordid materiality of his pathetic existence. In the colonizer he sees the ideal, the principled, the inspiring and aspired towards. And in the gap between the colonized self-image of being in a fallen state, and the colonizers exalted state, lies void into which the colonized casts his moral, and intellectual stones in the hope of building a bridge, however rickety, to traverse the distance.

There are some who argue that colonialism has ended. But as Erold Bailey argued in his paper that looked at the education system in Jamaica (see: http://www.tojned.net/pdf/tojnedv01i02-04.pdf)

It is well established that former colonial societies, largely categorized as the Third World, are still affected by negative retentions of their colonial past. The education system in these states is arguably one of the most impacted in this regard…The colonial enterprise has left former colonies suffering from wounds which appear to deepen rather than heal. In virtually every aspect of their lives, former colonized people contend with the repercussions of their encounter with European colonizers.

And so we have this fantastic piece of self-flagellation and self-negation by Pakitani technology wizard Mr. Zeeshan Usmani – a man who has received dozens of awards, grants, and accolades from various institutions and think tanks in the USA, and who is repeatedly found traveling and speaking in the USA. And who, as he himself states, is developing a technology based start-up of some sort of the other.

I have met Mr. Usmani. He is famous for developing statistical and predictive models for suicide bombings in Pakistan. These models were generously received by various American military and State department divisions because I suspect that the models were in fact are based purely on ‘domestic’ predictive factors. That is, they use past data, including local political situation and religious ideology measures, to predict future attacks but are always quiet and oblivious to politics and history. Their algorithms track Islamic fundamentalist activist and terror statements in a form pure and cleansed of any political meaning or relevance. They relegate terrorism to bio-mechanical behavior, and basically, predictable and internally consistent drive towards violence and destruction. The Americans love this stuff because it not only absolves them completely of any political, military, and economic role in the issue, but confirms that racist belief that Islam and radical Muslims are inherently violent and fanatic and that we can find predictive models to determine when, not if, but when they are going to blow themselves up.

Not only is his work in complete and absolute contradiction of the one of the largest, most extensive studies conducted about the root causes of suicide bombings – published as a book by University of Chicago’s Robert Papp called Cutting The Fuse: The Explosion Of Global Suicide Terrorism & How To Stop It,  in which he basically concluded that:

The data show that the best way to reduce suicide bombings in Afghanistan or Iraq is not to condemn Islamic extremism, but to end foreign occupations as quickly as possible.

His work is also the perfect Defence Department wet dream – it forgives/erases American imperial machinations and shenanigans, and assumes / burdens the colonized and his culture as the cause, and reason for the violence. A perfect storm of American intellectual, military, political and pundit acceptance.

Mr. Usmani is pleads to be let in to the civilization he so considers to be better and more civilized:

I don’t mind anymore when someone takes me out for “special screening” at the airports as the probability of picking me “Randomly” is 100%. I don’t mind offensive comments or questions, and I forget when was the last time when I felt sorry for being stereotyped. I know, I have a long way to go, I have a long way to prove myself, I have a long way to earn my lost respect, and I have a long way to regain the trust, and show the world how beneficial I can be, and what the world would look like without Muslims.

He begs. He pleads. Be racist. Be bigoted. Be reductive. Inflict upon me the worst of of prejudices and deviant thought. I am not even worthy of this and deserve to be humiliated. I accept your perspective. You are right to think as you do. On his knees he asks for forgiveness for being a ‘bad’ Muslim, but promises that he is working hard to make himself worthy of the tolerance and acceptance of the superior West within which he wishes to start his technology startup. But asks for the master’s forgiveness for his moral and intellectual failings, and begs:

Be patient; give us some time; a second chance; to reflect upon what we have done, who was at fault, how we got manipulated, what we have missed, and how to improve. Once we learn that, we all have a better world for us, for you and for everyone.

