A Photographer Confronts His World
CounterFoto is celebrating 4 years. I will be attending some of the events this year, and giving a few talks. The topics will always be provocative and focused on things we rarely talk about as photographers. I will also do portfolio reviews. It’s exciting to return to Dhaka, and to re-connect what is frankly one of the most enthusiastic and exciting photography community I know! Details »
“I have been stereotyped: my life and lived experiences negated by photo 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.
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.
Image: School children at the Nyange massacre site during the Nyange Memorial Day event sponsored by the Chancellery For Heroes, National Orders And Decorations of Honor. March 19, 2015
“Debates about [history] involve not only professional historians but ethnic and religious leaders, political appointees, journalists, and various associations within civil society as well as independent citizens, not all of whom are activists. This variety of narrators is one of the many indications that theories of history have a rather limited view of the field of historical production. They grossly underestimate the size, the relevance, and the complexity of the overlapping sites where history is produced, notably outside of academia.
Most [people] learn their first history lessons through media that have not been subjected to the standards set by peer reviews, university presses, or doctoral committees.
Long before the average citizen reads the historians who set the standards of the day for colleagues and students, they access history through celebrations, site and museum visits, movies, national holidays, and primary school books.
Yet the fact that history is also produced outside of academia has largely been ignored in theories of history. Beyond a broad – and relatively recent – agreement on the situatedness of the professional historian. there is little concrete exploration of the activities that occur elsewhere but impact significantly on the object of study.”
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing The Past: Power And The Production of History
How do citizens learn about history? Why do certain historical narratives become ubiquitous and dominant?
What political, social, cultural and economic factors influence the writing and selection of historical events? Why do certain sites, buildings, memorials and locations become ‘historical’? Who are the people who make these choices, and what factors influence them to select certain events and sites, and ignore others?
These are just some of the key questions this project raises to help us see the contingent, and contested nature of what we call ‘history’. It asks us to rethink the history we see, hear, and learn, and instead begin to understand it as a series of narratives that is constantly reviewed and revisited as new materials, and new political and social realities come to the fore. From school text book boards, management teams at memorial sites, and tourism departments designing historical itineraries, citizens and visitors alike receive a carefully curated and edited version of ‘national history’, one that is influenced as much by the political and social realities of the present, as it is by historical facts. And few places offer a better opportunity to study this process than modern day Rwanda which is in the midst of one of the most well managed efforts in memory and history making in modern times. Bureaucratized and administered by a series of government ministries, designed and designed in collaboration with a number of foreign NGOs, the state of Rwanda is creating a new historical consciousness among the country’s citizens.
From memorials to commemorations, text books to radio and television programming, the state is carefully curating facts and history to fit a specific political idea of itself, and of the country.
Though Rwanda is the first country I examine as part of this investigation, it is hardly unique. These questions I raise here can just as well be applied to any nation. Hence, this is not a project about Rwanda, as much as it is a project about the ways in which nations manufacture the idea of themselves, and put institutional, educational, cultural and social assets to work to create these ideas. This process remains largely invisible to the visitor, and to the casual citizen, but a close examination of the details of it, reveals its design, and its limits.
Acknowledgement: This project emerges out of a conversation over dinner with Erin Elizabeth Mosely, then a PhD candidate at the Department of African And African American Studies at Harvard University. The year was 2013, and Erin was in Kigali conducting her field research. I had recently arrived in the country and was at a loss as to how to produce a body of work that challenged the dominant narratives of post-genocide Rwanda, and did so without rancor or hysteria. The challenges of producing a critical study in a nation where freedom of speech, expression and action are carefully monitored and managed, was no easy task. It was during a discussion with Erin that a possible way forward offered itself, and produce a work, when closely examined, is a critique of the idea of nation building, and the uses of historical and personal memory for political and nationalist ends.
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