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.

I was reminded of this as I took a few minutes to watch this presentation by the celebrity liberal Professor Pervaiz Hoodbhoy, famous for his much lauded anti-nuclear proliferation arguments, and his relentless critique (justified and well argued) of the decimation of a culture of critical inquiry and meaningful research at Pakistani universities. His writings on the state of education in Pakistan have been an important intervention, and ones that first bought his work to my attention. Although Professor Hoodbhoy has been an eloquent and powerful voice speaking out against the decline of educational standards, he nowadays represents that small elite in Pakistani society who have – whether by chance or by cultivation–become the principal translators of the political and social trends in the country for most foreign journalists, and visitors alike. As a result, he has often been able to speak and express views on matters as far reaching as geopolitics, domestic politics, the global war on terror, ‘Islamic’ radicalism and fundamentalism and more. There are in fact a handful of select Pakistanis – Ahmed Rashid, Mohsin Hamid and some others, who are repeatedly invited to offer their opinions and views on a range of topics, and help the world, particularly the Euro-American world, make sense of the mystery that is Pakistan. So be it. These are intelligent, creative and sophisticated men (and some women), and deserve their audience and their role. For the most part.

And so, unsurprisingly, Professor Hoodbhoy was invited to give this talk, one of many I am sure, and I found it rather compelling in the vivid and obviously inadvertent way it reflected so many of the problematic foundations of Pakistani liberal arguments and justifications for their criticism. Though short, it is a good example of the ways in which post-colonial intellectuals and others, undermine their own credibility by hanging on to an fantastic and fantasy idea of The West, create false and misleading comparisons, and judge any and all social, political or other phenomenon that does not match its Western model is less or deviant. Or in need of ‘reform’.

And so, I decided to pen a letter to the esteemed professor (not a real letter, juts a simulated one of course. Who writes real letters these days?)

Dear Professor Hoodbhoy;

I listened with great interest and curiosity to your recent talk. I was hoping to hear one of your typical insightful expositions about the state of our world, and the ways in which our two countries–the USA and Pakistan–have found themselves entangled and interwoven in these times of war, terrorism, neoliberal debris and mass migration. I was expecting that your talk, given to an American audience, would be one that focused on helping us break the conventional narratives of ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’, and reveal the complex, inter-twined and convoluted histories our countries have followed and the ways in which we have colluded in the messes created in the region. What I had not expected, was to hear that you are a great fan and admirer of the American constitution. I did not expect you to open you talk by not only quoting Thomas Jefferson (We hold these truths to be….etc. etc.), but also using words such as ‘wonderful’ and ‘outstanding’ to describe the American Constitution.

I would like to congratulate you on your wonderful Constitution. I am sorry that I am 250 years late, but some things cannot be avoided. They are so wonderful, these statements of your constitution that…but this I found outstanding: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Not all countries of the world have such marvelous constitutions [emphasis mine]. (Spoken at 3:48)

It was particularly galling to then learn that you used these lines to not only set us the USA as a bastion of democratic liberty, equality and justice, and as a foil for your argument about Pakistan, and its failures to find liberty, equality and justice.

I would like to point out that the man you quoted was a slave owner, and a rapist of his slaves. I would like to point out that ‘men’ as referred in the American constitution, refers only to White males, and not the hundreds of thousands of African slaves, women, Chinese and others who were considered unworthy of such ‘equality, justice and liberty’. I would like to remind you that it was only yesterday that Martin Luther King Jr. was on the streets of this country still fighting – decades after the abolition of slavery, and decades into the Jim Crow laws, for a modicum of human equality in America. I would also like to point out to you that at this very moment, this nation who’s constitution you lovingly quoted and then held up as a measure of all this ‘equal’ and ‘just’ is: 1) a nation that has the world’s largest percentage of its population in prison, 2) the highest number of Black prisoners anywhere, 3) is seeing a rise in Islamophobic violence and racism, 4) has White supremacists in political power, 4) has, since 2003, attacked sever sovereign nations, all of them illegally),5) is an occupying colonial power in at least three of these nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya), 6) continues to use extra-judicial detention, rendition and torture practices in collaboration with other nation states like Egypt, 7) has deep seated practices of racism in its corporate and political sectors. And this is just the highlights.

Israel does not have a constitution. But that is because the secularists in Israel and the religious people couldn’t come to an agreement as to what should constitute the Constitutional document for Israel and so they have let things flow, effectively privileging the Jew over the non-Jew. (Spoken at 5:41)

I would also like to point out that your mealy-mouthed explanation of the Zionist project as something that ‘just happened to privilege the Jew over the non-Jew’ because the ‘secularist’ and the ‘religious’ could not ‘agree’ to a constitution, is perhaps one of the worst white-wash of Zionist settler colonial aims, agendas and objectives I have ever heard. It is as if the entire history of the creation of Israel as a project funded, armed and supported by colonial powers, and a powerful European Zionist collective, has become the racist, apartheid state that it is because of an ‘administrative’ mistake instead of the specifically colonial aim that it was. And remains. The Israeli refusal to enact a Constitution is at par with the nation’s refusal to define it’s border i.e that it is and has been since its official birth, a nation still in the making through conquest and ethnic cleansing. The Zionists and the settlers who defined its storm-troopers were determined to not define its legal, geographic and political limits, while clearly defining through discriminatory and segregationist practices, its exclusively Jewish character.