We are back in Mill’s waiting room of history where the colonized are relegated because we – something called ‘The Muslims’ are not ready. As Dipesh Chakrabarty argued in his work ‘Provincializing Europe':

Historicism – and even the modern, European idea of history – one might say, came to the non-European peoples in the nineteenth century as somebody’s way of saying ‘not yet’ to somebody else. Consider the classic liberal but historicist essays by John Stuart Mill, ‘On Liberty’ and ‘On Representative Government’, both of which proclaimed self-rule as the highest form of government and yet argued against giving Indian or African self-rule on grounds that were indeed historicist. According to Mill, Indians or Africans were not yet civilized enough to rule themselves…Mill’s historicist argument thus consigned Indians, Africans and other ‘rude’ nations to an imaginary waiting room of history..”

The colonized needs affirmation and acceptance. He struggles to stand as an equal, and acquires the trinkets that he believes will give him that affirmation and acceptance. Mr. Usmani is proud to tell us about his integration and immersion on the perfection of the American way to live:

US provided me Masters and PhD through Fulbright scholarship, and then raised my expectations from life and to this world through Eisenhower fellowship. I learned English watching SitComs – “Friends” and “Sex and the City” to be specific and grew my beard in US after going through Identity Loss in a melting pot.

I am you. I want to be you Mr. Usmani pleads. You fed me and nurtured me, and now I am at your mercy. He offers his credentials…’Sex and the City’, and his beard a marker of his ‘identity loss in a melting pot’ (Mr. Usmani may not be aware of history or politics, but seems to have picked up on the key themes of a lot of South Asian immigrant literature. He writes not as a Pakistani, and he certainly doesn’t write as a man of his faith. Those he is clear he wants to discard. He writes as a man who wants to escape his sordid past, the one that has tainted him with the stain of backwardness. But perhaps most tragically, he writes as a man desperate to appease power, and the powerful – whether those who finance is ventures and research, or those who welcome him into their corridors and convince him that he words and statements are ‘important’ to the future of our world.

He presents himself as a real Muslim, from Pakistan, a real native, one of ‘them, and speaking as one of ‘them’ who has seen the light. The one who will work with power, the one who understands, the one who should be forgiven, and the one who will work hard to cleanse the wayward ways of his fellow religious and political peers. As Hamid Dabashi pointed out:

In providing her services to the predatory empire, the comprador intellectual does her or his share to normalise the imperial centre and cast its peripheral boundaries as odd, abnormal, and grotesque….To sustain the legitimacy of the predatory empire, the comprador intellectual must also do her or his share in re- accrediting the hitherto discredited ideologues of the imperial project. The comprador intellectual speaks with the voice of authenticity, nativity, Orientalised oddity. He is from “there,” and she “knows what she is talking about,” and thus their voices carry the authority of a native informer.

Mr. Usmani has a great career ahead of him. I believe that not only will he receive many more grants and fellowships, but his suicide bombing research, and his start-up will receive further financing. Much like the financial and commercial success of all interlocutors who have come before him – those who promise us that they will receive our tanks with roses, and that they are too unworthy of our largesse and liberal concern, he too will reap the benefits of an ahistorical and anti-intellectual mind. He too will be garlanded with accolades and awards, and told that he is the truth, and that he is the one. And like all good colonized minds, he will not really know whether to believe it, but he will also not know why he should not.

The mind of the colonized knows no limits to obsequiousness and self-blame. Unable to think independently, it takes for granted the epitemology and frameworks of discourse that he takes from the colonizer. It is Partha Chatterjee’s ‘derivative discourse’ at its worst and Mr. Usmani a colonial creation at its best.

