New Paths From Old Dead Ends

Last summer we made our way to Bosnia and Serbia, ostensibly to, as I then described, explore:

…how people create history through memory, myths, bedtime tales, family stories, personal anecdotes, official commemorations and collective rumors. The idea is to understand how histories are created, memories perpetuated, myths passed on, and animosities maintained. About how if you refuse to speak and confront modern history, you leave an entire world open to mythology, rumor, fabrication, and perhaps most dangerously, personal injustices, and visions of revenge. That where there is no reconciliation, confrontation, accommodation, and acknowledgment, there will always remain a sense of being wronged, and denied.

It wasn’t the most successful of trips, despite the fact that we found most of what we were looking for. What we did not find was a clear and precise narrative structure that would allow us to pull this together into a coherent piece of work. What we did find were layers and layers of overlapping, and often contradictory histories, each vying for authenticity, and each backed by ‘hard’ facts. As I had pointed out in an earlier post:

The Serb villages in Bosnia’s Drina Valley – Srebenica, Kravica, Bratunac, Potocari, Skelenyi, and others provide the backdrop of an exploration of how communities create histories where there are no official versions for them to learn from. An official amnesia – a hangover from the days of Tito, pervades the region, but into this void have been poured thousands of myths, legends, anecdotes, hearsay, rumors and perhaps most ominously, personal memories of suffering, injustice, atrocities and murder. Official text books refuse to speak past 1945, and after that there is really nothing. Twenty years after the end of the wars in the Balkans, the battles continue, but quietly over hushed conversations in cafes, behind the closed doors of family homes, and in the hearts of the tens of thousands of scattered and shattered lives that still struggle to survive here. But all the stories negates, reject, question, contradict, mock, deny and dismiss each and every one of the other stories I hear. There isn’t a fact that is questioned, an incident that is denied, an event that is acknowledged, an anecdote that is affirmed. There are no nuances, no complexities, no overlaps, no compromises, no accommodations. There are no subtleties.

The images we made, of the people we met, around stories we heard, are below – Serbs, Serbian memories, commemorations, museums, memorials, politicians, war victims, and the elderly carrying stories and myths, memories and narratives of retribution that can only go from mouth to mouth, from heart to heart, carried secretly like a precious treasure until such time that it can be unearthed and its full worth fought for. In this part of Bosnia, they remember what the nation refuses to acknowledge, and a convenient, simplified, exclusive history of ethnically exclusive injustices prevails. Some are condemned, other are commemorated, and yet, each holds on until the roles can be reversed.

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The trip left me feeling that I had failed to achieve what I had set out to achieve. We had a lot of material, and found many of the right contacts, but there was something missing – an overarching framework for the project. Something that would provide a structure, a form, and perhaps most importantly, an intellectual skeleton around which I could build a larger body of work. Everything that we had heard, and almost all the people we had met, offered possibilities, but it was not anything unique, nor anything that seemed informative, and insightful. Many of these stories, and many of these histories, have been seen and heard before, and they certainly have been recorded quite often. So what was it that I had come to discover?

For indeed, we had gone there to discover something, and though we had found a lot of material, we just didn’t quite know how to pull it all together. But this shouldn’t surprise anyone – fascinating photo projects are complex undertakings and require time and patience to materialize. After returning from Srebrenica I set this work aside. The images say in my drawer for many weeks. It was with hope that I had ignored my disappointment and convinced myself that:

I am seeing new things. I am hearing new stories. And placing myself in new situations. I am learning. I will often encourage my students to always begin to shoot an idea even if it is half baked. My intention is to get them out into the field, and get them thinking about the idea. Many of my students have struggled with this, afraid as they are to try something they are not sure will be sellable, appealing, or a possible candidate for a grant application. Many have reduced their photography to being only about the act of taking a photograph, and not as an act of genuine human curiosity and engagement. I offer them this suggestion from personal experience – there were moments in my short career when I would over-evaluate and plan an idea, and not take the risk to pursue it if I was not sure it was something real, doable, and sellable. But I have found that by letting go of this need for known outcomes I have gained a lot as an individual and as a photographer.

