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’.

Much as in popular culture depictions, the game does the same: the Congolese are simply removed from the discussion. There is no need to offer them as agents of their own destiny, as a people with a specific historical, cultural, social and political trajectory, or even as something crucial to the process of raising awareness. They exist as child soldiers and I am surprised that the warlord or the rapist are not defined as another actor. The NGOs – and here we clearly understand this to mean international aid and humanitarian organizations, come in for special mention as they do in most any Hollywood depiction of white saviors in Africa. In fact, it was precisely this rather out-dated concept that was being mocked in the Radi-aid spoof that tried to send radiators to a cold Norway.

We are further told that As a revenue generation NGOs … could also benefit from revenues generated by the players, which could aid real world projects in specific places. I have to admit that this is seriously out-dated stuff. I am in fact surprised that a photographer who spent twelve or more years working in the Congo has been unable to offer us Congolese actors, organization, political actors and institutions who could use our collaboration, support and participation to confront the factors fueling the conflict in the DRC and working to stop it. I am surprised that he has not been able to go deeper and realize that in a nation as huge as the DRC, different issues and factors affect direct regions of the same country. In fact, I find it highly unlikely that someone as intelligent as Marcus does not know such individuals and organizations, and I have to believe that he simply chose not to highlight them.

This habit of leaving out the African when writing about the African (or other non-European / Western actor) has a long history and pedigree. It has been famously labelled as the white-savior industrial complex by the writer Teju Cole who pointed us to one of the best proponents of this debilitating approach – the New York Times writer Nicolas Kristof, who has made a name for himself parachuting into the ‘Third World’, finding a ‘good’ white person who he believes is all that stands between ‘barbarism’ and ‘salvation’, and encouraging us to simply send money to support their work. In the process, entire histories, economies, politics, communities and individuals who do not fit this model are eliminated and never discussed.

As Teju Cole pointed out in his piece called The White-Savior Industrial Complex that :

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”

And why does this matter?

It matters because it’s the people – the ones who have the most and immediate stake in the assistance and ‘intervention’ that is being attempted, who are erased in the process of fulfilling these fantasies. Their agency, their struggle, their history, their commitment, their sacrifices, their aspirations, their risks are being cast aside as irrelevant and uninteresting. This is a terrible injustice to those who in fact risk it all to resist, dissent, confront, challenge, and transform – the local agents, the ones that few ask about if they are repressed or simply eradicated. Throughout the world there isn’t a nation that can claim to lack individuals fighting to improve the conditions and lives of their fellow citizens. There isn’t a society where human injustice is being confronted, oppression resisted, disease fought, social pathologies addressed. There isn’t. But it seems that we seem anxious to simply remove these local actors. Again, I quote Teju Cole:

…there is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can. But beyond the immediate attention that he rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems. There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans. Such problems are both intricate and intensely local.

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.

This is a fairly common approach to most of what passes for ‘concerned photojournalism’ from and about ‘The Third World’. It is most certainly the set of erasure typical of works produced by photojournalists working with international aid organizations where the aid workers, particularly the European / Western aid workers, are highlighted, and all else is erased. The photo projects ‘create a space’ where the European / Western audience / viewer can insert herself as an ‘actor for change’ and can usually do this not by taking real action, but simply handing over some cash to an NGO. The problem being addressed, with all its attendant social, political and human complexities, is reduced to a simple transaction – an act consumerism that requires little thought, no engagement, even less after-thought, and a large dose of self-righteous and feel-good energy.

Photojournalists continue to produce stories from around the world that document a social and human pathology by presenting the subjects as ‘victims’ who are desperate ‘presented’ to a Western / European audience for a charitable intervention. They do this by deliberately ignoring the local institutions and actors that are present beyond the boundary wall of the chosen aid organization headquarters. Even when these local actors and agencies are more effective, persistent and committed than the international aid agencies (see more on this below).