Uncomfortable Realities, Disappointing Complexities And The Comforts Of Suburban Bourgeois Therapy – A Photographer Finds A Way To Cope

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But geopolitical reality was much messier than he’d assumed. It ignited a bleak cynicism in his worldview…In addition to learning about the difficult prospects for weak, independent states, he also discovered how such countries are populated: It often included ethnic cleansing and forced deportations…While Mr. Mahon is glad to be getting his work recognized, which was his original motivation, his perspective on these issues has shifted significantly. In a world of increased globalization, and the potential marginalization of the idea of the nation-state, he came to believe that the war, poverty and isolation experienced in these countries was not worth the trouble.

Not worth the trouble. And with those three words Mr. Mahon, a photojournalist wearing the respectability of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant, dismisses the political, economic, and social histories and struggles of the people that he apparently spent nearly 8 years trying to document and represent. And one is left with the question, which perhaps may never have occurred to Mr. Mahon, if he bothered to ask the people who are in fact fighting for something – rightly or wrongly, if they believed it was worth the trouble, the sacrifices and the severe consequences? One is left to wonder with what arrogance, narcissism and disdain does a man travel to document the societies that clearly live under tremendous political, military and economic threat and fragility, and then proceed to simply erase all these broader realities and judge them lacking? Details »

Thinking Inside The Box And Throwing Away The Key

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The solution to both problems was found in the wholesale concoction of a brand new terror threat that was branded “The Khorasan Group.” After spending weeks depicting ISIS as an unprecedented threat – too radical even for Al Qaeda! – administration officials suddenly began spoon-feeding their favorite media organizations and national security journalists tales of a secret group that was even scarier and more threatening than ISIS, one that posed a direct and immediate threat to the American Homeland. Seemingly out of nowhere, a new terror group was created in media lore.

And so we learn something we had suspected – that ‘terror’ threats are being manufactured, and justifications for more wars being created in the corridors of the White House and the Pentagon.

I was reminded of something that one of George W. Bush’s aides once said:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re [journalists / photojournalists] studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

In fact, I would go one step further: it isn’t a ‘reality’ but a staged performance that they create, and the journalists / photojournalists – unable to think or remember history, largely uninformed and critically weak, merely document. And sell it to the citizens of the Republic.

I have to write more about this phenomenon, particularly as it exists in the field of photojournalism. Nothing amputates history and compartmentalizes and a situation more effectively than a powerful photograph. One of the most effective uses of photography is the way in which is obscures broader political, social, economic and historical facts, and seduces the viewer into believing that only which is presented as a spectacle is what matters. It is the equivalent of a ‘sleight of hand’ that a magician uses to distract the viewer while using her other hand to set up the subterfuge that makes us believe we have just experienced something magical. The ability to compartmentalize, to reduce life, to just a tiny moment, is a propagandists wet dream – it freezes all else and highlights only that which is being shown. But what is insidious is that not only does the viewer get fooled (and curators and photography critics it appears!), but the photojournalists herself gets fooled. Instructed to capture a ‘humanitarian crisis’ – a neat ‘compartmentalization of a complex social and political reality, she ends up believing in the theatre she is performing in.

This compartmentalization was precisely the underlying foolishness that led to the rather embarrassing situation at Visa Pour L’image this year where photographer Yunghi Kim attempted to defend her misrepresentation of the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ which was was sent to cover. Taken to task by a journalists for suggesting that the Hutus in refugee camps where there only as a humanitarian situation and not genocidiares fleeing in the face of a defeat.

Since her editors told her it was a humanitarian situation, she went and created the images, and the intellectual belief, that it was. That was the assignment, and she produced it. Those were the parameters, and she delivered to it. We have hundreds of examples of such ‘professionalism’ where photographers simply follow the requirements laid our for her, and deliver without really going past the mandate. The problem isn’t that Kim got the story wrong, or that her editors used it incorrectly, but the fact that despite knowing what the situation really was, and perhaps even seeing evidence of it on the ground, she chose to simply and without protest or insight, deliver it as it was needed. But for me, the problem lies elsewhere, and touches on the argument of manufactured realities.