It has taken some months, but a trip that appeared to have been mostly a failure, can now be seen in an entirely new way. The images I made in Srebrenica have taken on a new meaning and a new relevance. In fact, a framework for the Srebenica work has finally emerged and will require me to return there and photograph an entirely new set of things. And all this isn’t because of chance – it is because of a group of people I met in Srebrenica – the lovely Rachel Cyr, a PhD student from Canada being one, whose insights and conversations helped clarify questions over the weeks. Erin Mosely, another researcher whom I met in Kigali pointed me to works and her own research, and also introduced me to others who have been crucial in my working out the project.

What I am embarking on then is a project about how nations manufacture national history and collective memory. How national history is not just about facts, but is informed by specific political priorities, and instituted through planning, design, and indoctrination – from commemorations, museums, history text books, and much more. What we believe is fact, is quite often simply ideology. But the project will not be a polemic. It will be a documentation of the procedures, people, institutions, practices and policies that are put in place to create a nation memory, and to erase other memories. It will explore a question that has dogged me since 2008 when I began work on my India project – why do we associate certain things with our ‘culture’ and ‘nation’, while remaining ignorant or dismissive of others? Why do certain narratives take on a powerful and definitive ‘factual’ presence in our lives, while others completely disappear? And why does all this happen in such a short time? I will write more about this in the coming weeks. But for now, these new images, and this new work – a preface to a larger project that I have started on, and whose first chapter is being produced in Kigali, Rwanda.

The images shown above are what I was able to produce in Srebrenica. I have intentionally left out captions for the moment but they are from the time we spent among the Serb’s who still live in the Srebrenica region. The wounds of war have not been healed, and there is in fact a determined effort to not heal them. A formalized ethnocentricity has made concrete what should have been overcome but there are no venues for breaking down old divisions, for reconciliation, for negotiation or for recognition. The communities remain closed inside their own myths. There are no truths, and history cannot be a forensic exercise. It has to be constantly revisited, re-examined, and investigated from many different sides and seen as a living, breathing, changing enterprise that involves not just historical or politicians, but citizens as well. And yet I have seen communities – whether in India, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Serbia, Bosnia and today even Rwanda, scanning and selecting items from imagined histories as if they have found truths, and sometimes worst, absolute truths. Ironically, the glorification of one truth, a single communities truths, tends to give birth to many other truths. The latter just circulate in places unheard and unwritten until such time that history changes and gives them new life.

Bosnia was a new way of shooting – more open, simpler and cleaner way of looking. After the complexity of three years in India, I have stepped back to a more classical, cleaner visual eye – the Pakistan work has retains this. Perhaps it is a return to the subject, and to subjectivity. Perhaps it is this desire to place at center stage not artifice or aesthetics, but a singular human experience, unfettered or disturbed by the photographer’s pursuit of style, and individual voice. In the Srebrenica work I worked without pretensions to aesthetics, and but with close engagement with the subjects. Frankly, I wasn’t always happy with the result. In fact, I have not shown these images until now because there is much more that I would have wanted. But, our mistakes and our missteps are a crucial part of how we develop. There are images here, just as there are stories here, that I love and that reflect where I am going next. For the first time in months, these images have a coherence for me, once that I have applied to them in retrospect. But if this work grows, and evolves into something more, than the images made in the summer of 2013 are the crucial beginning.

Now, as I look back at the images of the places, and the people, I met during the summer of 2013, I can understand and remember them better, and I can understand the power and poignancy of what they all keep within themselves: that history that comes from memory, that act that is the last bastion of a people who have been denied a place Bosnia’s ‘new’ reading of history, and are the detritus of Bosnia’s newly manufactured nationalist narrative. I am bringing my experiences from that Bosnia trip to the new work, even though many challenges still remain. So much so that I am struggling in my first forays in Rwanda.

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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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