A Man In The Sun

What you see and hear here is a man who refuses the narratives of the powerful, and throws them back at a confused and clearly unsettled journalist. You don’t have to agree with what Kanafani says, but that is not the point. The point is to notice how Kanafani refuses to allow the journalist to control the narrative, and to define the ethics of it. No matter how the journalists attempts to find a ‘balanced’ way to ask his biased questions, Kanafani refuses him shelter, or allows him a route out of his impasse. We may think of his reactions as unreasonable or rude or mere contrariness, but it is something far more–it is a result of Kanafani’s fundamental realisation that the very idea of Man–the one who is the subject of human rights, of laws of war, of deserving of justice and dignity–is an invention of a very specific time, place, ethnicity and class, and that he, a Palestinian, an Arab, a colonised person, does not fit this definition of Man unless he changes the socio-political context itself. Kanafani understands that Man–that post-Enlightenment subjectivity that many confuse as universal but is in fact a very specifically Europen, White-ethnic construction–has to be destroyed, and that the only way to do this is to tear apart the socio-political structures, ontologies and cultures, from within which it emerges. 

Sylvia Wynter har argued that “…we can experience ourselves as human only through the mediation of the process of socialisation effect by the invented tekhne or cultural technology to which we give the name culture” [Sylvia Wynter, Towards The Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, Identity, the Puzzle of Conscious Experience, and What It Is Like to be Black” 2003]. Her point simply is that at any particular moment in history, our conception of Man, and even our own humanity and that of others, is shaped by social, political and cultural forces. It is an affective state, and as such, it becomes critical to setting the horizons of ethics, and politics. Here Wynter is explicitly connecting to Fanon’s concept of sociogeny, his term for how social fictions create concepts such as ‘race’, which then go on to affect subjectivities and shape bodies and sense of belonging [For more, see Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery, 2018;54-56]. Kanafani is a near perfect practitioner of Fanon’s argument that decolonisation…

…focuses on and fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a nonessential state into a privileged actor, captured in a virtually grandiose fashion by the spotlight of History.

Kanafani understands this, and by refusing the words of the coloniser to frame the narrative of that particular historical moment, Kanafani is deliberately constructing a narrative within which he–Arab, Palestinian, dispossessed, discarded and denied–once again becomes the subject who is Man i.e one worthy of justice, of equality and of voice. Kanafani understands that in the framing of the coloniser–here represented by the unthinking and reactionary Australian journalist, one who has inherited the prejudices and presumptions of the very colonial settler history he is a product of–men like him are not-quite-human, and hence unworthy of equal consideration. He understands that to place himself, to describe himself, and to have himself seen as Man, it is the narratives, and the ontologies (categories such as civil war, conflict, etc.) that have to be refused. Kanafani also understands Derrida’s (from Signature, Event, Context) insistence that we not simply attempt to reverse binaries but work to displace them. Kanafani dismantles the questions that are posed to him, avoiding the trap where answering is submitting and imprisoning yourself to the terms of the oppressor, and challenges the categories used, undermines the ontologies of the political narrative offered.

But note, that Kanafani’s is not an individual project. He never speaks about me, or I but always for the community, for the Palestinian people. Most importantly, Kanafani understands that the struggle of Palestine is not an isolate struggle, but related to the broader struggles against colonialism, and for liberation. He knows that Palestinian, and the Israeli settler colonial projects, are European projects, and come as a result of deep seated epistemic, ontological, ethical, moral, juridical, economic and political presumptions and beliefs. He knows that he is not alone, or unique, but just the last of the victims of a form of European racism that may have been in retreat, but remained entrenched at the heart of the European cultural and intellectual project [See Joseph Massad, Islam in Liberalism, 2015; Amy Allen, The End of Progress, 2016; Domenico Lusardo, Liberalism: A Counter History, 2005; Robert C. Young, White Mythologies, 1990 for some further reading]. As Kanafani himself once argued, when speaking about his fiction; 

At first I wrote about Palestine as a cause in and of itself…When I portray the Palestinian misery, I am really presenting the Palestinian as a symbol of misery in all the world [Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories, 2000:24]. 

It is because of his commitment to a community that words like sacrifice, struggle, liberation and justice even begin to make sense and come to define a cause that is beyond the moment, and beyond the immediate. It is also only when we remain connected to the community, seeing and valuing its collective liberation and struggle, that we begin to unravel the strategies of colonialism which, as Steven Salaita argued; 

…[has] no room for community.  Individualism governs colonial states; their alliances demand mutual profit [Steven Salaita, Decolonisation: Survival: Water: Life, 2019]. 

If the struggles of the Palestinians have resonated across the world, and across time, from Ferguson to Tahrir Square, from the pages of Berger to those of Gide, then it is because they have never lost sight of themselves of victims of historical, trans-national structures and repressive systems, and never allowed themselves to be isolated. In fact, one of the most debilitating intent and outcome of The Oslo Accords was precisely to amputate the broader Palestinian community not only from itself (by fragmenting and dividing the West Bank within itself, from Gaza), both in the Palestinians territories and in the diaspora. Kanafani, speaking at a time in the history of the Palestinian struggle, when their sense of connectedness, of being of one clear struggle was crystal clear, echoes this sense of connectedness, this commitment to being part of a community. These are terms–community, people–that we are told are anachronistic, and discouraged from feeling. Decolonisation can never be for just for an individual.