What is perhaps shockingly egregious about the Kim situation is that despite the 20 years that have passed since that event, Kim never updated her understanding of the situation but merely repeated age old argument in her defense – even the captions were never updated. It was as if the photographer was intellectually frozen by the photographs and unable to update and mature her views. Or, that she never felt the need to since her work was celebrated, featured repeatedly, even given a New York Times stamp of approval i.e. it was labelled as the historical truth and then left at that. There was no need or necessity to think further than the double-page spreads and the editorial pat-on-the-back, as strong an affirmation of right and truth as most photojournalists seem to want to get. I will write more about this Visa / Kim fiasco at a later date. It encapsulates so much of what is wrong in the way photo stories are constructed, and produced. And what is missing in the photojournalists idea of herself. And lets be clear, there are plenty of ‘world class’ photojournalists who even now continue this myopic, compartmentalized work – recently demonstrated by many covering the Yazidi situation for example.

In the mean time, lets enjoy the fine, award winning work that will now flow from our ‘finest’ and ‘world class’ photojournalists shilling for the American propaganda machine and gleefully repeating non-facts, and non-reality for the public. But damn those photos are going to look incredibly amazing.

Do You Speak Pakistanian?

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People keep asking me how I speak Hindi, and I keep telling them that it is because I am Indian – in the historical sense of course. And that Hindi / Urdu are the same language given two names. However, never is this discussion about Urdu / Hindi more irritating and frustrating when carried out with Pakistanis who in their infinite ignorance are convinced that Urdu and Hindi are two entirely different languages and worse, that somehow Urdu is ‘Islamic’! I am often left bereft at the idiocy of these Ivy League graduates, and the tremendous closed-mindedness that permits them to carry along their prejudices despite being surrounded, at these great universities, with all the resources to help them open their eyes. So, since the library will not do, here is a wonderful piece about the beautiful, creative and deeply entwined relationship between Hindi and Urdu.

Kumar sums up his argument rather nicely when he points out:

What was once a shared common language of people of India stretching from Peshawar to the borders of Bengal split into two languages, Urdu and Hindi, towards the end of the 19th century. As a result, there arose two artificially separated literary cultures, each harking back to a different literary past due to the chauvinistic attitudes both of Hindus and Muslims. This cultural chauvinism was to subsequently embroil them in a practice of divisive politics, and each language became a marker of religious identity. With the passage of time the differences between the two sides became so irreconcilable that it led to the creation of a separate homeland for Muslims.

Worth a read.

(Thanks to my friend Sibte Hassan for pointing me to the phrase ‘Pakistanian’)

Hey Dude, Where Is My Neighbourhood?

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Gentrification confuses people. And to so many of my ‘cool’ friends, it confuses them most. They all speak about themselves as pioneers, the risk takers, edgy, and ‘down to earth’, as they trawl for real-estate on the edges of the more developed neighborhoods in New York. What is odd about their self-image is that it is completely belied by their actual lived lives, and their clearly stated aspirations. The language of finance capital, of asset accumulation, the fear of ‘crime’, the celebration of any symbol of ‘normalization’ e.g. starbucks, or a no-name bar with lots of bearded patrons, elicits glees and claims of being ‘so proud of my neighborhood’. And within earshot, and eyesight, they sit and witness the eviction of their neighbours – the black ones, the poorer ones, the ones who live in the ‘squalid’ brownstone next door but that is now marked for ‘renovation’. The listen to the threats of the land lords, backed by the bright lights of a police car parked outside. They listen to the pleas, and the protests. The listen to the anger. And then they turn back to their record players, and spin another Decemberists records to help them imbibe their wines. As Mueller points out:

The repression of urban class struggle can never be total, and it weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the liberal gentry, surfacing again and again in hand-wringing op-eds.

“What choice do I have?” ask the liberal gentrifiers, if you press them a bit. “This is the only place I can afford to live!” This sums everything up perfectly, puncturing the bubble of individual choices that make up liberal politics.

