Musings And Confusions – January 30 2014

I just forgot. Last some weeks, I just forgot that I have been trying to write these short pieces. Apologies, but lets begin without much further ado.

Somalies on ice. We love these kinds of stories – remember the Jamaican bobsled team, because they very subtly carry an element of the unbelievable, unusual, and unexpected. And so once again, in time for the corporate production that is something called The Olympics, comes another story of black / brown people valiantly behaving like our imagined idea of ‘us’. Lets also be honest, such ‘feel good’ stories also carry within them that racist prejudice that believes that black / brown people are generally too backward to indulge in what are clearly rich people activities. We are surprised and amused at their temerity, and their desire to belong to our world. Much of our bigoted amusement comes from the way these stories are produced and presented because they exploit the element of ‘shock’ and ‘surprise’ at their efforts. So the Swedes are at it too these days it seems.

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At one level this is all just laughable – not that the Somalians are playing a sport, but the way the media obsesses about something so banal. As Palme points out, this is in a long tradition of such obsessions about watching ‘the wogs’ behave like human beings:

…these stories have another irresistible media quality: the contrarian story, the “man bites dog,” the news that they claim goes against the norm. “Somalis playing bandy” is but a slight twist to that seemingly endless trope, “non-white people skateboarding,” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Uganda, wherever. Or what sometimes seems to be the most-filmed story cliché about Africa in the past few years, the heavy metal music scenes in Mozambique, Angola, Botswana or Soweto. And even though it is told again and again, the story is always presented as unexpected, that this is something that “goes against the image” of Africa. Thus, in its very exceptionality, reinforcing that stereotypical image rather than shaking it.

It is a great feel good story, but the inherent problem with such depictions of Africans, of the creation of a feel good story about ‘their’ joining our civility goes beyond Africa. It also relates to the Swedes. But there is another aspect that is perhaps even more troubling.

I am reminded of something that Michael-Rolph Trouillot said when criticizing a Disney proposal to build a slavery theme exhibit based around a plantation. Though there was popular disapproval of the idea, and even the great writer William Styron – whose family were slave owners, vehemently opposed the idea in an Op-Ed in the New York Times. Styron argued (can’t find a link to the original Op-Ed):

“I have doubts whether the technical wizardry that so entrances children and grown-ups at other Disney parks can do anything but mock a theme as momentous as slavery,” the novelist William Styron wrote in an Op Ed page article last month in The New York Times. “To present even the most squalid sights would be to cheaply romanticize suffering.”

But it took Trouillot to touch on something that was not said even by those who were aghast and opposed to the idea – that the danger in a Disney / idealized exhibit of a slave plantation, no matter how historically accurate, morally precise, or emotionally powerful, was not the relation to the Past, but the dishonesty of that relation as it would happen in the Present. That is, the viewers would walk away with the wrong response to the exhibit i.e convinced that issues of racism were in the past, and that today all that was over. It would induce an immoral and wrong reaction in the present.

This is a powerful critique and the same applies here to stories such as this. We read them and we walk away convinced that all is well, that the Africans are happy and belong, and that our society lives above racism and bigotry. Nothing could be further from the truth. As this article itself summarizes that such stories allow us to feel good about ourselves, and delude ourselves, and to…

… ignores the horrible reality of a Sweden where hate crimes against Somali people are on the rise, where 76% of the population perceives ethnic discrimination to be widespread, where the gap in average level of employment between Somalis and the entire population is 52 whole percentage units, three times as large as the UK or the US.

A terrible present indeed. These feel good stories about black men playing white games veil our complicity in the discrimination and injustice meted out a class of people we consider lower, inferior and unworthy of our finest attention and deepest concerns. We in Europe, and certainly in Sweden, treat them with a not-so-hidden racism that assumes that they must be ‘integrated’, and ‘prepared’ to join our fine society, while denying them the possibility of simply human desires and ambitions.

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This isn’t about McCullen. It is about the way photojournalists continue to speak about something called ‘war’. What is ‘war’? It is time that we re-examined this word, and more importantly, re-examined what we believe it refers to.

