Scratching At My Skin

“I have been stereotyped: my life and lived experiences negated by photo editors in the USA in particular. My editors in the USA in particular. I am nothing but my ethnicity, a man from my country of my birth 42 years ago. My name marks me as a ‘Muslim’, my ethnicity marks me as a ‘South Asian’, my birth marks me for work within the confines of the geography of the country of my birth. My birth on an unexceptional day in Karachi nearly 42 years ago was of greater interest and relevance than the nearly 18 years I spent studying, working, learning, and becoming in the United States of America (a country of which I am a citizen). I am the ‘Pakistani’ photographer and never allowed to be anything else, or asked to be elsewhere.”


I wrote this back in 2009. It came after my frustration at being told by a Time Magazine editor that she had no interest in giving me assignments in the USA (where I was based and traveling through), because I had no ‘competitive advantage’ in the USA. In Pakistan, where I had last lived over twenty years ago, I spoke the language and knew the culture. But when I reminded her that I also knew the American language, and had in fact lived in the USA for over twenty years, she wasn’t impressed. I never worked for the editor again.

In fact, thanks to the intervention of a deputy editor at the magazine, who advised me to just go and be the photographer I wanted to be, and work where I wanted to work because the magazine will never use me outside of Pakistan, I left for Haiti and produced what become one of the most significant (if least published) stories I have ever done. And this wasn’t the only such indignity. I remember a terrifying discussion with an editor at GEO Germany who looked me straight and asked me ‘You are Muslim, yes?’

This was a post-9/11 world, and I suppose she felt that I knew the secret “Muslim handshake” that could get me inside this cult and produce some photo projects for her from the “Muslim” world. We never worked together.

Relief came in the shape of intelligent editors like Magdalena Herrera, who would later send me back to shoot in the USA, and in Japan. It was a moment of great clarity to see how there were those who would lock you into their essentialist ideas of who and what you were, and represented, and others who could see you as the person you actually were. It was also where I began to see how ‘whiteness’ was about universality, but non-whiteness was about specialization.

This fact continues to hinder my assignments and the what editors speak to me about today. It also remains ones of the reasons I can have so few conversations with editors, most of whom cannot fathom my interests in projects in France or the USA, or believe that I could actually produce them.

So this Howard French piece here resonated deeply:

“But the second and more subtle issue is a persistent problem of typecasting – a deeply embedded view that regards certain topics as “black” and the rest as “white”. Those black people who make their way into the business are heavily concentrated in stereotypical roles. This has meant sport, entertainment and especially what is euphemistically called urban affairs, often meaning reporting on black people. By contrast, there are very few black journalists writing about politics and national security, international news, big business, culture (as opposed to entertainment) or science and technology – they are essentially absent from large swaths of coverage, and even more sparsely represented among the ranks of editors. This is not a trivial matter, or a subject of concern solely to journalists: the overwhelming whiteness of the media strongly but silently conditions how Americans understand their own country and the rest of the world.”

The conventional veil to this arrangement is the argument of ‘merit’, but anyone who has worked with international publications quickly sees that there is more to it than that. I remember the Stern Magazine writer sent to cover the Pakistan floods of 2010 – possibly one of the largest most devastating natural disasters in decades, whose previous assignment was to cover the night life / social circuit in Munich. He arrived straight to Islamabad so clueless that the editors effectively asked me to be an educator, fixer and photographer on the assignment.

At one point during a drive out to Sukkar, Sindh, he expressed shock to learn that Benazir Bhutto was the wife of then President, Asif Ali Zardari. It was painful to see the ease, despite lack of expertise or basic knowledge, for a white German kid to be sent off on a month-long assignment to a foreign country. I on the other hand had received my first assignment after showing a multi-year portfolio of works from the country to the editor before I was ever commissioned. The contrast could not have been more stark.

The questioning and barriers are constantly being raised, without any awareness of how they are so easily removed if you are a white reporter or photographer. At the Pulitzer Center, a senior officer questioned my ability to work in France since I did not speak fluent French. He said all this without ever realising the hypocrisy of his concern given that some years earlier he had worked in the Middle East and Pakistan without even knowing a word of Arabic or Urdu/Punjabi/Sindhi/Pushto/Dari!

But he could, and I could not.

And so French:

“From my earliest days at the paper, I had told my editors that although I was determined to work overseas, I did not want to be sent to Africa. To be clear, this was in no way due to a lack of interest in the continent on my part, but rather because the news business itself accorded such little attention to Africa, and when it bothered to it tended to cover it in only the most sporadic and stilted ways, as if Africans were as impossible to grasp as extraterrestrials.

It didn’t help when a white senior editor at the paper who had himself been a correspondent in Africa tried to encourage me by saying that between the episodic hard news provided by the occasional conflict or coup, one could amuse oneself there scribbling postcards about the exotic and primitive, or what he called “oogah-boogah”.

But the paper pressed hard for me to accept the posting, and I complied, covering the continent again for four-and-a-half years – during which the biggest stories were the ferocious wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and especially Zaire (now Congo). Late in this African stint, an unexpected call came from my editor in New York. Where would I like to go next, he asked? With little more premeditation than a gut sense of which bureaux were likely to be opening up soon, I blurted “Tokyo!” To which, after an awkward moment’s pause, he replied stutteringly, “Really? Could you do that? How would you cover Japan?””

And though French did go to Japan, he faced new challenges there.

Even today, I find that I am always being called to work in Pakistan. That is the first instinct. My 11 years living in Sweden, 20 or so before living in the USA, years of experience traveling and reporting in Haiti, Palestine, India, Japan, USA etc. are simply not considered. I am still that ‘Pakistani / Brown’ photographer, and still being asked to ‘get access’ to this difficult place. If there have been works from places outside Pakistan, they have had to be ones that I designed and began, and others later joined. It is a frustrating and debilitating experience to confront. And a tragic one, to realize.

It has been one of the great disappointments for me as a working photographer when it comes to the mainstream of the photography industry. Obviously this is a personal experience, and there are indeed many who would speak otherwise. Our media space is vast and diverse on many fronts, but the fact does still remain, that photojournalism and its associated communities, remain largely closed off to non-white photographers, and in particular, non-white, non-Western photographers who have the temerity or the determination to speak about issues and worlds outside their ‘homes’. As French points out about the media’s celebration of Coates:

“This, to be sure, was great work being celebrated, and yet at the same time it was hard to avoid the feeling that we were witnessing the re-enactment of an old, insidious ritual of confinement, even though it was being carried out via fulsome praise. Coates was doing, after all, the one thing that black writers have long been permitted – if not always encouraged – to do: write about the experience of race and racism in the world and in their own lives.

The media industry has long been selective in opening up spaces for African American people, while silently reserving all the rest for members of the white majority – and the showering of great prizes on black writers such as Coates, however deserved, was in a way a celebration, by the people who maintain this exclusion, of their own enlightenment and generosity.”

Perhaps this isn’t even about origins, but about ideology, as I argued in a recent piece called The Rainbow Prohibitionwhere I argued:

“…I also wonder if there isn’t a connection between these two issues. That is, one wonders if the ‘lack of representation’ is not just about ethnicity, nation or gender, but about the fact that along with it also comes a confrontational, dissenting, alternative, troubling, problematic political history and perspective. That perhaps what is being policed or marginalised isn’t ethnicity, or gender, or nationality, but an alternative and critical political view that would ‘shake’ the loose and flimsy foundations of Western / European liberal self-righteousness?”

But the struggle remains. People like French – talented and brilliant – can weather the storm and even overcome it. It is a far, far harder task for the rest of us of lesser talent and imagination.

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