You have no choice; everything’s been decided ahead of time. If you want the American dream of a middle-class life with a home you own in the city in which you work, you have few other choices than to join the shock troops of the onslaught against the urban poor. Align with big capital and the repressive state in the conquest of the city, and maybe you’ll have enough equity to send your kids to college.”

The urban poor – the blight. Actually, the ones who have been abandoned by the state, had their services cut, their mortages stolen, their pay checks reduced or never adjusted to inflation, their pensions siphoned off, their health care practically erased, their school funds and benefits cut, their futures bogged down in hiring policies riddled with bigotry and prejudice. Ok, sounds quite bleak, but this is just my personal experience of New York neighborhoods and particularly in the super-shiny streets of ‘to hip to be whole’ of Brooklyn. And yet the myth persists, and the ‘kids’ – most all corporate creatives holding down high paying jobs in generic corporations across the river, continue to pretend that we are living in the 1960s and it is the Bowery all over again. Again, Mueller:

Today, government-abetted gentrification has trickled down to small home buyers. Forget your fairy tales of urban pioneers bravely staking out territory in the urban hinterlands — at every point, this has been a takeover planned by large business interests who fund their projects with tax abatements

Tough times indeed. Even the desperately cool can’t get a break from history!

Captain My Captain Or Our New Man In Kabul

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What are America’s wars about?

A friend recently asked me this question, and I can only offer a partial answer with a reference to this piece by The Guardian’s fine stenographer Emma Graham-Harrison. I am sure she is a lovely person in person, but her piece about the newly anointed president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, is truly a masterpiece of propaganda and obfuscation.

This article is an excellent example of how journalists are married to the project of American and European empire, and how the use of certain efficaciously placed words can bamboozled us and help transform what was most likely a sordid, behind-the-scene, bribery and threat ridden process of political transition into appearing like a viable, normal, political process. To say nothing about converting AshrafGhani – this one-trick tool of capital – a man whose head is so far up capitalism’s ass they he began his hilariously ahistorical and anti-intellectual TED talk with the heading ‘Mobilizing Capitals For State Building, into…and I must quote her here because it is priceless:

An impressive intellectual who is as comfortable in a village meeting as an international boardroom, he has been a professor and World Bank technocrat, finance minister and top security official, and was once in the running to head the UN.

So what are America’s wars about? Well, the answer lies in this man’s training, education, experience and resume fillers. Note the comfortable and seemingly natural way in which the writer describes this ‘impressive intellectual: 1) ‘Finance Minister’ 2) ‘Security official’,’Professor’ and *World Bank technocrat’. Could the Americans have dreamed up a better native son to serve their interests? Could they have found a bigger native stooge to American empire, and to its underlying presumptions of neoliberal capitalism, and the American way or war and profit? I think not.

In fact, the irony of the writer’s description selling Ghani to us as if he is some benign professor of finance who will lead this blighted nation to modernity and civilisation – a troupe that she returns to when in a classic reliance of orientalist racism she raises the question of whether he will unveil his wife (yes, our concerns are always for the women, you see!), we are also told, and with any note of surprise of questioning that:

Spurred by that defeat [in his previous attempt at power] into a dramatic transformation, he emerged this year as a ruthless and highly effective politician. Top vote-getter in a fraud-riddled election, he steered through months of fraught negotiations to emerge as president of a unity government formed with his main rival.

A ruthless politician is the modern-day euphemism for criminally driven. He was the ‘top vote getter’ in a ‘fraud-riddled’ election. I wonder where that leaves him. What does it mean that a man I am being told is an intellectual is then being revealed as a calculating, ruthless politician who participated in a fraudulent election and was foisted into power by the Americans.

