Three Cheers For Utopias And Dreamers

Occupy Wall Street.

For many, even those here in the very city that gave birth to it, it is now but a distant memory. Even those ‘hangers on’ I met celebrating it in fashionable bars and events in Williamsburg and DUMBO, have moved onto other fashionable causes. I remember distinctly that none of those who were actually living out in the tents and on the pavements, the ones who were risking their bodies and their futures facing the brutality of the New York police, seemed to be at these events. It was mostly Prada-wearing editors from fancy ‘editorial’ publications and publishers of books trying to make a living off the movement that was made up mostly of idealists, dreamers, and desperate people from all walks of America’s life. Today people talk about OWS and wash down their cynical words with a smirk if not a laugh. It is spoken about as if it was, for a brief moment, a game some misguided people played, and then simply walked away – something nothing more than a summer festival where a few young kids had a great time, pretended to stand against ‘the system’ and then had to return to their homes and to their day jobs.

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But the OWS movement – perhaps one of the most incredible, creative, and powerful civil disobedience actions we have seen in the USA since the anti-war protests in the early 2000s, did not die from lethargy, but was systematically and brutally crushed through a close collusion and collaboration between corporate interests, unnerved government bureaucrats, the intelligence agencies, and the local police force. The entire weight of the America’s dissent suppression machinery had to be mobilized to break the back of this movement. Harassment, assaults, raids, infiltration, surveillance, overt police violence, mass arrests, and court indictments were the weapons of choice. The degree of coordination between state and police authorities was staggering and vast. The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, has revealed the scale of the nationwide crackdown in their report which points out that:

FBI documents just obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to the PCJF’s Freedom of Information Act demands reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the agency acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at occupy protests.

Today I am more likely to hear people waxing lyrical about Pussy Riot and the brutality of Putin’s rule. Or mindless resorting to the the comforts of a tried and true Orientalist discourse lambasting Arabs from their cultural’s inability to be politically, economically and socially more like ‘us’. And yet, right here, in their own neighbourhoods, as the state, corporations and their civic policing institutions attacked, arrested, brutalized and prosecuted peaceful protestors demanding change, and did so with sophisticated planning and tactics right out of the years spent undermining the civil rights struggles, they seem unable to connect the dots. The American ideological blinkers have become so start, so dark, so opaque, that we can only see ideology and anti-democratic actions elsewhere even as clear and explicitly evidence of its occurrence right here in our own country is presented in front of their own eyes. It is as if our society today has been deprived of its critical faculties, unable to think of anything outside of its consumer concerns, its utilitarian needs, and its immediate pursuit of leisure. And perhaps it has been.

Now, after nearly three months in New York, the sheer obfuscatory nature of the institutions that surround me is more evident than ever. From the false histories, and sentimental peans of the 9/11 Memorial, to the shoddily and hastily put together commercial art at our shopping malls of art that were once museums, we are surrounded by works that refuse thought, distract from thought, and numb us towards unchallenging niceties and mindless lullabies. As David Harvey pointed out in his work Spaces of Hope:

…Benjamin remarked on the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century, the whole environment seemed designed to induce nirvana rather than critical awareness. And many other cultural institutions – museums and heritage centres, arenas for spectacles, exhibitions, and festivals – seem to have as their aim the cultivation of nostalgia, the production of sanitised collective memories, the nurturing of uncritical aesthetic sensibilities, and the absorption of future possibilities into a non-conflictual arena that is eternally present. The continuous spectacles of commodity culture, including the commodification of the spectacle itself, play their part in fomenting political indifference. It is either a stupefied nirvana or a totally blase attitude (the found of all indifference) that is aimed at. The multiple degenerate utopias that now surround us – the shopping malls and the ‘bourgeois’ commercialized utopias of the suburbs being paradigmatic – do as much to signal the end of history as the collapse of the Berlin Wall ever did. They instantiate rather than critique the idea that ‘there is no alternative’, save those given by the conjoining of technological fantasies, commodity culture, and endless capital accumulation.

