A Stubborn Refusal

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 4.14.59 pmMy continued disdain dismissal of most all photojournalists working on ‘immigration’ stories begins with this simple fact outlined in this excellent article titled The Story Behind The Stories, where author Rodney Benson argues that:

The complexity of the international causes of migration cannot be easily expressed as a melodrama. And mentioning them is ideologically sensitive: it suggests there could be something wrong about an economic system that most politicians — and journalists — take for granted. From the early 1970s to the mid-2000s — a time of neoliberal globalisation and bloody conflicts in Central America manipulated by the US — immigration stories that mentioned international causes fell from 30% to 12% in leading US papers. To their credit, French newspapers in the 2000s, just as in the 1970s, mentioned the global angle in 33% of their immigration news stories, mostly because of the greater prominence of anti-globalisation sentiment in French intellectual and political culture. Yet, too often, both French and US media fail to give the full picture on immigration. Their focus on emotion, and on individual stories, diverts attention from the fundamental political issues, and leaves the way open for the simplistic “solutions” advocated by the far right.

Photojournalism, and photojournalist’s, focus on ‘human’ stories, pathos and emotional angles, is not an innocent act. It is not a human act. In fact, it is very much an attempt to distract us from understanding the larger economic and profit arrangements that dehumanise and destroy lives. By doing ‘individual’ stories, or ‘human interest’ stories that attempt to 1) pull at heartstrings, 2) manipulate us towards pity and 3) reduce gross human structural suffering to individual pathos, photojournalists become propagandists for the status quo. Editors love to constrain us into these status quo stories. They love setting boundaries of thought and discussion. And a photograph is perhaps the most powerful tool for this because without context & text – something so many editors insist on controlling, it has no meaning or knowledge, but is merely a fact.

We need new story-telling epistemologies! We need to destroy the structure of emotion-manipulating ‘human interest’ stories, and create a structure of politically engaged and discursive works.

I have written this before and far more directly. In a post where I analysed and critiqued Marcus Bleasdale’s work from the DRC I argued that:

Photojournalists working with simplistic models of the world – European individual / corporate saviors for African ‘barbarians’ susceptible to horrible acts of violence, simply undermine their own ideals and attempts to ‘effect change’ because they never show us the actual factors that could achieve the change in the first place.They also fail to understand how they surrender themselves to structures of corporate globalization when they mindlessly veil the profit-seeking goals of a pharmaceutical company, or a manufacturer of technology products, with their images of ‘victims’ that are suitably numb, and visibly shown as helpless and ‘in waiting’. The same applies to photojournalists who thoughtlessly trap themselves into the world view of an international aid organization, forgetting that these too have their own agendas and goals, and that there is little room in their operational world view for a more serious and worldly engagement with the issues they claim to be addressing. Both these approaches are horribly incomplete, and near bigoted in their assumption that it is the ‘outside Westerner’ who will come and save. Both erase the local, reject the intelligence, insight and experience of the very people they have come to ‘save’. Both approaches in fact impost, and oppress the very communities they claim they are helping. They both also indulge in the obfuscations that veil our deep connections – economic, political and historical, to the pathologies and suffering being highlighted in our advertising and media campaigns. Photographers who thoughtlessly join such institutions, and whose work simply acts as a vehicle to further the marketing messages of such organizations, are not really engaged in ‘advocacy’ or ‘effecting change’. They are merely engaged in public relations work.

and further that…

Few if any photographers working on humanitarian works argue for a fundamental questioning of our political and economic structures that are complicit in the violence, suffering, injustice or brutality they document and reveal. Many of our ‘awareness’ building efforts totter right at the moment when the photojournalist is confronted with a difficult and direct question about what is to be done – the answer usually ends up being no more than ‘be aware’ or ‘give to a NGO’ and be done with it. And this last-minute failure of the imagination has a lot to do with the three issues I tried to elaborate on in the previous posts – the erasure of the agency of the other, the dependence on the idealized image and role of the NGO/aid organization and the assumption of the neutrality of the reporter/journalist which in fact mirrors the assumption of the neutrality of the nation. These presumptions – near Hollywood caricatures in their simplicity, prevent photographers from going past the Western institutional agents, and exploring the genuine economic and political and social drivers of issues.

What it also does it that it blinds us to the underlying structural issues that create the problems we are so concerned about. Time and again we see photojournalists ‘speaking out’ on behalf of the rights of illegal immigrants crossing into the USA from Mexico, but rarely do we find one who will connect the dots that read NAFTA, the devastation of the rural economies of Mexico, the creation of a vast labor pool or underpaid and surplus labor that this agreement ‘created’ and that now serves the sweatshops there. Many will talk about ‘climate refugees’ in Bangladesh, but never make the connection between international fishery trade agreements, intentional water salination and mass displacement of farmers to open up lands for shrimp farms. Many will speak out against child labor, but few will ever step out and connect the economic policies of a state and their close relationship to structural adjustments programs supported by the IMF and the World Bank that cut social welfare spending, and forced families to have to send their children to sweatshops. Many will speak out against environmental degradation of Tunisian farm lands, but say nothing about the massive tourist developments that serve the holiday needs of millions of European tourists, and for whose swimming pools entire rivers had to be re-directed, and entire villages cleared.

I will obviously have to keep writing.

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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

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.

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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