This faux-interview (it’s actually an advertisement for Dunhill, so be warned!) opens with McCullen very honestly admitted that the last 50 years of his life have been wasted because his images made no difference at all. They simply showed, but did no more. But it is surprising that McCullen will not speak beyond the acts of violence and weaponry and victims that he says is ‘war’.

But ‘war’ is also politics, greed, mendacity, power. ‘War’ is also a desire to colonize, to control, to reduce, to grab. ‘War’ is also racism and bigotry, arrogance and sense of cultural superiority. Why not speak about all these other things? Why not make the connection between the broken, bleeding bodies that lie in front of your lens, and the rhetoric and lies of your politicians back in your gilded ‘parliament’, that made that photographic moment possible? Why not reveal the connections, the inter-relationships, and the seemingly banal and ordinary desires of life – wealth, power, profit, the underpin what we call ‘war’.

There has been little evolution in a photojournalist’s language and sense of meaning. They seem stuck in very old definitions and refuse to allow new sociological, historical, political, and other realizations to not only broaden their own images, but also their voices and their stories. It is indeed a waste if you just repeatedly show us death and blood, but it need not be if we have the courage to show us how we got there, why we made it happen, and the shallow and crass motivations that hide behind the glorifying and heroic rhetoric that takes us to war.

There is much to show. And even more still to say. McCullen is from another generation, and his example is incredible. We all learn from him each time we see his works, but our generation has to also define its own contribution. Our generation of ‘war’ photographers have to see and think in more complicated, overlapping and multidisciplinary ways. I think this is the current challenge for a craft that is trapped in its obsessions with toys and its mimicry of old forms.

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I had missed this earlier, but it is a fascinating discussion.

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What particularly struck a chord is the discussion centered around the motivations and priorities of international humanitarian aid organizations, and how the people they claim they are there to serve, are in fact not the main focus. It is a bit of a rambling dialogue, but it is a rare moment where a journalism’s collaboration with the non-humanitarian priorities of the humanitarians is bought up.

This was interesting because there is once again a lot of self-congratulatory talk going around in certain circles about the power of photojournalism married to humanitarianism. The cartoonish narratives of evil appears-NGO acts-photojournalism documents-Western corporations divest-the black man is saved are high on the agenda recently, veiling as this discussion points out, what is always left out i.e the Haitians in this case, themselves – a people reduced to their absolute animal needs, and no more – survival (food, shelter, security). We never seem to tire of this narrative, and here Katz, who has written an otherwise fine book, also tries to wade through this without taking a clear stand.

Racism underpins so much of humanitarianism. The idea of a universal Evil that human rights has to act against erases history, politics, agency and as Badiou argued, specificity. Coincidently I realize that it is specificity that my recent work in Pakistan is about – no grand polemics about development, modernity, democracy etc. phrases that have been shorn of any meaning and are today merely bludgeons used by lifestyle liberals and criminal political actors to silence thought, – the search for the specific and to understand the impact of the general on it, and from that specific, to judge the need for change about the general.

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It had to be a sweep so extreme that there could never ever be a doubt about its ‘legitimacy’. Perhaps if they had chosen a smaller number it would have left too much room for the people to question the results, and suggest that a sizeable minority stands against a military dictatorship. But by choosing a number that suggests an outstanding albeit rote-based performance in a high-school algebra exam, the dictatorship passes with a whooping 98.1%. I wonder who came up with that 0.1 % flourish – a master stroke to allay any concerns about the fraudulent nature of the vote. 99% is ‘too good’, 97% reeks of excellence but not quite…but 98% that is near perfect…..oh, but the 0.1% makes it more real actually.

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Tin pot dictatorships have such familiar, such shared paranoia. From North Korea to the Middle East, these men trained in autocratic, disciplined based operational management of a war machine, but ‘elected’ to manage and run a nation, all with the help of generous advice from allies like the USA, just can’t accept anything less than excellence.  The rise of the Egyptian neoliberal banana republic can now begin. With an impressive performance such as this – 98.1%, that too after the massive crack-down, imprisonment, and eradication, of the ‘they were always terrorists’, Muslim Brotherhood, this result is even more impressive. After all, imagine if the Muslim Brother hood had a chance to vote on this ‘constitution’ as well….maybe 99.1% is not a target too far into the future.