And that is a little sad, because humanity had made enormous gains at the time of the European Enlightenment. In fact, the authors of your constitution were men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin…and they were inspired by men like Rousseau, like Diderot and they brought to the United States these wonderful ideas of equality, of fraternity, the ideals of the French Revolution, the ideals of the Enlightenment. (Spoken at 7:53)

And it is bizarre that you would – in this day and age of Lusardo and others, you would refer to the The Enlightenment. That you would refer to Rousseau, or Diderot as if they were universalists & universal humanists instead of the White supremacists with deeply racist conceptions of the world, and deep seated commitment to the higher worth of the European, and that the Enlightenment only applied to the White European. Domenico Lusardo’s brilliant Liberalism: A Counter History seems an essential read:

I am surprised that you have not noticed the close relationship with the Enlightenment and the emergence of ‘The Jewish Question’ – the instance when an European people are ‘Othered’ and separated from European society as ideas Aryan and Semitic races are concocted, or that Orientalism – the other side of the coin of Semitism, emerges at the same time, or that colonialism finally takes it big move outwards at precisely this same time. Perhaps Aamer Mufti’s Enlightenment in the Colony would be a helpful read:

This is The Enlightenment that accepted and accommodated the global African slave trade, the genocidal wars in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America, colonialism, eugenics, race theory, capitalist profit as an over-arching rationality, the mass slaughters of the ‘rational’ WW I and WW II. And so, I am surprised that you would continue to speak so reverentially of these White Europeans, never once stopping to understand that your reverence for them explains their indifference and denigration of you. For it is our greatest failure as post-colonials: an unquestioning and unthinking respect, veneration and exaggeration of all things Western, and a thoughtless refusal or inability (i am not sure which), to challenge and question the actual lived lineages and epistemologies of Western liberal myths and social pretensions.

And then, year before last I lost a very dear friend. She was in Karachi…the last time that I saw her was when we were together protesting against the head of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. We do not know why she was targeted. But she was somebody who believed that Valentine’s Day should be celebrated.

You are obviously speaking about Sabeen Mahmud, shot outside the T2F cafe in Karahi in 2015. Dr. Hoodhoy, whereas I understand your need to define her ‘secular’ credentials, and I also understand how desperate we are to demonstrate that we who can be related to, and can be mourned, must only be ‘secular’ in the Western sense of the word, I would like to point out that Valentine’s Day is a religious holiday, which originated as a Western Christian liturgical feast day honouring one or more early saints named Valentinus? To use this example of her ‘secular’ credentials – and yet again kowtow to Western sensibility, was quite pathetic to listen to. To offer it to Americans as a sign of a Pakistani who wanted to be ‘freer’ or ‘more modern’, is really a sad act of fawning and flattery. It is unnecessary. Dare I remind you, that the extra-judicial killing of any Pakistani citizen – whether secular, as you see them, or religious, or religiously fanatic, and whether at the hands of the Pakistani State (which has killed tens of thousands), or some demented religious idiot, are equally condemnable. I am sure you will disagree, but I insist on it. It is precisely these judgements of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ lives that are made in the corridors of imperial power, and lives extinguished without care or concern for justice, humanity, civility, and equality, almost always excused on the grounds that the people killed were ‘terrorists’ aka Muslims of a bit-too-uncomfortable-Islamic leaning.

First, let me tell you what has changed in my part of the world. Because you see, as we look for the origins of ‘terrorism’ we have to see that the reasons are different in different places, but that there is also a commonality and that if one is to apportion guilt, then in fact, we are all at different levels guilty. So let me begin by telling you how ‘terrorism’ came to my country, and how extremism became the order of the day…It was 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and this was the time when three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United states joined together to create the first Global Jihad of history. (Spoken at 13:30)

This is not worthy of a high school class. This simplistic, comic book rendition of a complex political and imperial history is embarrassing to listen to. And i can see your fear: your fear of speaking truth to your American audience. It is a lie that the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet union was the first ‘global jihad’ aided and abetted by the Americans. In fact, it is a well known fact that the Americans had worked closely with fundamentalist Islamic political and militant groups from the 1950s onwards – in Indonesia (massacre of Chinese), in Egypt (collaborations and support for the Muslim Brotherhood against perceived Socialist leadership), in Pakistan in the 1950 (leading to Manto’s cynical letters to Uncle Sam) and far more. There are some really good histories to read about this if you are interested:

Ian Johnson’s “A Mosque in Munich” or Robert Dreyfus’ “Devil’s Game: How The US Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam” or Robert Vitalis “America’s Kingdom: Myth making on the Saudi Oil Frontier” to name just a few. Or perhaps Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars” a book I am sure you have read, will help you remember again.