It is unconscionable that today we allow such works to stand, and that a more intelligent, nuanced, engaged and honest approach is not insisted upon. This is not just about being politically correct, but about being intellectually honest, and revealing the real issues that persist. It is about a genuine engagement with the issues at hand, and the full breath of people involved in addressing it. It is about not painting the world as a palate for the satisfaction of a Western need for relevance. Again, as Teju Cole argued, when speaking about the frenzy, and massive viewership that the Kony2012 YouTube video garnered:

What Africa needs more pressingly than Kony’s indictment is more equitable civil society, more robust democracy, and a fairer system of justice. This is the scaffolding from which infrastructure, security, health care, and education can be built. How do we encourage voices like those of the Nigerian masses who marched this January, or those who are engaged in the struggle to develop Ugandan democracy?

In Teju Cole we read a demand that we insist on the inclusion of the local in what has so far remained the exclusive purvey of the foreign. Again, this is an argument for inclusion and the need to take a broader, more comprehensive and collaborative approach to any acts of advocacy and speaking out. It is an argument for moving our citizens to a more real, more concrete understanding of the complexities of long-running conflicts such as DRC – we need not more reductive representations, but more complex engagement, one where the social, cultural, political, economic and historical realities of the conflict are laid out clearly and with as much honesty as possible. It is about revealing to them the full breath of engagements, and the many issues involved. It can’t be about neat, sound-bite packaging that not only insults the intelligence of the audience, but dehumanizes and dis-empowers the community.

Let me illustrate this with another example – we have seen dozens and dozens of photo projects that focused on the horrors of the HIV/ AIDS crisis in Africa. Many photojournalists produced powerful works, as they should have, about the horrors of the disease, the need for immediate action, and the importance of an international medical and humanitarian response to the catastrophe. But how many projects did we see that in fact highlighted what the microbiologist and writer Helen Epstein was compelled to point out after her years spent working on the issues in South Africa, in her work The Invisible Cure that the most effective strategies were the local ones! As pointed out in a review of her book, (see The Invisible AIDS Cure by G. Pascal Zachary) she:

…[urges] outsiders to make more space for responses crafted by Africans themselves. Her advice is worth noting, especially since spending on AIDS in Africa, as Laurie Garrett recently highlighted in an article in Foreign Affairs, is soaring. Increased funding for AIDS will only compound past mistakes, Garrett argues. Epstein is similarly concerned that in the coming explosion of international funding to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, past errors will replicated as foreign donors mistake the size of the checks they write for their potential to help ordinary Africans.

Ultimately, “The Invisible Cure” concludes that success in the war on AIDS in Africa “depends critically on a sense of commitment and will” on the part of Africans. Epstein is right, once again. Yet her conclusion is sobering for those rooting for a quick end to suffering in sub-Saharan Africa. In a timely warning to foreign do-gooders with fat checkbooks, Epstein suggests that an African commitment to fight AIDS effectively “cannot be bought.” Instead, victory must flow out of a rebirth of African self-reliance. Yet if outsiders cannot supply a quick fix to what ails Africa, and Africans themselves must shoulder the heaviest burden, the spectacle of AIDS devastation is likely to persist for years to come.

And they did – some of the most effective HIV/AIDS prevention programs emerged from local, regional efforts. In the preface to her work, she argued that:

When it comes to fighting AIDS, our greatest mistake may have been to overlook the fact that, in spite of everything, African people often know best how to solve their own problems….Everyone seems to know what Africa needs, but sometimes I think our minds are not really on it…most of us see only Africa’s contours, and we use them to map out problems of our own. Africa is a career move, an adventure, an experiment. It fades into an idea. We aren’t really looking.

Helen Epstein, a woman I have had the honor of meeting and speaking to recently, has consistently argued for our opening ourselves to the voices, perspectives and experiences of the very people we claim to be working to help. Most recently she has been focusing on Ethiopia and the crisis and once again argued in a recent piece called Cruel Ethiopia she wrote for the New York Review Of Books on the state of humanitarian aid and Ethiopia where despite a rapidly rising aid budget,hunger continues to grow.

There is no simple solution to this crisis, but as the Ethiopia expert Siegfried Pausewang has long argued, only the peasants themselves have any hope of finding one. Working with agronomists and other experts, they could confront such issues as security of land tenure, the onerous rural tax regime, political favoritism, the low prices offered by party-run cooperatives, and compensation for those whose tiny land parcels can no longer support them. However, there are no independent organizations or other forums in which peasants can openly discuss these issues, air grievances, or advocate for their rights. Under the CSO law such forums are unlikely to emerge.

This is not a tangential concern, but in fact I would argue, one of the fundamental flaws in photography advocacy today. It is a major concern and one that is rarely discussed in any forum whether it is about photojournalism, or about activism. I was very excited to read that the journalist Jina More has returned to Rwanda and South Africa to look at stories about HIV / AIDS.

This very issue – The West’s desperation for ‘white’ interlocutors and the silence of the other – was very strongly bought to the fore by Ben Ehrenreich of The New York Times, the writer of a powerful and rather unusual for the magazine, piece of reportage on the Palestinian resistance to Israeli military rule and occupation in the West Bank. The article, This Is Where The Third Intifada Will Start was a powerful piece and rare in the voices of the Palestinians it allowed to come through. In an interview he gave afterwards he was asked a very pertinent and powerful question which touched on this very issue – the constant representation of the other by an European – and his response was powerful and clear. The question that was posed to him was this:

Let’s talk about the Jewish narrator. In 2006 the Times published a very important essay by Tony Judt in support of Walt and Mearsheimer’s LRB piece on the Israel lobby, and Judt later said that they asked him to insert in there, I’m Jewish. Judt told the story because he knew that Jews were privileged, and that the Times needed to send this signal to its readers. As the NYRB does by publishing David Shulman when it’s critical of Israel, as the New Yorker does when David Remnick is the authority. As Mondoweiss does by stating, we’re a progressive Jewish site at root. As JVP does. It’s a racket, we’re all in on it, and my question is, When do Palestinians get to hold the microphone. Aren’t you and I to blame too? Because if they were holding the microphone, a basic human rights issue like the right to resist that is so core to your piece would have been noncontroversial many many years ago. As it is, Americans have to warm up to the idea, and a Jew has to bring them this news. Comment?

And Ehrenreich’s response was unequivocal and clear. He responded:

I’m glad you asked that question, and yeah, it’s super-problematic. It’s a specific instance of a bigger problem, that black and brown people’s stories can generally only be told in this society via the authority of a white narrator, that we–white people, in this case of Jewish ancestry–are tasked with the representation of black and brown and in this case Palestinian people, who in this dynamic are stuck in the passive role of being represented and are not allowed to interpret their own realities. So certainly we are complicit, and I don’t see any way out of that complicity except to use what privilege I have to tell stories that tear holes in the broader narratives which allow this arrangement to continue. And to do so with scrupulous attention to my own role in it, to the power differentials at play. (My emphasis)

The Inclusion of ‘the other’ – long marginalized, and reduced to being a helpless victim, is one of the major changes that photojournalists need to make when they step out into the world to produce their stories. It also remains one of the most important aspects of any attempt at effecting change, and carrying out acts of advocacy. Our campaigns, our initiatives and our creative energies have to not just be aimed at the West, but must be aimed at actually contributing, supporting and enhancing the conversations and on-going struggles locally. They have to include, if not prioritize, those who are directly involved in the issue of concern, and most affected by the changes being advocated. Rather than offer stories constructed to make space for the white-savior we have to re-construct our stories to reveal the many agents and institutions involved in the hard work on the ground.

This is not simply because of a feel good component, or some sense of feel-good political correctness, but for the simple reason that the people with the most at stake are ones with the best understanding of how to improve and change things. We ignore these voices, these experiences at our own peril. By consistently erasing the very people we are claiming to be working to help, we not only remove their agency, we reduce their humanity. This has to change. Our works cannot be so provincial in their focus, and so distant from the very communities we claim to be speaking for.

There are people in Bangladesh fighting for garment factory worker rights, there are women in Pakistan who have been on the forefront of the resistance against Zina laws, there are farmer movements across India resisting corporate agricultural practices, there are thousands of Pakistanis resisting the military’s landgrabs. And so much more. I use South Asia as an example because I am based here at the moment, and seeing all these amazing, courageous, determined and beautiful people who are at the forefront of so many struggles for justice, peace, and equality that it would be impossible to write about anything in Pakistan without writing about them. Or to photograph anything about Pakistan without photographing them. And the same is true for Africa. Or anywhere else for that matter. To erase these local actors – the ones taking the greatest risks, facing the greatest threats, is nothing short of irresponsible.

 

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The Most Dangerous Nation

The obsession with things ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ and ‘Al Qaeda” has been turned into a veritable multi-billion dollar industry and this despite the very little concrete and independently verified evidence to suppor the many claims of underground ‘Islamic/Al Qaeda’ cells and networks. Details »

New York City Experiments

I arrive in New York in a few days to try out a new experiment. It has been a few years in the making, and it has taken a few months of find funding for it. But now it is ready to be performed. The Polis Project‘s first Un/Do-Photography workshop will start in New  York on November 13th, 2019. And it represents the latest version of a practice of photographic teaching that I have been working on since 2013 when I first tried a new pedagogic practice at CounterFoto in Dhaka, Bangladesh. These workshops are unique because they are less about the practice, craft and mechanics of operating photography technology and primarily about deconstructing social, political and economic assumptions and myths that underlie so much of today’s mainstream photojournalism and photography practice. The Polis Project Un/Do-Photography workshops specifically engage the students on questions of Eurocentrism, imperialism/colonialism, capitalism, commodity fetishism, femo/homo-nationalism, the ‘gaze’ and power, the myths of Western liberalism, technology utopianism, humanitarian racism among other topics. Our goal, unlike any other workshop out there, is to produce critically aware, and intellectually outspoken photographers producing complex, multimedia projects that refuse the easy comforts of mainstream corporate owned media, and pursue complex projects that challenge us to see deeper and clearly. 

 

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The First Un / Do-Photography Workshop Announced

We at The Polis Project are conducting our first ‘Decolonise Photography’ workshop in New York, from 19th to 23rd November, 2019.

You can learn more about them by going to the link shown above, or here

The workshops are open to all. And they are completely free. 

Over the course of five intensive days of presentations, seminars, discussion groups and project design sessions, participants will be encouraged to think about some of the most critical questions facing our communities. Less a workshop about aesthetics or the technology of the camera, this workshop instead concentrates on developing ways of thinking, researching and designing complex and multi-layer projects that reveal social, political, economic, corporate and other structural factors that create inequality, injustice, repression and violence. In sum, we will work to design and develop visual media projects that do justice to the lived realities, struggles and collective resistance of our most marginalised and silenced communities. 

Join us.

American The Beautiful And The Dreams of Pakistani Liberals

We have become accustomed to certain ways of seeing and speaking about the world. The Pakistani liberal – a caste that has been educated and nurtured on Western educational, political and cultural ideologies absorbed during years abroad at college, or careers, and through popular Western visual and literary media (fiction, non-fiction books), offers a particularly stark lesson in how certain forms of speaking, expressing and justifying arguments remain unchanged by thought, critical inquiry or self-doubt. The thoughtless regurgitation of American / European universalism, exceptionalism, and social sophistication  – all of which mind you are as much myths as anything, is an excellent example of this.

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A Man In The Sun

This is an essay without reason. It emerges as a result of recent discussions with a friend and colleague about decolonialisation–what it means, how does it apply to various areas of human knowledge, and what can it mean for photography. Actually, this essay without reason emerges as a result of discussions at The Polis Project as we design a “Decolonise Photography” workshop series. Our discussions have led us to think about what new and different ways of seeing and doing could emerge in a documentary and photographic practice that recognises that “…the target of epistemic de-colonisation is the hidden complicity between the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality,” and is based on a need to learn to “unlearn” [See Walter Mignolo, Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of De-Coloniality, Cultural Studies, Volume 21, 2007].

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msnbc

How Not To Critique A Photographer

Image Manipulation: A Manipulated And Confusing Debate

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Photojournalists are once again being asked to offer perspectives and opinions on the apparently growing problem of image manipulation, staging and ‘truth’ in photography. The New York Times Lens Blog ran a piece a few days ago inviting a group of highly experienced photojournalists to speak about the issue. I say ‘apparent’ because there is obviously no objective way of measuring the suspicion that photographers today are more guilty of manipulating their images than photojournalists in the past. It may be a lot easier to carry out post-processing manipulations in Photoshop today, but that hardly confirms the fact that photographers did not do this in the past.

Anyone who has closely studied the works of one of the greatest photojournalists ever, Eugene Smith, would know well that image manipulation and staging were critical parts of his method. A number of his most famous and iconic images were either staged, had elements removed and added to them, or heavily processed in the darkroom to a degree that the final image had no resemblance to the negative. It has been argued that Eugene Smith got away with all this because he was Eugene Smith. As Cosgrove argues:

The sort of tinkering Smith engaged in with that one, iconic Schweitzer photograph might be frowned upon today. Any contemporary photojournalist who admitted to such behaviour would probably be excoriated by his or her peers, as well as by the general public.

W. Eugene Smith, on the other hand, has largely escaped such censure for one reason, and one reason only: he was W. Eugene Smith, and for better or worse, when it comes to aesthetics — and even, to some extent, when it comes to ethics — genius has always played by, and been judged by, a different set of rules than those that govern the rest of us.

One of the icons of the craft, and most likely, many more, engaged in what we would call ‘authorship’ – the right of the photographer to tell a story. In fact, of all the photographers invited to offer their opinion in this New York Times Lens Blog discussion, on Donald Weber gets right down to it, and demands that the photographer’s authorship be considered as something real, meaningful and important. He argues that:

Today, there are no limits, so our struggle is to liberate our reliance on technical capabilities and place our faith in the voice of the story and the author.

There can be no one way of doing anything, and a code of ethics should not hinder the aims of photography. In fact, it must work to liberate the story from stultifying confines, and help the photojournalist to engage an audience. How do we begin the transformation?

Weber can see that what is being argued and demanded can only lead to the erasure of the photographer as a voice, a point-of-voice and a creative. What is being asked is that photojournalists reduce themselves to simply button pushers on location, attempting to capture to the nearest degree possible, all the colour values, situational reality, and immediately unfolding event, as it happened at the moment of pressing the shutter. That their only role is recording the obvious, and that they are closest to the ‘truth’ when they are entirely absent intellectually, creatively, and visibly i.e. not influencing the situation around them. Such a posture of course is the mythical and imagined ideal of photojournalism. I call it mythical because most of the people who argue for it ignore the fundamental fact that even what is being recorded / documented / photographed, is based on human choice, prioritisation and opinion. That is, you cannot erase the human from behind the machine. Who asked the photographer to be at the location? Why did the photographer press the shutter when she did? What compelled her to aim it towards a certain group vs. another group? Why was even that particular unfolding situation important? In the end, authorship imposes itself on any form of documentary and editorial work.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

What I want to point out here in this post is the fact that these discussions, opinions, statements and arguments, lack a structure and a discipline. Photographers are speaking about a number of different things, and referring to a number of different situations and problems and calling all of them ‘manipulation. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the entire discussion ignores or avoids perhaps one of the most important influences that leads to manipulations and staging – the role of the editor in setting expectations and the struggle to delivery work to those expectations.

We can get a grasp of the different arenas of manipulation if we look at the entire production chain of photojournalism. We have to do this because photographers, and photojournalism work, is part of a chain of activities, and does not stand alone, and apart. To understand the way it is produced, and the issues of manipulation or staging that may be adopted at times, we have to place it in its industry and see the photographers and their responses from this wider perspective.There are four key and distinct forms of image manipulation that we have to deal with, and often argue about. It is critical to be clear which of these forms are the focus of our concern, and to make sure that we are not conflating one form with the other.

Why is this important? Well, first, because these are interrelated and influence each other. For example, a certain form of post-processing manipulation e.g. darkness a bombardment cloud, or cropping an edge of an image to make it more relevant to the editor, can be driven by a photographers need to make the image fit the editorial mandate.

At a very high level, a rather simple framework would allow us to define it as follows:

  1. The Issue Itself: Here I include editorial selection of stories to cover, stories to not cover, perspectives to show, and those to ignore, what to highlight and what to downplay. photojournalists do not work independent of editorial direction and discussion. many work alongside writers and closely with editors who advise them on what they are looking for. with growing influence of corporate and advertising money, and collaborations with the government, this area is a critical arena of manipulation and determines what photojournalists cover and what they ignore.
  2. Execution: Here I am referring to photographers staging and arranging photos, influencing the situation to get a photo they need, hiring people to perform a situation and then claim it for real, goading or encouraging people at the scene to create a situation that will get them the picture, or placing or setting up situations or objects to get the necessary images.
  3. Post-Processing: This is the most obvious – the use of post-processing image tools to conduct image editing, colour correction, erasing / adding of elements and so on.
  4. Publishing / Editing: This is the process where once the work in the field is done, editors and writers and photographers begin the process of editing, selecting, arranging, captioning, layouts and placements inside articles such that their meaning and idea is defined and determined.

Our discussions to date, as reflected again in this recent New York Times dialogue, focus on Execution and Post-Processing arenas. Editorial and Publishing manipulations are rarely if ever discussed. Stanley Greene talks mostly about 2 & 3. So does Santiago Lyon, McNally talks largely about 2, so does Sim Chi Yin and Darcy Padilla. In fact, categories 2 and 3 are the ones most everyone will talk about and discuss, to the exclusion of 1 and 4. Everyone argues that what is missing is some sort of bizarre ‘ethical’ standard, an honor code among professionals that would apparently go a long way towards reducing these ‘breaches. This is very much like the argument against doping in sports – it focuses on the athletes, demands greater ‘ethical’ standards, but ignores the fundamental market and profit pressures that are placed on the individuals and teams, and which often compel people to do whatever it takes to win. And which often provide the chemists, doctors, physiotherapists and other technicians to help enable the doping. Because winning is all that really matters in the end and in photography, getting the image is all that matters and to do this requires the involvement and collaboration of many people. Not the least, that of the editor.

It is only if we broaden the discussion that we can begin to understand not just why photojournalists may make unethical choices, but also what the impact and relevance of these choices are. It is critical to discuss the entire cycle because editorial demands, expectations, discussions, and decisions, play a powerful role in what a photographer does on the ground, and how s/he goes about getting the images that are necessary. I am not suggesting that editors compel photographers to manipulate – though that has been known to happen, but what I am arguing is that photographers face pressure and can be influenced by these pressures to manipulate things.

And there are times when that pressure comes from the growing demands of 24/7 media, the high stakes game of advertisement dollars and the need to be ‘first to the scene’, and the cut-throat nature of the craft where just ‘getting the picture’ is the only demand – ethical or otherwise, being placed on the photojournalist. These pressures come before the photographer even steps into the field, and we have to consider their role in how photographers end up working. We are in a world where more of us are being asked to do more, for less – less time, less money, less publishing space, and less voice. With more and more competition – from professionals and amateurs, and fewer and fewer assignments that allow a photographer the time and patience to produce necessary work, we should not be surprised that people will cut corner, make adjustments, set things up, just simply to get the job done. This is not a justification for manipulation, but simply to point out that we should not be so ‘shocked’ and certainly not be naive about the fact that the industry has increasingly veered towards

In fact, it is with some amusement that I read Michele McNally’s rather thoughtlessly offered comment – given that the New York Times has always used embedded photojournalism which is definitely perhaps one of the most egregious examples of Execution Manipulation, and passed it off as ‘truth’, that:

There are many societies where photographers work without accepted ethical guidelines, but with a long history of producing propaganda disguised as “news.”

Indeed, it would appear that the USA is right there among these ‘societies’ though I suspect she is not referring to her own country, or even to her own publication which has repeatedly crossed ‘ethical’ guidelines in its coverage of America’s wars, or Israel’s occupation and even its cheerleading of the build up to the invasion of Iraq. But we will not get into all that in this post as I have frequently written on that issue in previous posts. By not being aware of the complete cycle of photojournalism, McNally not only ignores her publication’s own ethical breaches, but she entirely leaves out the role of editors in creating these breaches in the first place.

What is striking about the framework outlined above is this: that it is easy for people to understand the necessity of choices and points-of-view when it comes to Issue Selection and Publishing / Editing, but not when it comes to Execution and Post-Processing. But given that a

My Struggles With Masculinity

It’s fascinating to see the return of so many mid- 18th century Orientalist troupes and obsessions : this bizarre and needling determination to categorize and then – as if the categories created are genuine and natural, to analyze. The French are of course persistent and unrepentant Orientalists, and the more educated the worse. And so this gaze that first categorizes – ‘Arab masculinity’, and then pretends to analyze it.

