Where The Wild Things Are!

The Pashtun of Waziristan, Pakistan has today become an avatar for violence, terrorism, rebellion, guerrilla warfare and other things deviant and vile. There is however a long heritage of depicting these people of the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan as genetically prone to violence and culturally prone to resistance to ‘civilised’ politics. This prejudice informs any and all writing about them, their history and the wars being waged in their backyards. From British colonial ear shenanigans – given the pretty-cute euphemism of ‘The Great Game’ to veil the fact that the White man’s ‘games’ are the brown man’s death sentence, genocide, pillage, massacre, mass murder, refugee crisis etc. to current American imperial wars in the region, the people of this region have been seen as nothing more than ‘barbaric’,and  ‘fundamentalist’ and continue to be spoken about with the worst of Orientalist and colonialist simplicities one can imagine – tribal, unconquerable, rebellious, and lawless. Where the British colonialist left off, their ancestors in the American political and academic establishment and the Pakistani post-colonialist structure have continued.

How [can] one account for … politically expedited collective amnesia –of manufacturing consent and discarding history at the speed of one major military operation every two years? One way of decoding the traumatic terror at the heart of the codification of “9/11″ is in fact to read it as a form of historical amnesia, a collective repression, that corresponds best with the globalised spectacle of its having made the apparently invulnerable evidently vulnerable. … The Armageddon crumbling of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, more than anything else, staged the vulnerability of the principal imperial memento projecting the cause of the globalised capital–its titular totem poles, phallic symbols of its monumental potency. That vulnerability was too memorable to be allowed to be remembered. Fabricating instantaneous enemies and moving targets, one on the trail of the other, thus became the principal modus operandi of the virtual empire. An empire lacking, in fact requiring an absence of, long term memory, and banking heavily on the intensity of short term memories that lasts only for about one to two years–one to two wars per one presidential election

Hamid Dabashi, Native Informers And The Making Of The American Empire Al-Ahram Weekly June 2006

I know of no other country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America. In America, the majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America (As quoted in Dabashi’s Brown Skins / White Masks)

Much of this dehumanization is in evidence in articles written about the Waziris, the current military campaign unfolding there.

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An article on aerial bombardment and policing in Waziristan during the British colonial occupation of what is today the Afghanistan-Pakistani frontier region in the Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine had a rather strange anecdote about the people of Waziristan. It tells the story of a A.J.(Jack) Capel who in the summer of 1924, while mercilessly bombing the villages and homes of the people in Waziristan, was bought down and crashed landed his bomber and was soon captured by the tribesmen there. We are then told that the tribesmen took care of the pilot, provided him “…with a box of tinned food, a bottle of whisky and some beer and some clothes.” and after 3 days released him back to the British along with a Rs. 1,000 note for his ‘inconvenience’. The writer of this article explains this rather generous and civil behaviour by the tribesmen to be the result of a Rs. 9,000 bounty that the RAF offered for the return of its pilots. That is, he attributes this remarkably humane gesture of the tribesmen to their utilitarian, capitalist calculation of profit.

And yet, just a few lines down the writer tells us that the British had so much regard for the civility and sense of justice of the tribesmen that they gave their pilots something called a ‘goli chit’ – a safe-conduct letter from the RAF to anyone tribesmen who captured a British pilot. That is, the senior commanders of the British Airforce, the same ones organising and orchestrating a brutal, murderous air war against small-arms bearing Waziris, believed that the people they were killing would be kind enough, civilised enough, and humane enough to return their downed pilots on the basis of a letter from the high command. And this was however the same High Command that could issue a directive to the RAF that:

Hesitation or delay in dealing with uncivilised enemies are invariably interpreted as signs of weakness. In warfare against savage tribes who do not conform to codes of civilised warfare[,] aerial bombardment is not necessarily limited in its methods or objectives by rules agreed upon in international law.