As a World Bank and finance professional, and a man completely sold to absolutely outdated ideas about neoliberalism, what is being created here is the wholesale sale of the country of Afghanistan to American corporations. What will follow will be neoliberal policies where markets are opened to American goods, where public assets, what ever is left, will be sold to American corporations, where politics will be ethnicized and sectarianlzed, where private corporations will be allowed to run amok to use and extract resources and of course the super-cheap Afghani labor pool which will provide the sweatshop and field labor for the wealth that will be siphoned off to the West.

Lets remember, this is a man who is so immune to reality and so married to the tiresome and false doctrines of neoliberalism that even 5 years after the complete collapse of the global economy, the hollowing out of any pretense of American ‘free market economy’, the mass nationalization of banks and corporations, the public bail outs etc. he can stand in 2013 at the TED talk and utter absolute nonsense that:

  1. In a tactic so out-dated I had to look it up again, he conflate capitalism and democracy
  2. Believes that the world has reach full consensus that capitalism is the only way
  3. That there is no other option, and we can now only talk how capitalism should be exercised and what variations to democracy can be practiced.

The above is from slide 1 from his talk if you do not believe m. See here:

The entire talk is a fraud. It panders to the worst prejudices of his crowd, while aggrandizing the, and letting them hear what they want to hear: that they, the technologists and entrepreneurs, are the master-of-the-universe and can save the day if only they would send over a few billion dollars to the backward people of Afghanistan and teach them now to be American.

It is ideology masquerading as meaningful insight. He talks about the world consensus on capitalism at the very moment in history when that consensus has disappeared and lost all credibility! Has he not heard of the movements against capitalism that have marked almost every country in the world? Is he not away of the depression that we have been trapped in since 2008? What is this consensus he is talking about? It is a fraud that he is constructing. Because from that opening in the talk he then begins to make the classic neoliberal set of arguments: that state building is nothing more than allowing foreign investment, privatization, labor movement, loser labor laws, reduction in taxes etc. The tired old lies that got us into this mess, that have created massive economic inequalities around the globe, that have locked tens of millions of the most exploitative and abusive labor arrangements, and that continue to fuel and fund wars across the globe. And there is more: he conflates capitalism with rights and justice. In a page right out of the 1980s Reagan era propaganda, Ashraf baits and switches in practically every sentence. He begins with capitalism, and suddenly he is talking about justice. He begins with democracy, and suddenly he is talking about state repression. (as if that doesn’t exist under many a democracy!)

And in the midst of this nonsense he has the gall to exploit Western sense of being victimized (carefully constructed by media)  and bow to the victims of 9/11 and 7/7 is just magnificent to listen to. By 2013 tens of thousands of his people in Afghanistan had died in America’s war there, but they did not warrant an acknowledgement. He talks about the Soviet, he talks about the Taliban, but carefully erases the Americans, and completely jumps over the near 14 year military occupation and all those who died. In fact, his entire talk compartmentalized ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the freedom loving, mall shopping, car driving us who are good, and civilized, and the repressive, brutal, dirt-eating them who can only be redeemed if they become more like us, and there you have it: his entire idea of nation building. Give us technical and design solutions, and I will give you democracy in Afghanistan. It’s really just that simple. And we love to swallow this tripe!

Ashraf is a tool. As he placed into his throne by the American occupation force, he, like a good native comprador son, stands and speaks to the West the language that aggrandizes the West. He tells them what they want to hear, and he uses an imaginary idea of capitalism, out-dated if not completely discredited concepts of modernist development, and completely specious and empty rhetoric of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights to appease us. And the media swallow it all up. If he walks like us, talks like us, and lies like us, he must be one of us! His carefully, ruthlessly craft image – self-made and PR firm financed, is a cover for the same brutal, calculated imperial project that has continued in Afghanistan since the tragic invasion. He is just the most recent butcher to the block upon which surrounding nations are lining up to slice and dice their share of the Afghan carcass.

