Musings On Confusions – April 30 2014

Yet again I find myself behind on my writing. New  York has been simply overwhelming and with too much to focus on, too much to concentrate on, too much to keep up with and too much that I am already behind on. But some weeks have gone by and some new pieces and perspectives have gone public (via publications online), and I thought I would take a rare quiet morning and just share some of them here. The cold, wet, grey day outside is of course another reason to just stay at home a little longer and get this out there. So without further delay….

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The ICP Infinity awards were held a couple of days ago. A reliable source – an acquaintance who was in attendance, told me that Adam Broomberg was incensed that Platon’s portrait of Vladimir Putin was on display and at some point during the proceedings secretly had it removed. I suppose this was meant to be an act of liberal political dissent. Or at least a ‘dissent’ that the moneyed patrons and participants of ICP consider to be acceptable and correct. I suspect it would not have occurred to anyone at the ICP event to remove Platon’s portraits of Barack Obama or George Bush (I do not know if any were being shown), because those celebrity leaders are our leaders, and their wars, occupations and staged elections are ‘good’ and ‘appropriate’.

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In fact, this was the very argument of the recent Media Lens piece on the Afghanistan elections called ‘Hard Clay – Remaking Afghanistan In Our Image‘, where they pointed out that

Whereas all media accepted the basic legitimacy of an Iraq election conducted under extremely violent US-UK military occupation, they all rejected the legitimacy of a Crimea referendum conducted ‘at [Russian] gunpoint’. It was not difficult to guess how the same media would respond to the Afghan presidential election of April 5 under the guns of Britain and America’s occupying force.

In fact, I have written about the blinkers and propagandistic discourse that infests the ICP community some years ago when I criticised the award they gave to the French photographer Reza for his work documenting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. There was something particularly hypocritical, and particularly insidious, about an institution from a country that is the current invader and occupier of Afghanistan, handing out awards for works done nearly 2 decades earlier while carefully and specifically remaining silent about the human catastrophe and brutality being inflicted upon that same nation at the very moment by the very government and country the ICP itself belongs to. I argued back then in a post called Sticking Our Heads In The Sand Or We Just Liked Afghanistan More When The Soviets Were Raping It, that:

Did anyone notice the irony and the hypocrisy of an American institution handing out awards to a photographer who once covered an illegal military occupation of Afghanistan when at that very moment America’s own military is mired in an illegal military occupation of that very same country? I doubt it. We prefer not to be bothered by such niceties for it ruins the flavour of the champagne.

There is something culturally and politically propagandistic about the works that get celebrated at events such as the ICP Infinity awards. It is as if a certain group of moneyed people arrive and hand out trinkets to photographers who best create a veil of civility to our barbarism, and ensure that the responsibility and horrors are carefully placed on ‘their’ culture, ways of life, and backwardness, all of which we are at hand to save with our weapons, our lectures, our humanity and our benevolence. None of the works celebrated at ICP allow us to actually consider the histories and legacies of the communities being documented and shown. None allows agency to the other, and none reveal how our corporation and our machines of war and politics are largely responsible for the pathologies that seem to exist ‘over there’. Certainly none allow a strong, dissenting, politically engaged voice of the photographer to speak back to our power, our corporations, our government, our habits of invasion and occupation. There is merely a theatre of ‘social engagement’ and ‘human concern’, but no politics, no dissent, no outrage at what we have enabled and designed. So many still reek of White-guy photography and its just simply shocking and surprising that there remains little or no critical thought or analysis of them. Instead, the works seem to cleanse us of responsibility, each story acting as clear products of propaganda and obfuscation, and of course, moral absolution. Its as if the world – all and complete with its myriad new voices, its confident new insights, its remarkable new complexity and contrapuntal realities, just does not exists. Its as if the ICP Infinity awards are more about creating fiction while selling its as non-fiction because the latter is unpalatable and incomprehensible, while the former is affirming and comforting, much like a prime time sitcom that helps erase the world we have just struggled to work through and weave our way across to sit ourselves down on a sofa and tune out.

The portrait of Vladimir Putin was was removed, and a sense of feel-goodness filled the air at the events. Even my acquaintance relayed the story to me with a sense righteousness. Then I suppose they all congratulated themselves at their ‘powerful political dissent’ and went home considering themselves human rights defenders, and moral crusaders. Where is my Graham Greene?

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Warscapes Magazine blog just ran a piece I wrote about Norway’s ‘human zoo’ art project. You can read it online of course, but I am re-posting it here in its entirety.