The Waziris cannot act as a human. He can only be bought. Paid. Like a cheap whore without morals, he is responsive only to Pavlovian inducements. And yet, if one reads this article one is left wondering who is the real barbarian here, and who the civilized? Who is the aggressor here, and who the defender? Who has fighting a war of reactionary resistance, and who a war of colonial aggression and occupation? Who belongs in these lands, and who is a foreign presence there to take? Nothing in this article, as in the one that follows, allows you to think of these questions because it never challenges the right of the real aggressors to be there, to take, to control, to ‘jar loose’ and yet it constantly denigrates, and undermines the right of the local to resist, defend, and protect themselves. They cannot even act civilized, as the colonial voices tell us, and as the writer simply echoes, unless you pay them.

In articles such as this, all history, all humanity, all common-sense is turned upside down. Man becomes beast. and beast becomes man. Massive war machines become ‘governments’ and small bands of men fighting for family, land, dignity and life become savages, barbaric, and worse….jihadis.

Uncivilised. Savage. Barbaric. Lawless. Guerilla. Irritant. Rebel. Militant. Terrorist. Jihadi

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The above are some of the words used in this piece that appeared in The New York Times titled ‘A Long History of Rebellion in the Mountains of Pakistan’. The title alone ‘evicted’ and ‘ethnically cleansed’ a people who have lived in these lands for centuries, and who have a right by history, heritage, lineage and memory to claim it as their own, by referring to them as ‘rebels’ i.e someone who is in resistance to a ‘legitimate’ or established government which neither the British, the Americans, the Soviets and one can argue, the post-colonial Pakistanis have ever been.

But the article goes much further. It completely distorts and re-writes history to place the onus on the Waziris as the cause of the crisis in the region, the fulcrum of the violence, and the raison d’etre for ‘forcing’ the colonialists and imperialists to bomb and kill them. These distortions are done in the service of an ideology of innocence that American media creates for its readers – an ideology that erases the American fingerprints over war, violence, mayhem and the creation of the very demons it later tells its citizens it has to fight. The ideology is not new – the British colonialists also wanted to manufacture the same white-wash of their crimes and venal machinations. Hence, the writers make frequent use of a tired, cookie-cutter phrases to fill the essay. For example:

The Pashtun tribes of Waziristan have never been truly conquered…

The writer never explains why the tribes need to be ‘conquered’ in the first place. Why is ‘conquest’ – a word that implies occupation, control and erasure, such an unexamined act when it comes to these people? Are they not worth anything else – perhaps political collaboration, democratic participation, civilised discourse and other acts that would imply that they are equally worthy of rights, humanity, intelligence and engagement.

…and courting them as allies has almost always ended up backfiring on whoever has tried — ask the British, Pakistanis, Afghans and, for that matter, the Americans.

Why has it backfired? Could it not be that the colonialists, the imperialists and the post-colonialists double-crossed them, lied to them, exploited them and their lands, and cheated them? The history of the British in India is a litany of lies, false promises, double-dealings, cynical calculations, vile trickery, brutal militancy, overt racism and absolute disdain and disregard for the people of the region. Anyone doubting this should simply remember what colonialism was and how it actually operated. A fine examples of British mendacity and immorality is captured in Partha Chatterjee’s magnificent work The Black Hole of Empire.


Back to our article. We are told that:

British forces fought … the tribesmen [who] were never completely jarred loose…

Jarred loose from where? And to where? Can you ‘jar loose’ – as if they were a piece of gum, a people from their lands? Can you simply arrive, bomb, kill, invade and assume that a person will not resist and defend themselves? Since when did their resistance to the humiliation, and evisceration of occupation become nothing more than their refusal to be ‘jarred loose’? Why should they be ‘jarred loose’ at all – these are their homes, their lands, their lineage, their ancestral burying grounds, their children’s playgrounds, their memories, their poems, their histories, their entire sense of themselves and their community. Why would they ever allow you to evict them as if they were illegitimate occupier or merely squatters?

