And, What Is Your Favourite Colour Of Photographer?

This came across my email, forwarded to me by the Magnum Foundation.

I have serious misgivings about this initiative.

There are a number of reasons, not the least of which is how the title – “Photographers of Colour” – works off the assumption of “White” universality as the norm, while others require to be defined in a ‘special category’. Whereas I can understand the instinct that gave birth to it, I am confused as to why this instinct was even considered valid and one worthy of an initiative of its own. I am surprised that more people did not raise an objection to the rather overt objectification of photographers of non-White origin this initiative demands. This entire effort requires people to self-identify themselves along ethnic and racial lines and is based on the belief that somehow ethnic and racial belonging gives them ‘credibility’ to cover stories and issues in regions of similar ethnic and racial spaces and geographies. This is a terrifying ghettoization of our craft, and in fact, reflected well in the example given in the introductory text alone where an editor’s need for African photographers to cover an AFROPUNK event – black people sent to cover black people – seems to have provoked the idea. Why would being African be enough of a qualification to cover this event?

(Note how the questionnaire does not even ask, until the very last question, the photographer’s race. And then to, as by US law, o a voluntary basis. So what’s the point in the first place? A generic questionnaire such as the one offered demands self-identification along ethnic and racial lines. That is, it demands that a human being reduce her/himself to merely her official race category. This is simply ridiculous to even demand, or to follow!)

But here is the most egregious problem with this effort: it absolutely ignores and/or veils the fact that it editor offices that are predominantly occupied by White / Caucasian people, and that it is here ethnic and intellectually diversity is most needed. To get and find a diverse set of photographers, you need to find a diverse set (by experience, by class, by intellect) set of editors!

The fact of the matter is that the lack of ‘diversity’ in our industry, specially photography and photojournalism, isn’t because editors cannot find non-White photographers – someone please alert Joseph Rodriguez, Wayne Lawrence, Ruddy Roy, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Lorna Simpson, Beian Palmer, Deana Lawson, Jamal Shabazz and dozens and dozens of others who have worked prodigiously in American media, but that our photography agencies, magazine editorial offices, curatorial spaces remain predominantly White.

Why does this matter?

Quite simply because these predominantly White spaces work through a very tight, close-knit, deeply network based social system where most everyone knows everyone else and assignments and stories move to photographers who can afford to and are able work inside this system. Those who do not have access to this close-knit circuit – either because they cannot afford to be in New York, for example, to network and pitch, work and promote themselves in it, are at a serious disadvantage.

This Whiteness of American media also constrains it ideologically, culturally, and socially – class, something we never talk about when it comes to photography, and the privileges it offers, is a powerful determinant of who gets noticed and who never gets contacted.

Class allegiance is that unspoken truth of when it comes to getting ‘into’ the network, because those who are not aligned to it ideologically are also most likely to offer uncomfortable and problematic perspectives and opinions. I argued this clash of world-view point in a piece I wrote earlier called “A Rainbow Prohibition” (see: http://www.asimrafiqui.com/…/2…/06/23/a-rainbow-prohibition/), where I argued:

“So perhaps photojournalism – a small segment of the broader media industry, one that is near exclusively owned by White, Male, Europeans deeply married to the nation-state and current political power, and deeply embedded in the culture and privileges of Western elitism – are not really policing ethnically, but are policing intellectually.” There is a reason all the major photo agencies are predominantly White, why all the major photo-editors are White, why almost all the ‘staff’ photographers at publications like National Geographic have historically been White. It’s not a coincidence. Or a lack of oversight. Or that no one else could be found. Please.

The lack of ‘colour’ in American editorial spaces, and the consistent commissioning of ‘photographer’s of colour’ to be assigned ‘work of colour’ was captured well in a recent piece by Howard French (see: https://www.theguardian.com/…/enduring-whiteness-of-america…), where he pointed out:

“The intersection between America’s age-old race problem and the crisis of race in journalism takes two forms. The first is a simple failure of integration: the news organisations that have traditionally comprised “mainstream” journalism have done little to welcome or encourage African-Americans, who are substantially underrepresented by comparison to their numbers in the overall population. This problem is obvious to anyone who cares to look – and it has become sufficiently embarrassing for a number of publications to make sporadic but ultimately ineffectual efforts to redress it. As soon as one or two hires are made, attention inevitably shifts elsewhere, much as the focus of the press drifted away from racial bias in the criminal justice system once a whiff of the campaign season could be sensed in the air.