But back in 2011 something was happening. Back then, for just a moment, a few lucid, intelligent, independent, young and old, clear-headed and courageous, people broke through this vise of mediocrity and apathy, and gathered together in the cold New York winter inside the centre of oligarchic corruption and nepotism that is Wall Street, and raised their voices. For just a moment, after many decades of stunned silence, people spontaneously came together and asked that they be heard past the screams and shouts of the corporations that have imprisoned our government, and laced the pockets of our representatives with trinkets, and their souls with pusillanimity. In Tahrir Square something larger, more revolutionary was taking place, but many in Zucotti Park acknowledged the inspiration they took from the Egyptians confronting the American-back Mubarak dictatorship. Courage is contagious. And inspiring. As David Graeber, one of the founding visionaries of the movement, pointed out:

The politics of direct action is based, to a certain degree, on a faith that freedom is contagious. It is almost impossible to convince the average American that a truly democratic society would be possible. One can only show them. But the experience of actually watching a group of a thousand, or two thousand, people making collective decisions without a leadership structure, let alone that of thousands of people in the streets linking arms to holding their ground against a phalanx of armored riot cops, motivated only by principle and solidarity, can change one’s most fundamental assumptions about what politics, or for that matter, human life, could actually be like.

These are the kinds of words that the ‘realists’, and the ‘pragmatic’ mock. Their mockery of course veiling a cowardice and an intellectual laziness that accepts the status quo and justifies their imprisonment in it. It is a cynicism that eats away at them of course, tearing into their souls, reducing them to a shells, devoid of imagination, and of a sensibility that can respond to the beautiful and sublime. They mock those who chose to be otherwise, those who believe in a body politic, a social fabric, a cultural web and a human society that is inter-connected and inter-dependent, and where the success of the weakest ensures the success of the strongest. As Roberto Unger argued in his work Social Theory: Its Situation And Its Tasks:

The few who try to work out the alternatives more considered than those found in the party platforms of the mainstream of leftist literature are quickly dismissed as utopian dreamers or reformist tinkerers: utopians if their proposals depart greatly from the establish arrangements, tinkerers if they make modest proposals of change. Nothing worth fighting for seems practicable, and the changes that can be readily imagined often hardly seem to deserve the sacrifice of programmatic campaigns whose time chart so often disrespects the dimensions of an individual lifetime. If all of this were not enough, the would-be program writer still has a final surprise in store for him. He will be accused – something by the very people who told him a moment before they wanted alternatives – of dogmatically anticipating the future and trying to steal a march on unpredictable circumstances, as if there were no force to Montaigne’s warning that ‘no wind helps him who does not know to what port he sail.’

Dreamers. That is what I remember thinking as I walked around Zuccotti park in the early months of 2012. Precisely the kinds of people I had not seen in the country for years. We had pursued unjust wars, instituted torture as ‘standard operating procedure’, resorted to preemptive murder with the use of drones, renditioned and disappeared hundreds from across the globe, strengthened dictatorships and helped crushed popular movement, broken the economy, cheated tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, enriched the financial and corporate class to a degree unprecedented in world history, sold our political institutions and representatives (with the help of the Supreme Court) to the highest bidder, disconnected in the process, our public from the political institutions meant to represent and protect it. All throughout this time, the American had been quiet, resigned and defeated. But here, huddled against each other, in tents and plastic shelters, were dreamers. Once again, as David Graeber wrote:

“We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt.” Three weeks later, after watching more and more elements of mainstream America clamber on board, I think this is still true. OWS … is at core forwards-looking youth movement, just a group of forward-looking people who have been stopped dead in their tracks; of mixed class backgrounds but with a significant element of working class origins; their one strongest common feature being a remarkably high level of education.

I was starkly taken back to those beautiful days, those amazing moments of collective courage, when I recently came across the photographs of photographer Annie Appel. I only recently came across her work and these images – simple, clear, direct, honest, took me back to 2012 when it seemed that something new was forming, and that there was hope for a turn away from an America teetering towards greater violence, greater inequality, greater exploitation and greater indifference to the rights, needs and participation of its citizens.

 

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A Kickstart campaign video (Disclosure: I am a supporter of this campaign) showed Annie at work – her technique and engagement with her subjects reminded of me of the lovely Latvian photographer Inta Ruka’s methods and her ability to find tremendous camaraderie and connection with her subjects. It is an ambitious campaign, and recent conversations with Annie suggest that she is struggling to raise the funds, but at the same time, remains determined to find them, and to publish this document.

There is no doubt that there are new conversations taking place in America. Its false ideaology of free-market capitalism – one aided and abetted by an army of modelling economists more enamoured with the equations than with the realities of life, lies in the squalor of the lies it was based on. And whereas we may need to wash our hands of the empty-headed, pocket-lining, conniving, snake-oil salesmen that are today’s politicians and corporate elite, there is a new generation that is entering a world that can no longer promise them a future, and the protections they are due. They are entering a world awash in wealth, and simultaneously awash in staggering misery, deprivation, violence, and dispossession. They are arriving in a world where a new discourse is needed, and evidence, of the struggles that have begun, that were attempted, and the ideas that were articulated.

Annie’s work is part of that evidence – a critical part of American history, and a story of some of the most imaginative, and courageous Americans our generation, and the younger ones that have followed, has produced. Her’s are photographs that are made, not taken, and are evidences of acts of collaboration, not capture. The take us back to the people who were able to see past the institutions designed to numb us into submission, and ask for something different, more just, and more civilised.

The extent of this act of the imagination that the OWS movement represented – and that is what it really was, can only be understood if we accept and recognize how constrained our own worlds, and ideas of its horizons are. It was wonderful to see the video where you can see Annie working with her subjects – a very simple, straight, and honest process that comes across in the seemingly simplicity of the images. And yet, in our image suffused world – 99.99% of the images of course being narcissistic documentations of the banal, pretentious attempts at a pseudo-aesthetics, and entirely devoid of an ethical and intelligent core, these images stand out for the messages and the evidence they carry. In them, the real comes through and all sophistry, trickery, technological sophistication and advanced digital darkroom techniques are erased. You see people, and you see a world in their eyes and world, that gives you hope that this miserable, commodified, and consumerist sorrow we are compelled to celebrate and negotiate with brutality and barbarism, need not be the only thing we experience.

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Most all of us live in a world that does not extend too far beyond our immediate circle of peers, our purchasable comforts, our charter flights to gated resorts, and our climate-controlled shopping centers. Our experience of what is possible, and impossible, is defined by the banality of our work and play worlds, and it is from within these that we imagine that we are free, and able to have free will. But these starkly small horizons are also why most of cannot imagine changing this world, and transforming the unjust and exploitative arrangements to which we too are a part of. As Levitas pointed out in his essay ‘The future of thinking about the future’ in Bird, Curtis, Putnam, Robertson, Tickner’s Mapping The Futures:

The main reason why it has become so difficult to locate utopia in a future credibly linked to the present by a feasible transformation is that our images of the present do not identify agencies and processes of change. The result is that utopia moves further into the realms of fantasy. Although this has the advantage of liberating the imagination from the constraint of what it is possible to imagine as possible – and encouraging utopia to demand the impossible – it has the disadvantage of severing utopia from the process of social change and severing social change from the stimulus of competing images of utopia.

Annie Appel’s work is a document of history. It is a document of the imagination, which for a moment made us belief that another world was possible. It widens the horizons we see and believe in. It moves us past our narrow ones and allows us to share in the vast, encompassing vision that these individuals reached for. It is a permanent reminder of what it is that we continue to struggle for, and the words and voices of the people she met, spoke to, got to know and photographed, are heralds that remind us of what it is that we have yet to walk towards, work towards and construct. The movement, its ideals, its naivety, its beautiful innocence that America remains a democracy and that its modern soul remains deeply pluralist, democratic, and inclusive. As I flipped through these images I smiled, and was inspired by the voices and the imaginations on display. I felt stronger for having seen them, and read what the subjects said. They reminded me that I am not alone, and that there is yet much to do, and we are the ones that will have to do it. A toast to the dreamers. The fools. The Utopians. The misguided.

 

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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.