He sells us the America we want to see, and he sells us a classic TED tactic: there is no politics, there is just planning and technical solutions. He tells us that they, the brown / black, are stupid and barbaric, and in plain language says ‘we need you’ – you being the West, the sophisticated, the ones that he absolves of their role in destroying the very country that he now wants to say can only be saved if ‘they’ come with their dollars and their Dunkin Donuts. Why does America go to war? The answer lies right here, and in the lives of men who are installed in these invaded, pillaged and destroyed nations – in the great tradition of imperialists of the pasts. They serve capital, prey open souls and geographies, and act as a mirror in which we are the most beautiful people in the world

Emma has done a wonderful job re-painting this man into a solid, Western-centric, intellectual. As if Afghanistan is a corporation just bringing on board a new CEO. Contradicting her own writing – corruption led elections of a ruthless politician but she gives us instead an intellectual with a modern ‘wife’. But perhaps that is really what it is: the foisting to power of a man who will ensure capitalist discipline and ‘transparency’ all in the service of Western corporate and military interests, and do so with the precision and clarity of vision that only a World Bank training could have provided him. So lets see what comes next. Frankly, I would not hold my breath for any surprises.

So what are these wars about? The answer remains the oldest one in the book.

We Reserve The Right To Be Boorish And Bombastic And You Have The Right To Stand Up And Walk Away

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Bruce Gilden does a ‘photo review’. As I watched this video I could not help but wonder whether Gilden realizes that the producers of Vice are excitedly setting him up to perform a Gilden-pantomine act: boorish, rude, obnoxious, mocking, denigrating, dismissive as only Gilden can be. And as if on cue, Gilden delivers. Certainly one of the signs of the death of a person, or an artist, is when s/he ends up simply performing her/himself. We love a spectacle, as much as we love looking at an accident, and Gilden delivers.

I find listening to Gilden tiresome. As I watched this video (thanks to A Photo Editor blog), I had to fight back thoughts about his sexist and misogynist comments and instead think more about the sheer structure and framework for this ridiculous parody of a what should have been a review. As he droned on and on – combining his pointless and knee-jerk opinions with a combination of generalizations about Arabs/ Rocks, oral sex, demeaning statements about women’s bodies and other nonsense (Aside: Shelby and Fernando’s point out in their piece Short Skirts And Niqab Ban: On Sexuality And The Secular Body that: ‘Man hails woman into being: “Feminine identity depend[s] on male desire; male desire depend[s] on visual stimulation.” Seduction and the male gaze are therefore key to subjectivation: the visual appreciation of women’s faces and bodies brings women into being as women, just as the ability to see women’s faces and bodies brings men into being as men.’), I was reminded of Nietzsche’s mocking of Kant’s definition of the beautiful.

In his work The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche point out that:

…I wish to underline is that Kant, like all philosophers, instead of envisaging the aesthetic problem from the point of view of the artist (the creator), considered art and the beautiful purely from that of the ‘spectator’ and unconsciously introduced the ‘spectator’ into the concept ‘beautiful’. It would not have been so bad if this ‘spectator’ had at least been sufficiently familiar to the philosophers of beauty – namely as a great personal fact and experience, as an abundance of vivid authentic experiences, desires, surprises and delights in the realm of the beautiful! But I fear that the reverse has always been the case; and so they have offered us, from the beginning, definitions in which, as in Kant’s famous definition of the beautiful, a lack of any refined first-hand experiences reposes in the shape of a fat worm of error.!

(From Genealogy of Morals)

As Agamben goes on to elaborate:

The experience of art that is described in these words (above) is in no way an aesthetic for Nietzsche. On the contrary: the point is precisely to purify the concept of ‘beauty’ by filtering out the sensory involvement of the spectator, and thus to consider art from the point of view of its creator. This purification takes place as a reversal of the traditional perspective on the work of art: the aesthetic dimension – the sensible apprehension of the beautiful object on the part of the spectator – is replaced by a creative experience of the artists who sees in his work only the promise of happiness.