What is ‘Arab masculinity’? Need we ask? Dare we ask where this object of study even comes from? Is it even real? Is there a unique Arab conception and manifestation of ‘masculinity’? Do a dozen stylized, fashion-shoot type set-up images of men who happen to be Arab provide enough material to explain not only the category, but its real existence? Do these men live in cages, isolated from the world and its influences? Do they experience whatever we may think are pure ‘Arab’ experiences, and not any spilling across geographical, intellectual, cultural, emotional and physical boundaries? An ‘Arab’ is an ‘Arab’ is an ‘Arab’, and damn is s/he is anything but a pure representation of an easily isolated and studied species.

And what of the claim of reversals ie the female looking at the male as a change from the male gaze on the female? Is this even a thing? Is this not a discursive distraction from the fundamental question of power which yet again is not addressed directly? The Orientalist gaze was a possessive gaze, and a dispossessing one. It possessed the power to represent, and define, and dispossessed the subject of voice and history.

And so, when Marianne Roux of On Orient describes this work as:

“Mectoub is fascinating because of this unveiling, made possible because the photographer is both female and a foreigner. It plunges us deep into our representations and overturns them. Scarlett Coten holds up these copies for us to see, Homo Orientalis specimens of the new generation, in an unfiltered way, just as they are.”

…one is left feeling a little quesy at the crassly familiar phrasing and erasing. The use of words such as ‘unveiling’ or ‘Homo Orientalis’ are in amateurish poor taste, but the suggestion ‘in an unfiltered way…’ a profoundly troubling reminder of classical Orientalisms conviction of simply offering facts unaffected by power, politics, prejudice or personal ambition.

Arab masculinity. African masculinity. (I wrote about this in an earlier post:

http://www.asimrafiqui.com/…/rethinking-africa-or-how-not-…/

Gender. We construct categories but then forget that we constructed them. Foucault can scream till hell freezes over, but in a decade where Orientalism’s reductive and debilitating simplicities are back in style, I must say that I am not surprised that this body of work is taken unquestioningly seriously, but am also disappointed that it is.

We need to question Coten’s constructions, despite the claims to overturn representations, and see the ways in which they belong to a long tradition of colonial photography that wants to capture individuals, sans individual histories and social, cultural, intellectual and psychological interconnections, and offer them up as general representations of a unique, manufactured category. Today more than ever – with travel, education, the internet, magazines, television and big-screen media, social media and more, it is untenable to argue or justify the existence of isolated and insulated social ‘categories’.

In a world that is as integrated, inter-connected, and intermingled as it ever was, where influences from around the globe and the digital globe, from travel, from readings, from relationships, from education and knowledge, from experiences that transcend a local culture or geography and then influence the construction of the self, ideas of identity, style, voice, intellectual development and even emotional expressions, its near impossible to speak of ‘Arab masculinity’. But of course, when it comes to ‘Arab’ – as the Orientalists once did and now as we are once again reaching for these debilitating categories and reductive generalizations, these ideas are being given new currency by European institutions if not European / Western photographers. If it’s not the ‘hijab’, or ‘women’s liberation’ or other some such tiresome and idiotic arena of focus, it’s simply a continuation of the use of gender and sexuality to cage and label. It is an act of cultural and intellectual violence to castrate these subjects from their many relationships and broad influences, and pen them into a construction that suggests that they represent something entirely ‘Arab’ – whatever that is, and something entirely ‘masculine’, whatever that is too.

Note: Hester Keijser reminded me that I need to differentiate the way this project was depicted by the Oskar Barnack Award committee and the goals and intentions of the photographer. She is correct to point out that institutions can run away with the work and give it an entirely new voice. She also pointed out that Coten herself has a difficult and complex relationship with this work, one that she continues to work through. I respect the photographer’s perspective and would love to have a discussion. My comments above are based on the public statements about this work, both from the Oskar Barnack announcement and from Coten’s own website. I look forward to, and hope, that Coten will some day pen a concise and clear argument, where she isn’t  afraid to express her process but also her doubts and self-questioning, as we all do about the works we pursue. The convention of ‘bombast’ and ‘confidence’ required of photographers, where they speak of their works without ever revealing their own struggles and self-questioning, has to end.