The people have spoken, people! Egyptians wants a military run nation-state, one tightly wound in the neoliberal agenda, an agenda that has had a few decades of excellent performance in widening the poverty and inequality numbers in the country, enriching a handful few, and providing such fashionable achievements as ‘off the shelf’ armaments and a dinner invitation to the White House.

98.1% gets you a gold star. How proud we are.

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The Saudi Arabian film Wadjda is receiving accolades on the American and European award circuit. Every convenience-store liberal voice, those who love to buy their morality right off the shelf, are jumping in and claiming it as a feminist, emancipation saga. We love to liberate the brown woman from the brown man – a leisure time activity that gives us no end of pleasure. However, there is more to it the film than what meets the eye. In an argument that parallel the one I made about Malala, al-Hayder reminds us how we often fail to see the difference between the State and the Society, blaming and pointing fingers at the latter, while ignoring the power, interest, influence, and resources bought to bear on it by the State. As I had argued in an earlier piece:

…the Pakistani ‘liberal’ and middle-class is a reactionary, conservative, nationalistic, blindly-patriotic, largely patriarchical, anti-democratic force in the country. It has been supportive – in terms financial, rhetorical and structural, of every military coup in the country, continuing to believe that a strongman is better for the country than strong civilian institutions. It was the first to get into bed with the religious fanatics in order to avoid confronting the diversity of voices demanding a say in the running of the country. And that continue to fight for this right.

It is a class that loves to speak about objects like Malala because it helps them white wash their broader failures of social and human investment in the country. The fact remains the women’s literacy is one of the least important development issues for any Pakistani government that has ever been – both military governments or civilian governments. The middle class loves to sing songs with Malala, but cannot explain why women remain largely illiterate all across the country, and why tens of thousands of public schools remain empty and under-funded. Or why our annual budgets can never quite seem to find the money for education and proper schools. It’s easy to lambast something called ‘Islamic radicals’ for women’s oppression because it helps hide the fact that the Pakistanis themselves  – as a State and a polity, actually don’t give a damn about women’s education or education in general.

Wadjda is a wonderful film, but it is also a wonderful act of deception and distraction, much like the courageous Malala, and the powerful State sponsorship and International Community garlands she received. Each are distractions from structures of violence, discrimination, dispossession, marginalization, repression and control. As al-Hayder argues, and I quote him at length:

It does not require extraordinary intelligence to conclude that the political statement the film makes is specious. I do not mean to minimize patriarchal social practices when I say that “society” does not wield the same power as the state. It cannot, however, discipline and punish like the state. Saudi “society” has not erected prisons and filled them with dissenters. If we are talking about women’s lack of mobility, it is not “society” that pulls women over and interrogates them when they attempt to drive. Neither does “society” have the power to issue permits to institutions like the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts (SASCA), which submitted Wadjda to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a Saudi entry. In A Most Masculine State, Madawi Al-Rasheed illustrates how, post-9/11, the Saudi state has resorted to celebrating “exceptional” Saudi women who managed to rise above society’s (not the state’s!) barbarism and patriarchy, because “the soft face of the cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and articulate woman was the best weapon the state could summon in its war not only against terrorism, but also against its demonization in the international community.” Haifaa Al Mansour is one of these “exceptional” women who, as Al-Rasheed states, are willing to go along with the state’s agenda because “it is an irresistible opportunity to gain more rights and visibility.” Sultan Al-Bazei, head of SASCA, said as much when he stated that “the authorities have given the film their blessing and fully support it.

We learn not to see the structures that most influence and define the contours of our society. Our educational systems, our media and our political interests constantly distract us with cultural, and other arguments. Its time we started to speak back – to critique upwards.

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Jessica T Mathews is an intelligent woman. A woman of considerable capability and skills, and someone who seems to have done well in her life. And as the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, you would think she would be someone interested in specifics, and facts. Clearly not.