I want to end by making one last point, which is the one that David Scott has eloquently made in his work Refashioning Futures. That is, that we cannot turn to people like Ghassan Kanafani for answers, but more to help us understand the questions that we face today. The questions that confronted Kanafani in the 1970s, the ones for which he offered his answers, strategies and critical engagements, are not the same  questions that we face today in our post-Berlin wall, post-Cold War, neo-liberal, neo-imperial, and neofascist present. It is impossible to ignore Scott’s observation that:

Our postcolonial present is not only defined by the legacy of colonialism. A generation into political sovereignty, what also defines this present is the collapse of the great experiments with socialism that characterised what Samir Amin has called the Bandung Era [143].…It seems to me that our post-colonial criticism needs a different account of our political modernity, a different account of the political dead ends at which we have unquestioningly arrived [David Scott, Refashioning Futures, 1999:154].

If you listen to Kanafani, you hear a man offering answers to the challenges of his time. His struggles, his answers were in response to an eradication and delegitimisation of the existence and struggle for Palestinian rights. He has won this battle; today, there is near universal acknowledgement of the right of Palestinian nationalism, the recognition of the Palestinian people, the legitimacy and just nature of their demands for liberation from under the yoke of Israeli military occupation. Today, we do not face the same questions, nor even the same historical context, that Kanafani was working in. Today, we have to ask whether the questions posed to Kanafani have any relevance to our current moment, and instead ask what questions should we be asking ourselves in our difficult present. Decolonial projects cannot be a rehashing of nostalgia, nor can it be an easy despondency. Least of all, it cannot be a mere desire for inclusion or belonging in academic, state, artistic, cultural and other institutions that historically benefitted from the prize of colonialism and are in fact deeply entrenched in the colonial settler project itself. I do not offer Kanafani here as a form of nostalgia, or a despondent, romantic longing for a past that never was. I offer him as an example of how to engage with the challenges of the present, and how to keep your eye on the many clever, insidious, and sophisticated ways the powerful have of veiling their interests behind discourses of modernity, democracy, human rights, development and progress. I offer him here as an example of a practice of listening, and a method of narrating. 

Kanafani reminds us that one of our most critical responsibilities is question the ontologies of colonial knowledge, and to refuse its narratives, its constructed categories and structures, its underlying dichotomies (man/nature, rationality/superstition, modern/tradition, human/non-human etc.) that continue to justify the pillage of life and nature. Narratives make the man, to paraphrase Fanon and Wynter, and it is the narratives that we have to disentangle from colonial histories of pillage, conquest, enslavement, exploitation and destruction. Kanafani was murdered, but his legacy remains because it reminds us that we are compelled, if we are to liberate ourselves from chains of our own making, to understand the present, so that we can formulate the questions that matter to our present. Men like Kanafani cannot be trapped in a nostalgic memory space, but have to be understood as men of their time, who answered the questions that faced with the best answers at their disposal. Today we face new questions, but must have the courage to formulate them with the clarity and insightfulness of a Kanafani. Our decolonialising struggles and projects must be pursued “…in relation to the political horizon of debates about postcolonial futures” [David Scott, Refashioning Futures, 1999:142].

I will write more about Ghassan Kanafani, his political and fiction writing, his views and his imaginations for a different world. His works will be a key part of the Rebel City project, as Beirut, in the 1970s, offered sanctuary to a number of left and socialist activists and thinkers from around the world. It was to Beirut in the 1970s that Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Eqbal Ahmed, Edward Said and Marmoud Darwish and many others went to find a modicum of safety, and imaginative freedom. As Sumayya Kassamali reminds us:

At the time, Beirut was a centre of modern Arabic culture, brimming with intellectual fervour and anti-colonial thought. During his stay, Faiz took up the editorship of Lotus, a trilingual magazine of international literature jointly funded by the Soviet Union, Egypt, East Germany and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the umbrella organisation for the factions that formed the Palestinian national movement. Faiz and his wife, Alys, quickly acquired an address by the Mediterranean Sea, spending smoke-filled evenings with Palestinian revolutionaries and fellow exiles. Less than four years later, in 1982, the two were forced to flee Beirut to escape a full-fledged Israeli invasion and siege. But even in the brief time Faiz spent there, the city left its imprint on him. In a poem published in homage after Faiz’s death, the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali—who first obtained permission to translate Faiz’s work into English in a letter he received from Beirut—recalled, “Twenty days before your death you finally/ wrote, this time from Lahore, that after the sack/ of Beirut you had no address.” –– Sumayya Kasamalli, You Had No Address, Caravan Magazine, June 2016.

The Dictator/Self-declared President/General Zia-ul-Haq, a man who led Jordanian forces against PLO fighters during Black September, pushing men like Ghassan Kanafani towards Beirut, was the same man Faiz Ahmed Faiz was fleeing as he sought sanctuary in Beirut. These entangled, messy histories, these ugly, bloody coincidences are hard to miss. But it is impossible not to see that it is criticism, critique, dissent and refusal of the bouquets of unchecked power, that created urban spaces of tremendous imaginative and creative possibilities. Decolonisation, in the end, despite the many forms it may take, is a desire to once again live and breath in world that can imagine justice, and experience equality. It was what Kanafani was fighting for, it was what Faiz Ahmed Faiz sought, and it remains at the heart of all decolonisation projects, regardless of effectively or ineffectively they are attempted.

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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

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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.

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