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The Norwegian artists Mohamed Ali Fadlabi and Lars Cuzner are recreating, as part of a nationwide commemoration of 200 years of the Norwegian Constitution, a “human zoo” as a way of provoking an engagement with Norway’s colonial past. However, in their effort to engage with a brutal and violent colonial history and stimulate discussion about the prejudice, profiteering and power that allowed it to happen, the artists fail to understand how the very act of creating this “art” and inviting people to “volunteer” to be the “animals” in the “zoo” is in itself an act of privilege, power and a manifestation of the social inequalities and economic imbalances that taint our modern world.

There is, of course, the tastelessness of it all – imagine inviting Jews to participate in a modern-day reenactment of the gas chambers organized by a couple of German artists – but equally egregious is the obfuscatory nature of the attempt. The entire reenactment, one that can today be performed in a benign and “educational” manner, presumes that issues of racism, bigotry, economic inequality, political power and relationships of dependency and exploitation when it comes to Africa and Africans no longer exist or matter.

Ostensibly, it may appear to be no different from a theatre or film performance. The people participating are willing subjects who probably believe that this may actually offer a historical context to a shameful and disgusting past. The organizers of the project have put out a call for volunteers to be the “animals.” Clearly there will also be non-whites in the audience that come to gawk at them. So what historical context is actually being created? Hasn’t this entire performance already crumbled when the actual historical imbalance of power, might, greed and desire – qualities that made racial science and its associated acts of slavery the incredibly profitable and incredibly brutal enterprise that it was – is no longer present? Isn’t this, then, simply gratuitous? In what way does it help us experience what it means to simply kidnap millions of people and sell them to others for our benefit? What is the historical context? Or is it merely titillation at being able to “re-occupy” those spaces of European superiority, Black/African barbarism and “monkey-like” behavior yet again? Is it cathartic, or simply voyeuristic? One can also ask how the questioning of the benefits and privileges of slavery that European nations continue to benefit from will be challenged? What stark revelations about the existing and growing atmosphere of racism and bigotry across Europe will be revealed? Probably none.

The fundamental problem with such “performances” is not just that they fail to perform anything meaningful, but that they more egregiously fail to point out that we are not done with the past. They simplify the deep social, economic and political links that had existed, and that continue to benefit societies in Europe today. Furthermore, like Disney’s proposal to build a slave-plantation theme park in Florida – one that was much criticized – it gives the spectators a false sense of comfort that what they are dealing with is the past, something that was once, something that has nothing to do with what remains today. Racism, exploitation of African economies, the bigotry and dehumanization that underpin international development and aid – the Norwegians are the leaders in such ‘good’ works – continue to contort lives, economies and society in Africa.

All such performances attempt to play on a false idea that “shame” is the main response to the exploitative past, and to the brutal present. This is a shallow view, and one that fails to properly acknowledge how so much of the wealth of Europe today is intentionally protected and extended because of all that was violently gained before. Is this a conversation spectators are seriously willing to have? Probably not. Thus, there is no historical context, but rather a short-form accusation that seeks to provoke feelings of shame in its audience. But shame is not a sustainable response if we are serious about understanding history, nor one that provokes action against its legacies.

Another iteration of the same problematic approach is the “feel good” story predicated, ultimately, on inequity. For example, the recent one about “Somalis on ice” during the corporate production of something known as the Olympics. Yet another story of black/brown people valiantly behaving according to an imagined idea of “us.” Lets be honest: such stories also carry within them the racist prejudice which believes that black/brown people are generally too backward to indulge in what are clearly rich people’s 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.

I am reminded of something that Michael-Rolph Trouillot said in Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History when criticizing the Disney proposal to build a slavery theme plantation exhibit. To be sure, there was popular disapproval of the idea. William Styron – whose family were slave owners – vehemently opposed the idea. In an Op-Ed for the New York Times, Styron argued: “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…To present even the most squalid sights would be to cheaply romanticize suffering.” (Op-ed, Aug 4, 1994)

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-made exhibit of a slave plantation, no matter how historically accurate, morally precise, or emotionally powerful, did not produce any relation to the Past, but perpetuated instead the dishonesty of that relationship as it would happen in the Present. That is, viewers would walk away with the wrong response to the exhibit – namely that issues of racism are in the past, and that today all that was over. An exhibit eliciting such a response is simply, and nothing short of, immoral.

This is a powerful critique, and one that applies here in the case of Norway’s new exhibit. No matter how well-intentioned, viewers are encouraged to walk away convinced that all is well in Europe, that the Africans are happy and belong, and that our society lives above racism and bigotry. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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There are many who think that parody is political dissent and criticism. Jon Stewart has made a career out of this, and many commentators have pointed out how comedy television is really the only place where political criticism and dissent can be heard loud and clear. This is a pathetic and sad state of affairs for our democracy. What people who watch these programs do not seem to realise that parody undermines dissent, and deflate it of meaning. It certainly distracts from the need for action and the venues for achieving it. The comedian John Oliver – a Jon Stewart protegé, is now also in the game. The limits of parody as journalistic criticism are well captured in this interview with the former head of the NSA Keith Alexander:

There are two tricks that Keith Alexander plays on, and both have been made concrete and possible by the Obama administration:

1: that everything that the NSA does is legal

2: those who made mistakes, have since come up and acknowledged it, and that is good enough

The first is based on the lie that federal / FISA courts approvals make things ‘legal’. But these are ‘rubber stamping’ courts, that are more real in their pretence than in their substance. You can read more about that empty process here:

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Two: the idea that if someone made a mistake i.e. spied on Americans for example, they can come forward and acknowledge that mistake, and because they are ‘good people’ is a classic case of how the Obama administration has re-interpreted ‘breaking the law’ as ‘making a mistake’. It is this re-interpretation that has allowed it to 1) give immunity to telecoms that helped spy on american in violation of the law, 2) give immunity to the corrupt bankers on wall street that bought this nation’s economy to its knees while begging for public handouts and then bragging about their profits, 3) ignore the war criminals that instituted torture and rendition policies, to say nothing about sanctioning illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and much more. By calling crimes simply ‘mistakes’, this clownish administration has revealed time and again its corrupt and hollow core.

To listen to this man now repeatedly use the same tactics that the Obama administration has used for years to obfuscate criminal activities is just sickening. John Oliver either does not understand what Alexander is saying, or is too keen to be a comedian and lets him off the hook too easily. Alexander is lying to his face, despite us knowing all the facts, and yet isn’t taken down on prime time television. An opportunity missed. But that is what happens when comedy is seen as a form of politics. Particularly when it seems to have become the only form politics and political discourse most people seem to want to engage in. 

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We now learn that hate radio had little to do with the evolution of the Rwandan genocide. See here:

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The Keystone XL pipeline is getting the full marketing treatment, with online advertisements that pop up on Facebook and other social media sites. These advertisements feature They are running television ads with sincere, serious looking white men speaking to other sincere, serious and hapless looking ‘Norman Rockwellian’ white farmer types, to argue that the pipeline reflect 1) american values, and 2) offers jobs and 3) frees us from those supplying ‘conflict oil’ who do not share our values.

This is one of many.

The phrasing ‘conflict oil’ is a fabulous euphemism for our conflicts for oil of course, and our wars of influence and control. This phrasing veils that our wars are not merely about access to oil, but as much about control of them, and the need for exclusive and privileged use of it. that from africa to the middle east, the united states – an economy that refuses to change its fossil fuel dependency – needs to simply feed itself and its voracious economic and consumer appetite.

There can be no re-imagining of a new tomorrow, but merely a catatonic society simply proceeding as before and pillaging and murdering to ensure that it can do so. that the keystone will bring some temporary jobs, but certainly create massive immediate profits , possibly permanent ecological devastation, massive destruction of arable land, definite incidences of environmental pollution, further exacerbation of our carbon contributions and certainly not reduce our fossil fuel dependency, or needs for more wars is of course not up for discussion in these pathetic ads and propaganda pages.

The Tar sands of Canada, from where this oil will come, are an ecological disaster and a human tragedy. The refusal to review how we live, and what we live on, a simply intellectual and imaginative failure of a polity that is completely beholden to corporate wealth, and that has recently been made even more so by an unethical Supreme Court bent on removing all checks and balances on the rich and the corporate.

The pipeline will go through because there are no avenues for civic dissent to matter. It is there, and it is visible, but does not matter. I wonder if the ICP will make a connection between Nigeria and our environmental disasters here? I doubt it.

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In the annals of the stupid, this is my entry for today.

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 08.43.27This entire discussion is yet another nail in the ‘its about culture’ industry – the charade of ‘inter-faith’ dialogue being used to obfuscate actual politics, history and legacies of war. The ‘nice’ Moos-lims of course, always on call to ‘explain’ or ‘correct’ the use of meaningless and abstract terms like ‘Islam’ and ‘Jihad’, but never to once utter a word about a history of the world to which America too belongs, on which America too acts, and for which American too has to suffer the consequences much like the rest of the world. Commemoration becomes a cleansing of reality, a white-washing of our crimes as we wax lyrical about those of others. Out of the blue, and from cultural narratives, an entire nation will be made to further suffer in ignorance and self-pity.

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Just a really good documentary about how online privacy has been carefully and systemically erased while you were sleeping:

Terms And Conditions May Apply (2013) from LeakSource on Vimeo.

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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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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.