And yet you will not say it – you will hid the rise of this movement, its logistics and its funding, by blaming it on the Soviet invasion, thus avoiding saying “The Americans were at the core of this, and it reflected decades of American policy to support, arm and support fundamentalist Islamic militant groups against progressive / Communist voices in countries across the globe”. Afghanistan was a culmination of something decades in the making. It was not the first. It was the largest indeed, the most sophisticated, sure, but it was not the first. It’s an ugly history, but it is American history and your American hosts need to hear it.

But lets be more specific: the rise of religious fundamentalism or ‘extremism’ in Pakistan is intrinsically connected to the killing, torturing, imprisoning or exiling progressive / Communist voices in Pakistan and leaving the national and political space open to religious fundamentalist voices. Saadia Toor’s book “The State of Islam” would help you remember this recent history. We are in the dire condition that we are, because we killed the progressive the American’s so gleefully asked us to kill. As a praetorian guard state, Pakistan has been at the beck and call of American imperial interests since the 1950s. Why would you not just say that?

It is also extremely strange of you to claim that you do not understand the rise of ‘populism’ in America, or elsewhere. But would it not help you to just connect the neoliberal dots across the globe and realise, as Gramsci pointed out to you, that a charismatic figure emerges where the elite lose faith in existing political arrangements because they no longer serve their self-serving interests and move to completely transform them? You can speak about inequality, but you cannot speak about inequality without speaking about neoliberalism, about its sister of globalisation, and its father of capitalism. You can wonder why there is so much poverty in America, but you can only do so by remaining ignorant its very recent destruction of the welfare state, the erasure of public services and social protections, its labor rights and benefits.

I am also disappointed that you never made the connection between what you call ‘primitivism’ (when you speak about religious or national revivalism), without pointing out its intrinsic connection to the nation state, and nationalism. That you would ignore the close relationship between sectarianism and the nation state, and how minorities become targets because of the secular state. Aamer Mufti (“Enlightenment in the Colonies“), Saba Mahmood (“Religious Difference In A Secular Age“, Joseph Massad (“Islam in Liberalism“) are only some of the people who have written about all this.


And yet here you are referring to out-dated concepts such as ‘the selfish gene’, or about how the Enlightenment was about the equality of all (which it wasn’t – it was only and always about the equality of all White people. If you don’t believe me just read what Grotius, the man who wrote the principals of just war.)

This is a terribly out-dated speech, based on cliched ideas that have long been surrendered and discredited. We are Dr Hoodbhoy, at a moment of powerful decolonising push back – in academia, in journalism, in art and media, in popular culture and in national understanding. Sadly your entire speech trapped us back into old ideas. And yet, your entire speech was a celebration of Western exceptionalism and superiority. Quite unnecessary. Pakistan deserves much criticism, and there are serious issues to discuss about the country. But they certainly do not require an exercise in Western myth-making, something the West is very good at itself. In fact, I would argue that this desire to appease the West, to speak in its terms and frames of reference, to fall prey to the false promises of ‘modernist development’ or what has been called ‘the development imaginary’ – an imaginary that kills real imagination, justifies the slaughter of national citizens, and ensure the impoverishment of the majority (see Keguro Macharia explication of this phenomenon in his piece The Development Imaginary: Tracks*is a core reason why we are in the traps and messes that we as a nation are. Our inability to not only see the materialist and concrete sources of our predicament, our inability to speak to the forces that limit our possibilities to think. And nothing limits it more than false ideas of Western exceptionalism and fantastic achievement. In fact, a more sober assessment of the failures of Western civilisation (racism, colonialism, massive environmental damage as a result of unchecked consumerism and capitalism industrialisation, genocidal wars, despotism that they call ‘democracy’, discriminatory laws, cruel incarceration practices, violent and brutal policing and control, unchecked destruction of the natural habitat, war making and slaughter, misogyny and more) would go far to helping us see the struggles that are inevitable in all societies and that none offer a more unique or better way forward. Certainly none offers the fantastic ideals that they claim to offer.

We are at a critical decolonising moment in history. It was a moment we missed at the time of our independence, and in the retreat of colonialist forces. Then, as your friend Eqbal Ahmed often argued, and as Franz Fanon originally reminded us, we fell prey to the ideas and prejudices of the very masters we had ejected, reducing out ideals of freedom to an elite power grab of existing political, economic and social privileges under the banner of national liberation. But the past is not the past, but is as another American once said, always still with us. To get a grasp of Pakistan, to make sense of its current struggles and predicaments, we need to speak not just honestly about the reasons for it, but also about the powerful forces that influence it. Indeed, we are much to blame for what has befallen us, but we are not alone on this dire dance floor. We have a partner, if not many partners, and we are dancing a blood stained waltz who’s movements cannot be separated from the orchestra that accompanies it.

Sincerely

Asim Rafiqui

Originally published. April 4, 2017.

Reposted: July 24, 2019. 

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

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. 

 

Details »

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.

Details »

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].

Details »

How Not To Critique A Photographer

msnbc

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.

Image Manipulation: A Manipulated And Confusing Debate

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 13.04.10

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

%d bloggers like this: