Parsons MFA Series: #3

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Some months ago I was approached by the designer Ammar Belal who wanted to see if I would be open to a collaboration with him. Ammar had attended a panel discussion with me, Saadia Toor, and Sarah Belal (his sister), at the Open Society in New York and seen the portraits I had made of the families of the prisoners being held at Bagram Detention Center in Bagram. Ammar was moved by the arguments we made, and affected by the stories of the families themselves. In a discussion we had soon afterwards it was clear that he had been shaken out of his world of high fashion and design and compelled to turn his attention to an injustice that he had been aware of, thanks to his sister’s work, but until then had remained unconcerned about.

I of course had my doubts when he first spoke to me about it – an ingrained skepticism of all this related to the fashion industry that I have to admit are today more knee-jerk than informed. But Ammar’s seriousness of thought and conviction were very evident when we first sat down. And over the course of some weeks I was able to see a young man engaging intellectually and emotionally around an issue that was clearly becoming more and more personal and more and more urgent. Ammar and I spent many hours discussion the intricacies of the issues involved – the legal, political, cultural and social questions that arose as a result of discussing the conflicts in the region, the role of imperialism, the continuing legacies of colonial cultural and political assumptions, the Pakistani state and its priorities and so on and so forth. Ammar was digging into the questions, challenging my perspectives, and working to develop his own, independent stand on the so-called ‘war against terror’ and its consequences for the lives of those being crushed under its priorities.

Eventually we agreed to collaborate – Ammar’s preliminary concepts for how to incorporate my images into his textile and couture work were intriguing. But what won me over was his seriousness, and his willingness to engage an entirely new community. The world of fashion is insular, and largely opposed to taking on serious political issues. But Ammar was determined to thrust these questions of law and justice, war and imperialism, colonialism and political arrogance into this world, and it seemed that his approach was working. People were at least speaking and questioning and wondering where all this was coming from. His initial sketches for how to incorporate the portraits into design were also fascinating and I was intrigued by how a work, as traditional, and classical as the portraits are, could be gently but effectively transformed into a new medium without really distorting its original classicism and intent.

The work includes images from my earlier forays into Pakistan’s tribal areas to see the impact of the war on the communities in South Waziristan. It also utilise text, statistics and writings by other writers to inform and elaborate on Ammar’s perspectives on what is taking place under the ‘war against terror’ umbrella and how lives are being affected by it. The portraits have been woven (no pun intended!) into his final works – as embroideries, as patterns, and as ideas. During this time Ammar has been actively speaking to and arguing political views with his advisers, professors and colleagues at the school. I believe, given the scale and scope of this week, the work from Bagram, and the stories of the suffering and injustices inflicted on the men being held there, and their families, will be presented and seen by an entirely new community, one that I would have not been able to reach on my own.

Working with Ammar reminded me yet again that the projects I produce are meant for a public, and never for a publication. That the goal is to reach those who would otherwise not be willing or interested, and to seek means and collaborations that make this possible. And do so in a format that provokes a debate, a discussion and a curiosity. This exhibition at Parsons is perhaps the most unusual collaboration that I have been involved in, and I suspect that the audience that will come and see the work, and read the arguments, and experience the stories, will be one of the most unusual I have had the possibility of presenting my work to.

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali

 

We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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