<

p style=”text-align: justify;”>All signs point towards a tense and extraordinarily racialised campaign that will be a severe test for US journalism
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.”

A failure of integration, and a problem of typecasting.

There is no evidence that a Kenyan photographer can cover anything in Kenya better, unless and only if, that judgement is based on her work, her eye, her intellect and her production. There are non-African photographers in Kenya who are racially White but know the country inside out. What other criteria would you ever use? There is no reason to think that works from places of ‘colour’ are somehow suited to photographer’s from ‘places of colour’.

On an individual by individual basis, there may be those who are more qualified, but their skin colour, ethnicity, or nationality can’t be that qualification. They are photographers. And just as White photographers are never asked to explain their experience before being sent of my the best magazines to cover months longs stories in the Middle East for example – do you speak the language, do you know the political history, can you even figure out a train schedule etc., suggesting that their ethnicity, their nationality, their ‘colour’ is absolutely of no consequence when it comes to giving them work across the globe, we can do the same with the rest of us – judge us for our work.

Participating in this initiative does nothing to address the fundamental reasons why editors ‘cannot find photographers of colour’, but perhaps offers us the greater danger of being stereotyped and type cast. There is a greater danger in being defined as a ‘Brown / Pakistani Photographer’, than in not being noticed at all. For after all, the latter liberates me from the suffocating banality of conversations with editors convinced that the only qualification I must have to produce a work is the colour of my skin, the legacy of my birth, the presumptions of my ethnicity – all issues that apparently are not valid for White photographers, and nor are they ever to be restricted because of them. And the horrifying racist practice of only ever calling me when there is work to be done in Pakistan.

We want recognition for our talents, our ideas, our intellect, our skills, our creativity, our hard work, our commitment, our efforts, our dedicated, our courage, our eye, our sensibility, our willingness to pursue and to create. We want recognition that does not ghettoize us, cut us to our birth, our skin colour or our presumed ‘cultural’ knowledge. We want to be recognised more completely, and not be ghettoized more precisely.

What must be torn down are the walls that protect editorial offices and keep them homogeneous and White. Only when that is done can we be sure that the broader industry will find the spaces for more diverse, more creative, different and exciting work that is intellectually, creative and ideologically challenging. But as long as we keep those ideological walls in place, as long as the network remains tight and close-knit, as long as we go around congratulating ourselves by giving each other awards and prizes, we will not change this situation. What we will do is just find ways to further segregate photographers.

Today, in an American where walls are being raised, where ‘communities of colour’ are being stigmatised and attacked, where ideas of what is ‘American’ is increasingly seen as ‘White’ and the rest of us are being defined and abused along ethnic and racial lines, it is imperative that we not introduce more initiatives – no matter how benign or well-meaning the producer’s intents, that further define and divide people along these lines. If anything, this is a moment for editorial self-reflection, not knee-jerk demands for racial self-identification.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Manzoor Hussein – Elder Brother of Executed Juvenile Prisoner Shafqat Hussain

 

Details »

Mother of Executed Juvenile Prisoner Shafqat Hussain

Shafqat Ali’s mother.

You can learn more about Shafqat Hussain’s case here.

Sumeira Hussain – Elder Sister of Executed Juvenile Prisoner Shafqat Hussain

 

Details »

Short Documentary Film – #2 – Executed Juvenile Death Row Prisoner Shafqat Hussain

Details »

How Not To Be A Pakistani Liberal

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 as 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 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 critical inquiry and genuine research at Pakistani universities. Professor Hoodbhoy has been an eloquent and powerful voice speaking out against the decline of educational standards. But Professor Hoodbhoy also 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 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?) Details »

Not Our Men

I came across this piece in the news today, and once again, what immediately struck me was the fact that the piece was speaking about close male relative violence agains women, and yet never once does the writer refer to these acts of violence as an ‘honour killing’? In fact, no quotes or statements from a representative of an international NGO, or a feminist or even a ‘concerned’ artist, is offered to suggest that there is a unique pathology among Spanish men that is pushing them to attack and kill their women because of an insult to their ‘honour’ or their patriarchy as their pathology.  Details »

Don’t Look Back

You could say that this piece is about the present, and about the city as experienced by the photographer today. You could argue that one need not always resort to historical realities, or trace the threads of memory when the focus is in the here and now. But, the past is not dead. It’s not even past.  If I can quote a son of the South.