(From The Man Without Content, from which the above Nietzsche quote is taken)

The complete primacy of the spectator’s measure of the aesthetic, and the absolute negation of the creator. This is photography critique in summary. These sorts of photo reviews were par-for-the-course at Visa Pour L’image and one of the reasons why I stopped going. The sheer narcissism, arrogance, obnoxiousness and very often uncouth rudeness of ‘reviewers’ was dismaying to witness. I remember dozens of occasions overhearing the insanely ridiculous and humiliating comments being made by ‘famous’ photographers and editors to young photographers who had come to them for feedback and advice. Instead, what they got was humiliation and abuse. It was as if insecure and egotistical editors and photographers – basking in their self-generated spotlights, unable to find meaning or value in their own jobs, took it out on the young photographers who were too sacred or too weak to respond. I would listen to editors mock them for their personality, humiliate them for their mistakes, laugh in their faces, carelessly throw prints around, rudely cut them off if they tried to explain, and always offer what has today become the most nonsensical, anti-intellectual statement in photography – ‘the photograph must speak for itself’.

The latter is basically nothing other than a way for an editor to dominate the photographer – her voice, her vision, her goals, her ideas, and her perspectives. It is a way for an editor to negate the authorship of the creator of a work, and impose upon it his / her own impression, however ignorant they may be. It is an act of violence against the creator of the work, and an essential tool in establishing the hierarchy of power that all editors wish to maintain against the photographer. It leads the hilariously illogical and embarrassing situation where a basically little read, little traveled and careerist editor sits and lectures a photographer – one who has been in the field and actually has the real-world experience of a situation, to lambasted and critique.

There are few, if any editors, who have the confidence and the sheer intelligence to see a photographer’s work, and to explore its motivations and authorship before offering perspectives, critiques and comments. Magdalena Herrera (then at National Geographic France, now at GEO France) was perhaps one of three editors I can name who actually engaged with a photographer’s work – intellectually, politically, creatively and structurally, and were able to speak in intelligent and generous ways. But they remain few and far between. Most often what we get is this mocking, dismissive, denigrating and demeaning (Gilden throws in sexism, and cultural essentialist to further establish his generally boorish credentials even further), discussions that often leave people simply confused and distraught.

I don’t see the point of it at all. A useless video other than to be reminded what is so wrong with this entire industry and how it refuses to get its head out of its a** and evolve a better, more intelligent and more inspiring way to speak about work and about the photographers who risk it all to go out and produce stories – however good or bad – and deserve a respectful and meaningful engagement around their work.

Photographers should refuse to be subjected to this. Please just stand up and walk out. No matter what, no matter how inexperienced or experience, a photographer you are, you do not deserve this mocking, humiliating treatment. There are plenty of amazing, talented and brilliant photographers and editors who will give you critical and much needed feedback while also respecting your dignity and authorship. Stand up and walk away.

A Coalition, A War, And The Gift That Keeps On Giving

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In what can only be called a ‘coalition of the bought’, one that includes some of the best military dictatorships and some of the most retrograde societies in the Middle East, we have launched into yet another illegal, unauthorized war in the region.

The US has launched, with the support of perhaps one of the most vile coalitions put together – filled with nations that behead people as a form of ‘law’ – to go after a group that beheads people as a form of military tactic. To say nothing about the fact that the UN has been reduced to a mouthpiece uttering nonsense about ‘humanitarian crisis’ as a way to hide its collusion and its complete abandonment of its charter and responsibility. No resolution has been even considered to sanction this entire ridiculous, ultimately useless campaign. No debate. No discussion. Not even an attempt at a fake ‘consensus’. Of course, the pusillanimous US Congress was entirely by-passed – such an inconvenience this bloody democratic structure of our Republic that it is best avoided completely, and is sucking on green-colored lollipops given to it by the corporations. Details »

Like Cowards They Act In The Dark Of Night And Law

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Parons MFA Series: #4

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