Bagram: The Other Guantanamo Campaign Website

The Bagram prisoner campaign website is now up, and we will continue to post new stories and new legal and other documents at the site in the coming weeks. The full report put together by JPP can also be found on the site – it is worth a read. We have separated its key recommendations section for easier access and reading.Prisoner Family Stories_THE BAGRAM PRISONER CAMPAIGN_20130906-122756 copy

Please mark the site in your reader for regular updates. This work – the tracing of these family members and the documentation of their testimonies, has taken me three months to complete. I wrote about it earlier in a post called Searching For Ghosts and pointed out that:

Bagram is a true ‘black hole’ of American justice and sense of the law. It is a living evidence of the collapse of morality, humanity, and civilized discourse that has become so much of the post 9/11 United States of America. It is also an evidence of the deep racism and bigotry that underpins so much of America’s judicial policies in the wake of the ‘War Against Terror’. The continued imprisonment of these innocent men is evidence of the venality, cowardice and irresponsibility of the Pakistani government that has been an open and overt collaborator in the American war in Afghanistan and the frontiers of Pakistan, and whose intelligence agencies and military establishment sold Pakistani nationals to the Americans claiming they were ‘terror’ suspects….

As I listen to the pleas of the prisoners at Guantanamo – pleas that should shame the entire American nation, the current administration and this hideous President who has fooled us with this sweet sounding words and suave postures while indulging in war, and supporting institutions of torture, detention, preemptive killings, renditions, surveillance and more, I can only wonder what the gagged, blinded, and chained lives in Bagram are going through. The Bagram prison was officially handed over to the Afghan prison authorities earlier this year, but the Americans held on to the Pakistanis, and the Arabs. And prior to the hand over, they fought the Afghanis – who insisted that their constitution does not allow them to hold prisoners without charge, (and the Iraqis by the way) tooth-and-nail to prevent them from offering the prisoners due process and right to a defense.  So much for our love of justice, law and freedom.

You know that you are onto something when the United States Department of Defense gets pissed off. In a series of email exchanges with an American journalists here in Islamabad, the DoD has expressed its disappointment with the campaign we have launched, and accused us of being people who lacks ‘intellectual rigor’ and as weak-minded to have become swayed by those who have an obvious interest in the welfare of these ‘enemy combatants’.

I was thrilled!

Their consternation is a mark of their discomfort. I have always argued that if as a photographer/journalist you are being invited to dine with them, or are being handed awards and prizes for your photography work, then you are doing something wrong. Power, and its collaborators in our press and media corporations, wants to usurp, and it most desperately usurps those who can give it a veneer of ‘humanism’, and ‘concern’. Today, if you are standing at podiums being celebrated, you should step aside and think again.

And now the harder part of the work begins. Irrelevance is a constant concerns for an activist photographer. And few stories are as irrelevant and as dismissed as those of these forgotten 40 Pakistani prisoners in Bagram. Frankly, no one, other than their immediate families, really gives a damn. This was obvious as well from the rather slow trickle of people who came to the opening day of the exhibition here at the Pakistan National Arts Council in Islamabad. “Irrelevance and the Activist Photographer” was the title of a short talk I had planned on giving at the opening. But there were not enough people to listen so early in the morning on a Friday. We all laughed at the irony of it.

But what I had wanted to say was that there is much that we do that is done only because we must, not because we believe anyone would really care to listen. And we believe that what matters is the outcome – the images, the websites, the published book. But frankly, these are, I believe, the least important and interesting elements of a project. This is a provocative statement of course, but frankly it is one that has been the underpinning of my own work since 2008.

It is not the outcome that matters, it is the process. I have argued this in the past. I have argued it in different ways too – that it is not the destination that matters, but the journey made. This was going to be the subject of the talk. I am nothing but a photographer and produce not much more than photographs. These artifacts of my work are more ephemeral today, in a world where millions of images flash past our eyes and our consciousness every day. What I produce is a commodity that has little value and gravity. Many attempt to overcome the banality of their photographic product via self-published books, or fancy gallery shows or other some such veneer. Most hope for a major publication to run a photo spread and make their images be left as more concrete elements in our human history.

I make photographs and I write some words. And in a world where people are mostly seeing such products via their computer screen, and in the midst of a veritable whirlwind of images, the works take on an even less significant place in a person’s day. Even most of today’s online photography blogs betray a careless disregard for the photograph, judged from the casual and careless way in which most work is presented. So the question remains – it is a question I have often asked myself, and have been asked by others – what is the relevance of the work I do? It is a question that has been with me since late 2008 when I started work on my The Idea of India project. Then too I was struggling with this.

But here is what I believe is even more important that the photographs produced, the websites designed, the books published: the process of the production of the work. It is the process where an audience can begin to understand why a subjects was chosen, what questions are being explored, what issues are being examined, what perspective and prejudice are given vent, what values are being adhered to, what personal, political and other motivations are provide the inspirations, the doubts, the fears, the mistakes, the corrections, the learnings, and the insights that emerge during the course of producing the work. The photographer’s process is a guide, an example, and act as evidence of a way to be in the world.

The process is evidence. It is the argument. It is the project.

It sets the tone for a method of working that can help us cut past the false constructions and imaginations that distance us from experience, and confuse us with their neat categories and judgements. For me personally, the process reveals a determination to never accept the discourse of the powerful, to never become seduced by their dinner invitations. And for someone who was born and raised in one of those nations – those lesser nations – the ones which have myths, not histories, the ones that have folklore, not culture, the ones that have tradition, not values, the ones that NGO projects, not agency, this process is perhaps a way to breathe and be complete.

This belief explains my consistent use, since 2008, of project sites that reveal the process of the work – complete with its mistake, errors of judgement, fears, doubts, elation and outcomes. I no longer believe in the existence of a final product, but only in the possibility of a work that is ‘…a constant becoming’. This is not only a way of working, but a way of being as an individual. The project sites are construction sites, not completed temples of an individual’s narcissism. They are incomplete and I keep hoping will constantly remain so. This is not to dismiss the traditional outcomes – the book, the exhibition, but to point out that even more interesting than those is the evidence of the work being born into the world.

I will write more about this, but for the moment the work with the families of the men in Bagram has been done and reflects a process of surrender to a narrative that is reviled and dismissed. I will be adding these stories there as well, but with different and more personal text. But as I confront the ‘irrelevance’ of my months of work, I think about something that the writer / journalist Jonathan Cook once wrote:

As we approach the fifth official anniversary of the “war on terror”, the foiled UK “terror plot” has neatly provided George W Bush, the “leader of the free world”, with a chance to remind us of our fight against the “Islamic fascists”. But what if the war on terror is not really about separating the good guys from the bad guys, but about deciding what a good guy can be allowed to say and think?

What if the “Islamic fascism” that President Bush warns us of is not just the terrorism associated with Osama bin Laden and his elusive al-Qaeda network but a set of views that many Arabs, Muslims and Pakistanis — even the odd humanist — consider normal, even enlightened? What if the war on “Islamic fascism” is less about fighting terrorism and more about silencing those who dissent from the West’s endless wars against the Middle East?

Or quite simply, what is there are other histories, other memories? I think what scares the US Department of Defence, is precisely the fact that there indeed are, and that perhaps in some small way, there are people determined to get others to hear them.

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

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

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

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

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

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

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

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

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

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

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

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

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

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

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

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

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

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

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

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

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

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

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

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


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

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


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

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10 Things To Consider…

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

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