This is how you white-wash (so to say!) America’s cruel, brutal, racist history – write an entire piece about a Southern town, one that still celebrates its ‘civil war’ history, one that was once the center of Georgia’s cotton trade a.k.a. slave plantations and at the heart of America’s cotton trade – so powerfully, and painfully described in Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, and never once mention any of this definitive and critical history.  Details »

Iqbal Bano – Mother of Death Row Prisoner Khizar Hayat

I have no money. I can’t even afford to pay for a rickshaw to go see him. So I collect money from relatives and friends and go see him every two weeks.

Every time I go I do not know what state I will find him in. He is no longer aware or present. When I visit him he speaks about strange things – at times he hits his head against the wall, and says that the walls are mocking him. Sometimes he appears in torn clothes, other times with no clothes at all. I often have to force him to eat, for otherwise he will not eat anything. I don’t think he even knows that I am his mother. He often denies that I am his mother, sometimes abusing me in front of everyone, saying that I am some mad woman who has come to visit him. His condition now is an extreme form of what I could see happening to him when he was under the influence of a mystic at a local shrine. Everything about him changed during those years – his habits, his appearance, his language. He drifted away from his home and from his own family – he stopped coming home, stopped speaking to his wife and children. He became an addict, spent most of his time asleep on pavements outside the shrine, or wandering the streets of the city.

Details »

Short Documentary Film – #1 – Death Row Prisoner Khizar Hayat

The first of four short documentary films I shot last Fall are finally being released for public viewing. You can read more about Khizar Kayat and his case here. Produced in collaboration with the researchers at Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), and the editors and designers at New Media Advocacy Project (N-MAP) in New York, these films highlight the miscarriages of justice that continue to plague the Pakistani capital punishment processes. I am also working on a longer feature documentary on the same subject, which I hope to complete in the next couple of months.

These short documentary films add to my ongoing project Law & Disorder: A People’s History of the Law In Pakistan. I am working on two new essays, both of which are ready as drafts but need some serious editing. The first discusses the history of capital punishment in Pakistan, and its connections to the introduction and experimentation with capital punishment during the British colonial administration in India. Pakistan’s penal code still retains many of the core tenets of the (British) India Penal Code first introduced in the mid-19th century. The second essay looks at the ways in which the pre-colonial Sharia systems of jurisprudence were re-interpreted and modified to serve the interests of the modern colonial and post-colonial nation-state.

As always, each essay has me working with material far beyond my current knowledge, requiring extensive research and what can only be described as many re-readings of texts. But, I plow ahead and so does this vast project.  

The other three videos will be released in the coming days. 

And, What Is Your Favourite Colour Of Photographer?

This came across my email, forwarded to me by the Magnum Foundation.

I have serious misgivings about this initiative.

There are a number of reasons, not the least of which is how the title – “Photographers of Colour” – works off the assumption of “White” universality as the norm, while others require to be defined in a ‘special category’. Whereas I can understand the instinct that gave birth to it, I am confused as to why this instinct was even considered valid and one worthy of an initiative of its own. I am surprised that more people did not raise an objection to the rather overt objectification of photographers of non-White origin this initiative demands. This entire effort requires people to self-identify themselves along ethnic and racial lines and is based on the belief that somehow ethnic and racial belonging gives them ‘credibility’ to cover stories and issues in regions of similar ethnic and racial spaces and geographies. This is a terrifying ghettoization of our craft, and in fact, reflected well in the example given in the introductory text alone where an editor’s need for African photographers to cover an AFROPUNK event – black people sent to cover black people – seems to have provoked the idea. Why would being African be enough of a qualification to cover this event?

(Note how the questionnaire does not even ask, until the very last question, the photographer’s race. And then to, as by US law, o a voluntary basis. So what’s the point in the first place? A generic questionnaire such as the one offered demands self-identification along ethnic and racial lines. That is, it demands that a human being reduce her/himself to merely her official race category. This is simply ridiculous to even demand, or to follow!)

But here is the most egregious problem with this effort: it absolutely ignores and/or veils the fact that it editor offices that are predominantly occupied by White / Caucasian people, and that it is here ethnic and intellectually diversity is most needed. To get and find a diverse set of photographers, you need to find a diverse set (by experience, by class, by intellect) set of editors!

Details »

Bad Behavior has blocked 46 access attempts in the last 7 days.

%d bloggers like this: