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.
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
hideousPresident 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.