And then the complete transformation of history begins. The writer completely loses the plot with this thread:

In the decades after, Pashtun fighters waged a new jihad that spanned governments: first against the declining British Empire, then against the Pakistani government founded in the partition of 1947

The ‘J’ word. Suddenly, there is a unproblematized line drawn from a people’s resistance to colonial occupation and brutality, to their refusal to be vassals in a mendacious, insecure, elitist post-colonial bureaucracy that retained and maintained the institutional legacies of colonial rule along with it’s the associated arrogance, racism, bigotry and economic exploitation. The criminalization – which is what the label jihad / jihadi does today, of a legitimate struggle for political and economic equality with sitting rulers, colonisers and politicians is simply denigrated and discredited by labelling it as jihad.
What you see, in both articles, is a cleansing of the violence of colonialism and imperialism, and a demonization of those who have been forced to resist it. It is an upside-down history, where the victims of great power wars are written about as the causes of the wars, and the reasons for why they have to be killed. The Air & Space piece plays lovely tricks with language:
The North-West Frontier was a rough, fortress province on the edge of the British Empire, in what is now Pakistan. Since the mid-19th century, the Wazirs, Mahsuds, and other mountain tribes who lived in the area had harassed the British by stealing cattle, looting, and kidnapping and ransoming British citizens. Stirred up by Britain’s two invasions of Afghanistan in the 1800s, tribesmen in the insular, autonomous district of Waziristan challenged British forces in the North-West Frontier, even after the 1919 armistice ending the third British-Afghan War.
The tribes – a people who are from the area, are written as if they were merely traveling bandits. They harass, steal, loot, kidnap and ransom . The British however – the very people who are illegal colonial occupiers, thousands of miles away from their Parliamentary democracy, and military oppressors in the land are citizens. It continues:
The tribal combatants had no aircraft to counter British bombers, of course, but just as the Taliban today manage to pilfer 7.62-mm ammunition intended for Afghan government forces, tribesmen in the interwar years captured .303 rifles and cartridges.
Centuries of history – colonial and post-colonial, imperial and military occupation, are erased to create a completely indefensible, irrational, and ahistorical direct line between the Waziri struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries against the British, and the Afghan/Pashtun struggle in the early 21st century against the Americans. It is as if, in a classic Orientalist move, these people have no real history, agency, politics, memory, complexity or as if there are no actors, individuals, writers, intellectuals, politicians, activists, and others who may have actually had the ability to create specific, unique and complex narratives and acts in the community. Nothing has happened in the 150 years that separate these two ends of the Orientalists imagination that is worthy of interest of attention. The tribals remain a colonial, exotic museum piece – unchanging, programmed, robotic, working through instinct and inflections perfected by genetics, and that is all that we need to know. The old language of the colonial oppressors – a language designed to dehumanize these people and prepare them for murder, continues to be used even today.
The two articles echo each other in uncanny ways, but most particularly in how they 1) are deeply Eurocentric in their historical perspective, 2) make use of the most inflammatory, criminalizing and fear-mongering words whenever they refer to the Waziris, 3) couch the violence, brutality, inhumanity, immorality, calculated, callous and murderous projects of colonialism, imperialism (American, Soviet, Pakistani), and post-colonial politics in the sweetest, softest and most calm-inducing language.

The victims of the political maneuvering and shenanigans of global power – maneuvering that see no humans, stop at no morals, and never book back at the bodies and blood that drains into the graves it leaves behind, are transformed into the aggressors, victimisers, killers, guerillas, and jihadis – the latter being the most hideous accusation the West has been able to concoct against its enemies. where commies once haunted our gated-community bedrooms, today the ghost called jihadi conveniently helps the great White man erase history, politics and involvement, and imagine a mindless, thoughtless, politics-less monster with a genetic and religio-cultural need to murder and kill.

The innocence of the West is an ideology that writers at the New York Times and at the Smithsonian keep at the center of their pieces. It is an innocence so sacred that it requires not only an abolishment of history, but a careful construction of reality that always shows the White man as simply ‘reacting’ to the madness of others, and never actually doing any of the things s/he really does: colonise, invade, kill, occupy, enslave, torture, murder, extract, steal, lie, cheat, brutalize, connive and so on and so forth.

This ideology – the innocence of the American / the West is manifested in the fact that journalists, writers, pundits, intellectuals and others never have to explain why American / the West even has the right to colonise, control, own, enslave, or even to have the right to bomb with impunity, invade with righteousness, or intervene as it sees fit. This fact is never put under question and we can see this in these two articles that yet again never acknowledge that it is the European / American who are in fact the invaders, colonisers, imperialists with their guns, gun boats, drones, helicopter gunships, and proxy armies and thus an and unwanted presence in these lands. They never countenance to see the people crushed under the colossus that is empire as victims of its political, military and economic calculations.

The brave and courageous struggle of the Waziris against centuries of Western brutality, mendacity, venality, violence, and dismissal is casually dismissed in these articles as a quaint rebelliousness, guerilla warfare or mindless jihad. The Waziris can’t have a complex relationship to their surroundings, their culture, their history, their memory. They cannot have a pride in their heritage, and most of all, they cannot have the intelligence for political participation, engagement and cultural aspirations.

From Pakistani orientalist apologists for Western wars (Hoodbhoy, Rashid), to pseudo diplomats-turned-armchair-histories (like Akbar Ahmed), to these journalists, what we see is a full-court press that erases the possibility of our considering the crime that is actually been taking place in the tribal regions for nearly two centuries and see how an entire region has been used as nothing more than fodder in the deviant and vile imaginations of colonial and imperial power – an imagination that has no humanist capacity for empathy, but merely a brutes capacity for rapacious consumption, murder and pillage. These voices have been the grease to the American war machine. Journalists have, and continue to, play a crucial role as facilitator of mass murder. By twisting or erasing history, by positing the victims of our massive war machine and our Weapons of Mass Destruction, as the aggressor and the killers – a tactic the Israeli’s perfected against the hapless Palestinians, journalists provide the ideological and intellectual super-structure upon which the dogs of war can be continually and consistently unleashed.

Hamid Dabashi in his work Brown Skin / White Masks called such interlocutors – the comprador intellectuals, who lay the ground work for the mass slaughter of ‘the other’ the carpetbaggers of empire.

…the figure of the native informers…marks a particular moment in the making and breaking of the virtual empire they serve and under whose shadow humanity at large lives perilously. This empire thrives on the stories it tells itself about liberty and democracy, or about ‘the end of history’ or ‘the clash of civilisations’. These stories need exotic seasonings, and the native informers provide them. They are the byproduct of an international intellectual free trade, in which intellectual carpetbaggers offer their services to the highest bidder, for the lowest risk.

Throughout their history, the people of the frontier zones of Pakistan and Afghanistan have been used, lied to, cheated, manipulated, betrayed, murdered, killed, abused, mocked, enslaved, tortured, humiliated, marginalised and exploited. That the Waziris and the Pashtuns in general have repeated resisted this campaign of murderous erasure is a testament to their remarkable cultural strength and their unbowed courage. These New York Times journalists, like other modern-day colonial and imperial apologists, have learned nothing and nor do they see anything.

Today once again the Waziri, like their larger Pashtun, brothers, are being murdered and killed with impunity. Posited as a bunch of terrorists, jihadis and, as far as a pretend-democratic state of Pakistan is concerned, non-citizens they can be dispensed with to serve larger political, economic and propaganda interests. Reliable sources tell me that the Pakistani military is conducting a fake campaign in the region, and bombing empty homes, and staging theatrical ‘encounters’. It is a tactic it has learned well from its American pay-masters – the same ones that have helped manufacture fake ‘terror’ plots in the USA, or create the ghost of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan (before it magically transformed itself into a real one!).

The need for war as the one, last means of legitimacy for a mindless, corrupt and venal Pakistani government, is obvious. The need for war for a militarised, lobotomised and cowardly USA political culture, is also obvious. Much of these two facts go unexamined and uncommented upon by the American and the Pakistani media. The need for a new bogeyman is hence also obvious: the tribal, the lawless, the militant, the Waziri. They today has become the most important people in the world, their broken bones, their spilled blood, their destroyed homes, their murdered children helping maintain and foist some of the most powerful people and political institutions in the world. The need for a media to create the narratives that will grease these injustices, explain these immoral killings, and absolve the real criminals, is more paramount than ever.

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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:


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.

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