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This article, on the surface one that argues against the hysteria, Machivallian politics and sheer bigotry that underpins the opposition many US Congresspeople have against the Iran – USA deal that is being worked out, perpetuates the lie that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. It has been argued, again and again and again, that there is absolutely no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. And yet, Ms Mathews places this assumption – one that is based more on fear, bigotry, and some bizarre assumptions about Iran and her intentions, at the center of her piece.

The lie is insidiously constructed when early in the essay Mathews argues:

The greatest single cause of friction (between USA and Iran) was the growing evidence that in spite of having signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, Iran was in fact pursuing nuclear weapons. For more than fifteen years, intelligence and on-the-ground inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed nuclear facilities, imports of nuclear technology, and research that had no civilian use. The scale of Iran’s programs that could have both peaceful and military uses, notably uranium enrichment, was wholly out of proportion to any reasonable civilian need. The IAEA tried for years without success to get answers to a growing list of questions about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.

This is just not true. As argued by FAIR earlier:

As has been made clear many times, it has not been established that Iran actually has a weapons program. What the country has is a uranium enrichment program that is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which routinely finds no evidence Iran is diverting its uranium stockpile for military use. In 2007, the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) found that Iran had most likely stopped any development of a weapons program in 2003.

And Mathew knows this because she hedges her states with ‘could have both peaceful and military use’, just as fertilizer could too. The New York Review of Books, since the passing of the brilliant Helen Epstein, has increasingly indulged in such obfuscations, and perpetuation of lies, whether it is about Iran, the Israel / Palestinian situation, Pakistan and other foreign regions with deep and entrenched American political, economic and strategic interests. That is, as a publication, it is unable to read past the prejudices that are used to explain American interests, involvement, meddling and insertion. As a publication it has failed absolutely to dismantle the structures of thought that perpetuate American mendacity, violence, and diplomatic stupidity.

There is something deeply unseemly about a powerful mainstream voice, a woman with titles that suggest a thinker towards building bridges and overcoming differences, who adheres to prejudices and bigotry that is based more on intuition, racism, arrogance, and a sheer lack of intellectual rigor. Rather than take on the insidious lies that have bought us to the impasse, rather than confronting and challenging those who wish to proceed to war .e.g the sick Netanyahu and his paid for US Congresspeople, she is papering over the real issue. Perhaps her’s is a political calculation – don’t upset the cart, the end justifies the means. But I would argue that if you do not question the means, you are more likely to want to use them again. We lied about Iraq and her weapons, we lied about Syria and her weapons, and we are still lying about Iran and her weapons. The means are the problem as much as the ends they leave us with. Have we learned nothing?

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Another fine example of how editors and publishers work to undermine, and undercut the passions and commitments of photographers. This piece was truly laughable to read and I felt angry for the photographers who had put so much work into it, only to find that the editors were unable to reflect their commitment, or even allow their voices to come through strong and clear.

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I think what is really difficult to swallow is the way the hard work of the photographers – which means not just their documentation, but the values and concerns that may inform it, are simply dismissed by a ridiculous attempt at ‘balance’ that manifests itself towards the end of the article that accompanies these photographs. Brenden Seibel, the writer of the piece, is at pains to avoid presenting this issue – the wholesale destruction of the environment and human lives because of the poisoning of ground water and the seeping of carcinogenic and deadly chemicals that are necessarily a part of such gas explorations – in a way that makes it clear where the stress should lie. I think that it is a pathetic commentary on the state of our American society that we can believe that there is a just and meaningful reason to balance a documentation of the destruction of a people’s family and life, communities and the natural environment, with an argument for how this creates more jobs, more growth and more energy. I quote Seibel:

Although the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project does a wonderful job documenting the lives of those living with fracking, it offer little insight into the people doing the work, and there is scant attention paid to what advocates of fracking consider its benefits — more jobs, more energy and more growth.

This is further enhanced by the mealy-mouthed statements by the ‘editors’ – someone called Domenic, who argues:

Despite the empathy the photographers felt for their subjects, they realized letting their biases or perspectives distort their work would be a disservice to everyone. “The whole point was not to create more hype about what’s going on, to have really dramatic images that are just volatile, but to be able to have really thought-provoking images,” says Domencic. “There’s a lot of subtlety involved.”

This is seriously irresponsible, immoral, inhumane and unprofessional. I would argue, with the incredible risks to human life and natural environment at stake, and the immense silencing of these sufferings – through corporate bribes, political influence, judicial influence, and sheer power of corporate lawyers, it is the responsibility of journalism and journalists to in fact create a hype, and add their weight to those who are at the short end of these decisions. It is precisely our responsibility to prioritize human life, community welfare and the betterment of our citizens, over jobs, growth and more energy. And this is even more imperative at a time of rampant economic decline, out-of-control militarization and march to wars, and a hideously divided and unequal economic structure that continues to deny the weak their right to life, liberty and happiness.

It is our responsibility to confront, challenge, obstruct and prevent corporations, politicians and profiteers from destroying lives, from ruining our communities, from raping our environments, and from destroying ways of life that value something other than just jobs, growth and energy. To say nothing about the absolutely anti-intellectual, ridiculously unexamined, and frankly infantile dichotomy that suggests that jobs, growth and energy can only come at the expense of lives, community and environment. I refuse that equation, based as it is on accepting the lies and obfuscation of corporate and political interests and represents as it does a refusal to engage in an imaginative re-design of a future that is sustainable and manageable.

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What does one do when an elected civilian government gleefully enacts irresponsible, draconian and dictatorial legislation under the fear of an abstraction called ‘terrorism’. What this law does of course is simply give a fraudulent legal cover to a State and its machinery of social and civil control even more leeway to maintain and continue their abuse of the Pakistani citizen.

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Using meaningless words like ‘terrorism’, ‘anti-state’ and ‘treason’ and offering ‘credible information’ as being enough to arrest ‘without a warrant’ our infantile, child-like, mentally challenged legislators have offered us a victory of mendacity, fear, cowardice, stupidity and venality over common sense and legislative responsibility.

This is not a law – one that will offer rights to citizens to balance an already unbalanced situation they face when it comes to the arms of the State. This will lead inevitably not to an end of something called ‘terrorism’ – what that is, we have failed to define or identify but States continue to use it as if that word can have any meaning – but to further abuse of citizens, and further arrogance and projection of State machinery to oppress and repress. Of course, this legislation comes as a ‘me too’ effort on part of a lobotomized legislature that simply mimics what they see in the USA or elsewhere. Sinking in ahistorical and anti-intellectual knowledge, beholden to a group of big white men with lots of cash, eager to please, and eager to be seen as ‘politicians of significance’, these pipsqueaks gloat and swagger over the corpses of the weak, convincing themselves that it isn’t malnutrition, illiteracy, social deprivation and dependency, life insecurity and a lack of a future that are the real issues it should address, but the false god of ‘terror’ – the one that fills our pockets with cash, the one that gets us invited to dinners in Washington DC, the one that brings new cool military toys into our cupboard, the one that makes us think that we are thinkers, doers, relevant and significant.

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There are few things more disgusting than when a news agency grandstands about its commitment to its reputation for truth and accuracy. Organizations like AP – always in the pocket of power, and always happy to bend with the winds of Western political priorities – is today waxing lyrical over what can only be described as an insignificant – albeit stupid – action by one of its photographers. A basically trivial edit of a trivial photograph – one that does not in any way change the content or relevance of the image – is transformed into a massive PR mea culpa possibly more to project AP’s false reputation as an institution of integrity and accuracy.

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This is the same AP that ran an entire story about Iran nuclear weapons that was shown to be a complete hoax. See here:

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And this was a hoax that could have consequences for the lives of tens of thousands because it was feeding into a desperate march towards war and violence against Iran. Faced with an outpouring of protest at the bogus charts, and questionable sources, and the insidious misreading and misrepresentations that AP pushed out into the world, AP’s only response to what was clearly a lie, a fed piece, false data, doctored charts, and completely fabrication was

We continue to report the story.

So help me understand what all this grandstanding over the corpse of one photographer’s comparatively minor mistake is all about? Well, I suspect it is the typical bullshit response of a group of editors seething and wallowing in their insecurity and hypocrisy, editors who know that they on a daily basis work with crap stories, questionable facts, and make choices that are driven less by a pursuit of truth and accuracy and more by markets and profits. So when a ‘minor’ issue crops up, they, like corrupt politicians looking for cheap charity events to cleanse their reputation, or a cute child to cover their callous pursuit of power, jump right all over it.

THe New York Times editors did this some years ago with Zack Canepari – I wrote about that here, arguing that:

In the scheme of journalistic manipulations, from reporting from within the embed program to mindlessly repeating the inanities of ‘power brokers’ just to maintain access to them, Zachary Canepari’s infraction is trivial. It should have elicited nothing more than a behind-the-door reprimand. Lets keep in mind that neither the photograph nor the manipulation were important to the story that was run, or affected what the story attempted to discuss.  In fact, it was a pointless illustration (its just a silhouette!) and the story could in fact have stood on its own even without it!

AP is just filling our news once again with rubbish. If they are so committed to truth and accuracy they would focus on their major stories, their real hoax news, rather than minor and insignificant edits that require no more than a reprimand, a removal of an image, and a ‘moving on’…

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As always, our newspapers ensure that we keep this a nice, simplistic, human-rights-NGO-acceptable story. The hysteria over ‘sectarian’ violence, decontextualized from the broader State initiated violence is the usual way that such ‘human rights’ concerns are manufactured, and an overt and confrontational criticism of the State and its functionaries avoided

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But this story is incomplete…Mastung, as are other parts of Baluchistan, is a region of massive Pakistani military operations against Baluch nationalists, and the religious groups trawling around there have been bought there with the support of the state. The government wants to claim these are ‘foreign terrorists’, but it is using terrorism as a cover for its anti-Baluch nationalist campaigns and war of terror in the region. the Hazara are trapped between a series of policies and decisions the state has made and are being used to further an agenda of violence, repression, and murder. Baluchistan is seething with violence and thousands have disappeared, killed and displaced thanks to the policies of the Pakistani state. the Hazara are victims because of the state, not because of the sectarians. the state actors – including the idiotic governor, are using the Hazara as a distraction, to re-write the narrative of Baluchistan to make it seem that pakistan is fighting foreign terrorism in the state when in fact that is not the case at all……it is waging an unjust war against a people who have been asking for economic and social justice for decade.

For an alternative  – stuff that Dawn will not print – here: http://www.tanqeed.org/2013/11/between-the-earthquakes-and-the-war/ and also see earlier pieces here: http://www.tanqeed.org/2013/08/looking-for-uncle-ali/ and there is more.

I am sickened by these attacks, and by how the Hazara have been made the scapegoats and victims. but i am sickened by the state that is allowing this to happen, that is using the Hazara to cover for its own violent and unjust policies, and that is playing a hideous and vile game that refuses to give the just demands of the Baluch any space and insists on its neocolonial, arrogance and racist attitude that has scarred central government relationship with Baluchistan for decades!

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An important photo project, but if you are going to speak about Operation Condor, you cannot, and must not, remain silent about the American collaboration and acquiescence in the campaign. It is important to remember that six nations were involved in this campaign, and they were American allies, not the least of which was Pinochet’s Chile. The US was well aware of the mass disappearances and killings that were taking place, and it did not merely stand aside, but also provided technical and other assistance to our allies while it was all taking place.

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There is a whole host of material online that can tell us a lot about how collaboration looks like, even when it isn’t direct. These were ‘our’ generals – One can hear a broad discussion about this here:

The entire archive is being opened, and we are seeing a constant flow of information of American collaboration and support for these military juntas and their actions in Condor. for example:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/10/new-evidence-implicates-h_n_533036.html

there are some good books on the question:

http://books.google.rw/books/about/Predatory_States.html?id=2eFHAAAAYAAJ&redir_esc=y

and

http://books.google.rw/books?id=3JjtHROah_YC&source=gbs_similarbooks

and that is all just from the top of my head. I am sure i can compile a lot more

The New York Times Lens Blog of course will not say a word. Mired deep in the white washing on American international politics, her history of entanglements with some of the most sordid, autocratic, violent and depraved regimes in modern history (anyone remember Papa Doc or even this ally of ours called Saddam Hussein?), the New York Times Blog – probably hiding behind the rhetoric of ‘its about photography’ – chooses to say nothing.

The sordid history of US involvement in the brutal years of Latin American tin pot dictatorships is fact and history. To write an entire piece about a photography project that claims to be about memory, history, excavation and truth, and say nothing about how we in the USA were part and involved in the making of that sordid history, is egregiously unprofessional, and shamefully irresponsible. The posit what took place in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and other countries as if it took place independent of larger geo-political currents and in particular USA-centric currents, is absolutely untenable.

Photojournalists have to confront history and speak honestly. It is not enough to simply make strong photographs. It is not enough to compartmentalize history into conveniently acceptable and polite packages. I don’t know if Pina will say more in his own words and in his own pages, but I hope that he will see that the New York Times is not the place to offer the complete story of Operation Condor.

I hope that the Moving Walls exhibit will be more honest and more compelling. We need avenues where history is not white washed. We need an honest accountability of the consequences of American collusion and entanglement with hideous, violent and repressive regimes that promise ‘open markets’ and ‘free trade’ while creating repressed societies, and imprisoned lives. Even now, as we watch the Americans get into bed with the vile and violent military junta in Egypt, we can see history continuing its brutal trajectory, we can see mistakes be refreshed as policies

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There is just so much wrong with this piece that I don’t really even know where to begin. Mr. Humayun, ensconced as he is in the comfortable corridors of some Washington D.C: think tank, exhibits of the fundamental flaws in Pakistani intellectual and liberal thought: the inability to see that militant insurgency is not THE ONLY reaction Pakistani’s have had to flawed and distorted social and economic priorities, venal political priorities, entrenched class interests and determined imperial handyman concerns.

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Pakistanis have repeatedly risen up in mass protests and demands, across the country, asking for social justice, and equality. They have repeated demanded investments in their educational, health, and social welfare. They have fought for these rights on many fronts – militarily, politically, and through peaceful protests. In fact, what Mr. Humayun fails to acknowledge is that though we may not condone and respect the methods and rhetoric of the militants, we cannot ignore the populist discontent with the state that they exploit. Before there was Taliban in Swat, there were a people’s protests against the same venal feudal landlords, timber mafia, exploitative tourism industry tycoons, and a corrupt and venal judicial, police and political system…for example.

As he lays out his recommendations, he yet again refuses to suggest any sort of re-structuring of the State apparatus, and a prioritization of investment in the society, human resources and communities of Pakistan. His ‘security State’ blinkers may enable him to offer us an interesting reading of the goals and priorities of the militants, but he is silent about any meaningful change of priorities, policies and practices that are severely and immediately needed. I find it strange that he can intelligently identify how state policies have bought us to the mess we are in, and yet remain silent about questioning the State itself.

The insurgents exploit genuine grievances, and genuine failures of the state to serve the social, economic and development interests of its citizens. This is a corrupt, venal and exploitative state that chooses to wage war against its citizens before it chooses to redefine itself. Pakistan’s struggle today cannot be resolved by more of the same, tiresome geo-strategic mumbo-jumbo that think-tank writers have been feeding us for decades. Pakistan’s struggles require a fundamental act of economic redistribution (investments, social welfare, protection of worker rights, protection of markets), social investment (education, health care, social security protection) and provision of equality under the law. It is such a major transformation that is the only option left, for otherwise what we are seeing is, as the writer rightly identifies, a fragmentation. The nation-state is dying, and it is being helped along, and it may be that the next phase of political development may be the ethnic / sectarian Bantustans as we are seeing in Iraq, Syria and perhaps someday in Pakistan?

Our erstwhile think-tank intellectuals remain disconnected from a human, moral and intellectual engagement with the struggling citizenry of Pakistan. And they remain mired in fear – a fear of speaking about redistribution, and about equity. The discontent in Pakistan did not begin on 9/11/2001, it merely mutated itself, as guns and drugs overran the country, because of the State’s prior interest in playing tin pot imperialist in the region, into overt and popular violence.

Re-think, re-examine, and re-distribute – its time to see and do differently.

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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.